An interview with tattoo artist and illustrator Jordan Mitchell

Stephanie Thai

Jordan Mitchell, 26, is a Texas native who relocated to Modesto, CA at the age of 10 where he discovered his deep appreciation for tattoos. Thanks to the father of a childhood friend, opportunity came knockin’ and he began an apprenticeship at 18.

Today, Jordan is a resident artist at Black and Blue Tattoo in San Francisco, California.

How did you get started with tattooing?

I started tattooing with an apprenticeship at a shop in Modesto California. My neighbor and childhood friend who I grew up with happened to have a father who owned a tattoo shop there.

I was always into art and drawing because of the comic books I read as a kid, and I knew I wanted a career in art (somehow). I just enjoyed doing it so much. I bugged my neighbor’s dad enough and he eventually he apprenticed me.

When did you know you wanted to become a tattoo artist?

I knew I wanted to be a tattoo artist when I first started seeing people with tattoos that looked really nice. I never really cared for it until I came across tattoo magazines at a store one day and saw the stuff that could be done.

I guess before that, in my mind all that could be done with tattooing were simple designs. I was ignorant to how amazing the older traditional and newer modern stuff looked. That was a real wake up call. I immediately told myself “WOW I need to learn how to draw that well, and WOW I need to learn how to tattoo that good.”

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What do you feel was one of your biggest struggles?

Just figuring out what I wanted to do with tattooing – meaning what style I would like to do – was the hardest part. There are so many things that can be done with tattooing, so it was a whole new opportunity that was now available to me.

Do you have a formal art background?

I didn’t start with a formal art background, that came later when I realized how beneficial it was.

Why’s that?

I’m not sure why, but among some tattooers there’s definitely a feeling of animosity towards school. Tattooing isn’t your average job so you definitely don’t need any schooling at all to do it. The more you study art and pursue self-improvement in general, the more it will effect your tattooing.

I went to school and studied the fundamentals of art and design, and fun stuff like figure-drawing and observational skills. That has changed my entire appreciation for tattooing. The opportunity to get better and do something new opened up again for me.

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What sparked your desire to take classes? What are you specializing in?

I decided to go to school when I was in a lull with what I was doing. I felt like I wasn’t really progressing and I needed to step it up. I went to school for animation, but really focused on the illustration side of it to strengthen my knowledge of how things worked visually in real life, and what I could do to make pictures basically look “pretty” (haha).

I also took a lot of general education classes that I am into, like philosophy and critical thinking. Education was never really important to me until I realized how beneficial it was, then it became priority number 1.

How do you think your formal art training has now affected your tattoo work?

Greatly, and in a very positive way. It was like I got a whole new set of weapons to attack tattooing with. I was arrogant and thought school would be useless. I thought I knew everything I needed to know about tattooing and I was too closed-minded. I thought anything that was different from what I was doing was wrong or shouldn’t be done.

I was completely wrong, and I wish I had gone to school earlier so I could have been practicing and studying the correct way from the start.

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How would you describe your personal artistic style?

I’ve always loved comic books and I think that has manifested itself into my brain somehow. I like really exaggerated poses on figures, and dramatic contrast within a whole piece. I think tattoos look so much better when you can tell what is going on from far away and can see exactly what’s happening in the tattoo even if the person is across the street.

Yet still, when you get up close to the piece there is still a complexity of detail within the design. It’s what I aim for with the tattoos I do on people. The same goes with my paintings even if they aren’t related to the work I create for tattooing. I get a lot of inspiration from artists like Frederic Church and John Singer Sargent.

Do you think there are challenges in being a tattoo artist that artists who create for themselves don’t face?

I feel like the challenges are the same, but in a different context. I think the challenges probably differ from client-to-client and the project they are asking for, whereas the challenge during your free time is just to figure out what you’re going to paint. You have complete freedom as an artist on your free time, and that can be a challenge in itself. Each tattoo has its own little challenge just like each painting or project has its own challenge that needs to be complete – but that’s the fun part.

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Which is your first love: tattooing or animation/illustration?

Tattooing will always be my #1. School and any other form of study just strengthens it. Something about tattooing is more important to me than the other forms of art, and I think the history of tattooing is what makes it more dear to my heart.

When they found Otzi the Iceman, he supposedly lived 3,300 BCE ago, he had tattoos on him. That’s pretty crazy to me. He had tattoos on his lower back and behind his knees, and when they investigated his bones in these regions they were worn down and looked damaged. So it’s believed that they used tattooing for healing purposes. That makes me think tattooing is more important than any prejudices we can conceive of. We’ve evolved with it and it’s not going away. There’s something primal about it, I love that.

As an art professional/creative, what advice could you give to others about the field?

Stay creative in any way! In your free time don’t limit yourself to one particular area. Try something else and let that influence your tattooing, design, music or whatever it is that your doing.

I changed my attitude to constantly strive for personal growth and that has led to me becoming better at what I do. Not only that, but it’s made me appreciate what I do even more. What has helped me the most is to have a open mind. Study what you want to get better at… hit the books.

Check out more of Jordan Mitchell’s art here.

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