Tony Klett has seen the growth of the tattoo culture firsthand. When Klett began his tattoo apprenticeship in 1999, there were only three tattoo shops around the portion of Ohio he lived in, now Klett says there are about 20.
"Tattooing is mainstream now. It's in everybody's face," Klett, 37, says. "Back then, the attitude was different. There were just the three shops in town, two good ones and the cheap one."
Klett didn't always want to get into tattooing though. The Mesa-based artist, who currently works out of Immaculate Tattoo, originally had a different artistic vision.
"I went to school to study industrial design. My focus was on making special effects for movies," Klett says. "But as you may have guessed, not a whole lot of movies were being made in Ohio back then."
After realizing that Ohio wasn't about to turn into a movie hotbed, Klett began doing some design work for local musicians, which eventually drew him into Ohio's tattoo scene.
"I started working with some of the local bands, designing flyers and such for their shows," Klett says. "The singer of a band I worked with also worked at one of the tattoo shops, so that's how I ended up there."
Following his apprenticeship, Klett spent five years in advertising before deciding to return to tattooing full-time. After tattooing for a year and a half in Ohio, Klett followed his tattooing mentors out to Arizona.
"The guys who helped get me started in tattooing back in Ohio had moved out to Scottsdale and they encouraged me to follow suit. They felt it would be a good place for me to learn and grow as both an artist and a tattooer," Klett says.
These days, Klett specializes in "neo-traditional" tattoos, a popular style in which classic Americana tattoos (such as skulls, birds and nautical themes) are brought to life by bright colors and crisp lines. Klett's neo-traditional work has won awards at events such as the Arizona Tattoo Expo.
"I don't think there's anything special about the tattoos I've done," Klett says. "I just make them clean and bold."
What are some of your tattoos?
I got a lot of tattoos, but they don't really have meaning. I see it more as collecting art from each artist. Each one is like a seminar with the artist. I take what I learn from them and use it in my own tattoos. I still got a lot of skin left to cover though.
What's a memorable tattoo you've done?
Man, that's a hard question. I don't think there's one specific tattoo that's more memorable than the rest. I remember at the end of my first week of tattooing, I was absolutely terrified. It felt like every tattoo I was doing just magnified everything I was doing wrong. By Friday I was so upset that my boss just had me mop the floors and clean for the rest of the day. On Monday, my boss schedules his friends to be tattooed by me to help get me back on the horse. I'm sure I would've gotten back to it eventually anyway, but that definitely helped make it quicker.
What's the most important thing to you about a tattoo?
It's got to read. You have to be able to know what it is. I try to adhere to a 20-20 rule. I want people to know what the tattoo is from 20 feet away within 20 seconds of seeing it, which is why I tend to make things bigger and bolder. It helps if it looks cool, too.
What do you look for in an artist or a tattoo shop?
I see artwork that resonates with me that's done by other tattooers and I know that's the guy I want to do my tattoo. It's better to find someone who does the style you want than to try to transform someone else to do that style.
Would you change anything about your tattoos or tattooing if you could?
I have gone back and lasered off some stuff, not a lot of stuff, but it wasn't the best stuff I could have gotten. It was just from one of the three shops in the town I was working in at the time.
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What's one piece of advice you'd give to someone getting their first tattoo?
Just do your homework. At this day in age, with access to the Internet, Instagram, Facebook, all that stuff, there's really no excuse to get a shitty tattoo.