January 11, 2018
Dexter’s unique figurative style of tattooing is the result of sustained attention to the influences around him—a style of observation that he characterizes as both “mindful” and “obsessive.” To that end he notes, “Tattooing found me. I use the same references we all have access to. The ‘style’ of my tattoos is a combination of my own natural approach to design and, for lack of a better term, ‘faking it ‘til I make it’.” For Dexter, “faking it” gestures towards his persistence in learning the craft on his release from prison, and his desire to design and execute each of his tattoos as if he was receiving them: “I execute them with the same mindfulness as if they were being done on me because, if they were, I’d want them to look exactly as I’d intended.”
Dexter was born in 1987 in Jeanette, Pennsylvania—a suburb of Pittsburgh. His early years were informed by his parents—“both criminals, alcoholics, and addicts”—whose lifestyle forced him to “bounce around” under the care of different family members. Initially pursuing a BFA in Studio Art, Dexter was sent to prison before his third year at college, remaining there for “the first half of [his] 20s.” Once incarcerated, Dexter was determined never to go back to prison: “that’s just not who I am.” It was during this period that he decided to take up tattooing, reasoning that, among other things, it would be difficult to secure a good job with his criminal record. Accordingly, he says that, “I decided to focus entirely on art and start tattooing as soon as possible.”
On his release from prison, Dexter secured an apartment with the help of an old cellmate. “He [the cellmate] and his wife lived next to me. They bought me tattoo gear off of the Internet. I went down to a shop a few miles away with a portfolio of drawings and photos of some tattoos that I did on both of them and some other friends and I landed an apprenticeship—a very ‘hands-off’ apprenticeship.” Dexter worked two other jobs in order to sustain his efforts to learn tattooing, but even then he thought solely about tattooing. “I still do,” he affirms. Eventually, he received enough work tattooing to quit his other two “shit jobs.”
Now tattooing for a total of five years, Dexter’s time as a tattooist was first spent employed at walk-in shops in south Pittsburgh—“a part of town that has something like 162 bars and 18 tattoo studios on the same street.” Dexter then tattooed at Bloodlines Gallery before moving to Armature Tattoo Co., where he currently works. “I’ve got to be in shops where I’m around people that actually care about tattooing. I don’t care what people do in their free time, but I’ve left shops because dudes were stealing and getting high—I couldn’t help being around that shit growing up, but as an adult I don’t fuck with it at all.”
While it’s no surprise that most of Dexter’s life is “consumed by tattooing,” he also enjoys collecting vintage toys from the 1980s and ‘90s and, among other things, finds time to volunteer around the city, helping those less fortunate than him—a gesture which he finds, “keeps me grateful that I have such an awesome life.” Dexter has had a single apprentice—a friend he took on, or, as he says, “put on.” His friend would take the six-hour commute upstate to visit Dexter and, in return, Dexter gave him “all of the information [he] could before throwing him to the wolves.” He has also spent some time traveling—“I’ve been doing guest spots and conventions for a few years now”—and hopes to travel internationally in the near future, something made difficult but not impossible by his criminal record.
“I’ve only been tattooing for five years,” he emphasizes, “I make it a point to stay out of shit, keep my head down, and focus on what I’m doing.” Those five years have clearly yielded some strong tattoos—and that seems to be the most important point for Dexter: “I have no clue where tattooing is headed and to be honest, that’s not something that I concern myself with.
I know what tattooing is for me and what it’s done for my life. As long as the same amount of people that currently get tattooed by me continue to, I’ll be able to get by.”