When she was 13, Meg McNiel, now co-owner of Love and Hate Tattoo & Piercing in Phoenix, hand-poked a moon tattoo on her ankle in her home outside Seattle.
"I don't even know how I knew it, but I knew that if you wrapped a sewing needle in thread so just the end was exposed and dipped it in India ink, the ink would stay when you poked yourself with it," McNiel says.
Over the next few years, McNiel would give other kids at her high school some of these hand-poked tattoos, before she started going into a real tattoo shop at age 16. From there, McNiel began her journey to becoming a professional tattooer and never looked back.
"I got three tattoos from the shop when I was 16 just because I didn't get carded," McNiel says. "The guy assumed I was 18, so he offered me a job as the counter girl. I told him I was in college since I couldn't come in until after 3 because of school."
McNiel then took a job at a different shop as a piercer, which never really interested her but paid a whole lot better than being a counter girl. By 24, McNiel had two young children and decided to learn to tattoo.
"The place I was at already had an apprentice, so it wasn't a real apprenticeship, but I'd already been in shops for so long that I knew how to do all the other stuff," McNiel says. "I just needed someone there to answer my questions and show me how to tattoo."
In 2004, McNiel and her husband at the time moved to Arizona to get a fresh start. Though she hadn't technically been an apprentice yet, McNiel already had done enough work in Washington to consider herself "almost a tattooer," which she may have embellished a bit to land her first tattooing gig.
"I said I had done an apprenticeship to get a job at this little spot in Scottsdale. It wasn't a good shop, though, really just another moneymaker for the guy who owned it and the bar next door," McNiel says. "It was perfect for me because it was mainly tourists, so it was small tattoos on people I never had to see again."
Six months later, McNiel was the manager and ready to move on to a better shop where she could improve her skills. McNiel got a job at a more legitimate shop in Scottsdale, where she met some of the artists who would become her friends and coworkers for the next decade.
After over three years in Scottsdale, McNiel began working at Love and Hate Tattoo & Piercing, where she worked for another couple of years before buying it along with her coworker, Danny Ross.
Since purchasing Love and Hate in 2009, McNiel's "straight-up old-school" traditional American tattoos have garnered national awards and attention at events such as the Ink-N-Iron Festival on the Queen Mary in Long Beach and the Arizona Tattoo Expo, where McNiel is one of few artists to win the "whole chicken" (first, second, and third place awards).
McNiel believes her success is due to her desire to keep her designs clean and simple, just as they would've been in the early days of tattooing.
"Sometimes you see people pull out like 18 colors to do a traditional tattoo," McNiel says. "Back in the day, they had five colors including black. I like the stuff that ages well, bold crisp lines and bright colors."
Though McNiel may only use a handful of colors, she believes that the ones she does use are part of what sets her work apart from some others.
"The green I use on my leaves, slime green, is really bright, and I use a heavy black," McNiel says. "Some girls have trouble committing to such bright colors and heavy blacks, but I don't want it to look like it was done by a girl."
What are some of your tattoos? Steve Boltz is my favorite tattooer that I've been tattooed by, and I've been tattooed by him more than anyone else. The first time I met him I was looking for a traditional tattooer in Oahu, but every shop I went into was tribal. I saw his portfolio and knew I wanted him to do that tattoo. Aaron Coleman and Cory Lenherr have also done some awesome pieces on my legs.
What's a memorable tattoo you've done? At Ink-N-Iron in Long Beach three years ago, I had a corner booth and was doing this big "Battle Royale" back piece. This old guy kept coming over and complimenting the tattoo, but I was so busy working on it that I didn't really look up at him. When I took a break, I realized that it was Bob Roberts from Spotlight Tattoo. He's a legend. That was so cool.
What's the most important thing to you about a tattoo? It has to be clean and done well, and that it fits the body well. I don't think tattoos have to have any special meaning. They're just markers for where you are in your life. You never forget where you were at when you got a tattoo.
What do you look for in an artist or a tattoo shop? I like to get tattooed by people who I look up to and admire as tattooers. I look for people who are rad tattooers. For my own tattoos, I want that traditional old school style. For artists here at the shop, it's important that they have clean lines, a good portfolio and good customer service. I also look for tattooers who are good people and fit into the circle we have here, a lot of us have known each other for 10 years now.
Would you change anything about your tattoos or tattooing if you could? I started getting tattooed in the early '90s, so I have some tribal and stuff I wouldn't get now.I also have this Celtic mess on my arm that should be about 40 percent bigger. For the tattoos I've done, I knew there was going to be a progression and that I'd get better as time went on. I never tattooed my ex-husband while we were together because I didn't want to wake up and see a piece that I'd done years before and see how much better it could've been.
What's one piece of advice you'd give to someone getting their first tattoo? Do your research and find a reputable shop. Look online to see who does what styles, and listen to your artist. Know what you want, but still let your artist make changes and do what they think will make it look better. If the artist says going a little bigger will make it look a lot better, go with it. A lot of times 10 percent bigger can make a huge difference in the tattoo, and you won't even notice the size difference. A good shop won't just take your money without sending you to the right tattooer, I don't want to just put out the best work I can do, I want the shop to put out the best work from all of us.