Heart of Gold Tattoo recently celebrated its one-year anniversary at the shop on 400 South, sustaining itself as one of the few shops on the east end of downtown. --- The shop, which boasts such talent as Andrew King, Ryan Campbell and Austin Huffman, as well as piercing from Matt Draper, has become a hub for geek-related and unique-design tattooing.
The biggest driving force behind the shop and its success has been its lead artist and founder, Jon McAffee, who has been a part of the tattoo scene for for over 10 years. Today, we chat with McAffee about his career and starting up the shop, plus his thoughts on the art and the local scene -- all with some pictures of his work for you to check out.
Gavin: Hey, Jon. First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Jon: I'm happily married five years to my beautiful wife, Molly, and we have a three-year-old daughter with another baby on the way! I'm a lifelong geek and fan of baseball, comics, fantasy and sci-fi books & movies and video games. Originally from Seattle, I grew up in Utah.
Gavin: How did you first take an interest in art and what were some inspirations for you?
Jon: When I first saw Star Wars -- or Empire Strikes Back, rather; my mom says Star Wars was the first movie I saw but it may just be one of those things moms say later to make you happy. Anyway, I was obsessed with drawing TIE Fighters and X-Wings, just little circles with Xs through them shooting at other little circles with lines on either side, very simple. Because of Star Wars, I loved sci-fi, which led to other sci-fi movies, old and new. I started reading more books like Lord Of The Rings and Dune, and my mom took me to the comic shop in Provo, Dragon's Keep, I think it was called. I started collecting X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when they were still violent and published in black and white. That, and my sister left her record collection behind when she moved out; the album covers for Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Rush were also an inspiration to start drawing. It all kinda swirled together, a love for heavy metal and Dungeons & Dragons evolved into a love for punk rock and skateboarding (which I was never good at). And the whole time I continued drawing and reading comics and fantasy/sci-fi novels. When I got into punk and skating, I would draw flyers for my friends punk bands. This was in high school; it kept going on from there and I got my first professional tattoo when I was 20 ... I think.
Gavin: What drew your interest specifically toward tattooing and what artist's work kind of drew you into it?
Jon: Well, my exposure to skateboard art was the closest artwork to tattoo art. I would go and buy the new Thrasher and also pick up a tattoo magazine here and there. At first, it was only the sci-fi/fantasy illustration-type stuff that caught my eye, I loved Guy Achtison and Aaron Cain and a little bit of Paul Booth, then I became more interested in the more traditional Americana and Japanese art. The deeper I dug, the more I loved it.
Gavin: Did you seek out any formal college for artwork prior to tattooing?
Jon: No formal college, a few classes at Community College like figure drawing and stuff like that. Before I ever tattooed anyone besides myself, I pursued an actual apprenticeship.
Gavin: You originally started behind the desk at Quicksand Tattoo in the late '90's. How did the opportunity come about?
Jon: My friend Greg Christensen got a job there, I started hanging out and drawing and getting tattooed. One thing led to another and they asked of I wanted to learn how to tattoo.
Gavin: How did you eventually work your way into an apprenticeship, and what was it like for you working under Bonnie Seeley?
Jon: They didn't just offer me an apprenticeship the second I walked through the door. I just kept showing up and hanging out. I brought what was my excuse for a portfolio at the time, which was made up of random and disorganized drawings and sketches of comic book and Star Wars characters, lots of scantily clad warrior women, hahaha! It was a bunch of nerd illustrations and very little traditional-style tattoo stuff; apparently, it was enough and it got my foot in the door. For a while, everyday I would take the bus to the shop downtown after I would get off of work from my job selling computers. After a while, I moved into a tiny studio apartment above the shop. I would wake up and go down to the shop and clean and mop then spend the day speaking with potential clients and drawing. People who worked for the two bars Quicksand was sandwiched between knew I was learning and they would offer up a spot on their legs for me to tattoo. Bonnie was great. I still have never met anyone who would draw as much as she did, nonstop, always drawing. Everyone would hang out after work and have some beers and she would be drawing still. I always thought that was awesome.
Gavin: What was your first real experience like creating a tattoo, and how did it turn out?
Jon: The first tattoo I ever did was "stick and poke" tattoo on myself when I was about 13. It was a tiny Celtic knot/sun design about the size of a dime on my toe. The next tattoo I did wasn't until I was 24. It was on the co-owner of Quicksand; he knew I liked Star Wars, of course, so he told me to tattoo the Rebel Insignia on his leg. I was terrified. For it being my first real tattoo, I guess it turned out okay, I was able to touch it up years later when I worked at Oni Tattoo. It looks much better now.
Gavin: How was it for you learning the craft and honing in your skills to create work on people?
Jon: After that first tattoo on the co-owner, I didn't tattoo anybody for about a year, I could already draw well, but that is only a fraction of the learning process. I struggled a little bit on my speed. That's not to say you should rush; you should take the time you need in order to make it look great, but I was pretty slow with my drawing. Obviously, drawing on paper is a completely different skill than tattooing on skin. Also, there are the tools you use to apply the tattoo; you have to have a deep knowledge of how those work, too. You can spend years familiarizing yourself with all the different styles of tattoo artwork, the craftsmanship of building and tuning machines, the history of the art as well as the history of the people who made tattooing what it is today. I think you should have a pretty solid foundation of all of these things, among many others, before you should even touch skin. There is that fear the first time you tattoo someone, but if you don't get over that very quickly you will never make it in this business. You first tattoo your coworkers and friends and friends of the shop, and after you and your teachers feel confident in your abilities then you can move on to clients. And you should never overstep your abilities.
Gavin: What made you decide to leave Quicksand and head over to Apparition Ink and then Oni?
Jon: I learned a lot during my time at Quicksand and I was nervous about leaving, but I saw it as an opportunity to learn from new people and make new friends, as well. There was no bad blood between Bonnie and me and we remained friends and eventually worked together again at Big Deluxe, I worked there about four and a half years before Apparition and Oni. I met some of my best friends in the industry there, all of which have moved on to work at other shops or own their own shops outright; not all of them remained in Utah. I moved to Apparition shortly after Greg Christensen moved there from BD. Jared was very generous to me at Apparition and he was fully aware that Greg would soon be opening Oni Tattoo and I would follow. There was always complete friendly cooperation between Apparition and Oni -- no animosity, no grudges, the way it should be.
Gavin: Each time you moved, were the transitions difficult in bringing old clientele over with you?
Jon: No not at all. I lost a few people at first, but eventually the lost clients found me despite false stories that I had moved out of state or quit tattooing. I kept track of my clients contacts myself, so between my own efforts to contact them, social media Websites and just the fact that Salt Lake is a small city, it's really not that difficult. When you leave a shop where people like and respect you, they are going to tell your clients you may have missed how to find you and I thank Oni and Apparition for being my friends and respected peers.
Gavin: Over the years, how was it for you being able to develop your designs and really grow as an artist?
Jon: I love all kinds of styles. The first few years of tattooing are spent working from flash and tattooing simple designs. I spent a lot of time just trying to copy other tattooers, which is a great learning tool to begin with but you eventually have to step outside that box. Any good tattooer, I think, has a style that they cultivate from day one. My love for all things geek has shaped the subject matter and style of my designs, but I haven't let it dominate it; you don't want to pigeon hole yourself. I never want to be limited -- you constantly learn new things, and the day you think you can't learn anymore is the day you should quit.
Gavin: What made you decide to go work with Cicatrix and how did the opportunity come up to buy the shop?
Jon: Not only was it an opportunity to work with my friend Andrew King again, who I worked with at Apparition, but Tee Jay Hernandez, the owner of Cicatrix, has been tattooing for like 20 years and is friends with a lot of tattooers that I admire. He had the knowledge and experience that I wanted to absorb and he was great to work with. Family needs led him to move back to San Francisco, where he still owns another location of Cicatrix. He offered to sell me the shop and most everything in it and he asked me to change the name. I took the opportunity and we quickly made the decision to move the shop to a better location and a smaller, more manageable building.
Gavin: How was it for you running the shop and eventually closing it to change locations?
Jon: I just took over paying the bills at first. I don't know if you ever saw that building. It was 3,000 square feet and had a half pipe ramp in there. iIt was awesome at first, but there were seven of us then. After they moved back to SF and a couple of artists parted ways, it didn't make sense to stay in this giant building with such a small crew. We found the current location and started the ball rolling. It was a lot of hard work; I think I had a couple of nervous breakdowns, but we did it.
Gavin: How did you come across the location on 400 South and what made you decide to move in?
Jon: Andrew lives in that neighborhood. That building had been vacant for years and wasn't even on the market. Andrew found out the contact info for the building owner and we set up a meeting with him. After a couple of more meetings, the building was offered to us and we jumped on it. It was smaller, but perfect size for what we needed and the location can't be beat. It is on the TRAX line right in front of a very busy stop AND we are the closest shop to the University and just a block up from 700 East and still not isolated from downtown or the rest of the valley.
Gavin: For those who may not know, can you explain the reference to the name Heart Of Gold, and what made you choose that as the shop name?
Jon: Douglas Adams is one of my heroes. He is the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy; the S.S. Heart Of Gold is the name of the spaceship the heroes travel around the galaxy in. That series of books are some of my favorites and Hitchhiker's Guide, the first book in the series, was one of the first books I ever read. Also, it's a song from Neil Young's 1972 album Harvest; both references have equal importance. Neil Young's lyrics for that song are so positive, to always keep searching and always keep trying to be better: "I wanna live, I wanna give, I've been a miner for a heart of gold ..." That pretty much says it all. In Hitchhiker's Guide, the starship Heart Of Gold has what is called "The Infinite Probability Drive" which is pointless for me to explain at length. In short, it offers endless possibilities to those using it. However, you never know which outcome you will get but it usually all works out in the end, unless you are a sperm whale or a bowl of petunias.
Gavin: What was it like for you hiring other artists and running the shop on your own?
Jon: Andrew King and Austin Huffman worked with me at Cicatrix and they came with me. We all worked on the shop together to get it open. I hired Ryan Campbell based on his online portfolio and his reputation and recommendation from Andrew, who had previously worked with him at another shop. I have known the ins and outs of running a shop for years, but when the reins are in your hands, it's a different story. I was intensely aware of the weight of responsibility before I even had the reins. I spent a lot of sleepless nights when we were getting the shop ready to open and that first winter wasn't easy. But we got there. I say "WE" because I don't run this place on my own, I have a crew of great friends and I never would have been able to do this without their help.
Gavin: You've become a revered local artist in terms of geek-related tattoos. What is it like for you having that kind of reputation, and do you try to live up to it in some way or just ignore it?
Jon: I love it and, yes, I try my hardest to live up to it. I would say at least 60% of the tattoos I do are geek related, maybe even more. Some people think it's silly or kid's stuff, but I never grew out of it. I'm 35 years old now and I embrace it more than I ever have. Of course, that isn't my only passion. I don't want to paint myself into a geek corner. I love all kinds of tattoo styles -- geek tattoos are just one of the styles that I love, but if I get the reputation as being as the go-to geek tattooer, so be it, bring it on. I love it.
Gavin: As part of that reputation, what are some of the strangest tattoo requests you've received and fulfilled?
Jon: I wouldn't really say anything was too strange; to each their own. I have done Star Wars, Star Trek, Dune, Lord Of The Rings, Legend Of Zelda, Super Mario ... etc., etc. -- all kinds of Marvel and DC, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, literary and film references, video games, anime; the list goes on and on. Let's not forget actual science like math, physics, astronomy and chemistry, even engineering tattoos. I wouldn't consider any of them strange. They were all fun and challenging, and each client is usually very interesting and fun to talk to during the tattoo process. I try to engage the client as much as I can. Nobody likes a quiet and awkward tattoo session.
Gavin: The shop just recently passed its one-year anniversary. How is it for you and the staff making it to this point, where a lot of businesses would have folded by now in this economy?
Jon: It was great! There were ups and downs, a few arguments, but that's normal. It's never been a "my way or the highway" type of place. I encourage my co-workers to be open and honest and speak their minds. As far as the economy goes? It slowed a little bit, but people like to treat themselves and sometimes people see getting a tattoo as a kind of therapy or to mark a significant occasion. It's a small and meaningful luxury that people seem to still be able to fit into their budgets.
Gavin: Going local for a bit, what are your thoughts on our tattoo shops, both good and bad?
Jon: We have a thriving tattoo ... scene, community? I don't know what else to call it, but when you have a conservative culture there is always a backlash or a flip side. It's pretty awesome. There are a lot of heavily tattooed people in this town, not just Salt Lake but the entire valley and surrounding areas, which is surprising to people who come from out of state. They have a preconceived idea about Salt Lake, and most of the time they find the opposite of what they expected. Whenever a friend from out of state visits and makes fun of Utah beer, I make sure I buy them a Wasatch Hop Rising and see what they think; they are always pleasantly surprised. We have an amazing International Tattoo Convention that attracts incredible artists from around the world and country; tattooers will come every year to work at the Salt Lake convention. This town is a great place to work and a great place to be and get tattooed. I'm not interested in saying anything negative.
Gavin: Is there anything you wish would change or think could be done better?
Jon: Sometimes, tattooers get busy doing what they are doing, just doing their own thing, which isn't bad ,but I wish we could be more involved in what other tattooers are doing. More cooperation, more communication, which is what the convention is for, I guess -- communication, sharing and networking, showing off for your peers. We are all each other's competition but that makes us all strive to be better; sort of a friendly one upmanship, but sometimes the friendly part of the equation isn't there and that is what I would change.
Gavin: Who are some other tattoo artists whose artwork you've enjoyed checking out?
Jon: Andrew King and Austin Huffman at Heart Of Gold! My friends and former coworkers, Oni Tattoo and Apparition, joined forces and combined shops, 1896 Electric Company in Logan and Cathedral Tattoo. I have enjoyed becoming friends and making acquaintances with the talented tattooers at Yellow Rose, Lost Art, Good Times, Anchor, Ironclad, Painted Temple, Pain and Wonder Tattoo in Athens, Ga., Flying Tiger Tattoo in New Britain Conn. ... Did I drop enough names? Derek Merritt, Murray Sell, Zach Sandall, Ishmael Johnson, Shawn McDonald, Derek Martinez, Oscar Garcia Mike Groves, Chris Parry and Tee Jay Hernandez. If I forgot anybody, I'm sorry, it's late. As far as tattooers worldwide, past and present? I would say the list is endless.
Gavin: What can we expect from both yourself and Heart Of Gold the rest of the year and going into next?
Jon: Continuing to offer the highest-quality artwork and boldest tattoos along with the best, friendliest and attitude-free tattoo experience possible. Whatever you need, we've got it. Come in and check us out.
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Jon: Um ... If you haven't already, be sure to add us on Facebook; we update portfolio photos, paintings and tattoos. Check out our Website, as well. We should have NEW stickers, T-shirts and hoodies for winter soon. Check out my buddy Dave Styer's blog GEEK-LEET-IST. Also be sure to tune into my friend's podcast, The Geek Show Podcast. Oh, and drink root beer because it's good.
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