Aron Dubois is a tattooist based in Los Angeles. Dubois’ work maintains a delicate encounter between impactful figural tattooing, iconographies of folk art, and elements of abstraction. In this insightful interview, Dubois shares his beginnings in the world of tattooing and elaborates on the important relationship between his passion for literature and its influence on his body of work.
What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
My name is Aron Dubois. I was born in Boulder, Colorado in ‘89.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
My most formative years were spent in Colorado Springs, Colorado—a small city below the beautiful mountains. It is also home to a prevailing conservative culture, so out of near necessity I found a lot of my expression through countercultural activities like graffiti. I’ve never been social, so I found much of my peace growing up by bicycling or drawing alone. My parents were very outdoor- and nature-centered so time in the mountains was always emphasized and encouraged. I couldn’t be more grateful, as this has been a driving artistic and spiritual influence throughout my life.
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
Currently nowhere. I’ve been floating around the Southwest taking time for myself to enjoy the quiet and the outdoors. I was at the Martlet in LA for a couple years but Los Angeles was grating to my spirit so I had to escape. Prior to that I was at Scapegoat Tattoo in Portland, Oregon for about four years. My time at Scapegoat was incredibly formative and inspiring. Portland is a wonderful city to work in as the general population strongly values tattoos. I owe so much of my work to that environment.
How long have you been tattooing?
Ten short years, but long enough to know better!
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and what did you initially learn how to tattoo?
My first exposure to tattoos was when, at age 12 or 13, I went with my father to a shop in my hometown (the shop I’d later apprentice at) so he could look around for a dragon tattoo he wanted. I became incredibly curious but all I saw of tattooing after that was in the magazines you could get from 7-11. They were terrible, but I still couldn’t shake my attraction. Eventually, Myspace came into the picture and I found several tattooers doing things I had never seen. This revealed to me an alternative side to tattooing—that it could be artistic. This was the catalyst I needed and I began taking it seriously.
Were you trained through a formal apprenticeship? Describe the circumstances of learning.
At 18, I was hanging out at a bicycle shop a lot and the owner’s brother was apprenticing at a local studio. I was linked up with his brother to secretly apprentice at his home for $500. As naive I was, I went for it. He was a bohemian guy who did abstract paintings and was interpreting them as tattoos. He was doing very progressive tattoos that I couldn’t understand or appreciate then, but I liked his antithetical approach. The whole apprenticeship was very casual and I remember distinctly tracing pages of Tibetan clouds while periodically looking up to the window to see him mowing his lawn. He gave me The Art Spirit by Robert Henri as homework and still to this day it is one of the most influential books of my life.
That apprenticeship was short-lived; I was seeking a more legitimate means of learning and found myself at a professional shop thereafter. The shop was your ‘90s poster-child tattoo shop: Cherry Creek and new school flash everywhere with red walls, diamond plate countertops, and checkered linoleum floors. I ended up apprenticing under a guy there who had only been tattooing for eight months or some indiscriminately short period of time. My apprenticeship at the shop wasn’t nightmarishly traditional or demeaning but they cut a lot of corners to get me on the floor faster. I didn’t learn much and spent about a year there in total, doing the worst work one could ever do. I was essentially fired for being a self-righteous and indignant 18 year old, which I didn’t blame them for. It was a mess, and after that I was on my own.
Have you previously studied art in an institutional setting? If so, what level of training did you reach and in what disciplines?
My artistic training goes as far as high school. I never went to college but I’m grateful for how wonderful my high school art program was. There was an emphasis on traditional life drawing, still life, and landscape. I couldn’t imagine a more boring art to do at the time, as I was too preoccupied with graffiti, but it was no doubt beneficial and now I wish I took it seriously. I had a lot of independent study classes where I could turn in whatever I wanted, just as long as I was working. I had a lot of freedom.
Throughout childhood, I was enrolled in summer and after school art classes from ceramics to cartooning, the latter being my favorite. I’m lucky to have parents who encouraged art-making and always acknowledged its priority for me, even when I expressed interest in tattooing. My mom knew well before I did that I would become a tattooer, which proved to be my art school alternative. Most of my education thereafter has been born of a deep curiosity that I try to nurture every day.
"Style is the direct result of one’s inner growing experience. I think people concern themselves too often with finding ‘a style’ as if it’s some kind of destination you reach and feel eternally content on having arrived. To me, it would be death to have reached a stylistic formula which I mechanically reproduced every day. I try to make room for my ever-changing inner experiences and my tattooing is a reflection of that consideration, whenever possible."
Did that training help as you learned the mechanics of tattooing?
If you spend any time tattooing you soon realize the craft of tattooing has nothing to do with artistic ability. It is something altogether itself. An understanding of art fundamentals and a certain aesthetic sensibility will undeniably set you apart, but a staggering amount of tattooers who don’t have these fundamentals make careers out of tracing. Tattooing is a pirate’s artform, but that is what makes it a folk art.
How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
Style is the direct result of one’s inner growing experience. I think people concern themselves too often with finding ‘a style’ as if it’s some kind of destination you reach and feel eternally content on having arrived. To me, it would be death to have reached a stylistic formula which I mechanically reproduced every day. I try to make room for my ever-changing inner experiences and my tattooing is a reflection of that consideration, whenever possible. Tattooing is also unique in that every tattoo experience requires flexibility and adaptability on behalf of the artist, which often does not fare well for a mechanical approach or fixed style. For me, it’s about making something good for each individual and I have had the good fortune to experience a consistent sensibility and openness among the folk I work with.
I mainly look at tattooing from the pre-war area for visual inspiration, but I find that reading influences me much more than looking at art. I’m drawn to the spiritual, psychological, and philosophical just as much as the aesthetic, so expanding my understanding of humanity and mythology further enforces my appreciation for tattooing and helps me to approach my work with a deeper consideration. Joseph Campbell is likely the greatest influence on my work and life and I highly recommend The Power of Myth to every tattooer. In addition, Alan Watts, Epictetus, Lao Tsu, and Thich Nhat Hanh are a great accompaniment. Poetry by Mary Oliver, William Blake, Charles Simic, and Rainer Maria Rilke are also largely influential. I’m sure if I read Proverbs of Hell by Blake every day I would eventually know how to live.
What do you look for in a shop?
Friendliness. Is. Paramount. Unfortunately even at ‘nice’ shops I’ve seen so much ignorance and general self-righteousness that it’s disturbing. There’s so much jock mentality that they should just as well make their shop a fraternity house! It’s disheartening that toxic masculinity still runs rampant throughout the tattoo world, even in places you would like to think it doesn’t. It’s special and unfortunately rare to find a shop whose artists are growth-oriented, thoughtful, kind, and socially aware.
Do you have any hobbies outside of tattooing?
Bicycles, mainly—both in the riding and mechanics of them. They are the single greatest invention of mankind, probably next to agriculture. Going for a meditative and casual ride to the overlook with snacks and a thoughtful book in my basket is one of my greatest joys in life.
What inspires you generally?
Philosophy, trees, existential conundrums, singing birds, moments of spirituality, dry books, fresh produce, staring into the void, solitude, sleeping in the dirt.
Are any other forms of media, traditional or digital, important to your work?
Fine art is a deeply interesting subject to me and I have tried time and time again to pursue a studio practice outside of tattooing, but it is so difficult to achieve. One usually detracts from the other any time I have given effort to both. Art has the ability to achieve a much deeper inner awareness for the artist than tattooing does, so I long for that expression. I try to do things for myself outside of work whenever I can summon the energy but unfortunately tattooing demands so much—physically and mentally. In addition, I am severely self-critical and overly cerebral so when given the freedom to produce fine art I find it incapacitating; it’s a real struggle for me.
Is traveling important to you? If so, where do you usually travel? Do you have any interesting experiences abroad that you can share?
I am far from being the vagabond artist like many of my contemporaries, but when I travel I like for it to be away from people, preferably. My ideal vacation is spent in a tent, with vast silence and dirt under my fingernails.
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
I feel that this question is unique to every tattooer, but I know my greatest challenge in tattooing is my own mindfulness. Mindfulness toward my clients, my work, my health, and to the craft itself despite all the odds. Mainly, I could be more mindful about my phone use, particularly Instagram, as I almost never experience something fulfilling from using it and am only reminded of how horrifying humanity is. It really is a challenge to abstain from using it—it’s like a bad, bad, drug.
Ideally, how would you like to see tattooing evolve? How do you think it will evolve realistically?
The evolution of tattooing is out of anybody’s hands. It will manifest exactly as it will just like everything else does. It is a process of eternal unfolding and flux and because of its very nature I cannot form any kind of ideals, nor make predictions. All we can do is hope, and I hope that those who truly cherish the craft will have their hand of good luck, despite the rising and receding tides of culture, economy, and nature.