Joey Knuckles (High Street Tattoo, Sacred Hand, Body Language) is a Columbus tattoo legend who’s been tattooing in Columbus for over 17 years. Joey’s love for the art of tattooing is founded in the respect for the traditional art form and the tattoo culture that he was immersed in growing up. We sat down with Joey and discussed his unique journey as a business owner and his observations on the shift in tattoo culture over the years.
J: I’m Joey Knuckles and I’m from Columbus, Ohio.
J: [High Street Tattoo] was the first shop I had ownership in. It’s really funny, in 17 years I’ve only worked at three shops here, and now I own all three.
J: Okay so I grew up around a bunch of weirdos and punk rockers and skateboarders and stuff, and they were all tattooed and significantly older than me. And then as we all grew up, they ended up being really important tattoo artists. It just seemed like the thing to do with the weirdos. I was just really into it right away and me and my friends tattooed ourselves – we were like 14 with homemade machines and all that jazz. I didn’t really think I was going to tattoo so I did all kinds of stuff professionally before I started tattooing. I started kind of late. I got an opportunity to learn to tattoo at Body Language in 2000, and I did a two year formal apprenticeship and then worked my way into the rotation as an artist there. I went on from there and never stopped.
J: You know, I really like doing stuff with the guys and ladies that work with us. Every year we take a couple days off and go get a cabin at hocking hills and, you know, get rip roaring drunk. We take our supplies with us and create while we’re out there, but more than anything, we just cut loose. I enjoy seeing these guys succeed. That makes me feel good as a business owner. I try to make sure I take care of all these guys first and then if they’re OK, then I’ll be OK.
J: Probably the same thing everybody else has. At this location in particular, they just redid the whole look of the city. So the front of our business was blocked for probably nine, 10 months, which distracted a lot of attention. There are a lot of weird challenges that exist digitally for businesses now – like the Yelps of the world extorting small businesses for membership fees and stuff like that. You just have to deal with it. We don’t sell a product – we don’t have a large profit margin or anything like that so we’re basically just service. I think we’re a little more susceptible with those problems than others. I try to follow a pretty strict business regiment to make sure that when catastrophe strikes, everybody is still OK.
J: Mercy. Well, adapt is a great word. That’s exactly what you have to do. There’s been a lot of heavy changes with what people use and how people are getting into the business. I think people from my generation really resisted that pretty harshly at first, myself included. But as time goes on, these new artists do really nice tattoos and are really carving a place in the industry for themselves. So adapt is a pretty good word. It’s different from the way I was taught, but it’s working for them. And now, a lot of those artists are getting a little older and more experienced and are starting to come into work at the shops. They’re good people a lot of times. It’s just that they haven’t been exposed to what I would call my side of the industry. I’m really into the history of tattooing and the traditions and the folk art of tattooing. Tattooing predates human speech – tribe to tribe. Before I spoke to your tribe, I would tattoo myself to show you that I was my tribe. The significance of it to me is pretty important. I think that with post televised tattooing, maybe the motivations have changed a little – but the outcome is really beautiful tattoo work. And some really happy customers. So who cares? I don’t own tattooing. I definitely like to make sure that my front steps are clean and then outside of that I just trust that everybody else is going to keep their steps as clean as well.
J: We’re the best! I mean, excuse me. I think since day one, there’s been a magic here. I was one of the original employees in ‘05 and this was a much rougher neighborhood and a different kind of place. We watched the neighborhood change in so many different ways and we’ve changed with it. I think we’ve had some of the best tattoo artists in the city generationally now for a decade and a half – coming up on fifteen years. I think that a lot of people have come here with a certain skill set and left with a much more developed and matured skill set and went and opened their own shops or went on to do other things in tattooing that make us proud. That’s what we want. I don’t want you to work here and feel like you got worse. I want you to come here and have this be an institution of developing yourself into that next level of professionalism and skill. That’s how I see it, and I would think my guys would attest that.
J: Oh yeah. Columbus has always been a very big tattoo city, big time. Morrison that does the Hell City Tattoo fest has ran some of the best shops in the history of Columbus over his lifetime and still does. He runs Red Tree Tattoo and he’s set a precedent which got so many people interested in tattooing a long time ago. Even before him, a guy named Marty Holcomb was a super famous tattoo artist – he’s at Red Tree Tattoo. He’s been tattooing since ‘72 and is incredible and was one of the best tattoo artists in the world for a couple of decades. And then even before him there was a guy named Stoney St. Clair, a world renowned tattoo legend. So I think Columbus has always been a really important place for tattooing. The style that developed here is really distinctive. When I moved to the East Coast I loved the East Coast style, but when I got there, people were like, what is this? What is this stuff [you have tattooed]? It’s the grass is always greener kind of situation where somebody else’s style always seems cooler than yours.
J: Super proud. I love it. It’s a positive fucking vibe, a super positive vibe. I think these guys enjoy their jobs. And the customers have a good time while they’re here, in a time when a lot of shops are turning into boutiques because they think that you need to act posh and standoffish and for you to get a high end product. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. We come from Carnival Folk as tattooers, and I think when you walk in the place it should have some cool music and some fun things and cool stuff to look at on the walls, and you can have fun and still receive the best quality tattoo you can get.
J: Don’t! I mean, I had a really good answer for that 10 years ago. But now I think that my opinion of that is pretty outdated. I think that my advice would be go get tattooed somewhere really good and get tattooed a ton. And then if you tend to fit in as a fixture there, maybe they’ll offer to teach you if you show artistic credibility and interest and maybe they’ll break you off. But nowadays, there are a million paths. You know, don’t come knocking on my door! I’m not going to teach you.
J: Right here. Doing the same thing. You don’t do this for five years and then propel yourself into stardom. There’s no retirement. You have to work really, really hard your whole life and save some nuts off to the side over the years, and hope that’s enough to make it through when it’s all done. It’s a tough business to be in because as you age, your popularity drops. You know, like, a young kid that walks in here looks at me versus Zack, and Zack’s got on the t-shirt of the band they love, and I’m some raspy voice, old bald guy. They don’t want to get tattooed by me. Like, this guy has got gold teeth and missing teeth. Who the fuck is this guy? So it’s a pretty trend based situation. You’re kind of at the mercy of how cool you are with people, so you just have to consistently just always work. So, in five years we’ll be here. Twenty five years maybe. If you’re trying to tap into this thinking you’re going to get rich – I think you’re crazy. I know really famous tattooers and they’re not rich. They’re just really well known. Your hands can only do so much tattooing every day. I own three shops and to keep them all the nicest places in town, and to keep my guys the happiest guys in town, costs a lot. It costs a lot to keep these guys feeling like they’ve got the best jobs in town. But it’s worth it to me.
Without the amount of love that I have for what I do, I don’t think it would be worth it. I don’t think that a lot of people would be willing to work as hard as I do for so little on the back end. But you know, I get to do a lot of cool stuff. I travel a lot, but I’m going there to do some tattoos so I can afford to be there.
J: That’s a great question. I’m going to go outside of tattoo shops because that’s obvious. But let’s see, man, Amy’s donuts. I love that place. I’ve been digging Pierogi Mountain. This little Italian restaurant, Basi, is awesome. Just the vibe alone is worth going. I really like The Market Italian village, that place is great. My friend just opened a new food truck called JD’s Secret Stash. They’ve been up at the North Parson’s Brewery. Oh, Shrimp Lips. Holy Moses, man. It’s on Parsons. They have it all. It’s incredible.