AUGUST 5TH, 2009; ISSUE #41 - 8/5/2009 808 Scene Zine www.the808scenezine.com
HAWAII TATTOO ARTIST FEATURED ON A&E’S TATTOO HIGHWAY
A year ago, Amy Wagner, tattoo artist at Tattoolicious, was recruited to join the cast of A&E’s series, Tattoo Highway. Flattered that A&E had tracked her down, it was an opportunity that she couldn’t resist. It also turned out to be an experience that was nothing like she imagined. The show aired on A&E this July with Amy entering into the series in Episode 6 until the end.
Where did it all begin? As a kid, Amy wasn’t so into art. “As for being an artist, I never was. My brother was a super good artist and I wasn’t and I was real jealous of him.” But a well-meaning high school art teacher dragged her down to the office and signed her up for some art classes. After that, Amy was hooked.
In college, her friend Skott Sleckman (interviewed in Issue #37) suggested she become a tattoo artist. She resisted until, finally, Skott bought Amy all the equipment she needed. “Skott was the first person I tattooed. I was like, “How do I do this?” He was setting [the tattoo gun] up for me. Most professional tattoo artists would have killed me back then.”
Amy worked in a shop in Philadelphia for a while then saw an ad for a tattoo artist at Tattoolicious in Hawaii on craigslist. She talked to owner, Sean, for well over an hour. Sean was hesitant to hire someone that wasn’t on the island, but then he mentioned “We won’t do anything offensive or demonic.” Amy responded, “That’s alright - and I was kind of just going out on a limb – I’m a Christian tattoo artist and I don’t do that stuff. He was silent and I was like, I shouldn’t have said that. He was like, you’re Christian? We’re kind of a Christian shop.”
After dropping everything and moving to Hawaii, Amy obviously made a name for herself. A&E’s “reality” series, Tattoo Highway, features tattoo artists traveling by bus across the country tattooing people. After much of the cast left halfway through, they went on a search for a female tattoo artist to join the show and found Amy. “They were like, you’d be tattooing and traveling the country on this tour bus. They made it sound completely glamorous. That’s how they got me hooked.”
Amy thought the experience would be totally different than what reality TV had in store for her.“I’ve always tried to [go on tour with my friends].
We’ll stay with friends and be on a tight little bus and
it’ll be rad. That’s what I thought [it would be like],
but it couldn’t have been anything more opposite of
that. We were on this crappy, 70’s bus with [windows
completely covered with graphics on the outside].”
The two other tattoo artists on the show, Thomas and
Tommy, were mean and egotistical. So mean that Amy
says they actually make the guys seem nicer in the
aired version of the show.
The producers worked hard to ensure drama. The bus
was old on purpose so that they would break down,
despite the fancy RVs and equipment following the
bus around. When the artists did tattoo customers, if one artist really wanted the tattoo, they would give it to a different artist.
The producers also knew how to draw out the emotions of those on the show. The first tattooee that
Amy worked on was a girl with multiple sclerosis. Amy
sat next to a producer while the girl was interviewed and listened in on the direction. “’Is she crying yet? No. Ask her about her dad. You’re not done until she’s crying.’ I looked at him and I was like, that’s not going to work on me. Then the next day I was bawling. I was like, you got me. No!”
While Amy knew that the producers of Tattoo Highway would present everyone on the show in the way that they thought would get the most ratings, she’s surprised that they even changed the timeline of events. Still, the experience wasn’t all bad. She tattooed an “awesome punk rock couple. They instantly became my best friends.” She also got to go indoor skydiving and some other fun experiences as a way for the producers to add a different kind of excitement to the show.
Near the season’s end, the producers couldn’t think of anything to do. Apparently they thought of blowing up the bus, but had second thoughts when they weren’t sure if there would be a season 2. So they turned to Amy. “It was obvious that I wasn’t going to be coming back, so they were like… let’s fire her. I was like, sweet, let’s do it.”
Watch episodes of Tattoo Highway online at www.aetv.com/tattoo-highway. Read our full interview with Amy, filled with all kinds of interesting details below.
How long have you been tattooing?
I’ve been tattooing for about 6 years now.
How old are you?
I’m 26, but I’ll be 27 in a couple days.
So you’ve been tattooing since you were 21. Are you from here?
No, I’m from New Jersey, originally, but I went to college in Philadelphia. I started tattooing while I was in college in Philly, then I moved out here.
Why did you move here?
I got hired at the shop. I saw an ad on Craigslist. I was working at a place right outside Philadelphia and I was just unhappy. I just didn’t know where I was going. I was out of college and all my friends had moved. I liked my job, but I wasn’t happy with the location. One day, super late at night, I was looking at Craigslist and I saw an ad here for a tattoo artist at this shop. I was like, no way. There’s no way it’s a good shop. There’s no way that I could work there. It was like 3 in the morning, but I thought, it’s still early in Hawaii. So I just called. I talked to Sean, the owner. I was like, this guy is awesome. He is so rad. We talked for like an hour. He’s like, well, we’re not going to hire you. We’re looking for someone that lives in the islands that’s going to stay here and be a long term employee. I’m like, okay, I understand that, but just look at my portfolio. He was like, well, also, if you did get hired, we really care about our reputation. We won’t do anything offensive or demonic. I was like, that’s alright - and I was kind of just going out on a limb – I’m a Christian tattoo artist and I don’t do that stuff. He was silent and I was like, I shouldn’t have said that. He was like, you’re Christian? I was like, yeah. He said, we’re kind of a Christian shop. I was like, What? Hire me right now! He said send me your portfolio. I did and I was like, I have to work there. I’m getting hired. I moved out a couple weeks later. It worked out so good. It was awesome. I totally wasn’t even planning on moving. I just applied and got hired. It all happened so quick. I got rid of everything I owned.
I can tell that you’re an excellent tattoo artist. Were you just very talented to start? Did you do other kind of artwork?
I’ve always done other kinds of art. I was actually never interested in art as a kid. I did a bunch of arts and crafts and I always liked to build things. I would just go outside and take my dad’s scrap wood and nail it all together and make something out of it, but as far as being an artist, I never was. My brother was a super good artist and I wasn’t and I was real jealous of him. Mostly just, I didn’t want to be. Then, in high school, I was a punk rock kid with bright pink hair or something, the art teacher saw me and asked, are you in my classes? I was like, no, I’m not in any art classes. She literally dragged me to the office and changed my classes to be with her. That just started my interest. She just forced me to do it. That first year, I had ceramics, but I didn’t even do ceramics. I just painted the whole time. I got really into painting and drawing. I had some kids in my class who were really phenominal artists and they really encouraged me to be as good as them. A lot of people are born with an artistic ability and I’m not. I learned it just because I wanted it so bad. I just practiced a whole bunch… I would spend hours in the art class and then I would go home and just draw and draw. My friends that were actually good artists would make fun of me and say, You’re horrible. Why are you even doing this? Eventually you are able to look at things differently. You learn what shapes make other things and you get good at it.
You obviously got very good at it. I think I interviewed someone who had one of your very first tattoos on him. I thought that one was still pretty good. How did you get into tattooing?
I went to college and I decided that I didn’t want to be a starving artist and just do paintings and stuff. I went to a school that was more of a trade school. I learned to be an industrial designer, which deals with any kind of three-dimensional design. Product design, toy design, set design. I wanted to do horror make up for movies and set design. I really liked it, but I like building stuff more than I like the design process of it. If you’re not the designer and you’re just the fabricator, you don’t make as much money. So, Skott, who you interviewed, who was my roommate, he kept encouraging me. He was like, you should be a tattoo artist. He was getting tattooed at the time and hanging out in shops. I was like, when I get out of college, I’ll do it if I want to do it. He kept breaking me down and finally he was like, I’m going to buy you all the equipment. He got me the crappiest starter kit ever. He got me all the stuff and I had a couple of friends in my college who were tattoo artists. They helped me and gave me advice. I was horrible. I didn’t know what I was doing. Skott was the first person I tattooed. I was like, “How do I do this?” He was setting it up for me. It was so crappy. Most professional tattoo artists would have killed me back then. So yeah, that’s how I started. You’re not supposed to do that. I had no clue… I definitely gave away more horrible tattoos in the beginning than I did good tattoos. .. It’s hard. There are so many tattoo artists out there that just want to screw you over and take your money for an apprenticeship. Or they just have you there to clean toilets. There’s a time and a place for that, but you shouldn’t use somebody as your janitor. I tried to apprentice. About 6 months after I started tattooing, somebody offered me an apprenticeship and it was awful. The guy just used me to answer phones. He was an award winning tattoo artist. There are so many tattoo artists that use that free work. So I just taught myself.
So it must have been nice to get into a shop.
The first shop I worked in.. I tattooed at my house for about 2 years. Finally, someone saw my work on myspace and said, hey, we’re right outside of Philly if you want to come work here. I never really considered it, I was doing fine on my own. But it’d be good to be in a shop and you can’t help but learn tons from other people tattooing around you. They became my family.
How is it here?
Oh. It’s amazing. This (Tattoolicious) is the best shop ever. It’s huge. It’s super clean. Amazing. Just the staff here is awesome. The bosses, they’ve never owned any other tattoo shops, so they run it very differently. I think that it’s both a good thing and a bad thing. At first I was like, why are you doing it like this? No other tattoo shops every do this! But, it’s really rad. They don’t have that ego. They don’t have that “we’re cooler than you because we have more tattoos.” They treat everybody who walks in awesome. It’s really rad to work for people that take care of us. They really take care of their employees. I love it. We have health insurance. No tattoo artists have health insurance!
Before this TV show, have you won any awards or honors?
For paintings and stuff, I’ve won a bunch. But I never enter contests for tattoos. Most of the time, to win contests, you have to be at the conventions or you have to tell your clients to go and pay their entrance fee. I’ve never ever had a desire to go through that much work. Once I had somebody go enter their chest piece into this color contest and then they showed up on the wrong day. Then being out here, there’s no conventions.
What’s up with this TV show?
It’s called Tattoo Highway for A&E. I went and filmed a year ago. The way I got on the show, there’s some drama that I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about, but most of the cast and crew left. Everybody left. They didn’t really have anybody on the show anymore and they wanted a female tattoo artist. So the casting company was on a big search. One way or another, they got wind of me and called the shop here and talked to me. They asked if I wanted to be on a show and I was like, well, not really. They were like, think about it because you’d be tattooing and traveling the country on this tour bus. They made it sound completely glamorous. I was like, oh man, I get to see the country? This is awesome! I totally want to go! That’s kinda how they got me hooked. Plus, I was really shocked that they found me and they had heard of me. They said, if you’d interested, just send us a video of yourself talking and we’ll get you on the show. I almost didn’t do it, because Jessie, my fiancé, had been touring with the Hell Caminos and he had been gone for 7 months. He was getting back and, if I went on the show, I would literally be leaving 2 days later. I was like No! I’d be gone for a month, month and a half. But I ended up making a video and sent it to them. I just left it up to them. If they liked me and they wanted me on the show, how do you turn that down? So they ended up calling me back and being like, you got it. We met in St. Louis and that’s where I picked up the show with them.
I’ve not seen too many tattoo oriented tv shows, but my impression is that they try to stir up as much drama and problems as possible.
They didn’t need to start any problems. They just got the most dramatic, mean… I’m a really go with it, roll with the punches type person. I can have fun doing almost anything. In my mind, I was like, this is going to be awesome. We’re going to be goofy and silly and run around. I’ve always wanted to go on tour, but I don’t play any instruments or anything. I’ve always tried to hook up with my friends and, bring me on tour with you guys! We’ll stay with friends and be on a tight little bus and it’ll be rad. So I’m like, I’m going and I’m going to be a tattoo artist and go to shows and stay on random people’s couches. That’s what I thought of it, but it couldn’t have been anything more opposite of that. We were on this crappy, 70’s bus with no windows. The windows were all boarded up. You couldn’t even see out. You couldn’t see the country side. The only way to look out is if you go up and try to see out where the bus driver was sitting. It was awful.
Can you tell me anything about the show?
I’m sure I can now. It’s on. Wednesdays at 7pm and 11pm. A&E. I think I started Episode 6 and I”ll be on the rest of the season. It was awful. I’m sure you’ve gone into tattoo parlours before where people look you up and down and you’re not worth my time. Which is the stupidest thing ever. I hate it when people come into our shop – I’ve seen people give other people attitude like, who are you? It’s not like we’re like superstars or anything. C’mon. Drop the ego. So I get on the bus with this guys that have got the biggest egos ever. They couldn’t be farther from how I am at all. That was like my biggest fear. I thought it could be really rad and really fun if it wasn’t those type of artists. It was awful. They didn’t show it in the show, but the very first thing that I said to the younger guy, Tommy. He was like, what shop are you from? Oh, Tattoolicious. He started laughing, oh what a horrible name. I was like, oh I didn’t name it. Whatever, ha ha. Then I asked, what shop are you from? He was like Skull Kitchen. I started laughing super super hard. He was like, I named it. I was like, Oh no! He hated me. He hated me so much. From the first day, I was like, okay, this is going to suck. I just sucked it up and went with it.
Did they have cameras on you at all times? So you were on a bus. Obviously you weren’t on the bus the whole time. So you went places where you tattooed people?
We went to people’s houses. We were on this big tour bus. The producers would try to cause drama. We had this old crappy bus on purpose. In the desert. It was super hot and the bus would overheat and we’d be stuck in the desert for ten hours. We could usually only go 30 miles an hour.
You must have been sick of each other so quick
Yeah, it was horrible. Awful. I think they send out craigslist ads to find people to get tattooed. If you had an interesting enough story, we’d go to your house and tattoo you. Then they would come on the bus and we would talk to them and tattoo them on the bus.
How many tattoo artists were there?
There were three of us.
Would you take turns tattooing people?
They would try to cause drama with that, too. One of us would really want the tattoo and they’d be like, no, we’re giving it to him instead. They’d try to cause division that way. I was there for a little bit more than a month and I did three tattoos. I did one the second day, then I did one about three weeks later, then another one right before I left.
The people who make these shows. I just want to smack them.
Yeah. I mean, we were supposed to do a tattoo almost every day, but it didn’t seem like very much… The very first day I was there, I tattooed this girl who had multiple sclerosis. They were trying to get her to cry. I was sitting with this one producer and they have walkie talkies to whomever was doing the interviewing. The main producer was sitting next to me and he kept asking, “Is she crying yet?” He was just acting like I wasn’t there. “Is she crying yet?” No. “Alright. Don’t give up until she’s crying. Try this, ask her about her dad. Do this. Is she crying now? Okay, you’re not done until she’s crying.” I looked at him and I was like, that’s not going to work on me. Then the next day I was bawling. I was like, you got me. No!
Everything’s out of sequence, too. They cut and paste stuff to fit, but it didn’t even happen that way. On the show, the very first episode that I was on, they show me tattooing this guy like it was my first day, but it wasn’t my first day, it was my second day. Then later on in the show, they show me doing a second tattoo, but that didn’t happen for two more weeks. Right after that, then they hire the bus driver, but he was already hired when I got there. So nothing is happening in the order that it actually happened. It’s really strange.
They just want to tell a good story. They don’t really care about reality.
They just want your face and if you say anything funny, in the moment. They’ll just use it and put it out of context.
Okay, so how does that feel? Where you were taken and made a subject of? They were just using you as a character and breaking it up to tell whatever story that they wanted.
It’s stupid. I knew from the first place that they were going to edit it and make you look a certain way, but I figured it would still be in the context of how it happened. I didn’t think it would be totally out of order. Just puzzle pieces put in whatever sequences that they wanted. I don’t have a tv, but when I watch a reality show and I’m all like, that girl is so stupid or something, it really makes you go, wow, I’ll never look at that person in the same way because they make you look however they want to make you look. They market you in a way that’s going to make money. The other tattoo guys on the show, they actually make them look really nice compared to how they were.
So those guys are nicer, how do they portray you?
It’s kind of too early to tell, but right now, I look like a kind of shy, timid girl. I was sure they were going to make me look like this psycho religious nut, but they haven’t done that yet. The other two guys look like jerks and kind of cocky, but it isn’t nearly as bad as it really was.
I wonder why they toned down those guys?
Just enough so that people are wondering, what are they going to say next?
So they made them mean, but not enough that people are like, I don’t want to even deal with these guys anymore. Oh man! That’s crazy.
What was the best part of being on that show?
The best part – there were a couple of camera guys that were pretty rad. It was really interesting to see the whole dynamic of how those things worked. They spent like $10,000 a day filming. There were a ton of camera guys and this huge entourage of generators, buses, and stuff that followed us around. And it was really rad staying – I was by myself, so that kind of sucked, like I didn’t really have any friends or anything. But we stayed in different hotels every night and that was kind of cool. Like Oh yeah, I’m in my own hotel room. That’s awesome. But in one of the episodes, me and Tommy tattoo a wife and husband. They met on myspace and they are an awesome punk rock couple. I tattooed the husband’s leg and he tattooed the wife’s leg. They instantly became my best friends. I saw them and I was like, yes, normal people! I ended up sneaking away and sneaking into their house and hanging out. We weren’t allowed to have relationships with people off camera, because they wanted to catch all of it on camera, but I was so over it at that point. I just snuck out with them and we went out to get lunch. They ended up throwing a big party for me. I actually got fired, so the night I got fired, they threw this huge party for me. They were just really rad. To this day, I’m really good friends with them. I just visited them. That’s the best part. Making cool friends. That’s what I was hoping for. Experiences like that.
You got fired from the show? Is that why you got fired, because you snuck away?
No, I did just for drama. They didn’t have anything to do for the last episode. They don’t know if they were going to have a season 2 and it was obvious that I wasn’t going to be coming back, so they were like, what can we do? Let’s fire her. I was like, sweet, let’s do it.
Did they tell you that’s what they were going to do?
No. It was pretty obvious though. There were all these other things going around, like let’s blow up the bus! They were going to do that, but then it was like, what if there’s a season 2? Then they were like, let’s do this and this. They knew I hated them, so they were like, alright, let’s fire her.
How did you react on the camera?
They basically were like, you don’t respect us. They were hypocrites. One day they would be like, you’re not nice enough to the clients. Then the next day, they were like, you’re too nice to the clients. I was like, what do you want me to do? Finally, they were like, you don’t respect us. And I was like, yeah, of course I don’t respect you, respect is something you earn and you guys are horrible. Why would I ever respect you? The one guy, Tommy, has never been talked down to, so he flipped out. He was like, You fricking cunt. I hate you. He was throwing things at me. I was like, on my gosh, you guys are crazy.
So the two guys are the producers? The tattoo artists?
No. I think Thomas, the older tattoo artist, maybe was a producer, but I don’t know. They wouldn’t let me know if he was. So that was awesome. I don’t think anybody has ever told him off.
So that’s nice, you got to tell him off on TV.
Yeah, they were crazy. I’ve never been around more unstable, ridiculous people. Tommy was okay. His wife was okay. The bus driver was really rad. But Thomas was crazy. He was an unstable, crazy person. You would never know. You’d walk in and everything would be fine. They were so dramatic, too. We’re on the road in a tour bus, we’d stay in hotels every night. I mean, this is not rough at all. They’d be like, being on the road is so hard. I was like, are you kidding, this is a dream! We could make this amazing. We could have the best time ever. The producers of A&E would be like, go skydiving or go to a shooting range. Do all these rad things and they would be like, no, we don’t want to. They were afraid to have fun I think.
So did you never go do any of those things?
We did. We went indoor skydiving once. They didn’t want to go. They were refusing. We’re not doing it! Then I was like, I’m doing it. Indoor skydiving? Let’s go! Bring it on. Then me and the bus driver were like, let’s go. Then the producers forced them to go. They ended up having a good time, but they were trying to not smile. Why are you guys afraid to have fun?
That’s so weird to have been a part of something like that! What if they called you up to do it again?
I don’t know. When I got back, I was like, that’s the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life. I would never do it again. But there’s a lot of things I regret. Like at first, they would say things that were just awful about people and I was like, I don’t know these guys, I can’t argue with them. Then, by the time I got comfortable and was just being like, you guys are idiots, I was leaving. I wouldn’t mind being on the show to actually voice my opinion a little bit more and to be like, go have fun! Let’s go do rad stuff. I feel like if I was on it again, I’d have more say. I almost would wish that they would say, here, you go do it, and then I would find people and make it a comedy. It should be. I mean, dramas are boring. You’re on a tour bus touring the country! I feel like we missed out. The windows were totally tinted with graphics on them. We couldn’t see out. There’s nothing glamorous about being in TV, that’s for sure. I guess if you’re with awesome people, it would be amazing.
How did you feel about having cameras pointed at you all the time?
Oh, you totally get used to it really quick. Well, for me, because I’ve always done a job where people are watching you. Before I tattooed, I did air brushing and there are people behind your back, watching constantly. I did characatures for a while, and people watch that. So that part of it wasn’t nerve racking at all.
Did you find yourself acting because the camera was there?
At first, no. I never acted because the camera was there. What ends up happening is that the producers make you say things in a way that is always very specific. Like if I was going to say, “Oh, he was such a jerk.” They’d be like, who? “Oh, Tommy was such a jerk.” When he did what? So they’d always interrupt you to say things in a specific way so that they can edit it and put it wherever they want it. You kind of get an idea right away of what the producer wants you to say. They’d be like, it’s very obvious that Thomas upset you at this point. You’d be like, no, he didn’t upset me. They’d be like, no, we saw that he upset you. You’d be like, no, he didn’t upset me. Then they’d keep going and, they were called Interviews on the Fly, you could make an Interview on the Fly, a five minute process or you could turn it into an hour process because you weren’t saying what they wanted you to say. So eventually, you’d just be like okay, “Tommy really upset me when he did so and so and so.” Just to move it along.
Is there anything you want to say about that experience?
I guess mostly that people should not watch those shows really thinking that they’re reality. Oh, I learned a lot about… I would hang out with the camera guys. They would work on show like The Real World. I learned so much about how they really manipulate these situations. I was lucky. Most of the people on reality shows, the instant they get in, they are stripped of everything that is personal. Cell phone. Computer. Any kind of connection to the outside world, which was the only thing that really kept me sane. They strip you of that. For example, The Real World Las Vegas, they pumped aphrodisiacs through the ventilation systems to make them all bone each other. Crazy stuff. They tried doing that, not to that extreme, with me. When I first got there, I was basically locked in a hotel room for two days with no contact with anybody. No good food. Nothing. They want you to be emotional. They just told me tons of facts like that, like how so many of the shows are rigged. You see somebody freaking out in a way that you are like, this lady is insane. No, she probably isn’t at all. She’d been put in a situation where they have totally messed with her. They’re smart. The producers are like psychologists. They know how you respond to different things and set you up so you get all pissed.