Image isn’t everything, but it’s a lot to Luke Wessman. Born in an outhouse on a hippie farm in Tennessee and raised with gangsters in Southern Cali, Wessman is one of the world’s most renowned tattoo artists, known for his “traditional gangster” style.
The 33-year-old fully tattooed badass may not be as hard as he looks—he once worked as a beekeeper and his most memorable tattoo was one he inked on his ex-girlfriend, during which he shed a few tears.
Wessman spoke with Complex at the Wooster Street Social Club where he discussed his reality TV experience on TLC's Miami Ink and NY Ink, stigmas surrounding his career, progression and he shared a few stories about tattooing Silkk the Shocker and Master P—well, sort of.
Interview by Lauren Nostro (@LAURENcynthia)
So you were born in Tennessee and moved to Southern Cali, what was childhood like for you?
I was born into a hippie family in a hippie farm, they were free spirited people. My family got kicked out eventually. Hippie farms were places in the '70s that practiced organic living and they built their own societies. My dad didn’t want to follow all the rules. They left, but my mom was pregnant with me and didn’t know where to have me. They went back to the hippie farm and they let us in because she was almost in labor. We lived in a shack behind the main area of the hippie farm—no electricity, no water. She went into the communal bathroom, an outhouse sort of place, and I was born on the floor. They waited a bit and then we hitchhiked to California. I never really grew up in Tennessee.
For me, street life was more just being around a bunch of gangs. I always knew if I got into that, I would never saw a positive outcome. I really had a lot of respect for it. When you grow up with thugs and gangsters...they were who everyone in the neighborhood respected.
I watched your Self Made documentary and your friend mentioned one of your first jobs was as a beekeeper.
As a kid, one of our neighbors had a beekeeping business, I started working there for $6 an hour. I learned the value of hard work and making money. I worked as much as I could. My parents moved but I was so established, even though I was a young kid, because I had that job and worked at a skate shop and had other jobs.
What was street life like in Oceanside?
For me, street life was more just being around a bunch of gangs. I always knew if I got into that, I would never saw a positive outcome. I really had a lot of respect for it. When you grow up with thugs and gangsters...they were who everyone in the neighborhood respected. I had a healthy appreciation for it. Learning the codes of the street and knowing it wasn’t for me exactly, surfing pulled me away from that. Oceanside is right on the beach, there are a lot of gangs right on the beach, but you were able to escape by just going into the water. My older brother messed around with gangs, they were all over. I could have easily went a different way in life.
Did your interest in tattoos start from getting your first one?
Yeah, for me, my first tattoo was my last name across my back, super street official. It was the standard. I was 16 at the time, my older brother, Eventide, one of his best friends did tattoos out of his house. I didn’t know much about it at the time. I knew the neighborhood guys had them and I wanted to look tough. I remember walking into that apartment and my brother’s friend had surfboards, wetsuits, skateboards—everyone would trade him things for tattoos. I think I paid $10 a letter. At the time it hurt a lot but I was stoked to have it. I thought that may be it but I think once you cross that line of getting one, you’re not as afraid to get more and it almost became a competition with neighborhood friends.
I think once you cross that line of getting one tattoo, you’re not as afraid to get more and it almost became a competition with neighborhood friends.
When did you realize that you wanted to start tattooing other people?
I started to get them a lot and I became friends with a bunch of tattooers and they opened a shop in the neighborhood. It was the first shop open in the last 20 years, it was called About Face. In Oceanside, tattooing had been outlawed for a long period of time. They had the military there, and a lot of prostitution, they were just trying to clean up that area and tattooing was outlawed in the '50s and '60s. About Face was a busy shop, it was the only one in the city and was by the military base. I began to see a bunch of different styles of tattooing because before [I was in the shop] it was just neighborhood stuff only. That’s all I knew—Virgin Marys, black and grey coloring. I saw more traditional tattooing in that shop. I started getting tattooed by someone in the shop who I surfed with and he asked me if I wanted to start tattooing. I never thought about doing it, I was just trying to work hard and build some stability in my life.
At the time, I was an electrician—I was making decent money for 17 and could get tattooed. I slowly started getting into the tattoo scene, but at the time there was no TV or Internet so I was just learning from these guys. This guy Milford Barnes asked me if I wanted to start tattooing but I wasn’t sure if I could make a living off it. After a week, I opened myself up to a long road of apprenticing under Milford. It wasn’t a 100 percent official apprenticeship, I didn’t learn to build machines or all this stuff. For two years, I would work as an electrician in the morning until 3 p.m. and go to the tattoo shop right after for the night.
At first [the tattoos I did] were just clean, bold, classic tattooing—a lot of sailor stuff. But pimps would also bring their prostitutes in to get their names done, so we’d be good at doing names and a lot of classic stuff.
At what age did you really start taking tattooing seriously and consider it as a career?
When I started full-time, the guy that offered to teach me how to tattoo moved to a well-known shop in San Diego, Lucky’s (which is really famous for classic tattooing and traditional style). I was the shop guy there for a while. One of our friends that worked there died, a few of the guys got fired, and there was a hole for me to start tattooing but the owner didn’t know I tattooed. I built a little portfolio but I thought he might fire me after he found out I was tattooing. He was like, ‘Fuck, I need you to tattoo here, your stuff isn’t that bad, you can start with small stuff tattooing here.’ I wasn’t necessarily ready to start with tattooing but that’s sometimes how it goes with tattooing—you’re not ready and you jump back in.
What were those first few years like working in the shop?
At first it was just clean, bold, classic tattooing—a lot of sailor stuff. But pimps would also bring their prostitutes in to get their names done, so we’d be good at doing names and a lot of classic stuff. All the flash in the shop was really unique and one-of-a-kind.
Speaking of the street style and the traditional tattoos, people have coined your personal style as “traditional gangster.”
I like it a lot. It’s the merge between growing up around street and neighborhood tattooing like Olde English and block letters and then you go and learn to tattoo at this traditional shop. My influences come from both and I guess that would be the mix of traditional gangster tattooing.
"Traditional gangster" is the merge between growing up around street and neighborhood tattooing like Olde English and block letters and then you go and learn to tattoo at this traditional shop.
How long did it take you to really create a following and say, ‘Okay this is my style?’
It’s taken a while. I’m still developing it. Definitely a good eight to 10 years before I had something that really felt original or my own. I’m always looking to improve or change. You draw something so much that your artwork has a certain feel.
Now, you own Lucky’s tattoo parlor in San Diego, right where you first started.
Yes, the owner left because him and his wife got sick and he just couldn’t deal with the store anymore. My partner, Shane, decided to stay and work it out and keep the shop. I jumped into being a business owner at 21. It was right after I started. At the time, it was a war between being a business owner and growing artistically, which I’m still trying to develop today much less the beginning.
When did you end up moving down to Miami to film TLC’s Miami Ink?
Eventually they called me to come out and help. It became one of the busiest shops ever. They had lines of 50 to 60 people after the show aired. It was the first time I ever left my shop. I decided to go there every two weeks—going back and forth for a while. One of my good friends, Morgan Pennypacker, he worked at Lucky’s before I did and he ended up being Ami James' first employee. Between them, they got me out there. Eventually I moved out there.
But at the time, we had zero weeks, we had good days and bad days—it was enough to pay the bills. It went from that to Miami where we were making great money.
Was the style different in Miami, tattoo-wise?
It was a lot of different everything. One, it was the first time in my life that I made extra money. Before that, tattooing wasn’t popular. I wasn’t a big name, I was just starting out.
What does a starting out tattoo artist make in Oceanside?
We had weeks where we didn’t make any money. I usually don’t like to talk about how much I make. But at the time, we had zero weeks, we had good days and bad days—it was enough to pay the bills. It went from that to Miami where we were making great money.
So you ended up moving to Miami for good. What were you impressions of the show at the time?
It was really hard to be excited about it then, because I was brought up around traditional tattoo artists and a lot of the old values and respect and a little bit of the ignorance and stubbornness of it. To publicize it on TV was a no-no, and it’s something that you grow up learning and something that you respect. Once Ami opened it to the world on TV, it was like, ‘What the fuck.’ Then, at the same time, I got to benefit from it. Ultimately, I have to make a living with my life so I had to find a balance between my standards and my future. In the end, it was a great show, they were showing great tattooing, they weren’t giving away any secrets. To be a part of that, it was really special and it’s part of tattoo history.
How did you adjust to the lifestyle in Miami? I’m sure it’s a lot different than California.
I was working there for four-and-a-half years, but only living there for a few years. The girl I was with didn’t like living there. It’s full of great nightlife and beaches, I enjoyed it, I learned how to relax there and chill on a day off by the pool which I had never done before. I’m still getting used to that. Me and my girl didn’t really drink or go out so weren’t partaking in the nightlife of Miami because we were working a lot, which was cool because I would hang out with her and paint all the time.
To publicize it on TV was a no-no, and it’s something that you grow up learning and something that you respect. Once Ami opened it to the world on TV, it was like, ‘What the fuck.’ Then, at the same time, I got to benefit from it. Ultimately, I have to make a living with my life.
When did you start painting?
When I learned how to tattoo, I learned how to paint and to me, it went hand in hand. The style of watercolor, it’s similar to the way I tattoo, it was just like exercising. I just found a way to find time to paint. Throughout the years, I’ve always done tattoo style painting.
After the Miami show wrapped up, where did you move next?
I started traveling and working in a lot of places—Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Amsterdam, Germany. I went to all of these places in the last two years, meanwhile Ami said he was building NY Ink and he called me to tell me he had a spot for me and that he’d love me to be there. It was perfect timing. I wasn’t ready to settle in San Diego even though I had this shop. I have an addiction to progress.
After traveling, you get involved with Ami’s new shop in New York—NY Ink, better known as the Wooster Street Social Club.
Actually when Ami called me, he wanted me to be one of the main cast members but I’m more of a laid-back guy so they fought him on it. I’m more of a sideliner on the show and it’s been a cool place for me because I don’t have to be a goofball all over the billboards and lose some credibility with people I respect, but I can still build my client base.
Do you feel like you lose credibility by being on the show?
Yeah, I mean even Tim Hendricks, he’s an amazing tattooer and loved by everyone, but he’s gotten a lot of hate for being a main guy on the show. It’s people’s ignorance, their stubbornness, and I understand that because I come from that. It’s a bummer. When you get older it’s about trying to make a decent living and Tim fought with the idea of being on the show because of that reason. A lot of times the show is controlled by the network so it’s not as much reality as you’d hope.
Now that you're all settled in New York, do you still own your shop in San Diego?
I still own it, it’s been 10 years but I feel like I’m going a different route in my life. My partner there is stable, he has kids and a family. I’m like a machine, I want to progress and tear it up—I don’t want to be there right now but I’ve lost some clientele just from not being there and the people that I’ve worked with over the years, now that I’m gone so much people aren’t looking for me as much on that local sense. Globally, I’ve been traveling and I have a following now.
There's a fun edge that's lost a little bit by having the show and the fame, that's everywhere throughout tattooing now because people expect consultations and to be babied through your artwork. Back in the day it was like, 'You want something like this? Alright sit down, shut up, we're going to do that.'
What was the start of the show like in New York?
It was a little crazy, it’s always difficult to be around people who are normal and then get a little bit of fame, and watching people fight with their egos. It's not a bad thing, it's just normal. Trying to be chill and work with it, work around it, and tattoo people through it—it's definitely a weird tattoo environment, it's unlike any normal tattoo shop in the world. Here, we're in a new world of public reality. It's cool but there's a fun edge that's lost a little bit by having the show and the fame, that's everywhere throughout tattooing now because people expect consultations and to be babied through your artwork. Back in the day it was like, 'You want something like this? Alright sit down, shut up, we're going to do that.'
Is it annoying for you as an artist when people constantly try to alter the art before getting tattooed?
It's annoying as a tattoo artist but as a patient person, I deal with it okay.
Speaking of your personality, can you explain the idea of the 'Self Made' documentary film you did?
I got my knuckles tattooed with Self Made. As a tattoo artist, you're always trying to think of cool tattoos to fit your knuckles. The meaning is that throughout my life, everything I've made in it has been by myself pretty much. Good friends have helped me along the way, but I didn't have a boost or a handout from anyone. It was a self made existence where you're building from zero. There's no safety net.
I did a cool rosary on Silkk the Shocker’s arm. I filled up like all this little space and did a big one on him. But for some reason, Master P wanted a temporary one on his neck.
That's great. Let's talk about some of the most memorable tattoos that you've done. Is there a favorite for you?
The girl I broke up with, that I was with forever. A year later, she emailed me that she wanted to get her head tattooed, she wanted lettering. This was the first contact I had with her for a year. I told her I would do it and I didn't think about it, I just responded. She asked to do it at midnight at my shop in California and she wanted "No Love Lost" on the side of her head, she had part of it shaved. I just remember her coming to the shop and me sketching out the design and shedding a few tears while drawing it up.
That's really beautiful. You've also had some big clientele over the years. Did you actually tattoo Master P on a video shoot?
The picture of me tattooing him, I’m actually drawing a fake one on his neck for a video. I don’t know if he’s embarrassed about it or not. When I was still fairly new in tattooing, I had a friend who was shooting some Master P videos in LA, and they needed a tattooer to do some temporary tattoos on all the models. That was what I was told. I was, ‘Rad! I’ll go up there and draw fake tattoos on pretty girls, I’m in, no problem.’ But I was a little nervous because I had never done that before. I was going there with the mindset to do all the temporary stuff on all the models for the videos. I think Master P was shooting three videos that day, and it was when he was big and doing a lot of stuff.
After giving the women temporary tattoos, I just started doing some of the crew. Real tattoos, just doing cool stuff, cool roses—I did a cool rosary on Silkk the Shocker’s arm. I filled up like all this little space and did a big one on him. But for some reason, Master Pwanted a temporary one on his neck.
I spent a whole day with Jaheim when he was filming the video for "Everytime I Think About Her" with Jadakiss. He came in the shop and he was really easy to deal with. He wanted a portrait of Luther Vandrossand some lettering underneath.
Maybe he was a little scared of getting a neck tattoo.
I don’t think he was scared. I just think he’s a smart businessman, he wasn’t messing around. To me it was kind of corny, to just portray that, but in music videos and entertainment, it’s just entertainment. Like half of these gangsters and half of these rap hustlers aren’t real hustlers. I think he’s a smart guy, he knew that, he was just going to portray an image in this video. So I did a big ‘No Limit’ on his neck, but it was a temporary one.
You were in talks with Rick Ross to get some tattoos, too, right?
Rick came into our shop in Miami. It was busy in there, and I was tattooing, and I noticed he came in. This was right when ‘Hustlin’ came out, you know that shit cracked. He’s bigger now. He came in, and I stopped tattooing. I was like, ‘Fuck, nobody’s helping him? I’m going to go help him.’ So I go up to him, I’m like, ‘Hey what’s up man? Nice to meet you, what’s happening?’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, I just want to see about getting a tattoo.’ And he had gotten tattooed by a friend of the shop, and he did a lot of stuff on him, and he’s like, ‘Well he told me to come and check you guys out.’ We were like, ‘Oh cool man, what do you want.’ And he’s like, ‘Honestly man, I just wanted to see what it was about today. Let me leave my number, and I’ll let you know, and we’ll figure it out, you know?’”
You tattooed Jaheim as well.
I spent a whole day with him when he was filming the video for "Everytime I Think About Her" with Jadakiss. He came in the shop and he was really easy to deal with. He wanted a portrait of Luther Vandross and some lettering underneath. I think he wiped out on a scooter in front of the shop when he was waiting for me to sketch it up. After I tattooed him, he went on to film more of the video and you can see his fresh tattoo in one of the scenes.
We went down to The Hit Factory around midnight, I talked Chris Garver into going with me to hang. It was in a weird neighborhood, we went in, and Lil Wayne's personal assistant told us to chill in the lounge area with Birdman who was playing pool.
I've seen that tattoo, it's so detailed. Weren't you supposed to tattoo Lil Wayne once, too?
We went down to The Hit Factory around midnight, I talked Chris Garver into going with me to hang. It was in a weird neighborhood, we went in, and his personal assistant told us to chill in the lounge area with Birdman who was playing pool. We were there for hours and Lil Wayne was in the booth and he ended up making us wait. I don't know if he got too high but it became 3:30 in the morning, and Garver wanted to go and I had to work the next day. If I had been by myself, I would've posted up and chilled for a bit.
It seems that he likes to keep people waiting.
That's what kind of sucks about some celebrities because you're this good artist and they come at you like you're disposable, not respecting that individually these artists are really great. I read an article on Game who was like, 'I just go into a shop and tell them to tattoo me.' It was an ignorant comment and didn't respect the art of it. Respect it, figure it out, find good people to tattoo you.
Who’s done most of your tattoos, by the way?
I was thinking about it the other day, most of my tattoos have been done by 30 of 40 different artists.
Do you have a favorite tattoo that you've gotten done?
It’s hard to pick one, it’s a real difficult question, because you get these different ones at meaningful moments or meaningful tattoos. I have some 'Rest In Peace' ones for friends that have died, which are the most important—a serious event that’s captured and memorialized and immortalized on your body. So those are the most important maybe. I have this really nice artwork by Chris Garver, this beautiful woman—from an art perspective, it’s my nicest tattoo. I have this cool snake on my stomach that Ami did, a Japanese snake. I have these different beautiful pieces, and each one has signified the moment or the style of art that happened. The most controversial one is my face one.
I read an article on Game who was like, 'I just go into a shop and tell them to tattoo me.' It was an ignorant comment and didn't respect the art of it. Respect it, figure it out, find good people to tattoo you.
The cross under your eye?
It’s a Latin-style, Pachuco cross—I got it ten years ago as a kid, and at the time, it was more part of the neighborhood culture. I was one of those white guys who thought he was black or Mexican growing up, because it was everyone who was around me. That was part of my upbringing. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, you’re trying to dress like this.’ No, that’s how we dressed in our neighborhood. So the tattoo was kind of the styled cross.
What do you think about getting them removed. I know 50 Cent’s got some of his removed.
That’s crazy to me. It’s like erasing a Mona Lisa. He’s got a nice beautiful Cartoon masterpiece that he’s just dissing basically. And I’m sure Mister Cartoon is not upset about it. It’s kind of disrespectful. I would like to get my hands and neck removed. Sometimes I think about it, but I have this artwork by these legendary tattoo artists that I look up to and respect their art. It’s like having a beautiful painting and just wiping it away. It depends.
One last question for you, in regards to something I heard in your Self Made documentary. Someone mentioned the divide between older tattoo artists and what's trendy now, like more graphic designers becoming tattoo artists, etc. What are your thoughts on that?
It's an interesting thing. There's the main old guys, that learn how to tattoo, learn how to use the machines and they learn how to apply tattoos—the purest form of tattooing. Now there's more and more of an art influence where you're artistically skilled and you're joining that with the tattoo form. Now artists are becoming tattooers and the emphasis is bigger on art than the tattoo skill. In between that, there's this loss of the boundaries of what you can do as a tattooer and what you should do.
Now artists are becoming tattooers and the emphasis is bigger on art than the tattoo skill. In between that, there's this loss of the boundaries of what you can do as a tattooer and what you should do.
These artists are coming from a pure art perspective without learning a lot of the boundaries of old tattooing. You have these people doing these fancy designs because they come from a painting background without a tattoo background so this mix in the middle are all these young kids who aren't really learning from old guys or time-tested methods. There's reasons why certain things are done because there are limitations. There are no limitations to these kids because they're used to doing design and painting and graphic design. They're stretching the boundaries at first but not really knowing the consequences later on.