Say it with ink 

Watson Atkinson pushes the ancient art of tattooing into the 21st century

"Show me a man with a tattoo and I'll show you a man with an interesting past," said novelist Jack London. In 1883, he could not imagine that everyone from high school kids to soccer moms would get tattoos. But if he could meet Watson Atkinson, he might not renounce his notion of the tattooed man.

From his family home in Candler Park, Atkinson creates spectacularly epic tattoos, bold yet intricate collages that juxtapose pop culture, fine art and religious and mythological imagery using strong outlines and fine, almost embroidered detail.

In the past 12 years, Atkinson has established a reputation as a pioneering tattooist, attracting clients from all over the United States, Canada and beyond. Whether Atkinson tattoos images of Jesus Christ or Bart Simpson onto human skin or spray paints the psychedelic facade of the Junkman's Daughter boutique in Little Five Points, his work is jolting and otherworldly.

"He has his own style, a loose and expressive fine art style that has a lot of different influences and is recognizably his own," says Charles Brank, editor of local tattoo magazine Prick. "He's a walking art show. Incredibly creative.

Growing up in Indianapolis, Atkinson was a nerdy, scholarly kid who dreamed of becoming a painter or sculptor. He earned a two-year scholarship to Columbus College of Art & Design in Ohio, but had to transfer to Indiana when the money ran out. He eventually became disillusioned with the program and dropped out.

Tattooing was never part of his master plan. His initiation into the business came after his twin brother, Mitchell, ordered tattoo equipment through the mail. "If he hadn't bought that kit, I wouldn't be tattooing right now," Atkinson says. "I'm 100 percent sure I would be an established painter."

The Atkinson brothers converted an old school bus and hit the road as traveling tattooists, settling in Athens when tattooing was legalized there. They established Pain and Wonder tattoo parlor across the road from the 40 Watt Club. In 2002, Atkinson was featured in International Tattoo Art, the industry's most highbrow magazine. Then he moved to Atlanta to tattoo at Junkman's Daughter.

Earlier this year, he opened a private studio in his 1920s bungalow where he works exclusively on custom designs, turns down commissions that take less than four hours and charges $125 an hour.

Instead of sterile white walls crammed with row upon row of "flash" designs, his parlor has soft green walls covered in music promo posters. Nick Drake plays on the stereo. His pet Chihuahua, Pepito, nestles comfortably beside a fantastically surreal and morbid altar, Atkinson's towering sculpture-in-progress, which he describes as his "cryptic version of leaving a legacy."

Atkinson talks earnestly about his art, speaking in long, looping monologues, often pausing to rephrase or restate sentences. After he finishes a paragraph, he begins the next and then pauses to work out what he wants to say. My first question elicits a response twice as long as this article.

He explains how his signature style has evolved. He started out creating organic, figurative designs, moved on to sci-fi, Geiger-esque images, and then became influenced by the resurgence of traditional Americana and Japanese designs.

"Now," he says, "where I envision my style going -- and where it really has been imbedded for the last five years or so -- is this unusual hybrid, all these different genres pushed together. I work in a traditional, bold direction, but I'm bringing in more sophisticated techniques and gray lines, and reflective light, glowing light and transparencies. I'm kind of jokingly making reference to the grand unified theory, the GUT, the thing the scientists are trying to bring together, all four electromagnetic theories into one unified theory of the universe."

With his reputation as a tattoo artist secured, Atkinson wants to branch out. He dreams of achieving the same level of success as a sculptor and painter, hence Pepito's resting place, the altar-in-progress.

"Tattooing has had this total stranglehold on my creative energy," he explains. "But then, at the same time, the struggle that I have [is] ... God! What if I would have been a painter? What if I had been a sculptor?"

He straightens his back and looks me in the eye. "I really want to be an established, nationally recognized painter within five years," he announces. "I'm hell-bent on it."

Atkinson is fond of grand, extravagant gestures. Before long, he's weaving manically through his home, instructing me to examine his oil paintings as he outlines his master plan. His enthusiasm is disorienting. However compelling his paintings are, I have to remind him -- and myself -- that I am writing about his tattoos.

Fine art aspirations aside, Atkinson remains committed to tattooing for now. "I love dramatically changing somebody's relationship with the world," he says. "People carry around your artwork and show it to the world constantly. When they move to Portland or L.A., they take these pieces with them and represent me in a permanent way."

He doesn't worry that his tattoos only last as long as his clients. "Sixty years is a huge amount of time for a work to be showcased, and for me that's permanent enough. It's a chunk of time that will spread this gospel of truth."

Atkinson sees himself restoring the respectability of tattooing by pushing its potential as an art form, but he doesn't want tattoos to be any less rebellious. He talks excitedly of an "underground fringe" of punk kids, professors and devout Catholics who are seriously committed to subverting expectations.

"Pop culture is never going to be about getting heavily tattooed," he says. "It's always going to be on the fringe. It's just too radical. It's too out there. It takes a certain type of person to dislodge themselves without conforming."

Perhaps he is right, but I can't help wondering what this "underground fringe" is rebelling against. Are heavy tattoos really anything more than a novel way of being contrary?

"A lot of times, young people getting a full sleeve set a stick of dynamite off in the family relations," Atkinson says. "They basically go off the deep end, go against everything that the family represented and they're a black sheep. I kind of promote that."

Atkinson's daughters will have to find yet more creative ways of riling their father. Atkinson has already taught his 8-year-old daughter, Cree, to tattoo. He shows me a picture of a pretty girl with pink streaks in her hair, grinning gamely as she holds a needle above a man's leg. "That was her first tattoo," he says proudly. "She was 6, and she drew a heart and her name on my leg. It's my favorite tattoo."

arts@creativeloafing.com

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