Take every preconceived notion you have about tattoo artists and throw them out the window. That’s what I had to do when I met Josh Whitten in person. After following his Instagram account and being continually impressed and in awe over his raw talent we sat down at True Vine Brewing for a chat. The location was no accident, as we talked we could see the work crew over at the future home of his new studio, “W Tattoo” slowly coming to life. Josh credits the folks behind True Vine Brewing Company with getting him out of his comfort zone and more involved in the local Tyler community. He recently did the art and design for their Crimson Thorn beer can and while he is a self-professed introvert, it’s opportunities like these that lead to artist meet and greets and interviews. It’s hard to believe that Josh has only been professionally tattooing for 7 years.
A lifelong artist, his passion for drawing has consumed him for as long as he can remember. Josh was candid about growing up in a family that struggled to make ends meet in Paris, Texas with his 2 younger sisters. Regardless of their financial challenges, Josh’s parents always made sure he had what he needed to create art. Eventually he moved to Winnsboro, Texas where he lived with his Uncle and finished high school. When I asked the obvious question, “Did you take art classes in high school?” Josh told me he wasn’t encouraged to take art due to his propensity to create street art (aka graffiti) and no one wanted to encourage that so they steered him towards theater arts instead. A bit short sighted in my humble opinion. Rather than giving him an outlet to hone his skills and guidance to follow a more acceptable path they put him in a group totally opposite of his personality. Be that as it may, Josh started using canvas rather than walls to make graffiti art and maintained a little side business selling pieces while he bagged groceries at Brookshires.
Josh met his future wife their senior year and he credits her with their move to Tyler so she could attend college. Having lived an admittedly sheltered life he aspired to get a better job and at the time his definition of that was working in a highrise. Any highrise would do so he became a bellman at the Holiday Inn. It didn’t take long for him to move up the ranks and a few short months later he was in a management position. There is a lot of downtime when guests aren’t being helped and Josh had his trademark sketchbook with him at all times. It wasn’t until his second hotel job that a guest took special interest in his drawings and tried to convince him to try his hand at tattooing. “No way” is how Josh responded again and again. Even after explaining he had already tried tattooing a friend from high school, leaving disastrous results that still haunted him, the hotel guest persisted. Finally, after months of this back and forth Josh agreed to meet Floyd Guinn, a local tattoo artist and shop owner in Tyler. After talking it over with his wife who encouraged him to give it a try in spite of his distaste for needles and blood, Josh relented.
For months he worked nights at the hotel so he could be at the tattoo shop during the day. Cleaning, sanitizing, setting up, breaking down equipment and more cleaning. Guinn taught him to have a heavy hand when it came to cleanliness and caring about client’s health and a light hand when it comes to tattooing. Since I have no direct knowledge of how one actually becomes comfortable handling a tattoo machine Josh indulged me. You start on oranges. Oranges are actually more difficult to tattoo than human skin so if you can tattoo an orange well, you are on your way. Next you have to tattoo yourself. The irony here is that Josh had zero, zip, nada tattoos up to this point. Guinn explained that in order to be good at what you do, you need to know how it feels. I can’t say I disagree. After about 7 months of working 2 jobs and with a new baby at home, Josh tattooed his first client. Guinn didn’t give him an opportunity to overthink it or get nervous. In fact, when the client came in and requested a tattoo, Guinn put Josh on it without hesitation. He said he was definitely apprehensive but the tattoo was a success and years later that client is still happy with it.
Josh has tattooed thousands of different designs. He has traveled all over attending conventions and seeing clients as far as Australia. His style has evolved over the years and what started out as a neo traditional flash style (picture bold lines and color palette) he started receiving requests for more realistic work. Unsure of getting out of his comfort zone his wife reassured him he had the talent to do just that. Now he’s winning competitions and booking out 6 months in advance. When I asked him what he would be doing if not for tattooing, he said he would still be in hotel management. While I’m sure he was great at what he did in the hotel industry I’m looking forward to thanking his wife in person for encouraging him to use his artistic talents to make so many people happy.
His client’s happiness is actually the driving force behind what he does. While winning competitions is obviously a bonus, he remains committed to pleasing his clients and putting out his best work. Having thousands of tattoos under his belt, Josh only has 5 tattoos himself. I promptly teased him about that when we met, which he took in stride and said I wasn’t the first. That’s not the only thing that sets him apart in the tattoo industry. He doesn’t drink and has never taken a drug in his life. When I asked about his personal reasons behind living a clean lifestyle he shared that growing up in a rough neighborhood exposed him to all the damage drugs and alcohol can do. His wife and 2 kids are the most important things in his life and he doesn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that. In fact, his family was the driving force behind opening a tattoo studio of his own. Josh broke his right hand boxing at the gym and as his families’ main provider he learned a valuable lesson during the healing process. #1 – insure your livelihood, in this case his hands. #2 – by opening a studio your income potential is much broader than going at it alone.
You can’t tattoo as much as Josh has in the last 7 years without getting some strange requests. If you want a body part tattooed that has to be covered by a bathing suit in a public place then Josh would recommend going elsewhere. He told his wife when he first started, that out of respect for her he has no desire to tattoo anything deemed “private”. He also doesn’t tattoo the face or hands (nicknamed job stoppers in the industry) unless he has an established relationship with that client or they have already gone that route. He gets excited when a client gives him artistic liberty and told me that you are more likely to get the best work out of an artist when you offer them some freedom with your design idea. Currently Josh is really enjoying doing realistic florals, animals, clean and whimsical designs although he can do nearly anything. His least favorite would probably be tribal designs because there isn’t much room for creativity. I’m going to interject here for a minute and say that unless you are honoring your heritage with a tribal tattoo they are best left in the 90’s, along with my over plucked eyebrows. We have all seen terrible tattoo fails on the internet and I had to know, could this seemingly perfect artist have had any fails of his own? That depends on your definition of a true fail. In one case he allowed a fellow tattoo artist to create his stencil for him. Not double checking it led to leaving out a word so he had to get super creative while keeping his cool. The client was none the wiser and Josh learned a lesson that day. He is the only one responsible for all his stencils now.
Even in 7 short years tattooing has changed a lot. Tattoo machines continue to improve and become lighter weight easing the stress on artist’s wrists and hands. They have gotten quieter and the pigments (ink) have improved in quality and color so they last longer and produce more even results. So many misconceptions around tattoos have vanished over the years. It’s not uncommon to have a client in their 80’s requesting their first tattoo. One of Josh’s favorite compliments is when someone tells one of his clients that even though they don’t like tattoos, they think his client’s tattoos are beautiful. Social media has had a huge impact on tattoo artist’s livelihood. Like myself, it’s how most clients find artists. Half of Josh’s clients are from out of state or even out of the country. The other half are from all over Texas. Social media has been a game changer, particularly Instagram where potential clients can view an artist’s portfolio and get a sense of their style. Josh encourages anyone considering a tattoo to settle on the style they want first, before selecting an artist.
So why did I end up so curious about Josh Whitten? Like so many others I want a tattoo. Specifically, I want a tattoo in honor of our daughter to go along with the wedding tattoos my husband and I have. When I discovered Josh I felt like I hit the jackpot. Then I saw his posting about his books opening October 1st with very specific instructions on how to submit your tattoo request. While I like to fancy myself a free spirit I’m also a rule follower and I took all his instructions to heart, preparing my email in advance with my husband’s help in Photoshop to get all my inspiration pictures together. When the clock struck 8 p.m. my husband pressed the send button and all I could do was wait. His books were open for 10 minutes folks. That’s right. 10 short minutes. He received over 400 emails in that amount of time. I think you know you have made it in this business when you can schedule your next 6 months of work in 10 minutes. To be fair, there is a lot required of Josh in order to get those emails translated into actual tattoo designs. So how does he decide who makes the cut and gets a coveted spot?
First, who follows the rules? That weeds out a portion of the submissions right off the bat. Second, are you requesting a tattoo that falls under the guidelines of what he wants to do? If so, you have made it to the second tier. Next, he delves into the creative process. Emails will be exchanged in order to finalize your vision and get clarity. Then the tattoo will be broken into sessions if you are requesting a large piece. Out of the 400+ requests he only books 80-100. A session ranges from 4 to 8 hours, depending on the scale of your request it may take several sessions to complete. Part of the reason he breaks larger pieces up is to not leave the client with an unfinished looking piece after each session. It’s no wonder he has the same clients 7 years running. As Josh’s skill level has risen so have his prices. Some people may have sticker shock but he is still below the industry average based on his talent and skill. Not to mention you are purchasing a piece of living art that will be on your body forever from an award winning artist.
While continuing education isn’t a requirement in the industry Josh is always looking for ways to improve. He takes the health of his clients very seriously, a nod to his early days being under the watchful eye of his mentor, Floyd Guinn. Outside of tattooing Josh’s priority is spending time with his family and being present while his 2 young kids grow up. He is quick to point out that he gives all the glory to God for his success and wouldn’t be where he is today without his faith. He is also really supportive of his community and recommends trying True Vine Brewing and Stanley’s BBQ if you are in the Tyler area. He’s started to teach his kids to fish and they like visiting the Tyler Rock Gym for some family rock climbing fun.
I would describe my meeting with Josh as pleasantly surprising. This East Texas guy is humble and caring. He is uncompromising in his values and puts his family first and I really respect that. Interview aside I was lucky enough to make the cut (my email arrived in his inbox promptly at 8 p.m.). I can’t tell you how excited I am to see my vision come to life. There will definitely be a follow up after the first of the year so you can see how this process all plays out. I think my biggest takeaway is that gentle reminder to give people the benefit of the doubt, regardless of their profession or your preconceived notions.