Years ago I wanted a pair of arm bands on each of my forearms. These were simple bands, but complicated in that I wanted them straight and symmetrical. A number of friends had recommended I check out Black Wave tattoo since they specialized in tribal tattoo work. I went with a skeptical eye, since tribal to me is overblown on every frat boy and dumb jock’s upper arm. In fact, you know something is past its prime when Microsoft uses it on their box cover. Black Wave Tattoo is owned and operated by Su’a Sulu’ape Freewind. His bio can be found on Black Wave’s web site, so I won’t go into those details. At the time, the shop had three artists working full time. Pai Tama had apprenticed under Suluape and was in charge of the walk-ins like myself and we scheduled an appointment. What he thought would take two hours turned into eight hours for each arm. As the low man in the shop he also had to answer the phone and talk to walk-ins, so that added to the time. But he also had to smoke a bowl every half hour, and the pieces I wanted were way more challenging than he expected. Six hours to draw, two hours to ink – each arm. 16 hours over two days. The cost was reasonable, given that he underestimated completely. My total cost was $300, and I love the work. While I was at the shop – for hours – I got to watch Suluape work. The piece he was doing at the time was a landscape of Yosemite on a man’s back. Suluape had taped a 4×6 color photo to the guy’s shoulder and was freehanding the entire thing, just painting the image on the guy’s back. It was clear that Suluape was beyond just a talented tattoo artist, he was an amazing artist period. We got to talking about the work in his book, especially the tatao – the traditional form of tattoo done with two sticks and sharpened combs, bone, and stone instead of needles. Suluape had devoted himself to the study and art of tatao, learning Maori, Samoan, and Indonesian techniques. It put the seed in my head that I would like a body stripe one day, a plum line of design running from ankle to armpit. The body stripe is beautiful (when done properly), and it directly appealed to my personal theme of imposing straight lines on forms that resist structure. My photo collage work is joined by the straight lines of the subject while fighting the innate curvature of the camera lens. And personally, I rely heavily upon reason and linear thinking to solve hard emotional problems. I decided that I wanted a body stripe, that Su’a Freewind was the only one who could do it properly, and I would wait several years to make sure I was confident in my decision. In March of 2006 I approached Su’a Freewind to do my tattoo. What followed was approximately 9 months of phone calls gently reminding the shop I was still interested. Su’a is both in high demand and also lives life on island time. Due to injury, demand and, his, well, being an artist, I got my consultation in January of 2007. In May I got the call to come in for my first session. Suluape did the lower part of my leg with a machine in order to lay down the basic geometry of the stripe. Subsequent work was done in tatao, the traditional method of tattoo. Instead of scratching the skin into a pulp, which agitates the skin in order to absorb the ink pigment, tatao is a razor sharp comb, needle, or spike at the end of a stick which is guided and struck by the artist using a petrified rod. The teeth of the comb puncture and impregnate the skin with ink. There are a wide variety of these combs, all made by hand, that Suluape can use depending on the kind of line and pattern he wants to achieve. The result, for me anyway, was a much more pleasant feeling. Like being pricked over and over by a rose bush. I will take tatao over machine work any day. The line quality is very different from the machine to the tatao. Not only is it thicker, but some of the hairpin-turn detail is lost. On a mechanical level, the invention of the tattoo gun replaced the need for stretchers – one hand inks while the other hand stretches. But the removal of people from the process also removed the social aspect of the ritual. If getting inked requires several people to lay hands on the person for hours, there is the creation of a community, however brief, focused on a single task. You just can’t be as impulsive with tatao. Tattoo shops are always full of people hanging out and spitballing. In a sense, the social aspect of a modern tattoo parlor remains an echo of the community that builds around a tatao where everyone is involved in the creation of the art. We’re still not done, and that is perhaps my only issue with Black Wave. The shop is run on Island Time. You must be completely flexible with your time and availability. The end result will be a work of art created by a master of his craft – on you for life. You can also read more here.
(323) 932-1900, 118 S La Brea Ave, Los Angeles