Originally Published Feb. 2011 in The Daily Sound, a Santa Barbara newspaper that was published from 2006-2012. Since original publication, the business has moved to 26 S. La Cumbre, Santa Barbara, CA. 93105
A passion for art and drawing led Ben Stein on the path of becoming a tattoo artist. But it was the lackluster economy that thrust Stein into the role of an entrepreneur. It’s a role, however, that he’s ultimately found to suit him.
BenInked? is a small tattoo studio, a couple hundred square feet in size, that’s not too far from Paseo Nuevo, on the Chapala side*. There is no foot traffic, and Stein doesn’t advertise the studio’s address. He works by appointment only, building his business through the Internet — he says Facebook is a great networking tool — and word of mouth from satisfied customers. It also helps that he has a strong foundation of contacts in the Santa Barbara area, where he’s been a resident here for more than 25 years.
“Art and drawing are what got me through high school, probably,” Stein, 37, said. “That doesn’t make you a tattoo artist, but the style of drawing I’ve always done has translated very well to the tattoo industry.”
He’d designed sleeves, half-sleeves, and individual pieces long before becoming a tattoo artist himself. On the very day he turned 18, Stein got his first tattoo, one that he designed.
Jump to “about six years ago ” — Stein wanted to have that first tattoo covered up and replaced with an image that better represented his current artistic skills and sensibilities. After that cover-up job, he had something of an epiphany.
“I liked my drawing a lot better,” he said, than how the tattoo artist’s version of it turned out on his shoulder. “I thought, ‘I can draw better than this guy can, what I am doing?'” Stein recalled. “Plus I had to pay him a lot of money.”
At that point, Stein had been doing what he describes as “mindless, endless jobs” for some time (although his time spent as a mechanic would prove useful on his new path). After doing research on the Internet, he found and contacted a man named “Notorious” Ed Potter, who was willing to let Stein learn the tattooing trade through an apprenticeship. So in late 2007, Stein left Santa Barbara for Bryant, Texas (in the area of Texas A&M), and signed a one-year contract.
Stein learned the craft from the ground up — “the old, traditional way”—including how to build a tattoo machine. He still has the first machine that he and “Notorious” Ed built together, something Stein said he quickly understood how to do, thanks in part to his mechanical background.
“We did everything from making needles, to putting them on needle bars, to sterilizing them, to making inks out of dry pigment,” Stein shared.
Stein describes Potter’s shop in Bryant as a “typical evening street shop,” open from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. and sandwiched between bars, and largely serving the local college students.
“It was very interesting,” he said. “You think you’ve seen it all . . . .”
Stein fulfilled his year-long contract, and left Bryant well taught and confident in his skills. With his young daughter, Ali, still in Santa Barbara, there was no question that Texas was a temporary stop. However, Stein would come back to Santa Barbara to find that very few tattoo shops were hiring, which he largely attributes to the state of the economy.
He found a place just large enough to do business on his own –bright, more than enough space for a client to be comfortable, and very welcoming.
Open for Business
BenInked? opened for business on April 1, 2009.
“My very first tattoo here was on my 65-year-old aunt,” he recalled.
As BenInked? gets ready to celebrate its second anniversary, Stein says that he’s grateful that business has picked up nicely. He says that in 2009, the winter season was not especially kind, and at that time he was considering taking other employment to fill the gaps. This winter, however, he’s been pleasantly surprised to have stayed busy. He credits an improving economy, but also said: “Tattoos are kind of contagious; the word spreads. Doing quality work and giving a fair price spreads, getting new people in here.”
The advantages of a smaller shop are many. In an economic sense, being a one-man shop keeps overhead costs low. It helps ensure the shop is extremely clean, since he’s the only person doing work. It avoids the politicking and bickering that a larger staff might engender (as popularized on the likes of L.A. Ink and other tattoo-centric television shows). It allows him to schedule appointments around his volunteer work, alternately helping teach drawing and reading to students in his daughter Ali’s class at Montessori Center School, two days a week.
Most of all, it’s a perfect fit for Stein’s goals: “To have a happy client, a really good piece of art, and a nice experience for the client and myself.”
Breast Cancer Awareness
Being the boss also allows Stein’s to use his talents to help increase breast cancer awareness.
As one of the many people whose lives have been affected by the disease—in Stein’s case, his mother has been battling it—he’s donating his time and resources in an attempt to make a difference. BeinInked? offers a free tattoo—of a pink ribbon, about the size of a business card—to people who have suffered from the disease. Not just those directly affected, but people close to those contending with breast cancer as well.
“It affects so many people,” he said. “I want to give back to people that have gone through it.”
He’s done 10 thus far, and has a list of people waiting to take him up on the offer.
Walking, Talking Art
Some of the challenges in tattooing are obvious.
“We don’t have erasers,” Stein quipped. But negotiating the hurdles of doing art on human skin—the differing particulars of inking various body parts, the way the skin stretches, the varying degrees of realism or rendering clients are looking for—ultimately come down to a matter of confidence.
“Marking on skin for the rest of their lives, it’s a big order,” he shared.
That permanence introduces one of the other challenging aspects of being a tattoo artist: covering up a client’s old tattoo. Stein says that one of the earliest start-to-finish tattoos he ever did was a cover up.
“Every tattoo artist loves a fresh piece of skin, but that’s not always the case,” he said. “We’ve all made bad choices.” But, in fixing it, “you’re limited on the choice of a design.” The trick to a cover up, he says, is leading the eye somewhere else, which he compares to “an illusion.”
Whether covering up, reproducing an image, or flexing his own creativity in a tattoo, the enterprise is more than simply drawing.
“The art that I do is not just hanging on this wall, in hopes that you’re going to walk by and see it,” he said. “It’s actually out there on the street, it’s talking to people, it’s walking . . . it could be talking bad about you too.”
That’s why Stein appreciates the one-on-one approach. He takes care to spend time with each client, discussing post-tattoo skin care, especially for clients new to tattooing, and following up after a job is done. It’s a contrast from his experience at the group shop where he apprenticed. Stein says on a typical night in Bryant he might have done between three and 10 tattoos.
Now, he says, “I’m not racing a clock. I’m not selling someone else a tattoo while I’m in the middle of another one.”
He’s building trust, and a body of work—a “walking, talking” body of work—that he can be proud of.
“A lot of people do give me freedom to express,” he said, but is quick to point out that, “It’s really not about me; it’s about what the client wants, and for me to reproduce it to the best of my abilities.”
BenInked? can be reached at www.beninked.com
*Since original publication, the business has moved to 26 S. La Cumbre, Santa Barbara, CA. 93105