Culture

Tattoo U.: LV Ink offers hopeful artists a chance to start needling

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Brian Perkins, owner of LV Ink tattoo school
Photo: Steve Marcus

First there were lemons, which absorb ink into their rinds kind of like human skin. Octavio tattooed them. Then there were pig ears, purchased from an Asian market; pigskin is a pretty close approximation of human flesh. Then there was his brother’s wrist—which seemed like a fair deal, as he volunteered his own skin to Andre when Andre was first learning the art of tattoo here. Then there was the lady with the sagging balloon bosom who wanted a tiny heart; the man who wanted a leaping horse across his bony rib cage—that was rough—and today, a flirty girl who wants a tattoo of a mustache on the inside of her index finger, so that when she holds the finger over her top lip, it looks like she has a dark mustache. “Ha!” she says, perched on a stool explaining the gag, the impulse of her decision giving way to the buzz of Octavio’s needles.

He’s an artist. Sometimes he still calls himself a “tattooer” in his soft voice, but his mentor, Brian Perkins, who owns LV Ink tattoo school on Las Vegas Boulevard, quickly corrects him. “We are artists. We are chosen. We are special. We are not digging a hole,” Perkins tells him. A few months ago, Octavio Andrade—at 21, waifish and quiet—was working the door at a retail uniform shop when his muse visited, along with a big dose of what am I going to do with my life? He came up with a plan: He would be a tattoo artist. He would go to tattoo school.

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That was three weeks ago. Today, the two of them together in the shop—mentor Perkins and apprentice Andrade—are an irony-packed picture of the tattoo business as art. Or tattoo artistry as business. To Andrade’s gentle artist persona, Perkins is the old-school biker. Yet it’s Perkins who calls it art; Andrade who needs a career. Perkins wears a T-shirt with cut-off sleeves showing weathered tattoos from his heyday in East LA. He talks a million miles a minute and laughs loudly, takes me to the alley to show off the pinstripes on his truck. Andrade is withdrawn and polite, conservatively inked and given to finding a seat in the corner to sketch rather than talk shop.

The orange-and-black-painted shop is in the strip-mall space next to the school. Since opening it this summer, Perkins has graduated two classes, totaling eight people, including Andrade. The coursework includes History of Tattoo, Introduction to Tattoo Machines and Power Supplies, Introduction to Blood-Borne Pathogens. Perkins teaches everything, from the 67-page Southern Nevada Health Department book on disease-avoidance to black-lining designs to layers of shade and color. (“You must pass the health department test to grind skin,” he warns.) All around the training studio are flashy design books and tattooed lemons, a few pig ears, several framed works by renowned tattoo artists and some of Perkins’ own work, including a recent sketch of a woman’s brains being blown out by a handgun.

Perkins charges budding artists $3,995, including machines and needles, and then selects from among the class two apprentices, like Andrade, who give free tattoos (tip aside) for a while to practice their new art in the shop alongside Perkins.

“When I was 13, I was kind of forced into it by a motorcycle gang,” Perkins says of his entry into tattooing. Since then, tattooing has moved from the backs of bars and garages into reality-TV shows with “rock star” tattooists—which, Perkins says, makes it difficult for a young artist to get solid training. Enter LV Ink, which Perkins hopes eventually to get accredited as a higher-education institution. “I opened it to fight the bad issues [like] a 24-year-old artist asking $300 for an hour’s work. Our industry has gone through such a change,” he says. Hype, Hollywoodism and competition have locked out workaday artists from getting basic training in apprenticeships. “Who wants to teach you?” he says. “Nobody. So I do. I give them the basics.” His website carries this mission statement: “To provide the highest, most complete education for upcoming aspiring artists, while teaching the culture, respect and understanding of everything that is truly tattoo.” Perkins was a construction superintendent who was laid off last year and put his life savings into the school, some $20,000.

The mayor attended the grand opening—LV Ink is the only tattoo school in the state, one of only two in the nation—or at least that’s the way the story goes. The other is in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Of course, art is subjective; and the line between art and commerce is tricky, Perkins explains. Thus, his plan to augment the tattoo-school business involves an Internet live stream from his shop in the wee hours, featuring, for a price, naked girls getting tattooed. “Motorcycles, naked women and tattoos. That’s what it’s all about, baby.”

When Perkins says this, his rough smile bearing tombstone teeth, Andrade sits in the corner sketching, a quiet world away.

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