Hays was on a different career track after college, earning a degree in visual communications from Auburn University and working as an art director for an advertising agency. After four years he ditched the corporate world to be his own boss. For more than a decade he supported himself working as a freelance graphic designer and selling his paintings and sculptures in Atlanta galleries. The artist has also put in time at the Center for Puppetry Arts, acting and building puppets and sets.
Now, as a member of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists, he puts his artistic talents to work creating custom designs for his clients.
What kind of skills and education do you need for this job?
It's just like one of those old world trades that are passed down in apprenticeship. That's really the best way to get into it. It's kind of frowned upon when you start tattooing in your bedroom. There's a lot of technical stuff that you need to know to do this job. You have to know how your machine is running on any given day. You have to know about different skin types, inks and methods of sterilization. That's why an apprenticeship is really necessary.
Do you have to be an artist to create tattoos?
I think there are a lot of people that tattoo that wouldn't necessarily consider themselves artists so much as tattooers. A lot of it is doing flash designs. Artists around the country produce those and sell them to different shops. Most anybody can do those if you had the technical foundation. If you start getting into areas where you're dealing with custom designs, it's really necessary to draw on some kind of style that people associate with you. That's what starts to build a clientele, having a style that people identify as your work.
How many tattoos do you have?
I couldn't even begin to say. I quit counting them years ago. They're kind of running into one big piece. I don't find it necessary to keep up with them. I've got them and they're not going anywhere.
Did you do your first tattoo on a friend or a customer?
I did it on my leg. I wanted to have it in my possession and be able to show people my very first tattoo. It's a chili pepper.
What's the strangest request you've received for a tattoo?
The strangest place I've ever done a tattoo is in the armpit.
Is there any tattoo you're most proud of?
I can't think of any in particular, but if I had to say it would be the custom designs. You have your flash designs, which are kind of your bread and butter. But the custom designs are more rewarding.
What advice would you give someone interested in working in this field?
It would behoove you to do a lot of legwork and a lot of research and find a shop that you were really enamored with and want to work there. Just be persistent about it. Draw flash and show them drawings you've done that are tattoo-like designs so people can see that you can draw.
Do you need a license to work in a tattoo shop?
In the city of Atlanta you need a work permit. It's much like dancers get for strip clubs and so forth. You have to go through a procedure where you get fingerprinted, have background checks, medical history. You have to get an exam to make sure you're free of blood-borne diseases. Then you have to go before the review board and answer a battery of questions about tattooing. They come and inspect the studio. It's a good thing, though, because it keeps people that we term as "scratchers" out of the business.
What do you like most about your job?
For years I sold my artwork and it was very gratifying to get a check, but unless I was in an opening and saw people purchasing it I never saw their reaction. Now when someone walks over to the mirror and looks at the design I just put on, it's real nice to see the smile on their face, and they turn and say 'That's great.' It's a real nice pay off for the work.
How many hours do you work a week?
We have so many artists on shift that we kind of have to squeeze everyone in the shop at some time or another. It probably averages about a 30-hour workweek, but that's not counting the time I spend at home working on custom drawings for people.
How long does it take to complete a tattoo?
It varies. It can be anywhere from 15 minutes to four or five hours.
What's the best perk of the job?
Getting to draw on people. That's just wonderfully gratifying. If you think about it, it's kind of a silly job because you're just drawing on people's bodies, but on the other hand it's serious, too, because you're putting something on their skin that they're going to have for the rest of their life. It's a weird paradox.
What's the average salary for your position?
That depends on how hard you work, the shop that you work at, the reputation of the shop that you work at, your attitude, the way you deal with customers, your ability to do certain styles. It would be hard to say a range because there are so many variables that come into play.
What are the hazards of your job?
Just like a health care professional in this day and age. Mainly it's transmission of disease. We use universal precautions. You can't be too careful. But as long as you're observing proper sterile practices and avoiding cross-contamination of your station it shouldn't be anything to worry about.
What is your dream job?
Drawing those little designs on paper towels. I always wondered who sits around coming up with those things. I don't know what it would be, really, but it would be art-related.
What has your job taught you about human nature?
More than anything it just reinforces how diverse people are and the beauty of that diversity. I think about a lot of times how boring it would be if we were all the same. Even though we're all human beings there's a lot of diversity, and that never ceases to amaze me.
Sacred Heart Tattoo has studios in Little Five Points, Buckhead, Norcross, and in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. The company's website is www.sacredhearttattoo.com.