Ryan Shaffer’s eclectic work synthesizes traditional, 20th century tattooing with religious and esoteric imagery. The visuals resulting are bold and complex, yet Shaffer’s pieces retain the playful energy of his earliest work—the fake tattoos that, at age five, he drew on the neighborhood kids in washable Crayola markers. His practice is grounded in the careful study of early American tattooists such as “Bob Wicks, Percy Waters, Tom Berg, and Rosie Camanga, to name a few.” Still, as Shaffer explains, “I’m not sure that I deliberately came up with a ‘style’; as with any creative thing, if you’re approaching it in a way that’s honest, with the intention of improving on or expanding the foundations you’ve already developed, I think your natural hand will show through.”
Shaffer was born in San Diego, California, in 1985. A deep investment in skateboarding, surfing, and the local music scene—“a thriving counter culture that nurtured some great punk, hardcore, and experimental music”—informed his development as a teen. While these interests naturally meant that Shaffer was proximate to different forms of local tattooing, his first proper encounter with tattooing came when his mom’s “shitbag” (then-)husband got tattooed at a “really shady biker shop.” Shaffer was “immediately intrigued by the whole scene there—blown away by these old guys that were covered in tattoos with long beards, looking like total freaks!” At 19, he moved to San Francisco.
After much persistence, some “crummy attempts at flash sheets,” and some “awful tattoos done on friends in [his] house,” Shaffer secured an apprenticeship with Mike Davis, studio owner at a shop called ‘Everlasting,’ located in San Francisco. Prior to and during his work as an apprentice, Shaffer earned a BFA. Shaffer spent three years tattooing at Picture Machine and one and a half years working at Idle Hand in San Francisco. He currently works at East River Tattoo in Brooklyn, New York. The remainder of his ten total years as a tattooist was “spent on the road, coming and going between cities in the US and internationally.” Shaffer has also traveled to “Costa Rica, Mexico, South Korea, South Africa, as well as the majority of Europe and Australia.” In South Africa, owing to a “strange twist of fate,” he notes that, “traveling for tattooing led me to meet my wife, who is South African.”
Outside of tattooing, Shaffer draws his inspiration from the “strange, weird world that we exist in, one that is both wonderfully beautiful and bafflingly absurd.” Additionally, he still manages to find time to paint, occasionally get on a skateboard, and “actively plan trips to warm climates, where there are many hammocks to snooze in and waves to surf.” Shaffer seeks to retain his autonomy within the tattoo world, in an artistic environment which has drastically changed due to its encounters with and proliferation through social media. “Social media has certainly influenced the evolution of tattooing, and it’s hard to say what it will look like years from now. I think, today, the main challenge is to not lose sight of why we’re involved in tattooing in the first place.”