Like many other 18-year-olds, Josh Carter had earned himself a scholarship to community college. And like many other community college students, Carter didn't know what he wanted to do with his life.
"I was at Pierce College [in California], just taking some random classes, and I met this girl who was a piercer," Carter says. "This was like 1996, so it was crazy to see an alt-girl with a bunch of tattoos and piercings."
Within a few months, Carter was hanging out at the tattoo and piercing shop in Venice Beach where the girl worked. While there, he learned to pierce and began learning a little bit about tattoos.
"I pierced there for about four or five months, but I started seeing the tattoos coming out of the shops in Venice Beach and I knew they were pretty bad. I knew I could draw better than that and I thought I could tattoo better, so I told people that's what I wanted to do. I was a cocky little kid," Carter says.
From there, an "old punk rock guy" gave Carter some of his old tattoo machines and taught him the basics of tattooing, like how to make a needle.
"I started tattooing the gutter punks and squatter kids for free in Venice Beach," Carter says. "Then when I felt like I knew how to tattoo a little bit, I started working for this seedy, nasty little spot that sold shirts, jackets, bongs, and everything else."
After cutting his teeth in Venice Beach, Carter moved up to a slightly less seedy shop on Hollywood Boulevard before finally moving to a real shop in Studio City. After six years there, Carter decided to move to Arizona with his wife and child in December 2005.
"My wife lost her job, and we couldn't afford to live in California anymore, so we packed everything up and moved to Arizona," Carter says. "I'd been to Arizona. I liked Arizona. And I knew it was a lot more affordable."
When Carter arrived in the Valley, he initially bounced around several tattoo shops, including Divinity, Love and Hate, Immaculate, and Club Tattoo before landing at his current location, 5th Estate Tattoo in Gilbert.
"When I first got out here, I was kind of a dick. I had a whole different mentality that was just very different from people in Arizona," Carter says. "Every spot I'd go to and I'd grow there. Every time it would help me get out of my comfort zone, and it's still hard for me. I'm not a social guy, but I've grown a lot just from meeting new people and seeing new things at different spots."
Though he may not have gotten along with everyone at every shop he's worked at, Carter says the cockiness that he started tattooing with nearly two decades ago has faded over time.
"Being a tattooer isn't easy. It's an emotional rollercoaster. You really can't have an ego, because you and everyone else in the shop are always going to be critical of your work," Carter says.
For Carter, working at Immaculate Tattoo was very humbling and intimidating at first, particularly since Immaculate's owner, Aaron Coleman, was a tattooer whose work he admired.
"I realized while I was at Immaculate that the only difference between me and the people I look up to is hard work," Carter says. "You can attain whatever you want if you put in the effort. Not that I didn't work hard before, but it just taught me to keep my head down, don't get involved in bullshit and just produce."
Although he's certainly inked many different styles of tattoos over the course of his career, Carter's preferred style is traditional Japanese, but not like you would expect. Instead of ornate tattoos full of complex details and blended colors that won't hold up over time, Carter goes for simple and bolder tattoos, making it similar to traditional Americana tattoos in some ways.
"I realized a long time ago that I wanted to do Japanese tattoos, but not like everyone else does it," Carter says. "I do them so they look like they were done in the '80s. I don't see a style though, I'm too deep into it. I just see a mass of color and lines."
Regardless of how Carter defines his style, it's clearly won some people over. Carter's gained national attention at conventions in places like Salt Lake City and West Texas and has won several awards from Arizona's various conventions, including Hell City, Tucson Tattoo Expo, AZ Tattoo Expo in Mesa, and Northern AZ Tattoo Fest.
"Winning those trophies is cool for the moment, but overall I don't hold much stock in those contests. It's cool to go and be a part of it, but they're not super important to me."
What are some of your tattoos? I have some that are kind of meaningless but look cool, and then I have some from really good friends that have meaning. Some are definitely nicer than others, but I don't think I could pick out my one favorite tattoo. Each has a story, some are mundane and some are meaningful. I had my arm lasered and redone by Jay Cavna from Tucson. I've got a few tattoos from Aaron [Coleman], and I've got a panther by Mike Wilson that's one of my favorites.
What's a memorable tattoo you've done? Well, I've had plenty of people tense up and fart during a tattoo, but one time I was tattooing a girl's lower back and she just farted right in my face. I've tattooed a lot of celebrities and stuff like that too, but I'll never forget that girl farting in my face. It was gross and just a goofy-ass moment. It kind of bummed me out though, I was like "You really just blew an air biscuit right in my face!"
What's the most important thing to you about a tattoo? Is the design going to grow with the person or is it a fad tattoo? Will they look at it 10 years from now and still say that it's a good tattoo? Planning for the long game is important too, with large-scale Japanese work you always have to think if you'll be able to expand a half-sleeve into a full sleeve and if one piece can grow into another. Also, longevity is more important than putting little tricks into the tattoos. Some tattooers will put a ton of little tricks into their tattoos so it'll look better in the photo they put on Instagram and get a bunch of likes. I don't use too many tricks, I just keep it simple.
What do you look for in an artist or a tattoo shop? I like to see a lack of ego. As hard as it is for some guys to stay humble when they get good, they're never as good as they think they are. I want guys who just want to tattoo. If they have a style or attitude I like, I'll get a tattoo from them. I have enough tattoos that sometimes it doesn't really matter if it's a good tattoo. Sometimes it's just fun to get tattooed.
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Would you change anything about your tattoos or tattooing if you could? Give me three weeks after a tattoo and I'd change every tattoo I've ever done. That's just how I am. For myself, I wish I'd played the long game and gotten a complete Japanese Horimono (body suit). I don't regret anything though. I remember every single detail about every tattoo I've ever gotten. I remember where I was, who did it, what the weather was like, how I felt at the time. Sometimes people come into the shop and don't remember who did their tattoos, and I don't understand that.
What's one piece of advice you'd give to someone getting their first tattoo? I know it's the standard answer, but just do your research. Find a style that you like. If you're going to get a one-shot little tattoo off of Google or Pinterest or something, most tattooers can handle that. But something bigger, you should find someone who does that style. Go in and meet them, because you don't want to spend 12 hours getting a half-sleeve from a douche. If you're not comfortable, don't get tattooed. You're in charge until they put the needle on you. On the other hand, if you find someone who's good and you trust, let the tattooer drive. A lot of people can ruin their own tattoos.