Interview with Tattoo Artist Jesse Williams

Interview with Tattoo Artist Jesse Williams

I have two tattoos and both were done by my friend Jesse Williams. My first one, a little heart on my right ankle, was done when Jesse was still an apprentice — virgin skin in an almost virgin artists’ hands. (I was his second tattoo after my friend Amanda). He’s come along way since that day in 2009… He is a hyper creative and passionate artist and one Vancouver’s most distinctive and dynamic tattooers.

CG: At what point did you first realize you could make a career in art?
JW: Art has always been something I really enjoyed. When I was younger people were always asking me to draw them things, and I really liked giving people my art. The greatest thing for me was creating a piece, giving it to someone, and watching their reaction. As far as tattooing is concerned, it was sort of an epiphany moment.


CG: When you were working office jobs, were you wondering, “How the fuck can I get out of here?”
JW: Totally. After years of slaving away in an office, I realized it was the wrong environment for me. I had a defining moment where I thought I could definitely do something with my art. At the time all those TV shows had just started coming out. Miami Ink was a big one. Not that I wanted to be a T.V. star, but you could just tell that it was a growing industry and gaining cultural acceptance.

CG: How long have you been tattooing?
JW: My apprenticeship started in 2008, but it was a rough go for many different reasons. Now I’m working in my third shop all these years later. I sort of see the last two years as my biggest years of growth. It was a slow start and it was a steep learning curve and I’m still learning.


CG: I guess the learning never really stops…
JW: If you get to a point where you are not learning anymore, then you should probably just quit because there is always room for growth.

CG: And it’s probably no longer fun.
JW: If it’s no longer fun, you’re not learning anything, and you aren’t stoked to get up in the morning when you start your day then definitely stop doing it.

CG: How would you describe your style of tattooing? And what are some of your specialties?
JW: My style is kind of hard to describe, but I would say that as far as my art is concerned and translating it into tattoos I like to keep things loose. I’ve always liked working with pencils, paint brushes, and acrylics. I do a lot of line variation, bold lines, thin lines, a lot of expressive or gestural lines. These days a lot of people call my work “sketchy” — not in a bad sense — sketchy as in sketch book. It varies… I like changing it up a lot. For a while I really wanted to lean towards black and grey realism, but now I seem to be putting a lot more colour in my pieces. I definitely tattoo a lot of animals.


CG: Is there anything that you want to tattoo, but haven’t gotten a chance to yet?
JW: Yes! Lots of things. People are always giving me new ideas.

CG: Do you ever see anything and hope that someone will ask you to tattoo that?
JW: I would love to do more large scale pieces, but I realize it can get really expensive to get a tattooed and it’s also a lot of commitment between you and your client. I can’t think of anything that I would really like to tattoo, but I do like it when people come to me with outlandish ideas or something new.

CG: What do you say to clients who haven’t given their tattoo much thought and it’s pretty much a terrible idea? Have you ever talked somebody out of a bad tattoo? And what was it?
JW: Yes. I’ve definitely had to talk people out of getting certain tattoos. Generally it falls in the realm of them wanting something on their face or on their neck or hands, where they don’t already have a lot of coverage. It doesn’t have anything to do with me being a snob about it like, “You don’t have enough tattoos.” It’s more due to the fact that people don’t realize that it can change their life direction. It can change your career options, the way people look at you. There are definitely things I’ve said no to. I try to handle it as eloquently as possible. There are other reasons for saying no too. Sometimes it’s because I don’t think I can execute their idea in the best way or in a way that they will be happy with the result and, if that’s the case, then I will send them to another artist. If they like a certain style of art and they say that I love your tattoos and I look at an image they have given me and I think, “Well that’s not the way I tattoo,” — I will definitely send them to someone else.


CG: Where is the most intimate place you have ever tattooed? Is there a place where you would feel uncomfortable tattooing?
JW: As far as intimate, I just recently finished a piece that was on a women’s pelvic area and around her vagina.

CG: How was that?
JW: Honestly, I look at it more as a procedure. Like I have to execute this in a way that it’s going to look good. I made her as comfortable as I possibly could. She brought a friend…

CG: What was the tattoo of?
JW: It was a honeycomb with a bee. It basically covered the whole area. I think the reason she came to me was when we sat down and had our consultation I didn’t go all bug eyed. You want to be able to trust the person. There is a lot of trust being placed in you to begin with, so when someone is exposing a part of their body that they don’t normally expose to someone unless they’re in a intimate relationship with them, there is a bit more trust that goes in there. But it was fine and she was really happy with the end result.


The second part, as far as being uncomfortable with a certain area, I had someone come in recently and was acting a little strange. The first question that came out of his mouth was, “Would you tattoo me down there?” And I was like, “Well… What’s down there?” And he was like, “Well… on my penis.” And I was like, “Why couldn’t you just say penis?” So I guess we were off to a bad start. So he gave me his idea which was pretty outlandish. It was a lot of things. He wanted a lot of different imagery. I told him, “Well first of all, that’s not going to fit all on there unless your hiding something that’s going to blow my mind.” Second of all, it seemed like he was doing it for a thrill and not because he really wanted to tattoo there. I explained the procedure of tattooing a man’s penis and he didn’t seem too interested in that. He walked away a little defeated. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t do it — I’m comfortable with that — but it just wasn’t a good idea.

CG: I’m sure if someone had a really great idea and came in and said, “This is what I want,” and was very forward with it, maybe it would have ended in him getting the tattoo.
JW: Yes. If there was more thought into it then I would have definitely considered it.

CG: What is your favourite tattoo on your own body?
JW: I would have to say my favourite one would have to be the first tattoo I did on myself.

CG: The bunny?
JW: Yes. It’s not the best looking tattoo. It’s not something that I would take a picture of and throw up on the internet, “Check out this amazing masterpiece.” It’s my favourite because it carries a lot of meaning and it was the first time I have ever tattooed myself. It was the beginning of a long journey and has ties to my childhood.

CG: Isn’t the bunny an old stuffed toy that you had?
JW: Yes. I think I was thinking about it too much when I was going to do my first tattoo and I thought, “Why not do something completely idiotic.”

CG: Well it has meaning right? It was something from your past and something that you wouldn’t regret.
JW: It has meaning, but I didn’t want to take it too seriously cause tattoos shouldn’t be taken so seriously all the time.

CG: When a person looks at an artist portfolio what are some of the things someone should look for?
JW: As far as looking at a physical portfolio, first of all you should look for something that matches the style of artwork that you want. So if you are looking for a tradition tattoo, like an Americana style tattoo, you are not going to someone who specializes in Japanese tattoos. Second of all, look at the way the lines are, are they all over the place, the colours, are there blow outs, meaning does the ink look like marker hit wet paper. It is always good to do a bit a research. Look at several portfolios before you get a tattoo, but definitely narrow it down to the type of artwork your looking for and make sure they have a pretty full portfolio. It should be more than five photos. Experience speaks volumes. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to get better, but usually the more they do the less likely they will screw it up.


CG: Who is your favourite tattoo artist of all time? Or do you have a few that you really like?
JW: I definitely have a few artists that I like and follow. As far as artists in Canada, we’ve got Steve Moore who overall is extremely talented artist to begin with, but also an excellent tattooer. He is based out of Nanaimo and his tattoos aren’t traditional — they look like pieces of art. They look like should be hanging on a wall somewhere. He is an artist first and foremost, really good with colour, foreshortening, and perspective. Using the available space on the body to his advantage, making these wonderful pieces that stand the test of time, and just amazing to look at.


CG: It sounds like he can do it all. Just because you an amazing artist on paper does not mean you will be one on skin. Your dealing with a different tool and a different canvas…
JW: My biggest point is that just because you know how to tattoo doesn’t mean you’re an artist. Anybody can trace a line, but if you’re an artist first and foremost and the things that you draw or paint or build on a tablet are already pieces of artwork, and if you can tattoo them then all the better. There is this guy Justin Hartman who is pretty amazing. There’s a guy in Calgary named James Tex and a guy in Canmore named Damien Robertson. There are also a lot of artists in Europe, Australia, and I’m always discovering new ones, especially with social media now. There are always new names popping up.

CG: I’m sure some are quite inspiring.
JW: Definitely. But some days it makes you want to quit and other days it makes you want to work harder.

CG: Have you noticed a change in the types of images or styles that people are asking for? Say from a couple years ago to today? What’s really popular right now?
JW: Just like music and fashion there are trends in tattoos.


CG: Trendy tattoos are such a bad idea!
JW: That’s the thing people don’t want to understand — it’s possibly a bad idea because it’s the norm and so many people like it. Traditional tattoos are really popular, like old style Americana style tattoos — stuff you would seen on sailors — tattoos that basically Western culture was built on over the last 100 years. A lot of realism and water colour type stuff is popular. Like I was saying before, I tattoo a lot of animals. For a while there a lot of people wanted an owl, foxes are a big thing too, lady heads, and aboriginal designs. There are quite a few things that are really popular right now. Blackwork is tattoos with no colour. It consists of black lines or sometimes dots, pointillism, and stippling. No colour saturation whatsoever. Black and grey and sometimes just straight black. A lot of them are reminiscent of old Russian style prison tattoos.

CG: What has been your favourite moment in your career so far?
JW: I definitely have one moment that sticks out of my head — a woman had come to me and she was a few months away from getting married. She told me that she had this vision in her head and that she was going to wearing this shoulder-less wedding dress and she had this tattoo that she wanted to see in her wedding photos that hadn’t happened yet. She saw a tattoo on her back and her shoulder and she liked my art and my tattoos, so I drew up this tattoo up for her and we did it. When we were finished she got up and hadn’t seen the tattoo yet. She sat through the whole thing and hadn’t taken a glimpse of it. She looked in the mirror and kind of made this face and then she started to cry. In my mind I was like, “Are those happy tears or sad tears? Did I just ruin this girl’s life?” So I asked her after a second of silence, “Are you okay?” She answered, “I love it!” Fortunately they were happy tears. She was overjoyed. That was a good moment for me. I knew it was really important to her. She actually sent pictures of her wedding photos to us. It was beautiful. It’s nice to have an impact on someone’s life like that and have them walk away with something they love and will carry with them forever.


CG: If you could go back in time when you were first starting out, what advice would you give yourself?
JW: So many things… First of all, do your homework. Don’t jump at the first opportunity you’re given. Look around and check out a few different tattoo shops. Draw your ass off. Build your portfolio as much as you can. A lot of people feel like they are shooting in the dark because they don’t know what they should draw or what they should do. Just make art. Bring it to a lot of people and don’t be afraid of criticism. I was lucky in a sense because I only had to talk to a couple different people before I was offered an apprenticeship. Unfortunately it wasn’t the ideal apprenticeship, which often happens. Beware of anyone or anyplace that asks for money for an apprenticeship. I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate ones out there, but I am saying that you should definitely do a bit of your own research. Also one of my friends who does tattoos told me when I first started that you should prepare for it to ruin your life for a little bit. It quickly becomes not only your job, but you live, breathe, and eat tattooing. Be prepared to lose a few friends, gain some new ones, eat a few cheap meals, and say no to you friends a lot when they say, “Let’s go out.” It definitely requires a lot of attention and there is a lot of pressure involved. Be prepared to put your everything into it and put a few things on the back burner as far as your social life.



CG: I guess you can’t be too haggard doing a tattoo.
JW: No you can’t. And it also requires that you draw your ass off. If you are not drawing everyday you are not going to get anywhere in this business because it’s changing and growing. It’s a living breathing being and it’s changing everyday. If you go stale and you don’t work on your artwork you will fall behind. They are a lot of people that want to tattoo that think it’s cool, but it’s definitely a lot of work.

CG: Any final words to aspiring tattoo artists?
JW: Don’t become a tattoo artist. There are too many of us! Like I said, draw your ass off, do your research, stay inspired, take photographs, write a journal, go to concerts. Doing anything that will keep you inspired is definitely a good thing when it comes to this line of work. Be prepared to work long hours. Just remember that there are days when you walk away and you will feel horrible, but it’s all for the greater good. It’s definitely not as glamorous as it seems, but its very rewarding.

You can contact Jesse at:
Adorned Precision Body Arts
1111 Commercial Drive
Vancouver, BC

Phone 604 254-5111
Facebook: Jesse Williams Tattoos
Instagram: @jessewilliamstattoo



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