What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
I go by Big Meas. I’m from Dayton Ohio. Year of birth is October, 1983.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
I grew up in Dayton—it’s a medium-sized, midwestern city. We have some high-rise buildings, but there’s only like five. I lived in a small suburb within that, which was more like a little country town. Within a three-minute drive of my house there were corn fields.
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
I did my apprenticeship at Truth and Triumph Tattoo in Dayton. Then I moved out to Las Vegas and worked at a shop called Studio 21 for a while. It was a nice local shop off the strip that dealt with mostly local clients. They clientele wasn’t too different from who I’d tattoo in Ohio, and I did the same type of tattooing in both cities. After that I moved back to Dayton and worked at Distinction Tattoo before opening my own shop in Columbus, Sacred Hand Tattoo Society.
How long have you been tattooing?
I started my ninth year of tattooing on October 12th. I like to surround myself with the older guys, so relative to them I still feel like newbie.
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and what did you initially learn how to tattoo?
I started painting graffiti when I was really young. My parents lived right near a train yard, so I saw people painting trains. I started writing on them and eventually that turned into a full-blown painting practice as I started to understand what I was doing. I did that for a bunch of years and then I started pinstriping and traveling to car shows, as well as doing sign writing—all of that.
Although I’d been drawing all of my life, I’d never really thought about tattooing. I was in the hardcore scene for a long time. I got into a band and toured for a few years. When that ended, I knew I didn’t want to get a regular job, and, with all of my friends being tattooers, the idea began to appeal to me. I was already covered at that point anyways; I already had my face tattooed. So I thought, “well, I’m going to give this tattooing thing a try.” I knew how to draw pretty well already—at least what I liked to draw.
I got into tattooing to do lettering—that was it from day one. Since I was already a sign painter, I saw that there was a kind of nook in tattooing that wasn’t being filled: few and far between people were doing lettering tattoos as actual, standalone pieces. You would get lettering added to a tattoo or above a tattoo, but it wasn’t very often that lettering was the piece itself. So that’s what I came in for, to do that. My mentor has been tattooing for 25 years. He was part of the late ‘90s and early 2000s craze of huge, colour bomb pieces. That’s kind of what I was around, so everything I did I thought about in terms of that kind of scale.
Could you tell us more about your apprenticeship?
The apprenticeship lasted about a year. I didn’t really have to learn the art aspect as much because I’d already been doing it for so long, so it was really more of a ‘come in, clean the shop, scrub the tubes, mow my grass, take all the shit, and earn your stripes; then we’ll let you start tattooing’ kind of thing! It was pretty traditional. My mentor had three studios in the town and one of the shops had like 15 tattooers in it. I dealt with a lot of shit; it was pretty raw but it was good! I worked at a calmer shop for most of my apprenticeship and then I got thrown into the one with a ton of tattooers just to finish it up. On a Friday night the lobby would be full and there’d be people waiting outside trying to get tattooed.
Have you previously studied art in an institutional setting? If so, what level of training did you reach and in what disciplines?
I didn’t have any formal artistic training, which is why I think I didn’t make it big as a sign guy; I couldn’t shake the graffiti aspect of my work. No matter how hard I tried to make something in a traditional letter form, I just couldn’t shake the little nuances that give it imperfections. Nowadays, I think about taking some classes to learn the ‘perfect’ methods once I slow down on traveling.
How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
I just did it a lot! There was a point in time where I was doing 200-400 freights a year. I started incorporating script into my graffiti stuff. I have literally written wording and shit on everything that I’ve ever had or sat next to for my whole life. I don’t think there’s ever been a time where I’ve sat down to practice or learn it; it’s just naturally been a thing for me to always be doing it. And I think you take on little things from everything you see, you know?
As far as tattooing goes, B.J. Betts is my number one influence. I went to a convention in Jiminy Peak, Massachusetts, while I was still an apprentice. That’s the first time I saw B.J. and I remember being like, “oh shit, that’s fucking B.J.” I was scared to talk to him, but once I did I found out that he was just a big teddy bear. Once I got more into tattooing, I learned about the older guys like Jack Rudy and Freddy Negrete. There’s a lot of good guys: Norm, Big Sleeps, and that whole squad of west coast dudes are obviously doing cool shit. The list could go on. The popularity of lettering is ridiculous nowadays—when I first got into it, a lot of conventions wouldn’t even allow me to work shows because I only did lettering.
I try super hard not directly take too much influence from anyone in the tattoo world. Obviously it happens. There’s things I pick up from BJ—he’ll send me a photo and I’ll look at it and be like, “fuck, that E is cool.” I try so hard not to take it and then somewhere down the road I’ll think I invented it. It’s just little things like that, and I’m sure that every once in a while he sees it and is kinda’ like, “this motherfucker.”
I think a lot of lettering guys are competitive. I’ll be laying in bed getting tagged in other peoples’ stuff: these guys will be tagging me to show me their work and I’ll be laying there awake because these motherfuckers are doing such cool shit.
Is traveling to conventions and other industry events important to you? Which conventions do you usually attend? Do you have any interesting experiences that you can share?
When I got out of my band, I was trying to figure out how to do this tattooing thing. I wanted to be known for it and successful at it. Through traveling, I realized that the way people do things in the tattoo world and the music world are kind of parallel. If you wanna’ be in a popular band that does well, you have to constantly be in people’s faces. So when I got into tattooing, I did my first convention after working as a professional for only six months. The year after that, I did 25 tattoo conventions and the year after that somewhere around the same. There was a three-year period where I did about 45 shows a year—which is mind-blowing to some people. But for me and my career, I think that what I consider my successes have come from doing conventions.
I love The London Tattoo Convention. It’s number one for me because, as a tattooer of my generation, it’s the show of shows—where I could go to see Filip Leu and Shige. After that, it’s the Bay Area Tattoo Convention and the Pagoda City Tattoo Fest—solely just because of the people that are there. The top technical tattooers that I would like to see myself involved with are at those shows.
An interesting experience? I wasn’t invited to the London show the first year I went. I tried to get into it but never heard anything back. Despite that, I decided to fly over there and hang out during the convention; I wanted to see it and maybe try to find a guest spot so it didn’t end up costing me money to go. I fly over there and I get a random phone call. On the other end a voice is like, “hey, is this Big Meas?” I tell him it is and he’s like, “hey this is Ami James [of Miami Ink]. Are you in London? Someone dropped out of our booth; if you don’t have one, do you want to work with us?” Then we has like, “yeah man, you can stay at my place too.” He gave me a place to sleep! So I rolled into London not expecting to work and then just like that I was working next to Darren Brass. It was media mayhem; the whole aisle was full of people holding signs, with 40 people packed into a ten-person booth. And there I was sweating my ass off because I was nervous to be at the convention anyways—not to mention working in those circumstances! Most people my age probably knew Ami James before they became tattooers. Now there I was getting a phone call from this dude, asking if I wanted to stay at his house and work at his booth. TV show stuff aside, those dudes are fucking cool. I fuck with those dudes.
I’m trying to do the Paris show, Mondail du Tatouage. This is my 5th year trying and still nothing. Maybe this year I’ll fly out and see if I replicate my luck at the London Convention!
What do you like about the Bay Area Tattoo Convention specifically? What, in your opinion, is the importance of this event?
The location is really cool. I don’t go to San Francisco for any other reason and I don’t know anyone there really. When you do as many shows as I’ve done, small things like the distance from the airport to the convention make a big difference. If a convention is really far—there’s a particular show out in the UK that’s three hours and two train rides away from the airport—I don’t even do the show because of that. I love that at Bay Area you hop out of the airport and it’s a three-minute cab ride to the hotel.
The co-organizer, Taki, also really went to bat for me to make sure that I could tattoo on the floor. I think having someone like Taki running the Bay Area Convention is really crucial. That and who’s there. I spend all the money that I make because there’s so much cool shit there for sale! And one last thing is that I love the size of it. London is cool but it’s at such a large scale that you may not be able to find everybody you enjoy. (I do this show in PA every year which has like 30 000 people in there, 900 booths. It’s insane. I’ll be packing my shit up out the door and I’ll see someone I know really well who I didn’t even know was there the whole weekend.) Taki’s kept it small enough that you can see everyone you wanna’ see and not miss anyone. He’s kept it personal.
Where can we find your work online? What are your handles on social media?
My Instagram is @bigmeas. I also have a website, www.bigmeas.com. I’ve all kinds of products on there: three volumes of a lettering guide, Style, Tradition, & Grace vol. 1-3 and a DVD, Iron Sharpens Iron. I keep my travel dates on there, too. I’m on Facebook at Big Meas.
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
I think that the main challenge for a tattooer coming up today, and that includes myself, is longevity. I think that getting into tattooing and getting really popular is not that hard. I don’t think that’s the big struggle. The big struggle is how to remain relevant 15 years from now. It’s a bit like being in a boy band. There are so many one-hit wonders. They come out, they get popular on social media, and then they fall off and you never hear from them again. While I’d rather have that than nothing at all, once you get to there the problem becomes longevity: how do you get to that level of cool where, when you’re older and there is another generation of tattooers putting out cool work, everyone still wants something from you regardless? Take Freddy—he’s long into his career and the dude is still highly sought after. On the other hand, there are some guys who haven’t kept that same relevance and they don’t have the same demand later in their careers. For me, I want to stay on the Ferris Wheel and keep ridin’ it! That’s the main struggle in tattooing now that people should be aware of.
Ideally, how would you like to see tattooing evolve? How do you think it will evolve realistically?
I think that tattooing is going to head towards the mainstream, whether we want it to or not. We kinda’ have to get on board with some of these things and steer them in our favour, or an entirely different industry is going to be built on top of the one we love. The reality is that the bigger companies out there—these rich guys that are buying out suppliers and things like that—they’re going to continue to do that. And these new kids don’t know about the older guys that past generations have all looked up to. So they don’t care about that part of tattooing. They wanna’ be famous on Instagram, so if these new big companies offer to sponsor them they’re gonna’ be like “fuck yeah!” I think this is the direction that tattooing is going to evolve in whether we want it to or not, and our job is to try to steer it and retain at least some of the ethics in it.