Tattoo greats gather at grand reopening of Old Soul Tattoo
Standing. Watching. Observing. Groups huddled in the waiting area of Old Soul Tattoo in Canonsburg and stood along the “Dummy Railing,” a term coined at Coney Island in the 1960’s, repeated this day by the legendary tattoo artist on hand, Nick Bubash (pictured bottom left). One thing is certain, there is no specific demographic.
Young people covered in tats to professional looking people with small amounts of coverage fill the space. For a couple of hours this weekend they all share one thing in common. They have stories to tell and immortalize, each in his or her own way. Stories, personal experiences, likes, lost loves, family departed, but none ever forgotten. Personal expressions this night will be stenciled on a very personal canvass, their skin.
This weekend, they all have an option to choose from. Over twenty master storytellers from across the country have converged on this particular spot, Old Soul Tattoo located on Two East Pike Street in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. This is the grand reopening of Josh Mason’s shop that he initially opened in 2007. Since the door’s official reopening on Friday at 10:00 am this Oktoberfest Celebration, the flow has been non-stop filling both the waiting area and the dummy railing. By weekend’s close, over 100 tattoos will be applied. One hundred more people who have recorded their personal stories with artistic designs they choose or have chosen them.
“Traditional Tattooing doesn’t mean being stuck in the past, it means nurturing something that came way before you because you deeply hope it will continue after you. It’s about being in the middle, not being at the end.” – Dan Higgs, from interview with Don Ed Hardy, Tattoo Review #23
This is the mindset of Josh Mason, Owner of Old Soul Tattoo when it comes to the craft. A collector of unique artwork, folk-art masks from Mexico and painter of his own Flash Art. Josh created an environment in his shop that is more than welcoming, it’s that traditional campfire for people to share their stories and art.
“I want Old Soul to be a place like a barber shop, or your favorite bar. A place to hang out whether or not you’re getting a tattoo. Those places don’t exist anymore,” said Josh.
Mason purchased Old Soul, formerly Independent Tattoo Studio, in 2007. Originating from humble beginnings in West Virginia, he always loved the small home town feel. His goal was to make his shop more than a business, but part of the community heartbeat.
After speaking with the other guest artists, his reach is a bit further than he realizes.
Josh added, “I’m humbled by the response of all of the artists accepting my invitation to participate in the reopening. There was a point where I was sitting at my station. I looked up and thought, wow, there’s legend Nick Bubash…in my shop. Just, WOW!”
I’ll return to Josh’s philosophy in a bit as there is more to tell, but back to the campfire for now.
Much like works of art, the curators are their historians. In the case of tattoos though, there are the artists, but also it is a participatory art form. Unlike most other art forms, people get to walk out of the performance with a piece of art forever theirs, on their skin, to the grave. It’s a give and take between artist and client. Each piece as individual as the person getting it.
“It’s art and expression. There is a deep meaning to what the client wants and there is an automatic bond as this is shared, as is the experience,” Nick Bubash confirmed.
I previously mentioned Nick Bubash as legend. That he is. As keeper of the flame, that he is also. At sixty-six years old, he is by far the most experienced in the room, tattooing for over 45 years.
“Art has always been in our family. My mom was an artist, uncle a violinist and grandfather a shoe maker,” Bubash traced his artistic origin.
At 18, he hitchhiked to New York City with pocket change and a dream. Working out of the Chelsea Hotel, Nick studied under another legend in the field, Thom Devita for five years.
“Back then, Thom pushed the traditional tattoo envelope. He was trying to educate people. He’d add a little something here and there to the American traditional,” he adds.
Devita convince him to go back to art school where he attended The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. One of the multiple awards and honors he achieved there was a traveling grant and he set off for India.
“I wanted to study in India. As a sculptor, I was fascinated by classic art and the art of specific proportion. In India, because the statues are meant for temples, they all have to carry exacting proportions on the body parts.”
Bubash also developed love for another art form during this time, assemblages. Assemblage is a work of art made by grouping found or unrelated objects. Talking to Nick for hours, however, I know that textbook definition of unrelated objects would not apply in his case. He specifically interprets their connections.
A fine artist, sculptor and tattoo artist, Mr. Bubash opened Route 60 Tattoo in 2008 where he still dedicates three days a week to that particular craft. He has two daughters, one studying opera at Temple University and the other undecided studying abroad in France.
“I’ll take experiences over things any day. One of my favorites was Eye Tattooed America in 1991. Don Ed Hardy gathered 32 fine artists in Chicago. Being one of those thirty two was more than an honor,” Nick added as a final thought.
For information on Nick Bubash: nickbubash.com
As you can imagine, not all of the artists on hand have had the experiences that Mr. Bubash shared nor his wide variety of art practices. So I began thinking about how a particular style of practiced art influenced or impacted the actual art of the tattoo. Meet Jackie Dunn Smith.
Jackie travelled all the way from San Diego, California for this even. She is a road warrior and her usual commute is from Saints and Sinners Tattoo in Dallas, Texas to Flying Panther Studio in San Diego where she works out of both, by appointment only.
“I like to do more overly simplified American traditional. I do a lot of tattoos of chubby women,” Jackie said.
She also thought there was kind of disconnect with appreciation for American traditional, particularly with service members who she tattooed regularly in Oceanside, California years previously.
“I had Marines and Sailors come in to the shop and ask for a tribal ka-bar or something they printed out from social media and I was like, dude! You’re Marines and Sailors, some of the best traditional ever made was for you guys.”
Watching her work, her shading immediately popped out to me. It was fantastic and no stencil beyond the outside shape. She did this in her head and it flowed from the tiny tip of her tattoo needle.
“I love oil painting and taught myself. Eventually I took a course at San Diego City College and learned more in the first hour than I had in the previous year about painting,” Jackie laughed.
The natural coloring and how to do it was a process culled over time and experience. She too has classical leanings and is a figurative painter. One thing that really helped her with both her painting and tattooing was learning to paint flat. Her desire to tattoo came after getting a couple of tattoos herself and she fell in love with the art.
Jackie plans her road schedule in chunks and as previously mentioned, by appointment only. She has a seven and nine year old that she takes care of and her family is of utmost importance and she works to ensure the time is spent accordingly. Already, the art has influenced one of them.
“My seven year old draws traditional tattoos and says he is going to become a tattoo artist as well when he grows up,” she added.
Carrying the torch into the next generation by cultivating the art is a great start.
For information on Jackie Dunn Smith: facebook.com/jackie.d.smith.1
After 9 hours in a tattoo studio, multiple interviews and too many pages to count, my challenge of how to present all of this was immense. I settled on a couple of specific people who stood at both edges of the spectrum and someone in between. As I reviewed my notes and thought about the art aspect of all that I had learned, the one basic thing I nearly over looked was the traditionalist. The man or woman who tattooed and only tattooed. The person who used skin as their canvas, tattoo gun as their brush and client as inspiration. I present to you, Mr. Jason Scott from Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Jason has been tattooing since 1995 and like Jackie, he fell in love with the art after getting tattooed himself.
“I just tattoo, nothing else,” Jason quipped.
Oh, but he does. He has owned three shops, presently Hobo Street Tattoo and Congress Street Tattoo, all in New Hampshire. Jason has done quite well for himself as just a tattoo artist.
“I took some classes at Mount Wachusett Community College and that taught me a lot about drawing and proportions.”
After graduating community college, he moved to Florida to practice his art. Jason subsequently returned home to Portsmouth in 2003 to help out with a studio he would eventually take over. Along with managing his shops, he travels to conventions and guest spots twice a year.
“I’d like to cut down on the conventions as they are more assembly lines. I really like to hang out and get to know people, it is part of why I love doing this. I’m trying to do more guest spots and working with friends, like this.”
Currently, Mr. Scott is on a two week road trip including Canonsburg, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Ashbury Park, Washington D.C. and Brooklyn.
Carrying the Torch
As promised, I return to the source of the campfire, at least for this weekend and this singular point in time, Josh Mason and Old Soul Tattoo. With every single interview I asked one common question, “Why come from wherever you work to Canonsburg, Pennsylvania for the weekend.” The answer was universal, “Josh asked me to.”
No hesitation, no contemplation, just that simple answer.
Whether his paintings are meticulously spaced, his studio is wide open or he employs the local town characters who are mentally challenged to take out the trash, Mr. Mason has accomplished his goal of making Old Soul Tattoo a place to hang out.
“I look at it as a responsibility. Sort of like standing on the shoulders of giants in giving back,” Josh said.
Through these words I hope to have become part of the very special experience of the Old Soul Tattoo reopening. Being an old soul, it was amazing to smell the antiseptic, hear the buzz of the needles and witness the anticipation of the clients. Most of all, I felt the bond between these artists coalesce more than craft, experience, background or even location. Maybe that’s a part of the art, the love and respect for each other within this band of human curators.
FMI on Old Soul Tattoo, call 724- 743-0585 or visit their site at oldsoultattoo.com.
Story by Fred Terling for Pennsylvania Bridges & Photos by Ron Short, Ron Short Photography