Inked Icon: Robert Atkinson
08:40 PM
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The latest issue of Inked magazine is out, and for the "Icon" feature this month, I had a blast interviewing LA native Robert Atkinson, who is widely respected for his Japanese-inspired as well as black & gray body suits. In the Q&A, Robert talks about how he went from tattooing tribal arm bands to crafting his signature large-scale work. He also muses on custom cars, the state of the industry and how to make tattoos hurt less.

You can pick up a copy at major newsstands or download the digital version here.

It's the making tattoos hurt less part that really had me thinking about what it means to "earn" your tattoos. Here's a taste of our talk where Robert discusses using numbing creams and sprays on certain clients:

Your clients seem to trust you with a lot of their skin. You've done a lot of huge backpieces.

I've done about 35-40 backpieces in the past 8 years. Large-scale tattoo work is a luxury for sure. Any time you see someone with large work you know they paid for it. It's like wearing a Rolex or driving a nice car. It's luxury lifestyle shit, but it's not something you can just go buy. You have to deal with a motherfucker like me, show up for your appointments, pay a bunch of money and get it done.

And it hurts.

It hurts more ways than one -- it's painful and it's expensive.

There are a number of tattoo artists these days offering numbing creams and sprays that make the tattoo process hurt less. Do you offer it to your clients?

I keep a thing of spray for a few guys -- not for someone who's going to sit for two hours -- but for someone who will come in from out of town and wants to sit there and get four to five hours done. It makes it easier on him and easier for me. If people come in after wrapping themselves in Emla cream [to numb the area], I'm cool with it, but I'm not gonna say, "I have a have this cream and for $50 bucks extra I'll numb you up." I used it myself for the last sitting I had with Filip [Leu] and it fucking helped man.

Don't you think you lose some badass cred by taking away some of the hurt?

At the end of the day, no one is giving out trophies for being tough. In the beginning I was like, "Oh no, fuck that shit." Then, at one point, I lined 18 backs in one year and all these guys were going to a spa to get numbed up before coming in would lay as stiff as a board and get four hours out of that shit. So I started to think it wasn't so bad because they weren't moving around, or pissing and moaning that they need to get up every ten minutes. It's just another tool for big work, especially if you're looking at a 20-plus hour ordeal.

Robert also shared his thoughts on how he's seen the industry evolve and where he thinks it's going. We talked about the progression of his own work and what he does for fun when not tattooing. But it's that pain part of the our conversation I've been fixating on as I'm staring a five to six hour rib session next week. In light of the news that no one will be handing me a badass trophy when I'm done, I may so opt for the Vasocaine.

For an appointment with Robert, hit him up through his site.

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Nice work for sho! Some slick colors in there. Definitely rad work.

As for the numbing deal, if it works then why not!? People use Bactine (myself included: tattooing and getting tattooed) which numbs the area, albeit not a complete numbing. I remember my artist treating me like a Russian Space monkey when we first used it. We had no idea if it would fuck things up or not... It wasalso completely hush-hush: We had to wait until his boss--who was totally against the use of it--was gone. In the end, we did that session with Bactine, the next without. The sesh we used the Bactine on healed better and faster, and I sat without my trademark whining for several hours, truth be told.

So why not use something that totally numbs? I've heard plenty of arguments against it, the most popular being that it alters blood flow to the area and therefore healing will be altered. However, I've never seen a well applied tattoo come back all wonky because someone used a numbing agent on the skin. Then again, I don't know many ink slingers that use anything more than Bactine on folks. I think most people argue against it because THEY had to suffer through painful spots.

If there is a spray/cream that works, then fuck it, I'm in (for use on LARGE SCALE SHIT). I'm no bad ass tough guy. I get the "badge of honor" part of getting tattooed... on pieces that aren't ENORMOUS. Those big ones? Them shits hurt, and if I can get through it without it feeling like Satan is having his way with that body part, then sign me up. There's no glory in squirming through a huge lining sesh that is now going to have to be touched up because you couldn't sit still. Besides, I wanna get as much done in one sitting as I can, with as little aggravation for the artist and myself. Call it tattoo economics if you like.

Like a great many things in this biz, it's just another one of those resistance to change dealies... growing pains, if you will.

But that's just how I see things...


Actually, I'd steer clear of the numbing cream completely. I DOES work. You feel nothing. And then all the pain compacts itself into an avalanche of hurt about 4 hours after your session. It almost feels like you're on fire.

It's a capillary restrictor. You can literally see the blood moving away from the surface and subsequently your nerve endings, that's why you dont feel anything.... But here's the catch... It WILL adversely AFFECT how the tattoo heals, as you need bloodflow to heal a tattoo. Restrict that and extend the healing times.

I used it on the inside of my bicep/armpit area during a sleeve and scabbed up worse than any other time on my arm. Had to get it all retouched.

I've seen similar results on large scale work/sittings.

I will never use it again, just out of consideration of the tattoo itself.

what about systemic pain-killers?

bactine is my new after-care product of choice for the first few days of healing, and then good for the itching phase.

@Mike, I'm not saying you're wrong, but healing in that area tends to suck in general. It's always rubbing on clothing and your torso. Good food for thought... still might give it a whack on the ribs myself though.


@Justin, I thought about that... but my buddy used the same product with the same artist on his backpiece, and the same thing happened. The rest of his back was fine.

I didn't think getting my ribs done was as bad as everyone told me it was going to be.
Although a 5-6 hour session on your ribs will not be fun regardless! The longest session I had was 3.5 hours and that was tough.

I have heard similar stories re: healing with Emla.

I just bought Vasocaine. It's a spray that goes on after the outline has been put in -- the skin must be open -- and does not completely numb the area but takes the edge off. It was recommended by a number of stellar veteran artists.

I've asked my doctor sis to give a run down on how it works from the medical perspective -- and how it differs from Emla and other options -- and then I'll give my own personal experience later this week.

Guinea pig time approaches!

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