Every tattoo is different. This art form is permanent and personal, especially for the people who create it. On a mission to ink our own skin, we researched and tracked down some of the best tattoo artists in Dallas for an ongoing series. (The first one on the list became the artist for writer Amy McCarthy's own half-sleeve tattoo. This interview happened during that process.)
If you're looking for Davis Street Tattoo, good luck. Tucked into a tiny shopping center on the street it is named after, this tattoo shop is one of many in the area, and it isn't easy to see that tiny sign as you're scoping out free parking. Should you manage to find a place to leave your car, though, you'd be well on your way to walking into one of Dallas' newest (and best) tattoo shops.
The collective of tattoo artists here has worked together for a while, formerly occupying Obscurities Tattoo on Cedar Springs. They each specialize in their own styles — traditional American and Japanese tattooing predominantly, and most of them have been tattooing since they hit adulthood. The only exception is Riley Padgett, a "jackass of all trades" and one of the city's most talented artists.
When you imagine the archetype of a tattoo artist, you're not imagining the soft-spoken, humble Riley Padgett. Sure, he's covered in tattoos and is extremely comfortable wielding a needle, but all of the machismo and bravado typically associated with tattoo artists are completely missing. This is a guy who lets his work speak for itself, no ego necessary.
As the shop's newest tattooer, Padgett has been inking Dallasites for the past eight years. Before that, he was an HVAC technician in Arlington. "It was something that I always wanted to do, but for whatever reason, it always kept getting put on the back burner," says Padgett. He decided to move forward with his dream after the birth of his son, who has cerebral palsy. "I decided that life was too short," he says, "so I ordered some tattoo equipment and I just kind of trudged my way through it for a little while. Which I don't recommend to anyone."
He took an apprenticeship with Josh Robinson, who was working at the now-defunct Queen City. The two worked together for two years, and Padgett observed Robinson's work and worked on his own knowledge of tattooing, a pursuit that he's still working on. "I had been in and around art most of my life," says Padgett. "Being around people in the fine art world, I realized that as soon as you start to think that your work is really good, that's when things get dangerous." To make his own work better, Padgett constantly seeks out criticism from his peers, especially the talented artists in his own shop.
Even though he didn't start actually doing tattoos until 2008, Padgett got his first ink as a 14-year-old skater kid in Florida. Now, he's been tattooed and re-tattooed until his arms are completely inked, in a variety of styles — nothing is really off-limits. "I like to take my tattoos seriously and not-so-seriously at the same time," he says. "If I've got an idea, I just throw it over to the artist and let them be themselves. I'd rather that than me try to insert myself into their artistic process."
When it comes to tattooing other people, though, Padgett's approach is much more measured. If people come to him asking for tattoos in white ink, he's most definitely saying no. "They don't really want a tattoo anyway," he says, "and we don't support that." He also won't slap on a brand-new neck or face tattoo on someone who isn't heavily tattooed. "It's really fashionable for young people to get their first tattoo on their face or hands," he says, "and I'm not interested in ruining anyone's life before it gets started, even if they don't think that's what they're doing."
In terms of style, Padgett describes his approach as a "contemporary interpretation of American traditional tattoos." Traditional American tattooing, popularized by artists like Sailor Jerry and Ed Shaw, features prominent, bold outlining, a vivid palette of color, and appropriate use of black ink and the customer's natural skin tone. In the art that lines his small studio at Davis Street Tattoo, it's easy to see that Padgett has a clear fascination with a few subjects, like birds, snakes and mermaids, but he says that he enjoys the tattoos where he's able to "let loose" the most, meaning customers who just let him tattoo whatever he thinks looks best.
"When someone else brings me an idea and I know it's going to translate to the skin really well, I enjoy being able to have my way with it." says Padgett. "A good tattoo takes two people, and being able to take someone's idea and turn it into something that is not only powerful for the observer but also meaningful to them is hands-down my favorite part of this work."
In the world of tattoos, the relationship between the tattoo artist and the person being tattooed is particularly interesting. In paying someone to put a permanent mark on your body, the customer is making themselves really vulnerable to the artist, a fact that Padgett uses his background in customer service to smooth over. "There are a lot of people that make a pretty good living doing not-very-good tattoos," he says, "but I try to be a good person in my life, and I want to do good work."