Chris Rupp sits behind the counter of Living Ghost Tattoo Parlor in Tempe, where he's worked since September, and plucks two strings on a guitar he made out of a cigar box. The cigar box guitars are one of his favorite things to make, and he also does paintings, including a giant red octopus on a raging sea that takes up most of the south wall in one of the tattoo rooms.
But ink on flesh is the medium by which Rupp makes his living. His large-scale custom designs burst with color and detail, from a blue-and-black-striped cat puffing on a pipe to an elaborate New Orleans funeral-march motif featuring a client's late pet Chihuahua.
Originally from Wyoming, Rupp's family moved to the Valley when he was in grade school. He started tattooing 19 years ago. "I went the biker route first. I was involved in motorcycles, so I'd draw up skulls, barbed wire, roses, panthers, things like that." He formally learned his trade at Sin City Tattoo in Tempe.
As he drew more of his own designs, Rupp's influences and style expanded. He admires the work of Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha and keeps a book of his work in the shop. "His work is similar to tattoo, in terms of the lines and the color," Rupp says.
Rupp is partial to the Japanese tattoo style because "it's been around so long and it always has a bigger and more complete look than American tattoos," but he also likes to add a Southwest aesthetic to his designs, like little triangles and an "old Indian or old Mexican look."
He's come a long way since his early biker-tattoo days. Now, his favorite things to design for tattoos are cute or fantastical creatures. "I like to draw rabbits and things that remind me of my childhood," Rupp says. "I really liked designing this one mermaid-on-a-shark tattoo. It has some junior high appeal — there's a dragon, and a castle, and a unicorn."
Despite his almost two-decade career, Rupp's stayed largely under the radar, maybe because he skips tattoo conventions, which he likens to traveling carnivals. "People go there for instant gratification, but I think it's rushed," he says. "I don't want to hurry through a tattoo, then look at it and go, 'I could have done so much better if I'd had more time.'"
Though Living Ghost is near ASU, Rupp's client base consists mostly of people in their late 20s and early 30s, rather than college students. "College students won't spend more than a hundred dollars on a tattoo," Rupp says. "I like to take my time and do large, detailed work, so the people who come to me are usually people who can afford to pay for a really good tattoo."
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