I’ve known Bob for the better part of fifteen years, had little paper umbrella drinks with him on the beach in Samoa, martinis that would fell an elephant at book launches in Los Angeles, and many plastic cups of beer at tattoo conventions and lost track of the hundreds of e-mails and telephone conversations in between over the years. Like many of the characters in the wonderful world of tattoo culture, Bob has led a colourful and varied life. His resume makes for interesting reading. There are stories there. It not only makes him a delightful dinner companion, but gives his ruminations on the world of tattoos a deeper and richer perspective.
it’s not about numbers, It’s about quality. In Calgary, Alberta, for example, there are nearly one hundred shops. We feature only twelve.
Bob Baxter has been a writer, editor, photographer, musician and father for most of his adult life. With three tattoo artist sons (Jesse Tuesday, Riley Baxter and Noah Baxter), Baxter was hired, in 1997, by Larry Flynt to head Flynt’s seven-year-old tattoo magazine, Skin&Ink. An author of over twenty books, newspaper columnist and television host, Baxter turned around the faltering publication and, ultimately, guided the magazine to a prestigious Folio Magazine Editorial Excellence Award (the magazine equivalent of the Oscars), the first for a tattoo magazine and the first ever for Flynt. Enlisting the top writers, photographers, historians and collectors of the art form, Baxter ran Skin&Ink for fifteen years. After leaving the magazine, Baxter’s wife, Mary, suggested he turn his attention to an Internet magazine, and Tattoo Road Trip was born. Baxter and Mary operate the website and maintain a small family farm, in Hood River, Oregon, a stone’s throw from the mighty Columbia.
I was fascinated by Bob’s growing Tattoo Directory and how he’s been using it to not only highlight the best tattoo artists and tattoo shops in the business, but also to educate and protect consumers, many of whom don’t know the first thing about tattoos, but have the impulsive nature that comes with youth.
Bob, what made you think there was a need for another Tattoo Shop Directory on the Internet?
I wanted to create a website that had the same high standards of quality and ethics as I established with Skin&Ink magazine over fifteen years. My first thought was to make it the best Directory by including every shop in the universe. That, I thought, would make it the best. Wrong! After poking around Google and Facebook for a couple of hours, I discovered that ninety percent of the tattoo shops in this world can’t draw. So, I changed course and decided forget about including ALL the shops and focused on listing only the BEST; shops and artists that we had featured in Skin&Ink, shops that I knew personally, were referred to me, were outstanding/contributing members of the community or had great reputations. However, it was not simply an art contest. While many of the shops are nines and tens, as far as their art was concerned, some are only sevens, but they, for example, sponsor monthly gallery shows and give the proceeds to charity.
How long have you been building the Directory? How many shops are currently represented in it?
I started building the Directory about three years ago. Currently, there are listings in the United States, all the Canadian provinces and several foreign countries, including China, South America, Europe, Polynesia and Africa. Since the Directory is exclusive and only the best shops are included, people take it as a compliment that we include them and, because of that, we signed up six shops the first day.
What is the main benefit to consumers of the Directory?
Every shop on the Directory has been checked out, talked to, worked with or presented to me by happy customers, fellow artists and proud shop owners. The main benefit is that we personally recommend them. We only include shops that have been vetted. Other directories on the Internet accept anyone who buys their way on or simply sends in the contact information. We turn away far more shops than we post. To be included on our Directory is like receiving the Good House Keeping Seal of Approval.
How do you screen shops before they appear in the Directory? Can you tell us a little bit about your process?
Primarily, it’s shops we know or have worked with. If we are not familiar with the shop, we check them out in a number of ways: We take a look at their website and Facebook listings. If the quality of the tattoos is not up to our standards or, for instance, the photos feature the staff flipping the finger, the site is full of trash talk or racist rants, etc., we reject their application. Some shops think they need to be “tough guys” to be a tattoo artist. They forget that tattoo art is about the art – not posing. We’re looking for artists not gangsters. We also call the shops and talk to the owners, to get a feel of their philosophy of art, their style, their customer service skills, (as Zeke Owens called it) their understanding of the Sterile Chain of Events, their enthusiasm and their interest in the history of tattooing.
Does it ever cause you any concern that your vetting process doesn’t include an actual onsite inspection? Are you confident that you can provide consumers with good guidance without seeing the premises in person?
We have visited many of the shops firsthand or rely on people we know and trust, like customers, fellow artists, news reporters and such, to give us information and reviews. We also kick people off the list if we discover they are jerks, did something super stupid or are not what they appeared to be on first blush.
Are there any characteristics that good tattoo shops have in common? What about the shops that don’t make your Directory? Are there any common red flags?
The shops must understand what the Sterile Chain of Events is all about, turn out quality work and be professional in how they operate their shop. Customer service is very important. If a customer contacts us with a complaint, we immediately check it out by calling the shop in question and hearing their version of the negative episode. In several cases, we arbitrated a disagreement, discovered it was another shop trying to smear their competition or simply found it was a misunderstanding. For the most part, the most consistent elements of a good shop is cleanliness and customer service. Some shops use apprentices to deal with customers, so, like Urban Art, in Arizona, have top-notch shop persons who are highly professional, exceedingly helpful, know how to corral a shop full of artist types and, basically, keep the engine on track. Dirty shops, arrogant artists, political rants, sexist or racist language… these are some of the red flags that signal for customers to run, not walk, to their cars and leave.
How often do you follow-up with tattoo shops?
Once a shop is on our Directory, they can send us any photos, notices, want ads, upcoming convention visits, change of contact information or staff changes and we publish them next day on our blog. It’s like having an extra website, except we reach thousands of times more people than a shop can on Facebook or other media outlets. We feature, for the most part, only stories involving our Directory members. It’s a privilege being on our listing and we hear from the shops quite often, whenever they have information they want to broadcast, artwork they want to show off or a convention they are going to attend. While we post next day, when I was with Skin&Ink, the best we could do was publish one or two photos or commentary and have it on the newsstand in three or four months, if ever. With our Internet magazine, we publish multiple photos next day and not just one or two. We often publish a couple dozen photos from shops. Plus, our audience is much, much bigger (on the order of tens of thousands) than with a newsstand magazine.
What benefits do you think you’re conferring on the tattoo shops that you have included in the Directory?
Shops on the Directory have won our approval. For consumers, it takes the guess work out of shopping for a tattoo artist or shop. It also provides readers with quick access to a particular shop’s contact information. If there is an article on our blog featuring a specific shop, we simply highlight the name of the shop in blue, and readers simply have to click on the blue listing to obtain the appropriate contact info. An other benefit is that, by becoming a Directory member, they are supporting the site and helping to maintain it as a voice not only for them but for the worldwide tattoo community. It’s making a statement that quality counts, history is important and tattoos are, in fact, fine art. It shows that they are givers and not just takers.
If I had a tattoo shop in Florida, how would I go about getting on your shop Directory? And what about if I was in Canada? How about a foreign country overseas? Is language ever a barrier?
To join the Directory, applicants from anywhere can go to www.tattooroadtrip.com, click on Find a Shop and fill out the application form. After we check them out, we may give the shop a call, contact nearby artists and ask their opinions of the shop, read their Internet reviews, Facebook posts and whatever we can use to determine whether or not they meet our standards. As I said, we refuse far more shops than we accept.
How big would you like to see the Directory become?
Although we currently list upwards of nine hundred top shops worldwide (remember, in the U.S. alone there are approximately 25,000 tattoo shops) , it’s not about numbers, It’s about quality. In Calgary, Alberta, for example, there are nearly one hundred shops. We feature only twelve. Same with Albuquerque, New Mexico. They have over eighty shops; we featured only ten. In several cases, we used our Directory listings to determine who was going to be included in our Tattoo Road Trip “Best of” books (“Best of Oregon,” “Best of the Southwest,” “Best of Southern California,” etc.). The “Best of Oregon” book features forty-four shops, all from the Directory. The Southwest book (coming out next month) features thirty shops in Arizona and New Mexico. We selected the shops by making membership on our Directory a requirement. It was a necessary ingredient of the screening process.
Have you discovered any exciting new tattoo artists with the Directory? Are there any favourite new tattoo shops that you discovered?
Too many to count, Vince. We found amazing talent in big cities and small, major population centers and out-of-the-way towns with less than 3,000 inhabitants. Working on the Directory has opened my eyes to the talent pool that is available thorough the U.S. and Canada, especially. Shop we never heard of before apply to us and, when we see their photos and talk to them, we can’t wait to introduce them to the world. As soon as a shop joins, we not only post their contact information, we also create and post a story about them, where they are situated, their artists’ names and photos and so forth, on our blog, to start promoting them and their shops. Yes, there are favorite shops… every shop we accept and post on the Directory is a “favorite” shop.
Having done this for the past 25 years, Bob is there any advice you’d offer to tattoo shop owners? Any tips on how to put their best foot forward in building a website? In marketing themselves online?
In over twenty-five years of involvement in the tattoo industry (I also have three tattoo artist sons), each shop has its own personality, so there’s not one answer or suggestion that applies to all. Perhaps the best advice is to remind artists and shops that they owe their livings to the artists that went before. Without them, the current crop of artists would be working at McDonalds. Maybe not, but they wouldn’t be tattoo artists for a living. Every day they should get on their knees and say, “Thank you, baby Jesus” for the gifts that have been handed to them on a silver platter. My only complaint, aside from tattoo artists who think they walk on water, is to remind artists to give something back to the community that supports them… and I don’t mean “our contribution is to give our customers good tattoos.” I’m talking about becoming involved in their communities and not forgetting about the media, the reporters, the writers, the editors that support them every day of their lives. I used to hear tattooists say that “without them, the magazines would have nothing to write about and we should shut up and be grateful.” Baloney. Without the press, the world would never have witnessed the growth of tattoo art or become familiar with the Who’s Who of Tattoo Art, people like Sailor Jerry Collins, Don Ed Hardy, Paul Booth, Filip Leu and so many others.
Any final words about the Directory, Bob?
To become a member of the Tattoo Road Trip Tattoo Shop Directory, go to www.tattooroadtrip.com/find-a-shop and submit your shop. If you are accepted, we will give you a call, interview you and determine whether or not you are right for us. If you are, we ask for a sponsorship fee to help keep our site afloat, pay for posting your new Directory listing and introductory story on the blog and, most importantly, help us produce a quality site that presents the full spectrum of tattoo art throughout the world.