The focus of this issue’s You Ought to Know was on DJ Minor and Catalyst Tattoo. DJ’s got a storied-path and a successful career already, and he’s still a young artist with a bright future ahead of him. He came to Erie to raise his daughter around family, and he set up Catalyst as a place for him and his wife, Jen, to create art and tattoo. Local artist Corey Thompson is currently tattooing at Catalyst as well, and DJ’s looking to possibly bring in another local artist soon.
For the story featured in print, check out the YOTK. But some cool things that we couldn’t fit, check out the Q&A below with DJ Minor that occurred over two days—one involving some tattooing and quite a few episodes of "Family Guy" playing in the background.
Ben Speggen: There’s a lot of tattoo pictures on the walls, do people come in often and point to something and say ‘I want that. Exactly that.’
DJ Minor: We’ve done one tattoo off the wall since we’ve been here. A guy got his dad’s tattoo and it was just cool that I happen to have that on one of the sheets here. We try to hand-draw most of the stuff we do unless it’s a portrait or something the client really has a vested interested in, like a reproduction piece or something. Most of the stuff is just straight drawn for you. You come in with a concept, and we spit it out for you.
BS: Do you run into problems when people start describing things to you?
DJ: A lot of people don’t have visual capacity to see things. So the things on the wall give them examples, you know, helps out. Plus they get to see various interpretations of how to draw something. It’s quicker for them to see 20 ways to draw a skull this way rather than me sketching them all out, so this becomes a point of reference. And it occupies them for a couple minutes before we can get to them. Plus it looks like a tattoo parlor. You come in with a concept and we spit it out for you.
BS: Your totally right about the lack of visual capacity. For my last tattoo, I basically told Corey I wanted a bird and a tree. You’d think a writer could do better than ‘bird’ and ‘tree’. Lucky for me, he’s great.
DJ: Corey’s a real talented guy. We’re happy to have him here.
BS: So what kind of gun is that?
DJ: It’s a German-made tattoo machine that’s actually pretty much the most sterile thing you can get. It’s the only ISO-certified tattoo machine you can get. It cuts down contamination because I only use one machine and several cartridge needles. Costs more, but it’s all separate from you. It’s not as loud or as noisy though. Some of the more traditional people don’t like it for that reason. They think there’s only one way and it’s the old way.
BS: What makes that gun so different from a traditional gun?
DJ: The traditional tattoo machine is two magnets and an armature bar and you pull it down, it slaps, and when it breaks a connection, the spring pulls it back up, so basically it’s hammering this needle, just hitting this thing on your skin. That’s what it amounts to. My machines are on a mechanical system, so it’s going to go up and down repeatedly regardless of whatever else is going on, so there’s less trauma.
BS: How long have you been using this gun?
DJ: I’ve probably been using rotary machines from seven years now. Just because they’re faster, less abrasive to the customer. Actually, I’ve probably lost more business than I’ve gained because of the whole traditional thing: a lot of tattooers think there’s only one way to do this and this is the only way it can possibly be. But truth be known, the rotary machine’s been around longer than the coil machine has.
BS: So one arm looks faded out and the other is black. What’s up with that?
DJ: About 20 hours of laser removal. I got tattooed pretty young and when I first got into tattoos I wasn’t well educated. The quality of the work that was being put out by most of the tattooers was, well—a mediocre tattooer now would have been a really good tattoo artist before. So I got a bunch of military tattoos and biker tattoos and a lot of gray wash. So I’ve been getting it lasered off, and I’m going to start a new sleeve probably next year. I’m even planning to bring a laser guy to the shop for a couple weeks this winter.
The black arm is due to an adverse reaction to lasering in Hawaii. The lasering reacted to the amount of Mercury in my tattoos, so I just started blackening it out.
BS: Do you think a lot of people want to become tattoo artists?
DJ: A lot of people want to be a tattoo artist until they see what’s involved. It’s not for everybody. They think it’s a cash cow. They see it on TV and think it’s all play and stuff. A thousand people a day start tattooing, and a thousand people quit. It’s not what people think it is. We sit on our ass eight hours a day, doing the most monotonous task for the simple reward of finished piece of art we’re never going to see again because it’s not on us, it’s your piece. I get to enjoy it while you’re here, and I take a photograph of it, but in the long-term scheme of things, it’s yours. It’s like, imagine if you’re a painter and you just give away everything you do as soon as you do it.
BS: So what’s it like when you run into people you’ve tattooed and you get to see that art again?
DJ: Every time I bump into people, and this is going to sound horrible, but I don’t remember names or faces until I see their tattoo. They’ll remember you because they’re staring intently at your face, but I won’t remember you because I’m staring intently at this part of your elbow for five hours, not your face. It’s cool because you get to see your progression over time. A lot of tattoo guys are hesitant to get their work out there because they don’t think they’re ready, but I think it’s awesome. You see these people you were so stoked to do this tattoo, now I would have done this. It just helps to push you.
BS: So back to the black arm… and the other tattoos. You and your wife are tattooed and have a kid. What’s it like walking around with her? Seems like people think tattooed people can’t raise kids.
DJ: It depends where we are. I’m from the Bible Belt, and people here act a lot like that. People still clutch their children when I’m working through a grocery story with my 3-year old on my shoulders talking plain as day. Like I’m the boogy monster or something. The 12-year-old inside me wants to go oggity-boogity just to scare them or something, you know, just to be a jerk or something, but these preconceived misconceptions about us are just hilarious. I drew on myself—that’s something your kid would do, not your serial killer down the street. Most of us are 15-year-old boys who never grew up.
BS: So if you had to say that your ‘theme’ is when drawing on people, as you put it, what is it?
DJ: Man, I do anything. Realistic, I like to do a lot of Japanese-based themes. But I’m not as steeped in the culture, as someone like Corey, so I might recommend him for certain things. I like to do bio-organic tattoos. I do a lot of color portraits. Realistically, if it’s something that’s absolutely crazy, they’re probably coming to me. You want a six-eyed dodo bird flying with a birthday cake, guess I’m the one who’s tattooing you. I don’t know why that is—they just flock to me, but it’s cool. I accept who I attract.
BS: Any weird or funny tattoos you’ve done that standout?
DJ: I did a portrait of Lil’ Wayne on a girl you’d never heard of Lil’ Wayne. Her boyfriend thought it was cool. You know the saying, ‘Life is stranger than fiction?’ People’s imaginations are way worse than what I can come up with, I promise.
BS: What are you most memorable tattoos or tattooing experiences?
DJ: We were down in Texas and I was doing a portrait on this huge, beefy guy who walked into the shop. There’s 80-mile-an-hour winds outside, the powers going out—middle of a hurricane, you know, but I’m tattooing with this air-compressor gun, so it’s not going out. So we light some candles, and I’m tattooing this portrait and finally, the guy asks, ‘do you know who Carl Panzram is?’ who is apparently who this portrait’s of, and I say, ‘no.’ ‘He’s a serial killer,’ this guy tells me. Man. ‘Umm, OK, I say.’ That was an intense situation, you know.
But all the time, a lot of tattoo shops are rude to people who they don’t think are heavily tattooed or are going to get heavily tattooed. This guy came in, middle-aged, balding, tattooed, kind of dorky—has a couple half-dollar sized tattoos on him. And everybody was being rude to the guy, but I was doing this guest spot at this tattoo shop in Reno, and everybody was being rude to this guy because he didn’t look like a series collector, which is silly because I’d rather have you come in and not have any tattoos because it gives me more space to work on. So I go up and start talking with him. He’s like ‘I want to get a tattoo on my chest.’ And I’m like, ‘cool, what do you want to get?’ And he says ‘an octopus, on my chest.’ And I say, ‘how big you want to get it?’ And he’ like, ‘my chest,’ and I’m like, ‘yeah, I got that, but how big?’ And he’s like ‘the whole thing.’ Eight months later, we did from his neck to his beltline, his whole torso. I don’t know many people who can take that stuff, and this is some little nerdy dude, and it’s pretty badass. He just sat there. Hour six of the first session, he’s like, I hate to bug you, but can I have a bathroom break? I’ve had to pee for like three hours.’ ‘Yeah, man. Go. Shit.’
BS: So any big goals while you’re in Erie?
DJ: Do some cool tattoos and hang out with some cool people. You know, that’s really it. That’s my goal anywhere. Sit back, relax and do some sweet tatties, yo [he chuckles on ‘yo’]. You guys are ballsy, man. This cold weather kills me. The next couple of years, we’re going to paint our butts off and tattoo our butts off and put a dent in the community, and once we leave, we’ll leave the tattoo shop here in the capable hands of somebody who lives in Erie, so the shop will live on without us. That’s pretty much how we do everywhere we go: we go create an environment and go back and visit it like it’s a puppydog, ‘remember us, boy?’
BS: Nice. Everyone loves visiting a puppy. So why name this pup Catalyst?
DJ: Everybody’s got to have some cool guy name about their tattoo shop—always a reason for the name. Our first shop was just called Tattoo because it was just me in the town. Second shop called Paragon because it’s an ocean pearl and we’re out in the middle of the ocean. Out in the middle of the ocean there’s this little glimmer of hope. In Reno, we just named it after the town. Me and my wife had never done anything together, so we wanted to start a project together, and Catalyst is a chemical reaction that leads to something bigger, and I mean it’s a stepping stone. When we started off this place, the first week it was just a floor and us. Two-three months later, this place is pretty covered with stuff. You do one tattoo on one person and they tell 10 of their friends and it’s a little spark that makes something big happens. No over shop had been called Catalyst, it was locked in. It just kind of fit, so we just rolled with it. I’m a real big believer in keeping things the way they were to an extent. I let the organics of a surrounding lead me somewhere. We kept the blue paint and revamped the wall. We’re going let Erie push us into the direction we need to go into, that kind of stuff goes.
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