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by jasonsweet* Artist
September 30, 2005
Tim Lehi is one of the best tattoo artist's in the world. When one looks through his portfolio at his shop, it consists of page after page of sleeves, back pieces and bodysuits. His body of tattoo work is so large that looking at his portfolio is mind boggling. When I asked to interview him, I was a little intimidated. I expected a man with a large ego that probably had no time to speak to me, but I was pleasantly surprised at the man I did meet. Tim is a very welcoming person, but not overly so. He is a soft spoken and gentle man who deeply loves tattooing. He spurns tattoo magazines as a joke and rarely attends tattoo conventions, content to stay at his shop and tattoo. Fortunately for us, he was willing to give us a few moments of his time to shed some light on his views of tattooing.....
Jason Sweet: How old are you? Tim Lehi: 31 Where you from? I was born in Colorado and I grew up in Kansas. How long have you been tattooing? Around 15 years.
Tell me a little about your artistic history and what led you to tattooing? I grew up drawing all the time. My dad was an artist and an art professor and that probably had a lot of influence on me. Music got me interested in tattooing. I drew flyers for shows as a kid and I met tattooers through that and it kind of evolved from there. Because of that I started tattooing pretty young. How old were you? I started tattooing around 15 or 16 years old. How is that you were to start tattooing so young? People really encouraged me and let me practice on them. I never had a formal apprenticeship, but I got a lot of pointers from local tattooers that weren't that good. Anybody you would want to mention? No, not really. They were mostly ex-cons and burly Midwestern bikers. What was your first real tattoo shop experience. (continued next page) Page 1 Page 2 Page 3 Page 4 Page 5
September 30, 2005 Continued from page 1…
It was in Wichita, Kansas, I started sitting in at some shops as a guest artist. I started in busy street shops in Phoenix, Arizona and then Texas. Eventually you landed a job at Ed Hardy's Tattoo City in San Francisco. How did that come about? I moved to San Francisco without a job and started tattooing at Everlasting Tattoo for the next several months. I was then offered a spot at Primal Urge with Marcus Pacheco, but shortly after I was offered a job by Ed Hardy. I decided to go to work for Ed because I thought it would be a good experience. Wow! So you must have come to San Francisco with some nice tattoos under your belt already. I built a pretty big portfolio already before moving here, although I feel that I have improved quite a bit since I moved to San Francisco, but I did have an extensive body of art by that time. Well how did you manage to create such a body of art coming from a tough biker street shop background?
When I lived in Arizona I started to get tattooed by Chris Trevino and I was working underground for a while with Grime. Grime and I lived together for quite a while as well. I am sure that had a lot to do with it, combined with my own ambitions. You were not afraid to take on big projects? Nah, looking back I should have waited on some stuff, but it's all good and it all worked out. So you and Grime were kind of starting out together? Yes, but he was already really good because he would come to San Francisco and hang out with Marcus [Pacheco]. Your work seems to have a lot Japanese influence. Do you think getting work done by Chris Trevino had some influence on you? It probably helped a little. At the time he was doing this really crazy big Texas style, not too much Japanese work. It was definitely way different from what he is doing now. I also felt that I wanted to do bigger work and I feel that Japanese work lends itself well to covering the body better on a larger scale. So working for Ed Hardy must have helped that progression a lot? (continued next page...)
September 30, 2005 Continued from page 2…
Yes definitely. In the first couple of years Ed, Jef Whitehead and Colin Steven and I all took a trip to Japan for a couple of weeks. I was able to get a lot of good books. Ed took us to meet Horitoshi and Horioshi. It was a really good experience. Did you tattoo while you were there?
Not that time, but I have since been back and tattooed at Three Tides in Osaka with Chris Trevino. So now to fast forward, after working for Ed Hardy for a long time, you started Black Heart Tattoo. Are you the owner? It is actually like a co-op. It's me, Jeff Rasier, Jef Whitehead and Scott Sylvia, we all own the shop. How did you guys go about creating Black Heart? After working for Ed for over 5 years, I came to a point where I did not want to work under anyone anymore and Jef Whitehead and I had been talking about it for a while. He was also communicating with Jeff Rasier and Scott and they were thinking of the same thing and rather than open up two separate shops, we decided to open one. How is the new shop going?
It's been good. We all do similar stuff, but we all have out distinct styles. Do you go to many tattoo conventions? I only go if it is a place I want to visit, like Spain. Generally, I do not attend very many conventions. Do you keep in touch with the rest of the tattoo world? No, not much. I mostly talk to my friends Chris Trevino and Aaron Coleman. I just like to come do my work and then leave it all behind when I am not at the shop. So do you have any opinions on the state of tattooing today?
TL: I hear a few bits and pieces and I am probably not that positive about what is going on. It's pretty much in the mainstream and it's pretty crazy. There are reality shows and clothing lines and it is a bit of overkill. I think if you have a good customer base you will probably be alright when the bottom falls out. There are tons of shops and many of them are not that busy. Thankfully I am not one of those. I think it is overkill the way the media has embraced it and made it a mainstream thing. They show a lot of the stupid sides of tattooing and it is pretty embarrassing. That's the reason I do not go to a lot of conventions, it's pretty embarrassing to be associated with mediocre tattooers with giant... (continued next page...)
September 30, 2005 Continued from page 3…
...egos. There is a lot of shit. It is more of a big novelty act with not a lot of art behind it. It is all so weird and overkill and I try not to pay too much attention to it.
So if someone came up to you today and said they wanted to start a Tim Lehi brand of clothing, what would you say? I don't think so. There is so much bullshit out there now. It looks ridiculous to me. How about a television show. I am not a very interesting person, I am way too quiet. I hate drama and that is what they probably try to pull out. I could not tattoo with a camera on me or my customer. So do you have any opinions about how a young tattooist should go about starting out with all this? If you were starting to tattoo today, would you still be as ambitious? It is good to ambitious, but it is important to be respectful of people doing something with tattooing and not grandstanding all the time. If I was just starting out, I would not want to be in San Francisco. I would probably want to be working in a busy street shop, if one still exists. I would try to get good at that and draw all the time. You mentioned that tattooing is an art form. Some tattooers think of it as a lifestyle more than an art form, what do you think about that?
It is still a commercial art. If you are drawing a tattoo for someone that's great, but if you are painting stuff at home that is tattooable then it could be a fine art. I do not feel part of a big tattoo community of anything like that. I am lucky enough to have a customer base that will let me do what I want on them, but I do not attend any tattoo functions or participate in that sort of lifestyle. What do you do outside the shop? I do paint quite a bit, but a lot of times it is not tattoo related. It's a lot looser. I also play guitar and write.
How do you keep you originality as an artist? It seems that you are one of the artists that end up having their work copied. How do you forge the road ahead? TL: I do not pay attention to what is going on in the tattoo magazines. I tend to look at the past, old prints and I draw a lot. In mimicking old prints it seems to look like something new, not rehashed over and over again. It seems like everyone is looking like everyone else. It's weird to see people come up as imitators and get recognition for it. Like for instance take Dan Higgs; so many people try to imitate him poorly. Now, there are plenty of people who do not even know who Dan Higgs is and they would rather get tattooed from one of these imitators because their style might be cleaner. (Writers Note: Dan Higgs is no longer tattooing.) They don't understand his work. (continued next page...)
September 30, 2005 Continued from page 4… Is there a specific type of tattoo that you like to do, or will you pretty much tattoo
anything? I like doing all kinds of stuff. I do not pretend to be any Japanese expert, I just happen to get a lot of requests for it. There are not a lot of tattoos that I will not do, but I will not force the issue either. If I cannot get into it, I will not do it just for the sake of money. If someone came in and said, do what you want, what would it be? Skulls or macabre stuff. I also like doing really pretty stuff like flowers, so I could go either way? I do not like to push people into things. So let's say someone comes in and wants a back piece from the top of their shoulders to their hips,
how would you go about designing that? A lot of it depends on the person. If they want to see how it is going to look I will do an extensive drawing for them. What I prefer to do is get the main subjects on them and then loosely sketch in the background. I think it flows better that way. Is there anyone you want to get tattooed by? I want to get my back finished by Dan Higgs. I also want some tattoos from Bob Roberts. Is there a long wait for a tattoo from you? Usually about 2 months, but sometimes I have cancellations. If anyone is interested in getting tattooed by Tim Lehi, he can be reached at http://www. blackhearttattoosf.com or 415-431-2100.
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