Keith Underwood – Tradition and Lineage in Chicago

I’m going to start with what really are my last questions, ok and then we’re going to back it up.

Ok. whatever you say. 

Sum up your view of tattooing.

I definitely think that tattooing is something that is for the masses. Names, roses, whatever. Guys want to look tough and girls want to look cute. That’s it. I definitely think that in America- historically, that’s what it’s about. Giving the people what they want and in a clean, safe way and it’s probably a very basic view of tattooing but that’s what I’ve always been drawn to about it. 

That is a very simplistic, basic view … or should we say “traditional” view…

It is traditional. This is a street shop and that’s what I know. I mean when I book appointments they’re for hour-long tattoos, they’re not for backs or sleeves. I’m not interested in that stuff at all. They’re a big pain in the ass! I mean I have done them but it’s definitely not what I push; I push the hour-long tattoos. That’s cool, y’know. That’s what I like to do. I want my tattoos to look authentic, like it could have been done 40 years ago, y’know … with a limited color palette.

I like how you said about you’re going for “the authentic look,” working with the limited palette and the way you apply it and how you’re mixing colors kinda’ on the fly with red black mixing. It’s not something easy to achieve. People might think that it’s something that is real easy but it’s not…

I think that traditional tattoos are the hardest to do, and I see people fuck them up all the time. I don’t think that a six color green fade is very traditional, y’know? [laughter] 

A lot of people want to argue with that if Sailor Jerry had had that option, if he had had all of the colors that we have now, that he would have used them. That’s probably true. And he did use purple sometimes, though most often as shading on flash. He could have used it in his tattoos, but the fact is that he usually chose not to. So, I don’t know. That’s not really the point- whether he would have used whatever if he could have…it’s about how that art looks, how those old tattoos looked the way they did do them. I tattoo, and I want to tattoo, like it was done traditionally- lots of black, minimal color; that’s it. 

Give me some observations about the current state of tattooing your personal view of tattooing as a whole…where it’s at…

I think if I could back up to the last question one more thing I definitely want to say is that there are plenty of tattooers that are much better artists than me. I’m not much of an artist- I’m definitely just applying a craft that I learned how to do. I can get by as an artist- I do ok with certain aspects but I can’t really draw that well. OK…where were we? The current state of tattooing? 

Before we do that let’s cover this but what do you think about tattooers that aren’t really craftsmen- that don’t know how to cut springs or really know how mix ink? They don’t carry the traditions of the craft down with them. How important do you think those things are to tattooing? … let me put it that way.

I know people that don’t really know any of that stuff. And you can pretty much be a tattoo artist and not know anything about these things anymore. You don’t need to know how ink is made or where it comes from and you can still be a fantastic tattooer because you have artistic ability and all this information is out there and you can buy pre-made needles. I buy pre-made needles now because I hate making needles. But I know how to make them and have done it for years. A lot of what I know came from working with Malone and he made sure that I knew what I needed to know. 

What do you think has been lost when so many tattooers know nothing about the equipment or inks or how to set up and work on machines? 

I don’t know. Like I said, you can be a good tattooer and not understand any of that. There are people that come in all the time and say, “My son is a great artist. He should be a tattooer.” The truth is that there are a lot of great artists out there that are horrible tattooers! I kinda always thought being a tattooer was a bit more than applying a tattoo anyways…I always pictured it as being a rough and tumble business. And that’s what I always wanted to get into. Working in a tattoo shop was kinda like being a criminal in certain ways. Those days are gone and it’ll never be that way again. Things change and this is what we all have to do to do business. So, I mean for me to say that something’s lost isn’t necessarily true, it’s just different. And it’s different from what I do and, another thing, in a way I’m glad they don’t know how to do all the stuff I can do because I make money off of them because they don’t know how to do it and I do. So it doesn’t bother me one bit you know, it’’s fine.