Human beings have been tattooing themselves for roughly 5,000 years, which of course means that bad tattoos have been around at least equally as long. But whether we’re talking poorly done proto-scratchings or even more poorly done skull-themed ink, there historically has been one answer to combat the tackiness: Cover-ups.
These fixes for poorly done, ruined, or outgrown tattoos are the currency in which tattoo artist Tim Pangburn deals—and business, perhaps not surprisingly, has been good. So good that, in fact, Pangburn has been asked back on to TLC’s America’s Worst Tattoos, which features Miami Ink-style tattoos stories and the unique fixes that come out of repairing a disastrous old tattoo.
Even before the first season of America’s Worst Tattoos aired last year, Pangburn had become known as the guy to go to get your bad ink made good—and, by extension, so did his 2,700-square-foot Fishtown tattoo studio, Art Machine Productions. He’s been tattooing since 1998, so that reputation has come hard-earned.
Tonight at 10:30 p.m. on TLC, though, Pangburn joins a host of high-caliber artists working to correct the mistakes of lower quality ones. Luckily, I had a chance to talk with him recently about making bad tattoos into good ones, Philly’s tattoo presence, and why exactly he had to wear a clown suit as a young’un just starting out in the tattoo industry. Check out the interview below.
What got you into tattooing in the first place? Certainly you didn’t start off with jumping right to cover-ups.
When I got tattooed for the first time when I was 17 years old, I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I got an apprenticeship when I was 19 and that was that. I dedicated all my time to learn how to tattoo.
What was the apprenticeship process like for you? Was it different from traditional schooling at all?
An apprenticeship is an intimate process because it’s not just sitting there and learning. You develop close relationships with the people you work with, and one of the things about that is that you tend to get humiliated.
What’s the point of all that humiliation? I hear your particular set of duties somehow involved a clown suit.
Part of the whole process is that you’re kind of getting broken down. You’re learning respect for what you’re doing and the people you’re with. It’s not really a formal education—I wore a clown suit a couple times to go and wave down traffic. It wasn’t a punishment, but more of a way to make me learn respect for the industry. We have to understand the work that goes into all this because if it’s just handed to you, you won’t get it.
How did you go from donning a clown suit to becoming known for cover-up work?
Cover-ups have been a specialty of mine. It’s just one of those things that everyone who does tattoos has to do, though. For me, I was ambitious—I was big on things that some people I worked with didn’t want to handle. In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have been trying to take those things on because with some of them, I look back and wonder what business I had trying to do anything like that.
What is appealing about doing cover-ups for you? Do you enjoy doing them?
It’s not necessarily an enjoyable thing. It’s difficult and uncertain when you start doing it. You don’t always know what’s going to happen, and sometimes the tattoo interferes with your initial vision, and tattoo artists don’t like that.
How did the America’s Worst Tattoos people find you? Did you audition for the show?
They found me at the Philadelphia Tattoo Convention in 2012 while they were doing casting. Eventually, the crew came by my booth and looked at my portfolio. They wanted me to do an on-camera interview, so I did it and they liked me. I guess it partially was my work and partially that I look pretty OK on camera.
Tattooing while being filmed seems difficult. Did you find yourself having to adapt to all the camera work going on?
The first season was weird at first. I had to get used to people filming me while I tattooed—I mean, they’d have a camera in my face while I working and that’s not typical. But overall it wasn’t that weird, you would think it’s super invasive but the client knows there’s camera and it doesn’t interrupt the normal process very much at all. Actually, there’s more time spent talking to the client because of the camera, so that’s good.
Your website says you reserve the right to humiliate anyone who rips off your designs. Have you seen a lot of style biting since the show started airing? Or is that a constant in tattooing?
I don’t actually do that! But there is an uncomfortable amount of plagiarism in tattooing. If I see someone that copied a tattoo I did, it just doesn’t make sense to me—these are custom designs for our clients. I’m not doing flash off the wall, so for someone to copy that after printing it off the Internet, it’s just unfair to me and the client. It’s hurtful.
Has Art Machine Productions become known as the shop for cover-ups in Philly since the first season aired? Are your artists taking to that perception at all?
If people want cover-ups, they come to us. For one, I’ve built a reputation doing them, and that’s kind of filtered out to the rest of the shop. I’ve gotten busy and there were times that I wasn’t even taking clients and people were still coming to the shop. So, yeah, we’re kind of seen as a cover-up shop—I’m glad the rest of the guys are OK with that.
Does there seem to be a lot more bad tattoos in Philly over other cities? I’m sure you’ve seen your share of LOVE Park sculpture tattoos and Eagles logos.
There’s a lot of bad tattoos anywhere you go—it’s just one of those things. I’ve lived outside the area in Pittsburgh and Atlanta, and I pushed cover-ups because you just have to have something like that to offer. There’s not more in Philly than anywhere else. Wherever you go, there are bad tattoos and that’s a shame.