This week’s Summer Guide issue includes a Q&A with three super-busy flesh-carvers about the tattoos do’s and don’t’s of summer. All three were game about answering weird questions about “tramp stamps” and tattoo cliches, but only one used the opportunity to reflect on the state of Sacramento’s tattoo community.
I learned of Corey Bernhardt through a friend of mine. The friend got both sides of his torso drilled by Bernhardt back when he was needling people at Pretty In Ink Tattoo in old Roseville. My friend had a rough idea of what he wanted, but asked Bernhardt to do the heavy creative lifting. Bernhardt didn’t disappoint, drafting a sinister tree with thick, cancerous branches along one ribcage and then “painting” a solitary businessman whose head explodes into a flock of black birds along the other.
Bernhardt has since ventured out on his own and opened a studio just south of Sacramento’s grid and not too far from the city cemetery. Reclamare Gallery & Tattoo is a gorgeous nook embedded in a little strip along Riverside Boulevard and boasts the work of some incredibly talented artists.
Anyway, when I sent Bernhardt a list of questions for the Summer Guide piece, he came back with the kind of thoughtful detail that marks his elaborate work. Taken together, the answers amount to a thesis on what it means to scar people with art for a living.
Of course we couldn’t fit it all in, but anyone who’s serious about the art form or curious about Sacramento’s tattoo culture may want to read the unpublished version below.
Is there a difference between a “summer” and a “fall” tattoo?
I’m not sure if there is much of a difference in the summer vs. fall tattoos other than the demographic slightly changes to more of the “first-time” tattoos and a younger crowd of people wanting them in the summer. People tend to have more disposable income during the summer, too. In the fall, it seems like there are more serious collectors and people planing out larger pieces.
What’s the worst tattoo you’ve ever seen?
Honestly, I’ve seen so many its hard to say. And they’re all over the internet. People tend to look more for the bad tattoos instead of looking for the really great ones. There are some really amazing artists out there and when you see an amazingly well-executed tattoo in person, it’s something that is hard to forget. I had the chance to see one of Cory Norris’ tattoos right after it was completed and it was one of the most inspiring and humbling things to see as a tattoo artist. At the time, I didn’t know that a tattoo could look that clean and saturated perfectly. It just sets that bar so high and it’s definitely something I am constantly trying to achieve in my own tattoo work.
When a tattoo is bad, is it typically because of the concept or the execution?
Definitely execution. You can still make a bad concept work if its tattooed well. Most times, what seems to make for the worst tattoos are tattoo artists that try something that they don’t understand fundamentally (light, shadow, color theory). Also execution with the tools they use, not understanding the machines well enough, inks, needles, etc. Basically a lack of experience all around. These are things people should be looking for when deciding on a tattoo artist that they want to work with. Portfolio is everything.
Have you ever refused to give someone a tattoo they requested?
I have had to turn people away because the concept was to complex and they wouldn’t compromise on the design and space they wanted it in (too much information in too small a space). Or the tattoo concept is something that I would not want my name/reputation attached to. I’ve refused to tattoo when people ask me to duplicate someone else’s tattoo. I feel like that is disrespectful to the original artist and to the person who had it done. Unfortunately, I don’t think that most people who aren’t artists or in this industry understand why this would be offensive. In this case, I usually try and politely explain why it’s not a very good idea and persuade them to do something with a similar subject matter, but in a unique and one-off way. Thankfully, a lot of these issues are few and far between, and most people trust your opinions and will take your advice.
What body part do you least like tattooing?
I would say the area I least like to tattoo out of all the areas I’ve tattooed so far would be any sort of detail work over the collarbone area.
What’s the biggest tattoo cliche?
I am definitely not speaking for the whole Sacramento tattoo scene. I’m sure every artist will tell you something different. But for me personally, I’d have to say the whole paragraph of script somewhere (mostly on their side). A picture is worth a thousand words, right? So why are you going to spend several hundred dollars on a paragraph nobody really cares to take the time to read. Lettering is also extremely difficult to tattoo because every letter has to look as consistent and perfect as the last letter, and so there is no room for error. Tattoos are so organic in nature. They’re not meant to be as perfect as a font would be. I think people are just giving up real estate on their body that could have otherwise been something amazing.
What’s the best tattoo you’ve done?
I get asked this question a lot by clients. It’s actually a very hard one to answer, because as proud as I am of many tattoos I’ve done, I’m always trying to do better and am also my own worst critic. What makes the best tattoos for me are the ones that I made some sort of breakthrough in my own personal technique and I learned something that fundamentally changes how I tattoo from there on. Those are definitely the best tattoos for me.
Are tattoos mainstream?
Unfortunately, I think bad tattoos are mainstream right now, just because most people haven’t been exposed to some of the truly unique and amazing talent in the tattoo community. However, that mainstream is also helping people find a lot of talent and creating more diversity and friendly competition to push the artistic boundaries of tattooing as a whole. There are so many amazing artists out there right now that truly live, eat, drink and sleep tattooing, and are making their tattoos real pieces of art.
Tattoos themselves will never not be subversive. Maybe it’s the internet that’s desensitized us so that tattoos aren’t taboo anymore. But as a whole, people always want to stand out in some way or another, and everyone deep down wants to rebel somehow. So tattoos have become this accessible way to redefine their own individuality. I don’t think it’s rebellious to not have a tattoo. In my experience, the vast majority of people do want them, but either can’t afford them or just can’t decide on what it is they want on their body permanently.
Does tattooing need to regain its indie cred?
Tattooing never lost its indie cred. It’s just evolving and breaking off into more subcultures of style like music, film and fine art. There are rock stars in this industry and there are people who are also breaking boundaries and doing absolutely incredible pieces that nobody has ever heard of because that’s just the way they operate as artists.