Art — Doug Mendoza: body artist 

Doug Mendoza: body artist

 

By Michelle Saturley

 

He’ll decorate you, but only if you’ve really thought it through

 

If you’re a drunken sorority sister who decides on a whim to get a tattoo, don’t come stumbling into Spider-Bite, where resident tattoo artist Doug Mendoza reigns. He’ll send you right back out to the sidewalk.

If, however, you’ve done some serious thinking about what kind of ink you want to carry around on your body for the rest of your life, Mendoza’s your guy.

In a society where tattoos are still considered somewhat unsavory, Mendoza is trying to bring artistry and respectability to his chosen field. His interest in tattoo art started early, in his hometown of Dumas, Texas.

“I started drawing pretty much as soon as I could hold a pencil,” he said.

In his teen years, his drawing was deeply influenced by comic book art.

“I was influenced by Todd McFarlane [Spawn], Jim Lee [Batman] and Whilce Portacio [The Punisher, X-Men],” Mendoza said. “I think the early to mid ’90s was a modern golden age in comics. There was some amazing artistry going on. And I was the kid in high school who spent all my time reading comics, not talking to anyone.”

Mendoza took every art class offered in his high school but was disappointed that the curriculum didn’t focus much on drawing. It wasn’t until his junior year that his work caught the eye of a teacher.

“Coach McDonald was the tennis coach but he also taught a drawing class,” he said. “He was the first person who told me that I was any good. He also said that I should stop trying to copy other artists’ work and try to find my own style.”

Meanwhile, Mendoza and a few friends who were also into comic book art embarked on a new interest: tattooing.

“My best friend Jon Perkins was the one who got me into it,” Mendoza said. “He was the first one to go to Amarillo, the closest town to us, and get a tattoo. We started talking about how we could be the ones doing the tattoos.”

Mendoza soon found out that learning how to be a tattoo artist wasn’t going to be easy.

“I would walk into a tattoo shop and ask if I could get a job, and they would kick me out,” he said. “Tattooing is one of those fields where the guys that know how to do it don’t like to show other people how. It’s highly competitive, and to some degree, it’s still underground.”

Mendoza and his friends managed to get their hands on some machines, and tried the “learn as you go” approach.

“I gave some very naïve friends some horrendous scars,” he said. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.”

Eventually, Mendoza landed an apprenticeship in a popular Amarillo shop, and his career began in earnest.

“I was doing all flash work at that time,” he said, referring to the practice of tracing an already-designed tattoo. “It was pretty bad.”

During his apprenticeship, one thing that struck Mendoza was the callousness with which people selected their tattoos.

“People would just walk in, pick something off the wall, and be done with it,” he said. “I couldn’t understand that.”

He then moved to Albequerque, N.M. to work in an established shop, where he toiled six days a week, 14 hours a day. “That’s when I started getting better,” he said. “Working those kinds of hours, you don’t really have a choice. It’s that old ‘practice makes perfect.’”

When things started to turn sour in Albequerque, he returned to Texas briefly, unsure of what his next move would be. That’s when he heard from some friends living in Chichester, N.H.

“They sent me a picture, and I saw the fall foliage in the background,” Mendoza said. “I’d never seen anything like it. It looked so different from Texas. I was ready to make a change at that time. So I packed up a suitcase and my tattoo equipment and made the move.”

His first job in the Granite State was working down on Salem’s tattoo row. He learned some fast lessons.

“I learned that an expensive tattoo isn’t necessarily a good one,” he said. “I also learned that it didn’t take much actual knowledge to get yourself a tattoo license and call yourself a tattoo artist. There were a lot of hacks passing themselves off as experienced. There were guys who had been tattooing for 25 years who weren’t all that good.”

During his Salem stint, Mendoza returned to flash tattoo work, which he disliked.

“It was steady work, easy money,” he said. “It was a heavy flash environment. This was back when it was still illegal in Massachusetts, so we had a lot of people coming over the border to get a tattoo. And they were all there on the spur of the moment, and they would just pick out the first thing that grabbed their eye and say, ‘I want that.’ It wasn’t very challenging.”

Mendoza continued his holding pattern in Salem until he heard that Manchester was changing its ordinance and allowing tattoos to be given within city limits.

“I went over to Spider-Bite as soon as I heard they were going to be a tattoo shop,” he said.

Now, Mendoza is the leading tattoo artist in the city. “I only do custom work now,” he said. “I do everything freehand.”

Mendoza says he starts the tattoo process with a customer without even picking up the needle.

“I sit the person down and ask them a few questions,” he said. “I want to know why they want the tattoo. I want to know what significance the design has for them.”

Being a tattoo artist also calls for some unexpected people skills.

“Most people who come in looking for a tattoo are trying to exercise some kind of control over their lives,” Mendoza said. “Sometimes it’s a form of punishment — for themselves or a parent or an ex. Sometimes it’s a way of closing a chapter on their lives or starting a new one.”

All of these factors, along with where on the body the tattoo will be applied, go into Mendoza’s final design.

“The most important thing to me is that the finished tattoo is personalized,” he said. “It should fit that person’s body type, their personality. It should be an expression of who they are. It shouldn’t be some generic thing they pick off a wall. If they get up from the chair, look in the mirror and smile, I know I did my job.”

- Michelle Saturley

 
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