When I first got in touch with Eva Jean, I was struck by the attitude of an artist who constantly wants to better herself and treats the craft of tattooing with the respect that it deserves. An artist who draws from hugely varied sources of inspiration to create custom tattoos for her clients. I was keen to know more about the experience of working at two studio’s, 1,000 miles apart. One of these being Allegory arts in Florence AL, which she’d set up with husband Ulysses Blair.
Interview – James McCauley
Photography – Eva Jean
Hi, Eva. Let’s start from the beginning. Where are you from originally and when did you get into tattooing?
Hello! I am originally from Buffalo, New York I got my first tattoo when I was 16 and started apprenticing just before turning 19.
Did you do a formal apprenticeship, if so, under whom?
As formal as a tattoo shop apprenticeship could be, yes. Cleaning and managing the shop, talking with clients, learning how to make needles, learning about machines, watching others do their tattooing, and not getting paid anything for it. I was given the opportunity to learn initially from David Catalno. I had no prior relationship to David or anyone else at that tattoo shop, so it was a little nerve-wracking to straight up ask a stranger for work. But, I was determined and genuinely really very interested, so I persisted in hanging around the studio and proving my worth. There happened to be 2-3 other people who conveniently, all at the same time as me were also inquiring about learning how to tattoo….so, I had to out-work them. I gave up going out and partying with friends and going to concerts to make sure I was the first one there at the shop and stayed the latest. It felt good to honestly earn a place and show I was willing to work a little harder than the others. This was before “tattoo schools” were around.
What attracted you to tattooing? Were you creating art before that?
Since I can remember I have always been an artist I genuinely enjoy creating, and feel compelled to often. I’ve been seriously painting the past 14-15 years, of course tattooing is largely responsible for that. Instead of attending university, I took up a tattoo apprenticeship. Honing your artistic ability is something that comes along with everything else you need to learn about the craft, and working on that will not ever end. Cease to learn and grow, you may as well hang your machines up. An artist by the name of Cory Cudney (Buffalo, NY) was the catalyst. Reading the newspaper one day, I saw an article feature on him, as well as his tattoo studio. His work was not like anything I had ever seen in the skin- accurate color realism- these didn’t look like tattoos, they looked like photographs or fine oil paintings, he truly has a gift. I was already painting and drawing the way that he was tattooing, I needed to know how he was able to do that with a needle and someone’s skin. I was so blown away by what he was doing.
I have to admit, I also really liked how shut out from the rest of the world the tattoo shops seemed- I just mean shops in general. I had only been into two by the time I wanted to learn, but everyone was either really fucking mean and rude, or just cool and approachable enough but you still knew you were being held at a 10 foot pole’s length away. I never expected to see any of these people out in the “real world” like at a movie or walking out of a store; they were far too removed from all of that and into their own subculture of their world and I liked that. As someone who felt much like a loner, I could relate to that without them inviting me into theirs.
How would you describe your style of tattooing?
Custom! Traditionally based with a bit of a soft touch. I’ve been tattooing for 13 years and over the years I have had some strange ups and downs, stylistically speaking. I remember when I wanted to try to do bio-mech…that’s not my style. I leave that to the pros. I like ornate imagery, repeating patterns with a folk-art flare…bold, sometimes fine…I love the look of black and grey biker style, I also really like doing black tattoos with an etching like quality…I started experimenting with that a few years ago, right before I moved out of Massachusetts and traveled around for about a year. I see a lot of people doing it now and it makes me happy to see how popular it’s become. Any sort of esoteric imagery, skulls, flowers, eyes, lady heads, hands, pieces that move and work with the shape of the body, that’s what I like to do the best. I want to make something that is perfectly unique to the wearer alone- is that a tall order?
What’s your ideal way of collaborating with a client? Do you like people who give you free reign and let you do your thing or people with a very clear idea they want to work with you on?
When people come to me with an idea, and say, “do your thing with it” that is really just the best. That lets me know that they have done their research and are going into this decision with the utmost confidence. When people say “do whatever you want I don’t care at all what it might be” that’s more pressure than they know!!! However, I do work well under pressure, which is also part of what attracted me to stay in tattooing. People who attempt to micro-manage me working, are not really looking to get tattooed by me. They are better off buying a trinket from the shops if they intend to treat me that way. Tattooers are not the cashier or server at a restaurant. They are the artist and they make the decision as to what looks best and where it should sit. That’s not meant to sound harsh, but if you want a good tattoo, clients out there, do your research, and when you find the one to permanently mark you, let them do what it is what inspired you to reach out to them! By the way, you should never micro-manage or be rude to servers or cashiers.
“So long as the rent is all paid up in both places, then it’s fucking cool! It’s honestly very stressful and very incredibly great all on the same coin. New York City is fucking nuts and awesome. She is a cruel mistress and that is the truth.”
What other forms of media do you draw inspiration from?
Nature and meditation are by far the most influential and inspiring resources for me. Old books and museums are next on the list!
So you work at Allegory Arts in Florence as well as 8 of Swords in NYC. How is it splitting your time in two very different places, 1,000 miles apart?
So long as the rent is all paid up in both places, then it’s fucking cool! It’s honestly very stressful and very incredibly great all on the same coin. New York City is fucking nuts and awesome. She is a cruel mistress and that is the truth. She wants all your time and definitely all of your money! It’s a challenging environment to live inside of and it will show you what you’re made of. You’ll become very efficient, if you’re not already, at time, money and space management. Dave Wallin who owns Eight Of Swords is wonderful and provides a very relaxed and spacious environment to the clientele. He is also an excellent tattooer and artist.
Florence, AL is not NYC. It is small, relaxed, warm, friendly, and quaint. My husband and I are at this very moment, working as diligently as we humanly can to open our private studio, Allegory Tattoo. His leg is broken, and it’s mostly just the two of us putting in the hours…we wanted to do it this way, though. We really want to be able to talk about the counter top construction and how shovelling up two layers of shitty tiled flooring under the carpet was a nightmare hahaha! Because this is our baby, corny as that may come off, it’s true. Tattooing has been so good to me that I can’t help myself, I need to keep investing and giving to it if I want it to keep investing and giving to me.
Anyways- we have been going back and forth every other month or so and it’s been an adventure. I’m a little tired haha. I can’t wait to have a steady clientele rolling through down here and make amazing looking tattoos on people in our own studio!
Do you find the environment you’re tattooing in influences your approach to the tattoo as well as the tattoos you’re asked to create?
Yes, more now than ever. I can’t relax in NYC and the atmosphere up there is truly hell for me. I’ve not been so artistically blocked in all of my life. In the year and a half that I have been there, I think I have done maybe a total of 4 paintings. A lot of my paintings and artwork, I share on social media and that assists in attracting clients…without being able to let go and create, well, let’s just say it’s been challenging. It’s easy for people to commission me for custom pieces and I can respond and deliver to them, but far as coming up with things on my own, it’s been very trying.
There’s so much chaos in New York City. Some people thrive off of that energy and go go go. I need the woods. I need alone time that is quiet. I’m like a delicate, thorn covered flower. I need space to be mine, to be chill- not to be at the will of others.
I’m not sure I answered that fully / correct…The environment doesn’t really change my approach to the actual tattooing, unless I am being asked to follow a specific rubric and or set of regulations that might impend on my creative freedom. I generally stick to the same formula for it all, but, like I rambled about in my first portion of the response, sometimes you just get overpowered and it starts to wear on you in other areas.
When travelling, that’s a fun experience and there is almost little to no stress because you’re a pirate on the high sea and the world is yours. Experiences, people you meet and the things that you see all get filtered through your little nutty brains and you make: ART! I had a fantastic travel book filled with flash from when I went to Europe a few summers ago and travelled around the USA, but then it got burned up in a fire which happened just as I was returning from New Zealand!
Between the two studios you work with some incredibly talented artists, how important do you find it to have people to bounce off creatively?
It always helps to have people to talk to and learn from with work. Having a good solid crew that everybody’s chemistry works together is KEY. You need to be able to bounce ideas, offer and take criticism and generally be helpful.
I watched the video you did for the Sperry Odyssey project, in which you visited New Zealand and got to experience traditional Maori carving and tattooing up-close with Rob Hotte. How was the experience, and did you come back from the trip energised, with a new outlook on your craft?
This whole scenario was like winning the lottery and a mysterious angel bought the ticket and slipped it into my pocket. I had no idea what to expect and can’t say something this fabulous has ever happened to me before. Getting to see up close and personal some of the traditional culture that is preserved in such a beautiful place, to see some of the oldest known form of tattoo was incredible. I don’t think I can really justify my experience with words but I will try:
I did turn with a refreshed outlook in general. On people, travel, tattooing, life…I spent a week hanging out with a small group of new people who were all about doing the same thing; they all wanted to learn, be better at their profession and had passion for what they do. Everyone was interested in what the other one did and was open to conversation. Being taken across the globe by a company who wants to encourage adventurous individuals is quite the dream come true. I would recommend if you have the chance to do it to fucking do it.
Rob and I had the absolute pleasure of being invited into the home of an incredibly talented and hard working traditional Maori artist and tattooer, Rangi. Just being in New Zealand, away from everyone and everything I knew helped to refresh me. Sometimes you need that, to just get lost somewhere and see that you haven’t already seen everything and that there are more good people out there to meet.
How has tattooing and the industry changed since you’ve been a part of it?
It seems a lot more glamorised now, more mainstream, much more popular. I want to keep all the new people who want to learn away from it, like I’m a jealous girlfriend hoarding her boyfriend from everyone- but it’s true. I’m conceited and protective enough to believe that I will treat the craft with more respect than the new kids who run out and get their faces tattooed and post hard style photos on their Instagram. They’re all 19-early 20’s. They hit on girls at the bar, “oh I’m a tattooer, yeah baby” and it’s like this new fucking cool band jock sort of persona that I am seeing a lot of. I hate it. I see girls becoming tattoo models, energy drinks, I’m being sent across the globe to tattoo shoes and it’s just bigger than I expected it to be. There are tattoo schools that take thousands of dollars for a seven-day crash course. There is nothing about that that says hard work to me. I’m maybe some of the last who will serve a traditional apprenticeship? I think it’s good and bad. Maybe it’s just more job security.
I do see a lot more specialised artists- like each person is slowly forming into their own little couture designer and creating pieces for people to have a certain look. “Oh, I’m wearing Emily Rose Murray (because she is incredible) and Thomas Hooper” haha I don’t know. It’s insane to me. Nobody is learning how to master all of the styles so that they can eat- they’re becoming a brand. I’m not really sure where I do fit into all of it, because I just want to make good tattoos, and make people look beautiful, but it’s turned from this taboo and kind of scary and questionable thing into more of a fashion. kind of feels catch 22 Tattooing has morphed into a fashion industry for the most part anyways. I can’t say if it’s good or bad, I can only say what I’m going for, but I feel conflicted when I see girls getting their tits done and tattooed to look like they are something they badly want to be- now you can just buy it. I apologise if this sounds bitter or like I hate everyone because I’m not completely and I don’t- it’s just like tattooing is the girl in school right now who is kind of going through a slutty phase and I just want her to put her cardigan back on and use her brain, not body to get love. But maybe she likes to use her body????? I don’t know!!! I’m not crazy, please don’t cancel my interview!
What is your favourite story from your time in tattooing?
Making friends with amazing humans while I was in Barcelona, Spain visiting El Monga at his shop. I met some of the best people and had some of the best nights there. Walter Lobo (tattooer from Paraguay) tattooed me (as well as Monga) during that visit. I can’t wait to see them all again, everyone from that trip that I met. I got to visit the bar of one of my favourite bands (Manu Chao) Laughed so much. Got ridiculously drunk with Rempe. visited the beach. Met another witch and we exchanged stones. Some tourist girls were invited into my friend Ismael’s flat on the night I was leaving and I didn’t have room in my bag for my little Polaroid camera, so I gave it to them and showed them how to use it. Months later they found me online and were sharing pictures they had taken with the camera…it was just wonderful really, that altruistic vibe was just everywhere and filled my entire visit.
Lastly is there anything you’d like to say or talk about?
I would really love to mention where you can find me….Allegory Tattoo is located in Florence, AL, USA and it is privately owned by myself and husband, Ulysses Blair.