Some artists tattoo for the money. Others do it to make a name for themselves. For Byron Winkelman of Black Lotus Tattooers in Gilbert, tattooing isn't about the money or the acknowledgments, it's about a love of all things artistic.
"It's hard to make money as an artist. The starving artist is a real thing," Winkelman says. "If I had all the money in the world, I'd tattoo people and paint for free. I don't really like the business side of it."
For that matter, when Winkelman really wants to tattoo something, he'll put the design up on his Instagram and offer it for free or cheap to the first person who comes in wanting it. That's because tattoos aren't always about making a living for Winkelman, a lot of the time they're just one way he likes to express his artistic side.
"I don't know where I'd be without tatttooing and art. Painting to woodworking, I do them all," he says. "I like making something from nothing."
Before he started tattooing "a little over 20 years ago," Winkelman was just a 17-year-old finding ways to show off his artistic nature.
"I was doing a lot of graffiti, and I had some older friends," Winkelman says. "They always told me I should get into tattooing, but I thought it was a bad idea. I got into it, did a couple things and started working in a shop with Ron Earhart when we were both 17. Before I knew it, years had gone by and that's what I was, I was a tattooer."
These days, Winkelman's personalized brand of tattooing isn't pinned down to any one style, but there is one type of piece he doesn't like to do.
"It's all very stylized and exaggerated. I do a lot of neo-traditional, but I do a lot of everything," Winkelman says. "No portraits or super-realism though, it just doesn't draw me in. I like to make something, not just copy a photo on to someone."
Unlike many artists who confine themselves into one style of tattooing, Winkelman's diversity has earned him some serious respect in the national tattooing scene. The owner of Black Lotus Tattooers gets invited to some of the top tattooing conventions in the country on a regular basis, including the Bay Area Convention of the Tattoo Arts in San Francisco and Ink-N-Iron in Long Beach.
"I like to go to the invitation-only shows because everyone you see there is really really good," Winkelman says. "A lot of the local shows let anybody in, so you see some really good people, but there's also just some guy from a shop. I take it a little more seriously than that."
What are some of your tattoos? I've got a tattoo machine on my right arm in honor of tattooing. I'm right-handed, so I couldn't tattoo without my right arm. I like skulls. I have this one by Ron Earhart, so it's all biomechanical. I have a giant ladybug on my foot, it's for my wife but I didn't want to get her name. People don't think I have a ladybug tattoo, but I do.
What's a memorable tattoo you've done? This guy turned into a real good friend. He wanted to do a sleeve, and he had a list of people, big-name people. Somehow, my name was in that bracket, and he chose me to do it. I did a full black and grey dragon sleeve and won first place for large black and grey [at the 2009 Arizona Tattoo Expo], so it got entered into the "Best in Show" category and won "Best in Show." That's pretty rare, to win that award.
What's the most important thing to you about a tattoo? It's got to be the best you can do every time. If you're not into it, you shouldn't do it. Personally, I pick people whose style I like, or I like everything they do.
What do you look for in an artist or a tattoo shop? It doesn't have to be anything special, just someone where I like everything they do. I'll tell an artist "I like the way you do hands" or anything else I really like and just let them go. You get the best out of people if you let them do it the way they do it. Let them be themselves.
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Would you change anything about your tattoos or tattooing if you could? Nope. Not one drop. Without those steps, I wouldn't be who I am today. I like who I am today. I do the best I can every day. It's how it is, things evolve. I never want to look back and see that I'm in the same spot I was in a year ago. I'm constantly changing my style. There are tattooers who tattoo the same rose every time someone wants to get a rose. I'm not doing the same rose every time.
What's one piece of advice you'd give to someone getting their first tattoo? Be very smart about your decisions and your placement. The longevity of the design too, like it's not something you're going to grow out of. A lot of guys get naked women tattooed on them, or there's a guy who got a giant dick on the inside of his leg so you can see it when he wears shorts. How do you explain that to your kids? Just don't get something offensive.