“MTV changed tattoo culture … people saw tattoos on rock stars and wanted the same thing for themselves.”-Terry ‘Tramp’ Welker
In honor of the 21st annual Motor City Tattoo Expo (March 4th-6th, 2016) next week at Detroit’s Renaissance Center, we sought out and were lucky enough to land an interview with Tramp.
Tramp has a notably firm handshake. From personal experience over the years, I find that to be the mark of someone who is true to their word and means business. Tramp works 60+ hours per week operating his business and he’s a very successful DIY self-made entrepreneur doing what he loves to do. You can’t ask for much more out of life than that.
Tramp’s Eternal Tattoos, Eternal Ink Inc., Welker Machines and Eternal Tattoo Supply empire is huge and diversified. There are five Eternal Tattoo studios in Michigan (Livonia, Taylor, Clawson, Howell, and an Eastpointe shop owned by Marshall Bennett) along with a beautiful 30,000-square foot ink warehouse in Brighton packed to the rafters with cardboard boxes and shrink-wrapped pallets full of tattoo ink and machinery. They also have a branch in Austin, Texas.
Eternal has a great reputation for high-quality work. Touring their warehouse, I can see why. Eternal appears to have an extremely hard-working staff who run an efficient operation which is truly global in scope. Solid business practice, strong work ethic, raw talent, expertise and dedication, make Tramp’s Eternal Tattoos stand out in an ever-shifting industry.
Tramp’s Eternal Tattoos:
“We sell worldwide. Eternal Ink is one of the biggest tattoo ink manufacturers in the world. I started Eternal Ink in the basement of one of my tattoo studios in 2001. The key to great tattooing is the right consistency of the pigment and matching colors.”
“We have over 200 ink hues, plus we have Signature Sets from outstanding artists like Liz Cook, Jess Yen, Myke Chambers and Marshall Bennett, etc, all these guys came out of Eternal. We enjoy sponsoring a lot of artists with custom inks, like our New Rember Orellana Signature Series.”
“Our biggest selling states in America are Florida, California, NYC, Texas. Then we have the UK, Germany, Netherlands, Russia, China. Also, Turkey, Vietnam, Brazil, etc. We sell everywhere.”
“My son Jesse was born in 1971 and we work together at the ink warehouse. Jesse is in charge of Operations for Mixing. He tattooed for twenty years before coming here.”
Tramp The Early Years:
“I was born in Macon, Georgia in 1950. We moved to Detroit in 1955, the Westside, lived at Meyers and Davison, I went to McKenzie High School. For years, I worked as a carpenter and a mechanic. Michigan in the winter takes all the fun out of being a carpenter. So one day I got a tattoo and that was that.”
“In 1976, I began tattooing as a self-trained artist at 26-years old. The early days of Eternal, it was a shop in Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1980 called ‘Crazy Kids Eternal Tattoos’, it was at Ford Blvd and Ecorse Road in South Ypsi. I worked there and then in 1982 I moved the shop to Livonia. My business literally doubled overnight. At this time, there were only three tattoo shops in Metro Detroit. Now there’s over 150.”
Tramp’s first tattoo:
“In 1968, I joined the United States Marine Corps. Got out of boot camp at Camp Pendleton in San Diego and immediately got my first tattoo, the USMC bulldog, on my forearm. It faded over the years, so I lazered in off. Now it’s ‘Faith Honor Respect.’ After that I did 13 months in Vietnam with the 3rd Battalion 1st Marine Division artillery, the 3/11.”
“I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been able to meet some of the people who inspired me: Lyle Tuttle in San Francisco he’s in his Eighties, great tattoo artist, he’s called “The Godfather”. He tattooed Janis Joplin and Cher. Then there’s Jack Rudy, great Black & Gray artist. I love the work of Brian Everett. Brian runs Route 66 Tattoos in Albuquerque and he and I have been co-sponsoring events since 1996.”
21st annual Motor City Tattoo Expo (Detroit, Michigan):
The Motor City Tattoo Expo is an annual tattoo convention started in 1995 by Eternal Tattoos. Over 3-days, some 5,000 attendees come to the 30,000sq ft Marriott Renaissance Center Ballroom in downtown Detroit to see 300+ top American tattoo artists and 170 booths.
Motor City Tattoo Expo (Detroit) is up there with some of the best tattoo festivals in the United States: Northern Ink Xposure (Toronto), Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth (Las Vegas), Hell City Tattoo Festival (Phoenix), etc.
“It is absolutely mind-blowing how great the tattoo artists are these days. The quality of the tats and how bright and vibrant the colors are. The professionalism. They can make a tattoo look like a photograph on your arm.”
“You’ll see many outstanding artists at the Expo. Caryl Cunningham, Frank La Natra, Big Gus from Tattoo Nightmares, Chris Blinston, Halo, Rember Orellana, Liz Cook, Susannah Griggs, etc, there’s just too many to list.”
See the list here:
“There will be live tattooing going on, so you can watch how talented they are. This is a great lineup of professional tattoo artists from all over the country, the rock stars of the tattoo world. It’s a rare opportunity to meet and interact with the best in the business. All our artists are invite-only. We do a thorough vetting process to make sure we have top talent at the show.”
“Setting up the convention is a lot of work. Gina Babyak works three months full-time on it. She’s the main coordinator of contacting and following-up with artists. Trying to get hundreds of different people’s schedules to match can be aggravating but she has a lot of patience and does a great job with it.”
The World of Tattoos:
According to research, roughly 50 million Americans have at least one tattoo, that’s 1 in 5 people. 50% of adults younger than 40 have multiple tattoos and of this subset, 59% are women and 41% are men. There are 20,000+ tattoo parlors in the United States alone. This is a huge ever-growing billion dollar industry!
“Getting a tattoo is like eating a potato chip. You can’t stop with just one. In the old days, tattooing used to be a trade secret. But now the caliber of artist has shifted. It’s now looked up to as a viable art form.”
“I think one reason tattoos are so popular globally is because it’s a great form of self-expression. I noticed a huge rise in the number and types of people getting tattoos in the late 1980’s after MTV started releasing music videos with tattooed musicians. Then I noticed a lot of pro athletes were getting tatted. Then it became acceptable for women to get heavily inked. People thought it was gonna be a fad but it’s been growing every single year for decades now. Plus, the caliber of artists has grown tremendously. There are some extremely talented people out there.”
“The average tattoo these days is detailed. It’s about the size of a smartphone and takes 2-3 hours to complete. In the old days, you would just pick a design off a flash sheet. Now it’s almost all custom work. Doing a longer tattoo takes 6+ hours.”
“A professional artist will charge $120-125/hr on average with your average tattoo starting at about $50.00. The most expensive tattoo I’ve ever seen was a custom full-back piece, it was $5,000+.”
“If you are serious about getting a tattoo, always go for high-quality. How good someone is should always be more important than who’s got the best price. Cheap tattoos rarely mean great tattoos. Bad shops churn out shoddy work for low prices. Don’t be fooled.”
“In tattooing, you must know what colors work with what skin-tones. One of the toughest parts is how to get the ink into the skin and run a clean straight line. Starter kits are not nearly as effective as an apprenticeship with a master of tattoos.”
“Michigan is a cold state so we’re forced to cover our tattoos up a lot here. On the West Coast, there’s a lot of people with black & gray, badass lettering, some great stuff and they can show it off year-round. Here in Michigan, everything is more custom and traditional type stuff since we have a ‘tattoo season’. So keep that in mind as well when getting a tattoo.”
Tattoo artists learn the Art of Tattooing through apprenticeships:
Over the years, Tramp has helped launch dozens of careers of major tattoo artists and he’s been a great mentor in the art and business of tattooing. Indeed, upon meeting him, I can tell he has the patience and quick replies of a great teacher, too.
“I recommend that if you want to be a serious tattoo artist, you devote your time to finding a credible and established artist who is willing to and has the time to take you on as an apprentice.”
“To determine if you are worthy of being an apprentice, you must first be a good fit for the tattoo master, then you must impress them with your artistic abilities and portfolio. They do not have to take you on, so don’t be upset if they don’t. Don’t let it deter your quest, keep searching.”
“I’ve had about 15-20 apprentices over the years. My first was Jay Wheeler, back when he was 18-years old in 1992. Jay now runs his own shop, North Main Tattoo Studio in Plymouth. Then I had Tom Renshaw, Marshall Bennett, Caryl Cunningham, Bob Tyrrell, etc. Every apprentice I’ve had has been an outstanding artist before even coming to see me.”
“Bob Tyrrell, for example, was a cabinetmaker. Little did he know he had out-of-this-world outstanding drawing abilities until he came to see me one day. Bob Tyrrell ran the famed Night Gallery Tattoo Parlor (15728 W. 7 Mile Road @ Greenfield, Detroit) for years and also did the famous American Eagle tattoo on Kid Rock’s back. Bob now runs Night Gallery as a traveling tattoo parlor based out of Detroit.”
[[Also, for clarification]] “Eternal did not do Eminem’s nine tattoo’s. Eminem’s tats were mostly done by Mister Cartoon, a Mexican artist in Los Angeles. We have done a number of celebrities though: Kid Rock, Dennis Rodman, lotta Red Wings, Cecil Fielder, David Wells, etc, and many others. We don’t care who the person is frankly, we just love doing tattoos.”
Think Before You Ink:
“If you’re a first-timer getting a tattoo, make absolutely sure it’s something you want for the rest of your life. I would avoid the impulse of getting any names tattooed on you. For your first try, the upper arm is a good place to start. Wherever you decide to put your first tat, you might want it in an easily hideable spot. After that, if you feel comfortable with it, start going to town, baby.”
What: 21st annual Motor City Tattoo Expo
When: Friday, March 4th-Sunday, March 6th, 2016
Where: Marriott Renaissance Center Ballroom (400 Renaissance Drive West, Detroit)
Hours: Friday (Noon-11pm), Saturday (11am-11pm), Sunday (11pm-7pm)
Cost: 1-day pass ($20), 2-day pass ($30), Weekend Pass ($40)
Motor City Tattoo Expo homepage
MCTE Facebook page
Eternal Tattoo Supply
Bob Tyrrell’s Night Gallery (Detroit)
Quick Timeline of Tattoos:
Italy (1567) Ancient tattoo recipe discovered: “bark of Egyptian pine wood, corroded bronze, gall, vitriol, vinegar, leek juice.”
Polynesia (1769) Sir Joseph Banks was a botanist on Captain Cook’s ship. He learned the word “tattoo” from the Polynesians and brought that word back to the civilized world.
Boston (1846) German immigrant Martin Hildebrandt becomes the first professional tattoo artist.
NYC (1891) World’s first tattoo machine invented.
Long Beach, California (1927) Outer Limits tattoo shop opens. It’s still open today and is the oldest tattoo shop in the USA. 1954-1983 it was Bert Grimm’s Tattoo Studio until Kari Barba took over in 83.
Honolulu, Hawaii (1942-1973) Sailor Jerry, after life as a freight-hopping hobo and US Navy sailor, runs his legendary tattoo parlor.