Josh Stephens began his tattoo career building a strong foundation in an American Traditional style. Once his confidence and technical understanding grew his oeuvre expanded, now encompassing a wide variety of styles from realism to complex, textural patterns. Heavily inspired by music, contemporary artists including Mark Rothko, and the master of dark humor David Lynch, Stephens remains grateful for opportunities that break him out of his comfort zone and push his horizons.
What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
Josh Stephens, born in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, in 1984.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
I grew up in a small farm town about 45 minutes outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania called Honesdale. I lived with my mom, stepdad, sister, and half-brother. I’d say I grew up in a rural, lower middle-class environment. We made enough money that I could still play video games and skateboard; a lot of the kids I grew up with didn’t have those luxuries.
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
I work at Hold It Down Tattoo in Richmond, Virginia. I’ve been here for eight years and I absolutely love my city and my shop. Before Richmond, I apprenticed and worked at Marc’s tattooing in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
How long have you been tattooing?
I’ve been tattooing for 12 years.
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and how did you initially learn how to tattoo?
When I was 17 I saw the band Converge, and for the first time I was exposed to someone that was heavily tattooed–their lead singer Jake Bannon. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen. All I wanted was to be covered in tattoos like him. From that moment, I became obsessed and started getting tattooed. I didn’t draw growing up, but since I loved tattoos so much I decided I wanted to learn just so I could tattoo. Through lots of studying, I learned to draw to the point where I could get an apprenticeship at the shop I was getting tattooed at.
Please can you tell us more about how you studied drawing? What techniques did you use and what worked best for you? Any tips for anyone starting out?
Early on I studied American traditional and general illustration techniques. I learned a lot through tracing old flash to the point where I could just draw it without tracing. It was like I was teaching my hands the structures so that I could embed them into my bones. With geometric stuff, I studied a lot of historical sacred geometry, math inspired geometry, and architectural geometry. For about eight years I drew all my geometric stuff by hand on tracing paper with graph paper and rulers. It was grueling! Then I finally gave in and bought an iPad. I’m still drawing my geometry, but it’s helped me make things in a fraction of the time.
As far as advice, I always recommend that people study. See what came before you and why it was important. What can you take from the techniques and ideas that others developed, and build from there? Don’t get in over your head. Cool tattoos will come in time, no need to rush into things you’re not ready for (although you will, I did, and we all did).
Every time you see someone’s cool tattoo and say “how the hell did they do that?!” GO GET TATTOOED AND WATCH! Ask questions. We’re only on this earth for such a short amount of time, might as well learn as much as you possibly can.
Were you trained through a formal apprenticeship? Describe the circumstances of learning.
I did have a formal apprenticeship, for about two and a half years under Chris Jones at Marc’s Tattooing. I feel like I had a pretty typical early 2000’s apprenticeship–a lot of cleaning, doing the dirty work, etc. Every day I had to draw two original drawings. I watched, I asked questions, and studied everything from traditional tattooing, to lettering, to new school. After my apprenticeship, I ended up getting tattooed by a lot of the tattooers that inspired me, and I would ask for critiques and advice during those sessions.
How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
My style has changed massively over the years. I started out obsessed with American traditional and used that as the foundation for everything I know. I did bold, clunky traditional for about six or seven years before I felt comfortable branching out to other styles. Except for geometric, I have been doing geometric tattoos since my second year of tattooing.
During my first guest spot in Portland, Oregon I saw the most beautiful roses and it changed my work completely. I was able to take pictures for my own reference, get the flowers in the exact positions I’d want to tattoo them in, and learnt the anatomy of roses, allowing me to tattoo them more accurately. From there I branched off into illustrative, realism, abstract textural, complex patterns, and large fields of black work. I have a wide range of influences, from Amund Dietzel, to Mark Rothko, to David Lynch, to Andy Goldsworthy, to Percy Waters, and Francis Bacon. Anything I see as powerful and beautiful inspires me. Lately, I’ve been obsessed with Brutalist architecture and Post-war Expressionism.
Tattooers will always have the biggest influence on me though. Some of my favorites are Javier Betancourt, Kirsten Holliday, Myles Karr Daryl Rodriguez, David English, Florian Santus, Eric von Bartholomaus, Tomas Tomas, Gakkin, Tomas Garcia, Eli Quinters, and I could literally go on forever. I love tattoos and tattooing so much. To me, there’s nothing better than seeing a fucking sweet tattoo.
Have you had or do you have plans to take on apprentices?
I’ve had one apprentice, he actually just started a few months ago. His name is Mike deBolt and he’s working in a street shop outside of a military base. He’s doing really well, I’m really proud of him! The only reason I decided to take him on as an apprentice was because he had no formal background in art and no experience in drawing. Therefore, I could help guide him the way I learned. He grew up painting table top figures for games like Warhammer; having a steady hand and good color theory is a great entry into tattooing. I have no other plans to take on another apprentice. It’ll have to be the right person at the right time if I ever do again.
What do you look for in a shop?
Comfortable, close camaraderie, inspiring surroundings, rousing conversations, good music. My shop is filled with the most inspiring people–we’re all trying to be better than we were the day before. We’re all always searching for new provocations and feeding off of each other to become better tattooers. All the shops I regularly guest at have similar vibes to ours–everyone just stoked on doing the coolest tattoos we can possibly do.
Do you have any hobbies outside of tattooing?
Too many! I’d say my biggest hobby is magic cards. I play competitively and a lot of the guys in my shop also play magic, so we all play and spend most of our money on that. I also rock climb, play video games, collect records, have two cool dogs, play board games and table top RPGs, and I like to drive fast so I’m tuning my ‘18 WRX to go faster!
"Traveling changed my life. Growing up in an isolated small town without the ability to travel could definitely have left me with the ‘big fish in the small pond’ syndrome."
What inspires you generally?
Music is a huge inspiration and just like with my artistic inspirations I like anything that’s powerful and beautiful–from Bjork to Merzbow. I love music that is heavy, soft, ambient, experimental, sad, or anything passionate; music that feels honest. I’d say my two biggest musical inspirations and favorite bands are God Speed You! Black Emperor and Pedro the Lion. Both bands are so powerful and so honest in completely different ways. I could write a book about why both of those bands are important, so I’ll spare the details.
To expand upon one of my earlier points, David Lynch is a huge part of my life–in pretty much every aspect and more influential than probably any other single artist. My work, humor, my existential views of myself and life in general, and my aesthetic have been affected by his movies, music, lithographs, and photography. Lynch’s obsession with absurdity and dark humor is what really speaks to me the most. We’re all gonna die. We have no idea what it feels like to be nothing, even though we are nothing for so much longer than we are something. It’s so scary, sad, absurd, and sometimes it’s even hilarious! There’s a part of us that existed before we existed and we’re all connected in that way. We’re all searching for that connection in one way or the other. Some of us find it, and some of us don’t.
Besides doing direct representations of his work, David Lynch has inspired me more as a human and a general artist than with direct imagery. Spooky women’s faces cracked open with butterflies coming out of them is pretty Lynchian. Creating textural, layered patterns you can get lost in also feels very inspired by him. But, when I’m working, I never really say to myself “what would David Lynch do?” I think that question voids itself because David Lynch never says, “what would I do?” He can’t help but make this surreal world contained within our own reality.
Andy Goldsworthy is another huge inspiration. I’ve still been trying to figure out a way to adapt his philosophy and approach to art into tattooing, but I haven’t quite tapped it yet. Maybe someday.
Is traveling important to you? If so, where do you usually travel? Do you have any interesting experiences abroad that you can share?
Traveling changed my life. Growing up in an isolated small town without the ability to travel could definitely have left me with the ‘big fish in the small pond’ syndrome. I’m so grateful I was able to break out of my comfort zone to meet and work with other tattooers that inspire me, and visit cities and places that are massively different than anything I have ever experienced before.
About two years ago Javier Betancourt and I went to Paris to work with Florian Santus. It was an incredible experience and my first time out of the US. Florian was a wonderfully accommodating host and Paris was beautiful. I totally understood why that city has such magical reputation. Javier and I went to the Louvre and it was one of the most overwhelming experiences of my life. We had to go back to the apartment and watch some dumb explosion movie just to clear our heads from all the incredible art we had seen. I hope to have many more experiences like this trip.
Can you describe any specific times an experience while you were travelling has influenced how or what you tattoo?
Oh definitely. I have directly used sculptures in the Louvre and d’Orsay as reference for tattoos. French still life paintings have inspired the way I tattoo and draw flowers.
One of the most inspiring moments I’ve ever had was guesting at Atlas Tattoo in Portland. Every person that tattoos there is a living legend. Watching Lewis Hess work changed the way I approach large scale tattoos, getting tattooed by and talking to Cheyenne Sawyer changed my whole career. Watching Corey Crowley work inspired my re-evaluation of parallel lines.
I think every tattooer interested in the philosophy of tattooing needs to talk to Dan Gilsdorf, the smartest tattooer. I’ve had incredible conversations with Dan about what we do and why we do it. I could write a book, but he could write a better one.
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
I could write a book about this too. I think one of the biggest challenges currently is letting go of the ego. I’ve seen the artist’s ego hold back so many people from progressing. Too many people are concerned with standing out and doing something special and different. Goal number one should always be to do a good tattoo. I’ve never really felt like much of a creative artist. I’ve always felt like more of a technician. When I’m designing a tattoo, it’s more like solving a puzzle or a math equation–I feel there’s a right and a wrong. I think that outlook on tattooing has really helped me. By not thinking I’m an artist I was able to just concentrate on doing a good job and learn as much as possible.
Ideally, how would you like to see tattooing evolve? How do you think it will evolve realistically?
This is a hard one. We’re in such an exciting time in tattooing. We’ve had so much progress in such little time. Just 20 years ago there was maybe a hundred GREAT tattooers, maybe even less–now there’s thousands. People are pushing the envelope in the most amazing ways; design, application, philosophy, ethics, and culture. I’m so excited to see the future of tattooing, and I’m so proud to be a part of it!