Seattle tattooer's ink sought by paint pilgrims from far away



Posted on May 9, 2014 at 5:47 AM

Updated Friday, May 9 at 5:47 AM

At the most basic level, a tattoo is simply ink trapped in someone's skin. Except, there's nothing basic about Damon Conklin's tattoos.

"Body's a temple. Hang some art," Conklin said. "I've always felt like we're getting away with something."

A spiritual experience that begins with physical alchemy, tattoos draw customers from thousands of miles away to Conklin's shop on Capitol Hill. Like a pilgrimage of paint, they travel to Conklin's pen. It's a journey that began for the artist when he was 26.

"It sounds weird, but I felt my life change that day," Conklin said. "Like a piece clicked into gear."

Conklin's grandfather raised him.

"He was really angry," Conklin said.  "He was trying to make a blue-collar kid but he got an artist handed to him."

He criticized his grandson for drawing instead of working on science or math. Conklin escaped through sketching superheroes. Colorful dreams from comic books angered his grandfather even more.

A conservative Jehovah's Witness, the line between grandfather and God blurred.

"He beat me every day and locked me in the house for 14 years. I became very angry and atheist."

Conklin ran away, landed in foster care, and then joined the military. His addiction to alcohol and drugs turned criminal, stealing from others.

"For the same reason everybody steals," Conklin remembered. "Because they feel entitled to things they don't have."

An Afro-wearing crack addict, Conklin started his early 20s entitled, miserable and alone.

"I needed to turn to a power greater than myself," he explained. "I became the last thing on earth I wanted to become - a Christian - which I hated."

Conklin still isn't a huge fan of Christians, many he believes go to church for the wrong reasons.

"And of course, every place is filled with people who aren't into it," Conklin said.

That may be true for most places, but not for tattoo shops, where lukewarm doesn't really make much sense.

"A tattoo's a really dumb thing to get if you're just there for superficial motives," Conklin said.

When Conklin sobered up, he saw a commercial for art school and flipped a coin.

 "It was heads - that meant go - so I went."

20 years later, Conklin owns Supergenius Tattoo. He's the founder of the Seattle Tattoo Expo. He's also the teacher for dozens of apprentices like Colin Bryant, who also believe something spiritual happens between the sketch and the skin.

"It's a connection between people," Bryant said. "Some people would call it God. Some people call it energy."

According to Conklin, tattooing is far more popular than when he started. In a rapidly changing world, the ancient practice of permanence is no longer just for rebels or outcasts.

"How beautiful is it to be able to commit to something and say, 'That's on me forever'?" Conklin said.

It's a commitment Conklin made himself. His smallest tattoo projects take about 24 hours. His largest requires nearly 100 hours of work. In every minute, he sees a tattoo of Jesus on his right arm while he paints. Simple ink trapped below his skin, the relic of a once angry child who stole from others, now making peace by giving back.

"A reminder to try to put God first," Conklin said. "I'm not good at a lot of things but I'm good at art. God gave me that gift to give to others."

A tattoo requires endurance, and Conklin says, tattoos are painful just like life. And yet, the man who spends his life permanently altering bodies believes there's nothing permanently significant about bodies at all.

"That's like trying to change the beach by painting grains of sand."

Just like the colors on his easel, Conklin's career, like all others, will eventually dry up. His tattoos are physical signposts on a metaphysical journey - ink trapped below the skin that frees the soul.

"Life is small. Eternity is long," Conklin said.  "Art and God matter. Everything else doesn't."