Travis Clancy’s studio, located in an off-the-beaten-path warehouse district in Plano, is a stunning combination of recording studio and tattoo shop. It looks nothing like the semi-sketchy shops where most of us got our first piece of art — the barbed wire wrapped around the arm or small butterfly on the shoulder. This refined tattoo studio is the culmination of more than 20 years of tattooing for Clancy, who first got his start in the hard world of street-shop tattooing in the 1990s. “You meet a lot of really interesting people," he says of those days. "It’s sort of like having a social life that you get paid for.”
But a revolution in the tattoo business brought on by a new generation of ink fans and artists has all but erased the shady/scary tattoo shops and lifted tattooing to a recognized art form, and Clancy wants to push to that revolution even further, developing standards and training for new artists to seal the tattoo art's credibility.
Clancy's father fancied himself a tattoo artist, even though he never really got a career off the ground. The senior Clancy toiled away at a “regular job” during the day and moonlit as a tattoo artist in the evenings. At 15, Travis started learning the craft from his father, whom he still cites as one of his biggest tattoo inspirations. “As I get older, I look back and see that I say ‘Well, my old man said’ a lot more often now,” Clancy says. “When I was coming up, not a lot of people outside of my dad wanted to give me the time of day — they were too worried about training the competition or creating more work for themselves.”
Clancy persevered. He worked his way through shops on Lower Greenville and has since completed thousands of tattoos of varying complexity. His first — an “egg with a tongue” — is immortalized on his own calf. Many tattoo artists are quick to cover up their first (usually terrible) tattoos, but Clancy considers his an important lesson. “I don’t think I’d ever cover up that tattoo, it’s really special to me,” he says. “It reminds me of where I came from. It was a long, hard road in this industry for me.”
A quick stint at The Art Institute of Dallas reinforced his desire to become a tattoo artist. Clancy originally wanted to study animation and completed two programs at The Art Institute before leaving. “I decided it wasn’t the lifestyle that I wanted to live, selling my artwork to movie studio moguls and bigwigs,” he says. “I much prefer being able to wake up when I want, wear what I want, do pretty much what I want.”
In his time in the tattoo industry, the shotgun shops that housed artists slinging dozens of Flash tattoos every day have been replaced by plush tattoo parlors with a focus on unique, custom art.
“As the baby boomers were raising their kids in the 1980s and 1990s, they were doing it in a different way than their parents,” he says. “They taught their kids to be independent and to think for themselves.” At the same time, up-and-coming tattoo artists were reinventing tattooing with a renewed focus on the art. The origins of American tattooing lie with veterans coming home with hula girls tattooed on their arms. In the 1990s, artists began to push the boundaries of body art. “You had artists who were really doing art,” Clancy says. “You started to see more than just the standard Sailor Jerry-style tattoos. There’s not anything wrong with that, but these new guys showed us younger cats in the industry that we could create tattoos that were much more elaborate and extravagant than those before them. They pushed tattooing as an art form”
Now, Clancy spends much of his time covering up those old tattoos. Of his 12 current projects, all but one are cover-ups. “I get the people who got a tattoo on Saturday night just because they wanted to get tattooed,” he says. “We wanted to step away from that here. It’s not about me making money, it’s about me putting a nice piece of art on you that you want to look at for the rest of time.”
Clancy himself has no tattoo regrets, nothing that he’s just desperate to cover up. “I look down at my tattoos and I think of where I’ve been, what I’ve learned and where I come from,” he says. “Maybe one day I’ll cover them up, but they’re important to me right now. They help me keep my clientele from making my own mistakes and experiences.” Still, he appreciates the work of doing cover-ups, along with helping his clients make the best decisions.
He has a theory about why people are so quick to rush into tattoos. “I think a lot of is the need to be accepted,” he says. “Tattoos are supposed to make people feel better about themselves, that they’re closer to that ideal image of themselves. Who doesn’t want to rush into that? Who wouldn’t want to just snap their fingers and look exactly how you want to look? I know that I would.”
As the tattoo industry has changed, so has Clancy’s approach to art. He still frequently uses pen and paper to sketch out his original tattoo ideas, but you can often find Clancy with his Microsoft Surface tablet digitally drawing up new ideas. He’s even gone so far as to start taking photos of his “canvas” — the body part that his client wants tattooed — and creating a fully colored, digital tattoo design that looks exactly like it will when it is drawn onto the body with needles and ink.
The result of Clancy’s digital approach to tattooing is that the extreme leap of faith once required of a client from their tattoo artist is now somewhat minimized, and clients can have more confidence that the tattoo they want is right for them. “It’s hard to share your artistic vision, and it’s also really hard to pull out what the client is seeing and put it on paper,” says Clancy. “But the digital age does away with that. I used to be really grumbly that computers were doing all the work for us, but I now realize that it was foolish for me to think that. Every tattoo artist should know their Photoshop, plain and simple.”
Now that he’s been tattooing for 20 years, Clancy is starting to think about how the tattoo industry should be reformed in some pretty big ways beyond technology.
“The tattoo schools are becoming really popular right now, and a lot of people are critical of them,” Clancy says. “Even if you know the basics of how a tattoo is applied to the skin, that doesn’t mean that you know what to do with yourself when a client is very particular about their artwork or wants to know about your sterile procedures.” To combat that, Clancy would like to see a set of enforceable standards of tattooing protocol that would produce quality, educated tattoo artists.
“Just like you go to school for medicine or to become a lawyer, that should exist for tattooing. I think it’s time for the industry to come together and make that happen,” Clancy says. “You see it happening already. The respected pros hold weekend seminars and have their peers lecture and give classes on important topics. We need to take that and move it to the next level and pursue credibility. Create a curriculum or course to set that standard. You can get a degree in art or graphic design, why not a degree in graphic design for the human body?”
Clancy isn’t sure how he’ll pursue that goal, but he’s certainly dedicated to it, if only for the next generation of tattoo artists. “The industry needs to take an interest in their credibility, or we’re going to go back into the dark ages of tattooing, when people were sitting at their kitchen tables giving tattoos and spreading disease. It would also help the next generation by giving young artists a place to learn the mechanics and help them find their place in the industry,” says Clancy. “Otherwise, we may let the next Picasso of tattooing leave and go work at Wal-Mart or something.”