With a name like White Whale, you must be a Moby Dick fan.
I had a children’s version of Moby Dick that I loved. When I did my undergraduate work in English literature at the University of Cincinnati, I read it for the first time in a class with professor Tom Leclair. Later, when I did my master’s degree in Seattle at Bakke Graduate University, a global program that I got connected with after serving in gang prisons in Guatemala, I read it again with more of a theology perspective. The book has always been an anchor for me—pun intended. I’ve collected a lot of vintage harpoons to decorate the shop, but we’re very anti-whaling.
What drew you to Guatemala?
In 2006 I sold my house and moved to Guatemala. I needed a change and to clear my head. So I sort of created my own sabbatical. I volunteered in a Guatemalan city called La Limonada, [which is] where I worked in gang prisons. People who wanted to get out of the gangs needed to cover up their [gang-related] tattoos. I recruited a tattoo artist in Cincinnati who came to help; I designed the tattoos and he did the tattooing. He then offered me a chance to apprentice with him. Part of the mission of White Whale is to return to Guatemala to do more cover ups—tattooists without borders.
Did you really build your own tattoo machine? I didn’t know a person could do that.
The gang members in Guatemala built their own machines using a Walkman motor, guitar strings for needles, and inks made from ash. The coils on my machine are wrapped in Guatemalan paper currency. I also use Quetzals coins; I drilled a hole through them to create a washer. Nowadays anyone can order a machine from Amazon and start tattooing, but that’s generally frowned upon. I had the good fortune to have a traditional apprenticeship. It’s kind of a lost art. If my machine breaks, I can fix it.
What’s your trademark look?
Black inks, lines, and dots tend to hold their integrity better. For this reason I primarily work in black, [in a] woodcut and pointillist style.
If I’m a tattoo newbie, what can I expect when I walk into White Whale?
I was really determined to create a space that feels like a salon. Anything invasive with a needle, like a shot, makes me uneasy, and [as a tattooist] I’m pretty light handed. A tattoo here tends to be a very memorable experience; it can be very therapeutic, kind of like acupuncture.
White Whale Tattoo, by appointment only, 650 E. McMillan St., Walnut Hills, whitewhaletattoo.com