Halo has been tattooing for almost 10 years, and operates Black Lotus Tattoo in Maryland. His style is based around realism and portraiture but he makes it a priority to be able to work in many styles, using realism as a foundation and applying it to all kinds of subject matter. His specialty is using his realism skills in the imaginative freehand designs that have earned him a reputation along the East Coast and beyond, as well as working in airbrush and other media.
Halo battled cancer several years ago and in beating it, aimed to push himself even further, resulting in a season on InkMaster Season 4 on Spike TV, along with the set of unique highlight colors that Eternal Ink carries, along with his latest release, Reinvent Yourself: In-Depth Photoshop for the Tattoo Artist, which we carry here at Tattoo Education.
Here's an interview that Guy Aitchison conducted with Halo in the fall of 2015.
G: What first attracted you to tattooing?
H: I feel like that's definitely a two-part answer. When I first started getting tattooed I was a musician playing at various local venues and one of the venues that we played at was right across the street from a tattoo studio. With the tattoo studio staying up late at night doing walk ins and us getting done our show late, we would periodically stop by and hang out and befriended the studio. At this point in my life I had never seen a good tattoo.
Most of the tattoos that I had seen were street tattoos and could hardly resemble art. It came to a point where even before tattooing just from stopping in the tattoo shop so frequently I could pick out flash artists on people's skin and say, "Hey, I've seen that on the wall before."
Once I stopped playing music, I almost seemed drawn to that tattoo studio. I didn't have a whole lot of artistic talent but I was pretty good at breaking things down, especially after being tattooed a couple times. Make a stencil, slap it on, outline then color. Besides, they made it look so easy and I figured quite ignorantly I could easily do that. My first two years of tattooing I lived in a Cherry Creek and Tattoo Johnny Flash bubble. Since this is the way I was taught it's really all I knew. There were nowhere near as many outlets to learning or even that many conventions; at least their popularity was not outstretched and as common
That was initially what got me into tattooing as a job and general interest. Now, what got me INTO tattooing was when I finally saw GOOD ART. When I started going online and seeing the work of Nick Baxter, Bob Tyrell, Dean Cook and even Nikkos earliest work I had a hunger. How was this possible? I went online and found out about the Hell City tattoo convention which is the first tattoo convention I ever attended. I received a tattoo Saturday and Sunday from attending artists and just watched people for hours, asked questions and learned and it completely changed the way I looked at tattooing forever.
So what got me into tattooing as what I thought it was out of pure personal ignorance as a pose to under the surface what got me into it for what it REALLY IS as an art form was SO DIFFERENT that I feel an explanation necessary.
G: You talk a little about going to digital art classes in the introduction to Reinvent Yourself. Did you have any significant computer experience prior to this? How hard do you think the digital learning curve would be for the average working tattoo artist?
H: I didn't have any experience on Photoshop, but I used to game on the computer with friends so I had a little bit of an understanding of the layout of the computer. When I started my concept art class for Photoshop I don't think I realized the things that the class considered common knowledge were actually quite advanced to someone that has never used the program. My first experience in Photoshop nonetheless was quite daunting and actually had me frustrated close to the point of tears in the middle of class.
In saying that I think that the average working tattoo artists even with no computer experience at all could easily learn how to use Photoshop as an aid in their tattooing so long as they take the proper steps like I did not. The program is very large which allows you to do a multitude of different things and because of that there are so many buttons, sliders, hotkeys, menu options that it can be intimidating without someone starting at the absolute BASICS.
Once you know the basic rudimentary it's actually not a hard program to learn and I have honestly showed guest artists who don't even know how to open the program how to utilize Photoshop for tattoos they were about to do.
G: What are some of the most humbling things that have happened in your career? How about the most empowering?
H: Honestly attending the Hell City tattoo convention I spoke about earlier was incredibly humbling and eye opening and definitely the most enriching. I think one of the most humbling experience as though has to do with a basic client to artist interaction I had with a 70 year old woman.
When I started tattooing we worked in the city and the demographic we had coming into the studio was more an middle aged urban street life kind of constance, so to see an older woman walking with a cane was like seeing a unicorn. She walked in pulling out a can of Campbell's soup from her purse that took her at least a good seven or eight seconds just to take it from her purse. She set it on the table and said it was her first tattoo and she wanted it to look just like the can.
It was comical. Completely comical. I mean, we tried not to laugh our asses off and I mean come on... why would she get this? We joked back and forth and even played rock paper scissors to decide who is going to tattoo the old crazy lady. I ended up taking it on since I was deemed the craziest person in the shop and fit to handle such a client.
I made the stencil, sat her down and began tattooing her with everyone behind me cracking jokes cryptic enough that I don't think she understood and took it as typical shop banter. Once I had her alone I absolutely had to ask.... why? What on earth would make a woman old enough to barely pick up a can of Campbell's soup get it tattooed on her forever as her first tattoo at a fulfilling life age of 70?
Kind of like that book Chicken Soup for the Soul, this woman's mother used to make her chicken noodle soup whenever they'd get together. When she was sick as a child, after she graduated college, after her divorce and so on. This was the first time that she had been sick since her mother passed away.
I probably felt the smallest that I had ever felt in my entire life and actually almost felt like a bully even though the situation was quite comical. I realized that I didn't respect what I did enough and the impact that it had on people. I didn't take what I did very seriously and realized that everyone has a story no matter the subject. I realized I didn't respect my clients story and this should have been a conversation I had before we started tattooing. Maybe I would have had more insight and would have approached it much differently.
Apart from all of the inspiration I gather from artists everywhere, that single handedly was the most humbling and empowering experience because it changed the way I view what I do.
G: In your opinion, what are some of the top reasons that a tattoo artist can benefit from learning to use Photoshop, and how can they apply these skills toward improving their professional life?
H: The main reason I feel that Photoshop is so beneficial for a tattoo artist especially is because it gives you endless options for your creativity... quickly. With Photoshop you are able to explore the direction that you can take the tattoo in mere minutes once you become more skilled. There are times at work where I will spend an extra 10 minutes tops doing a quick basic color and value study. I also feel like for creating an idea alone it allows a freedom of decision making not found in ANY other medium, as it allows you to explore size, color, value and composition relationships in mere moments.
This is an art aid for the advanced, and I feel like if this is what you do at a professional level and you want to continue to further your art this is absolutely the most advanced you could get to this date.
G: To some, Photoshop has become a bad word, synonymous with cheating on your portfolio and making your work look better than it really is. How can we get past this stigma so artists understand its legitimate benefits?
H: Surely I can understand that stigma, as one of the many things that you can do with Photoshop is dishonestly alter your photos for your portfolio. The same can be said for Instagram and Facebook we are you can use very Photoshop similar sliders and filters to alter your work and yet I'm sure the same people who bash Photoshop utilize these social media outlets even though their capabilities for altering photos are incredibly similar.
The same as Instagram and Facebook could be used to "cheat" it can also be used to further your audience and allow people to see your art work from the comfort of their own home. Think of all the tattoos and clients you probably would not have done if you did not utilize social media marketing to attract clients to get the type of artwork that you love to do. Seems silly to not utilize, right?
When I hear people bash Photoshop to me it seems just as silly someone saying that sending an email is cheating because it wasn't sent by postal or calling someone on the phone is cheating because you didn't talk to them in person. It's an incredibly close minded view into technology when you realize what we utilize on a day to day basis to aid us.
G: What are some of the more positive things that came from your experience on Inkmasters? Would you do it again if asked?
H: Actually when I was first offered to go on television I declined. I had my reasons set on the fact that I did not want to acquire any degree of fame from TV. I wanted to be respected by my peers for my artwork and I wanted people to get tattooed by me because they liked what I did not because I was some dude on TV.
I had a lot of friends that I knew personally on the show and it took some convincing from them. First, I realized that many artists said that they would not go because it bastardized our industry. However, if the only artists that go on television are the bottom of the barrel then the only people who are representing our community are bottom the barrel tattooers. While that that is open to speculation and opinion by everyone, I felt that I was in tattooing for the right reasons and that I could represent those reasons transparently.
I also realized that it would actually open more doors then it would close, ultimately broadening my network. After I finally did it I was so glad. It felt like being an apprentice all over again, which was rewarding because when you take into consideration being judged for your art, your craftsmanship really takes precedence over anything whereas I feel like at home I am on auto-pilot a lot more than I realize. It really put me under a microscope I haven't felt since my apprenticeship, and honestly should have been treating every single tattoo I did this way. The pressure breaks some but helps me immensely.
If asked to do it again I would consider it but I think that I'm happy where it took me.
G: In general, do you feel that the big media coverage of tattooing has helped our profession, harmed it, or both?
H: I feel like that with anything there is a double edged sword in life. With too much play comes not enough work but was too much work comes not enough play and so on. I know people in the art world that paint beautifully and spend countless hours developing their craft but have the social skills of a grapefruit. I also know the reverse of extroverts who spend more time drinking and partying than they do on their craft. Who is really wrong or right? I feel like it depends on the person looking at it.
With television, there is definitely more people seeing tattooing as an art form. It has easily broaden the horizons of people who previously would not have even considered getting a tattoo for whatever stigma or personal reason. This creates more of a demand for tattooing which is great for the artist. More work is never a bad thing.
Then on the other side of things it has also created a slew of very bad artists. People getting interested in it because it's cool but skipping over the whole learning process or tutoring and just turning out bad practice. If people just started giving each other root canals and fillings, dentists would have to fix a whole lot of teeth and I think that this is what you find now with the carelessness involved in the flip side.
I think that there are plenty of avenues that set a standard for a good tattoo and a bad tattoo on social media, tv, etc. A very good tattoo artist will put out a very good tattoo that cannot easily be replicated by a bad tattooist. I would say that television has just given the average public more of a general awareness to tattooing. Once people are interested they will use whatever avenues they have available to them to seek out what they want... a good tattoo or a bad tattoo.
I think that outside of the competition and TV magic, one of the very positive things that television shows like Inkmaster have portrayed is that not every artist is good at every style. I'm not sure if it's the way we run our studio but I have noticed that people are saying more often that they want to go to this person because they do this well but they also want to go to this other artist because they do that well. When people realize that the guy who can do portrait might not be good at tattooing good line work and sacred geometry, I feel like it educates the public to delve into portfolios and really inspect the type of work that the artist specializes in instead of assuming that they can just do everything.
G: Now that you're preparing to enter your second decade in the tattoo business, what are some of your long term goals that you have in mind?
H: my long term goal now is going to be furthering my education in other mediums and also to work more with educating the things that I do know.
Once I hit about my sixth year of tattooing ( I really wish it didn't take me this long) I realized how utterly important it is to work in different mediums to aid in your tattooing. Oil painting has really helped me incredibly for color theory in tattooing. Airbrushing has taught me a lot about layering transparents in tattooing. Colored pencil has taught me a great deal about cross hatching techniques that I use in tattooing. Educating people in my book on lighting and doing seminars or things like my DVD on Photoshop has really taught me a whole lot about my process and not so much on how I do things but why I do the things that I do.
These next years will be much more involved in educating and education. I really want to be around more people not only that are willing to learn but willing to teach. Where I grew up my first ten years in tattooing was a world of keeping secrets, and I want to be involved in the next ten years pushing boundaries.