Sandbridge Tattoo: A Sign of the Times
© Wes Gow
[A version of this was published by AltDaily]
Sandbridge Tattoo sits like a quiet weathervane on a calm morning, an unassuming retail space like countless others. But don’t miss the irony here: a tattoo studio is opening in an affluent beach community. In fact, it’s located right next to a spin class studio and a tanning salon. The times have changed, indeed, and owner Tommy Altman believes they’ve done so for the better. (Having sat under the needle myself for many hours, I happen to agree with him.) What was once generally relegated to “sailors, bikers, and whores,” tattoos (or body art) are now largely accepted in a vast array of social and professional circles, basically everywhere from the yoga class and academic podium to the pulpit and executive office. (Interestingly enough, Tommy himself is a former pastor and remains actively involved in a local church). I recently sat down with Tommy shortly after he officially opened his doors, and I hope to go back soon for my own appointment!
How did you get into the art of tattooing?
I love to tell people that I got into it because someone told me that I couldn’t! The story behind that is that my wife and I lost a child and I decided to get a tattoo both to commemorate the memory and honestly as a means of fostering the healing process. I asked the artist who did the piece (Dave Lukeson of Virginia Beach), what it would take to become a tattoo artist myself. He looked at me and said, “You fuckin’ can’t,” then went back to work! But that’s Dave. He went on to tell me that tattooing is a lifestyle, not a hobby. This made me think about it for over a year before finding an apprenticeship. I’d always been into painting and drawing, but that particular tattoo really awakened an awareness of the art, particularly the combination of creativity and emotional healing. In some ways it even feels like an extension of my previous pastoral experience. I eventually found an apprenticeship in Las Vegas (where I was living at the time) with Chance Gomez and Christian Wiltse.
Who are some of your heroes or greatest influences in the industry?
I first started tattooing in Las Vegas. Chance Gomez (of “The Collective”) and Christian Wiltse played a huge role in my life, both personally and in terms of my knowledge of the craft. Dave Lukeson, of course, here in VB. I’ve always loved Mike Rubbendall’s work in NYC; I sat on a waitlist for over two years for him to do my right sleeve (see photo). Other influences include an artist named Shige (Japan), as well as Joshua Carlton and Jeff Gogue (both in Oregon).
How has the industry changed in the last 10 years?
Tattoo shops were outlawed in the city of Virginia Beach not much more than 10 years ago, so I’d say that even this city itself is a sign of the changing times. There’s probably 10-15 shops here now, at least, and I know of close to a dozen that plan to open in the next year! But think about the folks who were getting tattoos that long ago: we’re now the ones who are raising families, making purchases, and living within society, so I think that’s helped to tear through the taboo.
So what makes Sandbridge Tattoo different from so many other shops?
Our studio has three core values in terms of what we want to offer: love to all, hope to the hurting, and generosity without expectation. Our deepest desire is that the tattoos we make together will help you realize your beauty and strength, because we believe they’ve been there all along. I recently had a woman in her fifties walk in and ask to sit down with me to hear her story and her plans for tattooing the majority of her arms, legs, and back. She didn’t have a single tattoo yet, but she knew what she wanted, and more importantly why. We talked about the timing and the best strategy. When we finished that conversation she told me that she’d basically been run out of another shop because she didn’t “deserve” to discuss that much coverage yet. To a degree I get it. For example, we won’t tattoo anyone under 18, and we won’t do necks or hands for first tattoos. But what I heard in this woman was an appreciation for the purpose of the work she wanted, and what she heard in me was a willingness to meet her where she was. We’ve now been working on her piece for nearly two years!
I want the work that we do here to create positive memories of the experience and have a positive impact on the lives of our customers. So you won’t find crazy or offensive art all over the walls when you walk in, or be blasted by pounding music. Trust me, I like both of those things in their place! But we understand that the vast majority of customers coming to our studio are the furthest thing from a bygone stereotype.
What changes do you hope to see in the next 10 years?
In general I’d say an increased knowledge for potential customers. For example, shows like Ink Masters have been great for exposure, but they’ve at times created unrealistic expectations for first-timers. I’d also like to see events and conventions that unite artists and studios in this area and really foster a celebration of the craft and art.
What elements of tattooing are you most passionate about?
For me the process of creating (and tattooing, specifically) is closely linked to the heart of the divine. Faith is a big part of my life, and getting to help people craft a beautiful piece of art gets me amped! In some cultures around the world, only the holy men of the community do the tattooing because they believe there’s something sacred that gets passed between the tattooer and the receiver. I’m not saying that’s necessarily true, but I can say that I approach this craft with that level of intentionality.
What are your hopes for Sandbridge Tattoo?
That our presence would have a positive impact on the the lives of our customers and those within this community. I’m passionate about supporting this area, both the Sandbridge community and the greater VB/HR metropolis. We specifically found local contractors to work on the studio, our t’s and merch are printed here, even the sign that’s going up out front. Beyond that we also want to have a global impact. We’re going to help fund various mercy projects around the world. That’s more of a passive or indirect effort, but it’s how we want to steward our business. For us, this little studio is about way more than just the bottom line.
If there’s one thing you can say to someone thinking of getting their first tattoo, what would it be?
A few things. First, do your research. Find the studio and the artist that you want. Be sure you like them both because you’re going to spend some time there! Second, don’t make a rash decision. Sailor Jerry has a quote that says, “good work ain’t cheap, and cheap work ain’t good,” and he couldn’t be more right. Lastly, be open to direction and input from the artist. Understand that this is a unique medium and we may have suggestions for how to make your piece the best it can be. The collaboration process is exciting!