In the world of tattoos they are called scratchers; the untrained, unlicensed, needle-happy, would-be artists with access to a tattoo machine and a willing (or inebriated) victim. Scratchers churn out misspelled words, awful designs, inappropriate slogans and other horrors. If they can afford it, their victims eventually run to the likes of Big Gus, one third of the trio of professional tattoo artists on Spike TV’s Tattoo Nightmares. The show, now in the midst of a 26-episode second season, demonstrates the ways these creative pros use their skills to right some serious wrongs. Big Gus, who has been creating tattoos for almost two decades, visits Miami this weekend for TattooLaPalooza, Miami’s annual convention that brings the industry together for three days to compare and share techniques, products and to tat up South Floridians. We chat with Big Gus:
Q. On Tattoo Nightmares the process of tattooing seems very confessional, you have a very intimate dialogue with the client. Do your clients always get really into their deep emotional baggage?
Oh, yeah. With every client it turns out to be like that. You’re sitting with them for six or eight hours. Plus I’m easy to approach and I like everyone to feel welcome. If someone is going to sit in my chair for that long I need them to feel comfortable.
Q. One tattoo that you covered up this season was on a man’s stomach, “F--- Love” in huge letters. How long did it take to cover that one up?
That tattoo took three hours just of drawing. Then it took me two sessions, one of twelve hours and another of eight hours that was three weeks later.
Q. You don’t feel how long the process of being tattooed is on the show.
We get our clients 24 to 72 hours before we get to tattoo them. During that small time frame we have to see the tattoo from before, we go home and draw for three or four hours, then go back and film for the next six days. What people see on TV is a long, hard process. It takes all three of us to come up with a unique plan to get rid of these tattoos without making them look like cover-ups.
Q. How did you become an expert in cover-ups?
I got hired for a Spike TV’s show (laughs). I’ve been tattooing for going on 19 years, since I was 14. My mother was an artist, I’ve been surrounded by art work my whole life. I think I’m good at cover-ups because of my artistic ability. I’ve been being called an expert lately and that just trips my mind.
Q. Do you think there are any people in your past that might have tattoo nightmares that you created?
[Laughs] I would imagine so; obviously I didn’t know it all when I was 16. Hopefully I didn’t mess them up as bad as my clients. But it’s funny, me and Tommy and Jasmine [from Tattoo Nightmares] joke about that all the time, like holy God, one of these days one of our old clients from when we were kids is going to walk in the door, you know.
Q. What would you consider the worst you’ve had to fix up so far?
I had to do this tribal cover on this kid’s arm in Season 1. He was this band member guy and it was thick and so heavy. I was literally having panic attacks trying to cover this thing up. I did not think it was possible and it ended up being one of my brightest cover-ups I’ve done. It ended up being like a Viking cover-up over a tribal piece. It was pretty intense; I don’t think I would ever do it again.
Q. What would you advise people who want to get a tattoo?
Do a lot of investigating and background checking.
Q. What’s the plan for TattooLaPalooza?
A: I’ll be doing a meet and greet and poster signings on Saturday between 4 and 7 p.m. And I’m going to do tattoos. I’ll make a flyer and post it on my Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and the people who respond to us first with the idea that suits me, will be the ones to get tattooed. Only three people per show, that’s the most I can do.