Rick Walters is in more tattoo shops around the globe than any other tattooer. There's very little denying that.
Stickers displaying the legendary tattooer's bearded face and the phrase “RICK WALTERS HATES YOU” bless the workstations and equipment cases of thousands of tattoo artists around the world. Hell, there are even t-shirts and posters (including one at the Amsterdam Tattoo Museum) bearing the same design.
According to Walters, the whole thing started as a joke. A friend posted an angry-looking photo of him online, another friend added the text, and the design became tattooing history.
Of course, after 60 years of tattooing (over 50 as a professional) and watching SoCal's tattooing scene grow from its infancy, the owner of Rick Walters' World Famous Tattoo Parlor in Sunset Beach does deserve to have tens of thousands of stickers of his face circulating across the globe.
“I started messing up my friends when I was little,” Walters says. “I started doing hand-poked tattoos at 10, and when I was 16 or 17, I got a real machine, but that just made it easier to make a mess. In 1965, I was 19 and my friend opened up a shop in Lawndale because the rent there was cheap, and it's been all downhill since then.”
In 1978, Walters brought his tattooing to one of the oldest and most iconic tattoo shops in history, Bert Grimm's World Famous Tattoo in Long Beach. During Walters' 25 years there, he worked with and apprenticed some of the biggest names in tattooing. Between the tattoos on his skin and the flash that lines the walls of his shop, Walters owns enough classic American traditional tattoo artwork to fill a small museum.
“There's probably about $70,000 worth of flash in the shop right now. A lot of the sheets are the originals off of the walls of Bert Grimm's,” Walters says. “There are sheets from Dave Gibson, Doug Stewart, Snickers (who was also in 1970s punk band, the Simpletones), and a bunch of other guys.”
Considering that so many of the 70-year-old's contemporaries no longer tattoo, Walters has seen generation after generation of tattooers come and go. While many veteran tattoo artists would tell you that the recent influx of tattooers is different, Walters says that the recent wave of tattooers isn't all that special.
“Tattooing doesn't really change, it just keeps going in a vicious cycle,” Walters says. “Every 15-20 years, we get some art kids who think they can tattoo like they oil paint. They don't realize it has to have the black in it, because the black ink is carbon-based, so it dries, gets hard, and acts like a wall. The color wants to keep spreading, so if you don't use enough black, it'll just look like a puddle of melted crayons after 15 years.”
In Walters' eyes, the problem for some modern tattooers isn't necessarily not using enough black. The American traditional legend believes that some of today's neotraditional artists are using black lines that are too thick, which could affect how their tattoos look over time.
“These new kids talk about doing traditional tattoos, but they're really doing neotraditional tattoos and trying to make them look 15 years old,” Walters says. “Those black lines are going to keep spreading over time too. They're going to double in size every five years, so when they're 20 years old, the lines will look like they're done with electrical tape. In the old days, apprentices learned that shit. These days, 80 percent of tattooers don't even learn to tattoo the right way. Just because you can paint a picture doesn't mean you can tattoo.”
What's the difference between American traditional and neotraditional tattooing?
Kids today do a lot of neotraditional. They do a lot of flowers that don't look like flowers, they're a bunch of perfect circles and designs that you don't see in nature. They use big fat lines, which they always did on the east coast, but on the west coast, we started doing thinner lines when we saw tattoos coming back from Vietnam after a few years. The bigger lines are going to look cool now, but they're not going to look cool in 20 years. The only time I use bigger lines is in a big piece like a chest eagle. People using these huge lines, it looks like a kid drew it. They'll make a skull with five teeth, I don't know why people like that.
Do you think some of the older tattooers sold out when tattooing became more mainstream?
Everybody says Ed Hardy sold out, but that's not true. He sold some of his designs to Christian Audigier, and that guy went and licensed them and Ed Hardy's name without his permission. Ed Hardy had to sue him for hundreds of millions, and only got about $89 million after taxes, I think. He had to sue to get his money, but most people don't know that part of the history. People just need to learn the real history of tattooing, but most history books are full of shit.
How has tattooing in SoCal changed since you started?
Well, it's a lot more popular. Back in the day, people would whisper about my tattoos anytime I went into a restaurant. Now, I go into a restaurant and the waitress has full sleeves. It's because the musicians and movie stars got tattooed, so the general public wants to look like movie stars. It really hasn't helped individual tattooers, because there are literally 3,000 tattoo shops in the LA and OC area right now, whereas when I started there was only 10 to 12. The monetary value of tattooing is spread out farther. Back then, you either went to the Pike, Downtown LA, or Laguna. Now, there's three shops right here in Sunset Beach, plus a private studio.
Do you think tattooing has reached the point of saturation where it's no longer a profitable business?
It's getting to where, sooner or later, people will have to drop out and only the strong will survive. There are more tattoo shops than shoe stores, and 80 percent of them don't have a clue what they're doing. All it takes to be a tattooer is money. You take a class in bloodborne pathogens, get your certificate and a license, and you can tattoo. In some places, you have to prove you apprenticed, but California is pretty much wide open, it's more of a money thing out here.
How do you think the TV shows have changed tattooing?
In some senses, it cheapens tattooing. Some of the people on those shows tattoo terribly. Ink Master is garbage. They wanted me to host something like that, but I wouldn't do it. They take 10 of the worst tattooers they can find and promote them as the best, then they tell them how they fucked up the tattoos right in front of the customer. They're right, they're usually terrible tattoos, but you don't say that in front of the person who just got the tattoo. There's a couple good ones that show tattooing in more of a real light. Big Gus' show (Tattoo Nightmares) is alright, but even there they make it look like you can cover a dark tattoo with white. That's not going to last. In a few years, that black tattoo is going to show right through the white.
What would be your advice to someone who wants to get into tattooing?
Don't do it. It's gotten to where there ain't no money in it. This shop's been here for a year, and we barely pay the bills. I've owned my house across the street for 30 years, so I don't have to pay much on it, but I couldn't afford to pay rent if I had to. It's not about how good your tattoos are, it's about publicists and social media. It's a contest of who has the most Instagram followers.
Rick Walters' World Famous Tattoo Parlor, 16873 Pacific Coast Hwy, Sunset Beach, (562) 592-4465, Instagram @rickwalters
Josh Chesler used to play baseball for some pretty cool teams, but now he just writes about awesome stuff like tattoos, music, MMA and sneakers. He enjoys injuring himself by skateboarding, training for fights, and playing musical instruments in his off time.