Talking with Tattooer and Painter BECCA ROACH
By Brian Newman
Becca Roach has put more needles in me than I care to remember but I keep coming back because of her thorough, beautiful work, her attention to detail, and her great attitude on life and the art of tattooing. Always a consummate professional, she has inked many of my fellow New Yorkers as well as fans from across the country. I recently sat down in the parlor at North Star to get a bit of finishing ink on my sleeve, whilst I cringe and try to talk about her experiences as an artist, her all around rockin’ personality and the worst tattoo ideas ever.
Brian Newman: When did you first start to draw?
Becca Roach: As soon as I could hold a tool to make marks with, I’m pretty sure. Stick in the mud, marker on paper. I’d paint on everything.
BN: What kind of things we’re in your sketchpad growing up?
BR: Horses, ballet dancers, trees, landscapes, cows. Lots of cows. I grew up on a dairy farm. I guess I just drew a lot of what I saw.
BN: When did you start tattooing and what got you into it?
BR: I started an apprenticeship one year after college. I was bartending, and didn’t see much of a future for myself in that world, and knew I had to make some moves. Tattoos were an obsession, and learning to tattoo was a natural choice. I figured it would save me from my inevitable doomed future in punk rock. It did.
BN: I know that in the beginning of your tattoo studies you gave yourself a few tattoos. Who was the first person who ever let you put permanent ink on them and what was the piece?
BR: My boyfriend at the time, of course. I had just finished my first tattoo ever, on myself, and jumped at it. Couldn’t wait to get a piece, and much to my dismay, made an appointment at the shop. I was mostly terrified. He was a bit older than me, and had lots of work already; from some pretty amazing artists (Joe Capobianco, Jeff Ortega, plus more). James wanted a grenade, with the letters “SFMC” in a banner across it. I drew it a million times, and it felt like I was shitting razorblades (sorry Mom) when it came time to do the tattoo (I’m a lady, I swear!). I was so nervous to be sharing canvas with some of my influences. I had never had a panic attack until I began tattooing. I think the first year was all panic attack. I’m sure drinking all that coffee didn’t help one bit.
BN: Lots of my friends have great pieces from you that are all unique in your own creative style and I can spot a Becca Roach from across the bar. What’s your favorite style of tattooing?
BR: Thanks Brian! You’ve been a great help in building my clientele over the years! I really love the old style Americana tattoos. They’re fun, funny, and classic. They don’t go bad, or get old. It’s fun to rework them and maybe make them a little more unique for the client. Lately I’ve been taking a big influence from my co-workers at North Star, and trying to learn the traditional Japanese style. Rodrigo Melo, the owner, has been a wonderful teacher. Always available to help with a design problem, and give some insight to the Japanese style. I’ve been trying to really focus on composition, and making sure there’s lots of black. There’s so much to learn, everything has a meaning. I really have to do my homework with the Japanese stuff. It’s a lot deeper than just picking out good reference.
When I was in Switzerland and Germany last year, I was able to try out some Polynesian style of tattooing–the kind of abstract black work that really flows with the shape of your body. I really got into it, and now here in New York I’ve been working on my trainer’s leg. All of it. It’s the kind of thing where I spend a few hours drawing it on him with a sharpie, and then a few more tattooing it. Were about half way done, it’s far more challenging than I expected, but i really love it. I’ve been tattooing next to David Sena for the last four years at North Star, and it’s rubbed off on me in a good way. I really like his work, and learn lots from watching him. He has a really unique way of mixing a lot of styles and influences into one really big, beautiful cohesive piece. It’s pretty cool to watch him draw–most of which he does on the client. I hope to do more of that kind of work in the future.
When I was younger I hardly ever saw any one with tattoos, but now it seems that everyone has at least one. Tattoos are becoming a lot less taboo. Especially in places like NYC, or other larger cities. Maybe that has something to do with television, all these shows they have now, or the media on the Internet, I’m not sure. People are coming into North Star with no tattoos, and signing up to get sleeves. That sort of thing never used to happen. I think it’s kind of cool, that people are beginning to have some foresight, enough to try and plan a suit, or a sleeve. It’s nice, and reflects well on us. We always get really excited when people come to us looking for nice large work.
BN: What separates the lifers from the casual customer?
BR: It’s sort of an obsession. At first you see a tattoo on your arm, and eventually, you start to see the negative space and want to fill it. I’m not sure what it is that makes us need to cover ourselves, exactly, but it’s common. I think once you get over the initial “hump” of the first tattoo, it’s easier to pick something nice, and go and get it. I think that’s what people are talking about when they say tattoos are addicting. I think it just gets easier. Not the pain (that gets harder), but the decision making part of picking out good stuff. Your taste gets better, the anxiety is lessened.
BN: Is there a certain type of work you’d prefer not to do?
BR: I don’t really do white tattoos, but everything else is pretty much fair game. I’ll tell you if I think it’s too small, but that’s it. I’m open to all ideas–and for white tattoos, Daniel Cotte will do ‘em. You can find him here at North Star. I prefer not to do late night ‘fast food” tattoos. You know the type; the drunk post-brunchers or weekend warriors who decided they all need matching tattoos on their hips immediately! You live here? Make an appointment! Be classy! I dont have the patience for that kind of crowd. Again, Daniel Cotte does! I’m so glad to work with him. He makes it all better. He’s really good, really fast, and 100% non-judgmental. I hope to have that kind of patience. I turned thirty recently; I’m hoping it comes with age.
BN: I may be giving away too much, since I don’t own shorts, but I have a huge, ridiculous, crooning zombie on my leg (that you did not give me) and everyone I know with a decent amount of ink has at least one thing they wish had thought through a bit more. What was the weirdest, funniest, or “worst idea ever” tattoo you ever gave?
BR: Oh man. There are too many bad ideas out there. One time I tattooed a penis with a knife stabbed through it on this kids arm. It was his first tattoo. I had drawn up some ridiculous flash for a party called “knife fight” in a storefront in Soho, thinking no one would ever get the “boner.” It was the first tattoo I did that night. Eventually the police came and shut us down. No one was surprised. Another time this girl came into NYHC asking for us to tattoo “continental breakfast” inside her mouth, on her lower lip. When we told her it wouldn’t fit, she said, “Okay. I thought you might say that. So I’ll get ‘butt sex’ instead.” So that what she got.”Butt sex” right there in her mouth. Kids these days. Hah!
BN: Tattooists or not, who are your major art influences?
BR: Major influences for personal work include: Dan Eldon, Robert Frank, Steve Powers, Jon Langford, Mollie d Munns (my best friend, sister, amazing painter), Alphonse Mucha, Ralph Stedman, Cindy Sherman, Nan Golden, David Hochbaum, Robert Fludd, Posada, Frieda Kahlo, David Button, Kit White, Duke Riley. My own 35mm photos, my friends, everyone I’ve ever served beer to, and everyone I’ve ever kicked out of a bar. Brandon Welch, my art teacher from high school who told me I was better than he was. He writes plays and punk rock. He took me to my first bar in NYC and then I was kicked out for being underage. Libby O’Flaherty, who is one of those nymphy little ladies who’s good at everything she touches. She’s living the dream–currently with a cowboy in Montana making leather goods. Bukowski, Hunter Thompson, Alberto Vargas.
Those little trinkets you find and keep. That’s the real good stuff. Old things like architectural parts. Demolition Depot. That place is amazing. You want 10,000 claw foot tubs? They have them; I have one! Abandoned urban places. Remnants of different times. That’s what gets to me. Luc Sante, who wrote about NYC before I came here. I think I understand more because of him. Thank you. So much music has inspired my art. Anyone who ever wrote a song about how mysterious and beautiful NYC is–that inspires me. I really love those old woodblock prints, both Japanese and Mexican. Man, Mexico really has my heart. I feel at home there. I could paint the virgin and roses till my death. I love that stuff.
Hokusai, Gifu Horihide, Hiroshige’s book of birds and flowers blows me away. Philip Leu. I had the pleasure of meeting and working next to (for only a day) Owen Williams from Rico and Shion of Daruma Goya. Hari Seda, all the guys at North Star, who still teach me everyday about what it means to be a tattooer, and really how to put in black. John Reardon, Eli Quinters, Steve Boltz, Elvis Crocker, who apprenticed me. Billy Colligan, “apprentice bill” who brought me to all of those BTU meetings that really pissed off Hillary, Eli, and Steve. Eddie Peralta, Jimmy the Saint, BJ Betts. Then there are all the guys that came before us, all those guys in the navy who tattooed on ships and in circuses around the world. I think they’re really what this “traditional” style of tattooing is about. They made designs for the specific purpose of being applied to the skin. They’re fun, quick, and clean. They still had a sense of humor then. I think that’s what some tattooing is missing these days, a sense of humor. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of tattoos out there are funny and all tattoos don’t have to be funny, but I think the industry as a whole sometimes gets a little too serious. “At the end of the day, it’s just a tattoo.” I think Eddie Peralta said that to me when he tattooed “vacacion permanente” into my ditch. Tattoos are wonderful, and my livelihood, and extraordinarily complex, but really, they’re not more important than fake boobs. Prettier, I think, but probably not more important. Feel free to send hate mail to me for saying that.
My biggest influences are anyone who has ever told me my work was good, decent, or even worth paying for. That’s the stuff; tell me that what I’m doing inspires you, and I’m all over it.
BN: Is there one huge back piece or sleeve that you are working on that you are super stoked on right now?
BR: Yeah! This girl was referred to me for two sleeves. I haven’t done both arms on someone yet. It’s a theme she came up with, so both arms “go together.” Well, they match, actually. They’re not very different. It’s a theme of star-crossed lovers. We’ve been doing these traditional Americana style small portraits, in little hearts, with a traditional Japanese background. She’s really light skinned and the color in the flowers really just pops. She’s also a pretty girl, and I think the magazines will like her come spring, when we finish. So far one arm is finished, and were halfway through the second arm. It’s nice to work like this, we have a standing Friday appointment. We’ve gotten to know each other, and be friends. It’s great. A lot like how you and I became friends.
Another piece I’ve mentioned already, on my trainer Ricky Aston. He’s got this amazing Polynesian leg sleeve were working on. Always a challenge.
BN: I can spot a Becca Roach piece from across the bar and a lot of my friends have great art from you; what makes your style so clean and unique?
BR: I like black. Lately I’ve been trying to use the right amount of it in each piece. It’s not a unique concept–actually I think it’s very traditional. Color balance and composition are equally important. The darks must balance the lights. There must be enough black! The whole piece must balance within its canvas. This is what I’m hoping to achieve with each piece- regardless of its theme. Tattooing our friends is a blast. I guess we all kinda like the same thing, and when I’m lucky enough to tattoo my homies, I can usually convince them to get something I like, or re-draw it so it kinda fits my style. Thanks for not bringing me pictures of other people’s tattoos you found on Google, and telling me you want that. I really hate that. I mean, is it really that hard to Google search what ever it is you want, instead of whatever it is you want plus the word “tattoo”? Please think outside of the box for one second. Do you really want that girls ugly ass antlers all to yourself? I hope not. But if you do, sure. Sit down. I’ll do it. It’s my job, ya know?
BN: Do you lean on the drill a bit harder on pain-in-the-ass clients?
BR: I think you know the answer to that Brian. You’ve experienced it first hand. Hah!
Becca Roach is a tattooer and painter currently living and working in NYC.
Written by Brian Newman
Edited by Meaghan Coffey
Photography by Coco Alexander
Hair by Frances Sand
Make-up by Noel Jacombi
Design by Marie Havens
Becca Roach, NYC, 2012, Photography by Coco Alexander