The buzz of the tattoo machine filled the air as Rick Stoughton went to work finishing up his latest masterpiece—a large custom-drawn design on the bicep of a Slippery Rock student.
Stoughton, of Youngstown, Pa., seemed to revel in the sound. He chatted calmly as he filled in the tattoo with vibrant blues and reds.
“We try not to take ourselves too seriously here,” he said. “We have lots of fun.”
Many may be shocked to learn that Stoughton, who has tattooed across the world for over 17 years, and is now working as a designer and tattoo artist at Tattoo U, originally became interested in tattooing because of his grandfather.
“I kind of fell into tattooing,” he said. “My grandfather was in World War II, and he and his buddies had all those cool tattoos from back in the day. I got my first tattoo because my grandpa had them.”
Bruce Zahniser, on the other hand, grew up with an interest in tattoos. Not long after getting his own first tattoo, he began working at Silver Bullet, a tattoo parlor in Hermitage, Pa. Zahniser, of Jackson Center, Pa, is a co-owner of and tattoo artist at Long Shot Tattoos.
While at a tattoo parlor at the age of 17, Zahniser looked around, saw everyone at work, and thought, “I could do this for forever.”
Both men, despite their different beginnings, love what they do.
“I get to do something I enjoy every day,” Zahniser said. “And I don’t have any set criteria I have to carry out. I think that’s my favorite part, honestly. It’s not like you’re going to go punch the clock. I come in here, and I’m not going to do the same thing that I did yesterday. Every day is different.”
It’s not an easy job, though, according to both Zahniser and Stoughton. Zahniser, who has been a tattoo artist for five years now, puts in over 60 hours a week at his shop, and Stoughton often struggles with facing the marketing aspect of his work.
“I see myself as more of an artist than a business person, so a lot of [marketing] stuff escapes me, and it’s frustrating,” Stoughton said. “I just want to get up and draw, do tattoos, and come home.”
Despite the frustrations, it seems that the good often outweighs the bad.
Zahniser has had many requests, ranging from serious and meaningful tattoos to unusual demands.
“I had a 69-year-old woman come in for her first tattoo because it was on her bucket list,” he said. “That was awesome, probably a better experience than the most. When a lady that looks like your grandma comes rolling in to get a tattoo… I don’t know, it’s pretty cool.”
Stoughton, too, has peculiar stories.
“When I was working in the city, I had a guy who came in once who wanted to get a weapon tattoo,” he said. “He comes in with a gun, pulls it out, and sets it on the table, and I’m like, ‘You can’t do that!’”
But Stoughton explained how working as a tattoo artist has grown and taught him how to be patient in on-the-job situations that could be stressful.
“Every day is a learning experience,” he said. “You just learn how to be with other human beings. I sit here, and I give them paint. I’ve learned a lot on how to be more compassionate. When I first started, I wasn’t as compassionate as I am today. I was less patient. Every day is a challenge. That’s what I love about this job.”
Zahniser believes that learning is essential to the job.
“You’re always learning,” he said “When a tattoo artist quits learning and growing and his style quits changing, he might as well hang it up. If you want to consider yourself a professional in any trade, once you learn it, you know it. But when it’s an art form on top of a trade, you should constantly evolve just like artists do. There’s nobody pushing you to try new things. I’d say every day is a learning experience, whether I just learned something really small and trivial or I just had a jump-off-a-cliff-and-dive-into-something-completely-different moment. You’re always evolving.”
But above all, both men said they have learned that though it’s impossible to please everybody, the job requires that they try.
“I’m not perfect,” said Stoughton. “I’m human. The tattoos are handmade, so you get little imperfections here and there, but that kind of gives it its character… I kind of just try to make everyone feel at home and feel comfortable. I don’t care if you’re a guy or girl, it’s spooky [to get a tattoo]. We try to make you feel as comfortable as we can. When you’re comfortable, it makes the process a lot better for you. And [you get a] better tattoo.”
Zahniser says that it’s Long Shot’s mission to do clean, quality work and to have every customer leave happy with a nice piece of original artwork.
“We just want to do quality work and cater to the people that really love tattoos for what they are,” he said.