By Alexander Heller
I had to grab a Lyft to Philadelphia, due to my car acting up for the past two weeks. The ride from Glassboro to Philadelphia and back totaled around $105. Even when I’m drunk, that’s quite a rare occasion for me to be spending that much cash going to the city. As soon as my driver picked me up, my eyes were set on my destination: Kadillac Tattoo of Mount Airy, Philadelphia. The 40 minute ride on Route 76 and Lincoln Drive was not only graced with a brisk autumn day, but a collection of beautiful autumn colored leaves that danced with the sunlight, as if it were from a forest scene in a fantasy film.
I arrived at 1:15 p.m. when I finally gazed upon the vintage carnie-style sign, that was Kadillac Tattoo. As I entered the shop, I was greeted with a collection of flash art that darted the black and red walls of the entire inside of the building. Eagles, roses, sailboats, American flags, vintage 50s girls, you name it; they were among the art that neatly cluttered the walls of the shop. The time was 1:30 p.m. and like clockwork, the shop door opened with a loud ping that ultimately revealed him, Eric Perfect.
I’ve only known Eric through association on Instagram. The 51 year-old artist was relatively unknown in my circle of artists that I follow on the app. If I were completely honest, I thought that he was an average joe-schmoe artist working in Philly. But to my surprise, Eric’s influence stretched far beyond the Philadelphia area.
“Nobody wanted nothing to fucking do with us years ago,” he explained, as he sat near his desk in the back of the shop. “Back in the day tattooing, and the whole community at large, was underground. There were characters. It wasn’t for the general public. It was sorta like a club for scumbags, bikers, criminals enlisted men, you know?” And his shop sure reflected the art that was used by those colorful characters.
Eric has known and worked with artists like Oliver Peck, Chris Nunez and Henk Schiffmacher for many years, and his frustration with the current climate of tattooing is genuinely understandable. Since the late 90s and early 2000s, tattoos have become more and more mainstream with the advent of reality TV shows, and celebrities getting tattooed. Roughly 29% of the U.S. population has at least one tattoo, and the percentage has increased over time.
“Now that everybody is getting them and doing them, there’s no mystery in it anymore and the TV shows don’t help,” he said. “What goes on in Ink Master and shit like that, is vastly different from what actually goes on in a shop.”
Eric has been tattooing for about 29 years and has seen his fair share of bullshit when it comes to tattooing. And the recent rise of Tattoo Schools is no exception. There have always been people trying to make a buck off of tattooing especially since the rise of its popularity in today’s culture. Tattoos are fashionable and though they have some benefits, it comes with some drawbacks as well.
“Listen, there’s a lot of smart and talented kids out there,” he said. “There really is, but there’s nothing really special about it anymore. To me, tattooing is special, but to those kids getting into it, it’s a means to an end. It’s another job, whereas before you were learning magic tricks, you know what I mean? There’s no showmanship anymore. The customers are tattooing now.”
As we dived more into the crazy world of tattoos, Eric began to notice my eagle tattoo on my left forearm. He noticed that the outline was crooked, the feathers weren’t showing and the face looked more like a disgruntled pigeon, than that of a fierce eagle. He leaned towards his desk to grabbed a sharpie to quickly correct the mistakes. He held my arm out and began to gently trace over the bird.
“See I’m going to ruin your whole day here,” he jokingly amused. “You gotta make your eagle look mean.” As he corrected the mistakes on my tattoo, I began to understand what the veteran artist was talking about. Even though he’s been doing this for years, he was quick with his method and looked smooth doing it. I can only imagine what he could do with a machine, instead of a marker.
“This is what happens when you get young kids doing these things. That’s all I’m trying to say.”
Although he’s earned his right of being one of the few true traditional tattooers in Philadelphia, like all great success stories he had to start somewhere. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Eric Flynn, before he changed his name, was always gravitated towards art. Particularly comic books.
“I was always a fucking comic nerd,” he humorsly said as he lit his cigarette. “I always drew shit like that when I was a kid.” Even after serving three years in the army right out of high school, Eric continued to pursue his dream by attending the Kubert School of art in Dover, New Jersey. After spending a year and a half there, circumstances changed when he fell in love with the punk rock scene in New Jersey and Philadelphia, as well as getting his first tattoo.
“When I got my first tattoo, I was still in art school and I didn’t know if this was for me or not,” he said as he took another puff from his cigarette. “But as I was getting tatted and hanging out in the whole punk scene, I just fell in love with it. I’m one of those guys that likes to see the behind the scenes shit, and for me that’s how it was for tattooing.”
Even when he finally saw his purpose, Eric’s journey was not without any hardships along the way. Much like any profession, one has to be at the place they desire and see exactly how that said profession is done.
At the time, Eric’s friend owned a shop where he frequented. Of course he would hang out and bullshit with the artists there, but he would also start doing things that endured himself with the shop, such as cleaning the place up, organizing the flash art, and cleaning the artist’s stations. The more he kept going, the more he understood and become interested with the whole process.
“The kids that do these tattoo schools, don’t want to do all the cleaning. All the dirty work that comes with honing your craft,” he passionately said. “If you want to get into this business, you have to know the ins and outs and it all starts at the front of the fucking shop!”
Eric began to make sense as he finished his cigarette. When I first walked into the shop, I did notice that everything looked, for a lack of a better word, perfect. The windows were clean, the floors were swept and the art was in your face, but in an elegant way. I soon began to realize that any artist that’s looking to make it in this business has to ask the right questions, the actions they do have to endured with the shop and the enthusiasm they bring to the shop has to be both positive and determined. Put it to you this way, if an apprentice can’t clean the shop and do it properly, what makes you think they’re going to take care of someone’s skin?
“It all goes hand in hand, man.”
“He’s absolutely right!” agreed Jess Baker. “For some, a tattoo apprenticeship is a right of passage that can not be bought and sold. It must be earned.” An artist herself in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Jess never met Eric but has heard of him throughout Philadelphia. “He’s one of the last, I guess you can say ‘old school,’ guys that still feels that tattooing is in this underground world. Unfortunately he has a point, it’s not like that anymore.”
As our conversation began to wind down, I quickly checked the time and it was 3:30 p.m. Eric went to the bathroom after the almost two hour conversation we had, and for the 10 minutes he was gone I had a chance to see the back of the shop for myself. I saw not only his art but memories. Photos of friends that’s been with him since his shop first opened in 1991. Tattoo expo posters featuring his name and other famous artists. But what really caught my eye was a comic panel in the middle of the wall that featured Spider-Man and few other Marvel characters. Seeing that made me smile after realizing that this 51 year-old punk rock tattoo artist still was “a fucking comic nerd.”
Recognizing how shitty and expensive the ride home was going to be, I made my preparations to head on out after Eric came out of the bathroom and ordered another Lyft. I almost didn’t want to leave this time capsule of art but it was time. Before he left he sat back down on his desk and gave his card to give to friends I know. My phone went off, it was time to go. As I said my goodbyes and headed to the front door, Eric had something to tell me before I headed out.
“Hey man, whenever you’re town again come on by and get a tattoo. We’ll try to do something about that eagle of yours.”
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