Photos by Emma Bella Holley
Where/when did the inspiration for tattooing manifest itself in your life? Did you undergo any type of apprenticeship when you first started out?
N: Being born and raised in LA, tattoos were prominent in my life from an early age. I did my first tattoo in the garage of a halfway house — a “WY” symbol for “wasted youth” on my ankle. We had made a homemade machine earlier that day, and once everyone had gone to sleep, we snuck out of our rooms and headed into the garage. It was one of the most memorable moments of my life. It’d be nice to say that it all started then, but it took many years until I took it seriously and got an apprenticeship.
With popularity for tattoos only growing, there’s an equally growing demand for tattoo artists. How does your specific style set you apart from the others? Do you have any signature techniques that others lack?
N: During my apprenticeship, a tattooer gave me some advice that pretty much molded the way I tattoo. He told me “never wear headphones.” I was expecting something like “bend your needle this way” or “use this ink,” but no I got “don’t wear headphones.” To this day, that had turned out to be some of the best advice I've ever received. It’s not literally about the act of wearing headphones, but treating your client with respect and kindness. They're a person, not just a canvas. This describes my approach to tattooing — to create something beyond just the art. I want to give my clients an experience in a comfortable environment they're not soon to forget.
You have @amongthewillows in your bio on Instagram. What is it and where does the name come from?
N: When you were a kid, did you ever have that hangout spot that was your secret lair? Among the Willows is just that. The phrase “Among the Willows” is an old cowboy slang for “dodging the law” and we kind of feel like banditos in our hideout, so it’s fitting. Our studio came to fruition in July of 2018 and it's been an amazing year so far. I tattoo there with my friend Judd Bowman, and my girlfriend Emma Holley has her photography studio upstairs. I always wanted to tattoo in a space that felt like a home away from home. I feel we’ve achieved that with Among the Willows.
If a tragic accident happened and you could no longer use your hands to effectively give tattoos, what would you do professionally?
N: I would want to work at some kind of animation company. I love fantasy animations — anything “Miyazaki-esk.” As kids my little brother Brandon, and I would keep a lore binder full of these different worlds, the characters that inhabited them, and the adventures they’d face. On long trips we would spitball different ideas and fill the binder up with drawings, notes, anything and everything. In school I’d wrap my D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) dungeon master guide and monster manual with the sleeves of other books, so the teacher thought I was paying attention. Brandon actually pulled one of the story lines we came up with, and is currently writing it into a novel — I’m very excited to see where that goes!
Music truly sets the mood in any setting or situation. What type of tunes do you listen to while inking a client?
N: Man, the variety is endless in our studio! I would say it's definitely not your normal “getting tattooed” music. We really enjoy listening to soundtracks for Last of the Mohicans and Indian Jones. We all love classical music as well, so it's not uncommon to hear some Tchaikovsky playing. However, Bonobo, Ty Segal or Budos Band is probably my go to when I don’t know what to put on. If you’re reading this and don’t know Budos Band, put down the magazine and go check them out. I’ve recently been bumping The Dandy Warhols, Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia a lot. I'm also really into world music, so this app called “Radiooooo” is amazing for that. I can never get enough of some 60’s Cambodian psych rock!
Most tattoo artists mention that their craft seems to be a form of meditation for them. What does the practice of tattooing do for you mentally?
N: It's interesting, when I meditate it's not uncommon for me to repeat a mantra of “I am calm, I am present.” What's funny is that when I am tattooing, I am just that; calm, present and above all, focused. When I’m in the tattoo, I’m energized — I feed off of the creative energy.
What is the most fulfilling aspect about your craft?
N: That moment when my client gets up and looks in the mirror gets me every time. Seeing the excitement and joy on their faces is such a great feeling.