In the world of tattoos they are called scratchers; the untrained, unlicensed needle happy would-be tattoo artists with access to a tattoo machine and a willing - or inebriated - victim. Scratchers churn out misspelled words, poorly executed designs, tattoo fails of every variety. 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 and experience to right some serious tattoo wrongs. Big Gus, who has been honing his skills for almost two decades visits Miami this weekend for TattooLaPalooza, Miami’s annual tattoo convention that brings the tattoo industry together for three days to compare and share ink. We chat with Big Gus about “Tattoo Nightmares” and what its like to clean up the messes scratchers make.
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.
One tattoo that you covered up this season was on a man’s stomach that had the words “F**k 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.
You don’t feel how long the process of being tattooed is on the show.
We get our clients 24-72 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.
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. I just love tattooing, it’s that simple.
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.
How did you make the transition from paper to people?
It was a scary process, but literally it happened over night. My friends wanted to get tattooed and the tattoo artists in our area weren’t able to do it. I didn’t have an apprenticeship; I don’t like to say that. But I went from drawing on paper to tattooing on skin. In a lot of ways I’m grateful for it because apprenticeships nowadays, you work on artificial skin or fruit. But the only way you are going to learn your craft is by tattooing on skin. As artists we are not always going to accomplish great tattoos in the beginning but you got to start somewhere. When I was 21 I got hired at a shop and that’s when I made my real transition to tattooing and ever since then I’ve been really blessed to be around good artists.
How did you develop your signature style of fine line black and gray?
My style that I do is a creation of everything I’ve become since I was younger, a mixture of graffiti, my Chicano background, the streets and the hood. In L.A., all we do is black and gray. I’ve been drawing that stuff since I was 15 because homeboys in our neighborhood showed me what it was.
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.
Who are these people doing all these awful tattoos?
Unfortunately people don't think straight when they’re younger. But even older people, they do it because it’s cheaper and they’re going to unprofessional licensed tattoo artists and they’re just trying to make a quick buck. They could care less if you come back or not. Just because it’s cheaper doesn’t make it a better tattoo. You’re wearing that tattoo for the rest of your life. Yeah we have laser, but if you want to pay more for an hour than what you pay us to tattoo you, then by all means get tattooed by a scratcher. But if you don’t, come to a professional tattoo shop and get tattooed by a professional.
What would you advise people who want to get a tattoo?
Here’s the thing: A lot of people on my Twitter say “Hey, Gus I want to get a messed up tattoo just to have you fix it.” I always respond to people like, first of all our show is to show you what NOT to do. I’m a professional tattoo artist. You got to understand I’m not just a cover-up artist. I’m booked for three years with normal tattoos including cover-ups. You can easily look up an artist and see what kind of style they are doing. You can do this from home. Like back in the day you walked into 20 shops and look at portfolios. You can type in a style you like, like mine. Do a lot of investigating and background checking.
How do you put a price on a tattoo?
It’s hard to say. Everyone’s demographic is different. The average well-known tattoo artist can average from 200-400 dollars an hour. A lot of artists are doing big budget, they are not just going to charge clients by the hour if they are getting full back pieces, people get certain deals because they are spending thousands and thousands on their work. Obviously money is of big importance but there is a reason why a lot of good artists are booked for two years. And there is a big reason they charge that much and they are still booked for that long, because they are great at what they do.
How many visits does it take to get something done?
For the most part I only tattoo one client a day. Depending on what it is, how many sessions or whatever.
How do you feel about people getting tattoos on their faces?
It’s stupid. I know it’s a big craze right now. It boggles my mind that kids get tattoos on their faces but don’t even have full sleeve tattoos. I’m old school, I think face tattoos are something that have to be earned and I don’t think they should be given out so easily.
What’s the plan for Tattoolapalooza?
I’m here to represent the H2Ocean ProTeam and H2Ocean After Care, meeting and greeting with fans. 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. It’s the only way you can get a tattoo from me without waiting three years. 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. People keep an eye on my social media if you want to get tatted.
Big Gus of Spike TV's "Tattoo Nightmares"