I first met Erin Lung six or seven years ago when his band, Venomin James, played a show with my band, Threefold Law, at the old Jigsaw Saloon on Cleveland’s West Side. Since 2006, we’ve crossed paths a number of times, sharing many stages. The heavy rock community in Cleveland is a tight one and we’ve gotten to know each other over beers and smokes.
Venomin James continues to crank out the doom metal and Erin’s 4-string rumble is a big part of their sound. When he isn’t laying down the low end, Erin can be found at Rebel City Tattoo on Cleveland’s east side (contact and info at the bottom of the post). I recently visited the shop on Waterloo Road and spent some time with Erin Lung and owner, Chris McNeill to talk tattoos, vaginas, and more.
What’s been the most “personal” tattoo you’ve given a woman? What was it? Where was it?
A recently divorced middle-aged lady came in with her teenage daughter. They both wanted to get their first tattoo. Mom proceeded to drop her pants in the shop with her daughter there. She showed me her vagina and said she wanted to get a ladybug next to it for good luck. I thought the weirdest part was that she was there with her teenage daughter. That was so bizarre. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. You have to do your job, be professional and stay focused. You can giggle and laugh about it later. But you must keep it professional and be clinical about it. Most of the chicks that want stuff down by their crotches are not always the hottest. For a normal chick, a vagina is usually enough to attract a man. They don’t need to adorn it in any extra way [pause for a few rounds of hearty laughter from both of us].
How can you tell the difference between a cheap tattoo and a good one?
A great tattoo is something you wouldn’t expect. It’s executed well, fits the body, will last, and heals well. It’s when someone looks at it and says, “I didn’t know you could even do that on skin.” There are plenty of good tattoo artists, but not many excellent ones. It’s an art form and a lot of that is based on opinion. I’ve seen a bunch of people come into the shop thinking they have great tattoos and they have crap tattoos. It’s the artist. The tools have pretty much remained the same for over a hundred years now. The machines we use are coil, the original style of tattoo machines and they literally haven’t changed at all. The pigments, however, have gotten much better, even in the past ten or fifteen years. They outshine older pigments in durability and color fastness.
What’s the connection between tattoos and musicians?
Tattoos are about creativity and expression. A lot of musicians, especially rock and roll musicians, have chosen to live outside the box. We’ve created our own existence and therefore the things that regular people might be afraid of such as marking your body or expressing yourself, we don’t care about that. We’ve decided to live our own lives. It comes from being rebellious but what it is today is a totally different thing. Tattooing has become almost mainstream. Johnny thinks it’s cool and so he gets a tattoo because that’s the next badge of coolness. With athletes, they just have more money and time than they know what to do with. Every athlete I’ve seen with a tattoo has been an atrocity. There are tons of rock and roll dudes with shit tattoos, but I think athletes are trying to keep up with the rock and roll dudes. There is some creativity to it, but it’s not the same thing. They’re just playing a game.
Is there pushback from the tattoo community as the mainstream becomes more accepting of the art?
There is a little pushback from the tattoo community but those soccer moms or Johnny-come-latelys are my bread and butter, where I make my money. Of course there’s a little bit of pushback but I wouldn’t call it resentment. It’s a double-edged sword. The TV programs have increased popularity and made my job more valid, but it’s also created a group of people that think it’s cool and yet know nothing about it. And there are a still a ton of people that don’t agree with that decision (to get a tattoo) and they’ll tell you about it. People don’t expect that. They don’t expect the pain, don’t know how long it will take, don’t know how much money it’ll cost. They have expectations they get from TV and people feel they deserve a tattoo without putting in the time or money for one and that’s where some of the resentment comes in.
What has been the impact of reality shows like Miami Ink and L.A. Ink? What has Kat Von D done for the tattoo industry?
She has made herself known. That’s about all she’s done for my industry. People come in here and say “someday I want to get a tattoo by Kat Von D” like she is the epitome of the tattoo world. She’s not. She’s talented, but quite frankly she’s a drama queen with a pretty face and that’s why she’s on TV. She’s a skilled artist, don’t get me wrong, but there are people in this city that outshine her. So again, it’s a double-edged sword. It’s like with music, back in the day when you had a band you loved and nobody else knew about them and then two years later they’re everywhere. It’s kind of like someone stole your toy. Another issue you have is that people want to get into the industry and the easiest thing to do is just buy a shop and hire some artists. So some shops have owners that are not part of the industry, so to speak. That’s part of the downside of the whole TV thing.
What is the Rebel City story?
I wanted to open my own shop that wasn’t commercial, a custom shop (Chris chimed in when I asked this question before Erin picked up the answer in the next sentence). We try to keep it an old school mentality. Chris has been in the business for 17 or 18 years working with all kinds of artists from all over the country. He read an article in the NY Times about some artists that moved to Cleveland from New York City (Greenwich Village) and ended up in North Collinwood. It reminded him of a real New York City artists’ community, no pretentiousness, real, working class people. So we got into this new arts district at the ground level and we’ve been here for three years. The idea was to be part of a new blue collar, gritty, arts community in the Cleveland area. We wanted Rebel City to be an all custom shop where we work with the same clientele for years and years. It’s a small shop where we control everything ourselves which keeps artists from backstabbing when business is slow. It’s just the two of us and Chris has an apprentice named Jennifer White but the goal is to eventually move to a bigger location somewhere on this street. Being next to the Beachland Ballroom has been great.
What’s your favorite piece you’ve ever done?
I’ve been doing a lot of black and grey stuff lately with different textures. I just recently did two cool pieces, a tattoo from a T Rex fossil called the black beauty. The fossil formed in magnesium and is black so it’s not typical. I also recently did a tattoo for a guy that wanted a guitar and skull tattoo. It was a really fun piece to do and ties into my music thing. I experimented with some new textures. It’s always fun to try something new. If you stagnate, you’re done. You’re never done learning. Pieces you’ve never done or techniques you’ve never tried are fun.
I was working on some paintings and it dawned on me that I really don’t like painting. It’s the weirdest thing. A painting takes a lot of time with many steps where you can fuck it up and have to start over. I’m afraid to ruin a piece of paper but you put skin in front of me and for some reason the fear goes away. It’s the medium I prefer. You create something awesome and then your canvas tells you how awesome it is. There’s nothing like that.
A lot of people don’t spend much time being creative. It’s all I do. Music and artwork. Every day I come up with ideas and most of the ideas get thrown away. Most creative people have a million ideas and you realize when an idea is stupid or when it’s worth pursuing. Most people don’t spend their time doing that stuff so they get the flightiest idea in their head and they think it’s brilliant. They come to you with this “brilliant” idea which usually isn’t their own. It’s something they’ve seen on the internet. You have to shoot it down and it can hurt their feelings. There are things in tattooing that are just not possible or won’t heal properly, or age properly. So you have to talk people out of stuff all the time. Sometimes they appreciate it and sometimes they butt heads with you. It’s all about communication with your client. I’ve heard some ridiculous things, like “I want a straight line that’s curvy” or “I want the shape round with points”. It’s tricky to decipher want people are talking about. You need a reason for everything to reinforce to your client that you know what you’re doing. When you are totally and permanently altering your body, they better have confidence in you.
From the Rebel City Tattoo Facebook Page
We are a fully custom, award winning and friendly studio. We use the brightest colors of ink and all disposable equipment. We are also health dept. certified ensuring you a clean, safe, and high quality tattoo at a reasonable price.
Rebel City Tattoo
15701 Waterloo Rd. Cleveland, OH