Berkshire Made

A work of (inked) art

Artist Brian Brown sees the body as a canvas

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DALTON — Inside Red-Karpet Tattoo on Thursday, lines began to emanate from a tiger's snarl, snaking down and around a muscled canvas. Brian Brown was inking Scott Forrest's first tattoo, and though a photo had served as an initial reference point, the artist's work had become something more abstract, something more untamed, just as he had planned.

"I'm creating 90% of my tattoos on the go," Brown said at his Depot Street parlor on Thursday.

While this imagery may cover arms, legs and other parts of the human body for decades, Brown's tattoos often stem from mere moments of creative inspiration. Accessing those impulses, however, requires hours of preparation and developing a strong rapport with clients who travel from as far as Australia to have Brown's surrealist black-and-gray style applied to their skin. The Dalton native's shop belongs to a cohort of destination parlors around the world that are leading what Brown calls the "Renaissance era of tattooing." Their customers aren't picking out boilerplate symbols; they're purchasing artistic styles and visions.

"It attracts a certain kind of client that's ready to take a leap of faith, but that's why they go to an artist," Brown said. "They see how I do my thing. It's consistent. It's intricate. It has all these elements that stay in tune with each other, so they know what to expect."

Tattoo client lists around the country are growing even though the art form has existed since the world's earliest civilizations. Exact numbers are difficult to pin down, but a 2015 online survey of 2,225 U.S. adults conducted by The Harris Poll found that 29% of American adults had at least one tattoo. Four years earlier, that number was 21%. More recently, Dalia Research conducted an online survey of 9,054 adults internationally in April 2018, estimating that 46% of U.S. adults had tattoos. In other words, the days when tattoos primarily evoked sailors and bikers are long gone. Now, Brown and other artists are inking people from across the age and socioeconomic spectrum. The 22-year-old Forrest was game for the artist's spontaneous style on Thursday.

"The only thing I don't want is three eyes," he told the artist.

The North Adams resident's first visit to Brown's shop was for a consultation about tattoo size, placement and safety. He indicated that he wanted a tiger's head on his forearm. Brown's wife, Eiko, usually screens potential clients first.

"She can judge what I would be into because I'm very selective about what I do," he said.

Specifically, he aims for surrealism and a classic black-and-gray palette.

"If you're just copying a piece, that's photorealism. You're taking a photo, copying that — that doesn't excite me as an artist. I have to create and modify on the go," he said.

Those alterations are tailored to a person's shape.

"Your body plays the canvas, the frame, the quadrant, the flow for the piece, so you can't just put something halfway-middle," Brown said.

This customization takes time. Brown's by-appointment-only shop hosts just one customer per day, if that. He often works for more than 10 hours straight on a single piece. Projects can span multiple days, too. A couple of months ago, he inked somebody over the course of three 12-hour visits. Brown himself will soon be sitting down for a four-day session in Poland with acclaimed tattoo artist Victor Portugal who, along with Japanese tattoo artist Horiyoshi III, is one of Brown's primary influences.

"It's not a business to me. If it was, I would have 10 people working here, and I'd be doing faster tattoos, but it's not about that here," Brown said.

When asked how much his tattoos cost, Brown declined to give a price range and said it varies by project.

Red-Karpet is less street shop and more artistic lair.

"It's my private art studio," Brown said.

Upon entering, visitors will see Brown's oil paintings leaning against walls, ornate antique mirror frames and a velvet rope, and seating area. But first, they may notice the skulls.

"The first time I came in here, I felt like I was in medieval times," Forrest said.

Next to one mirror, a human skull sits between a camel's and a pig's. Brown, who said he sources these pieces from contacts at medical institutions and museums, began collecting and drawing skulls after digging up a cat's skull when he was 5.

"It has nothing to do with anything dark," Brown said. "I just find the shapes, the textures, the held life — there's so much interest in it that just motivates me. Still, to this day, that's my main source of inspiration."

Indeed, many of Brown's tattoos feature a skull of some kind. Faces and hybrids also frequently appear.

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"When you look at something that has any facial feature, you connect with it automatically, but I don't like the faces on mine to have too much personality. I use them as more of an abstract template," he said.

Abstraction is Brown's favorite part of tattooing. He hails from a large family of artists and has been creating his own works since before he could spell the word "artist" — really. One time, his mother and a friend were asking him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He told them it started with an "r."

"They couldn't get it, and at the end, I'd be like, 'An artist, dummy!'" he recalled.

One of 14 children, Brown traveled a lot with his antique-dealing mother during his youth. For a period, he lived in Egypt before returning to the U.S. and attending Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton. After working in audio engineering and music production in Boston, he started tattooing when he was 21, about 20 years ago. The work was less creative for him then.

"When I started, I almost couldn't apply all my personal artistic process to tattooing. It was almost two separate entities," he said.

For about a decade, he resided in San Francisco, where he met Eiko. The couple eventually moved back to Dalton in 2012 after one of Brown's brothers died. They opened Red-Karpet, Dalton's first tattoo parlor, shortly thereafter. Eiko currently tends to the business side of the operation, but the pencil portrait artist is trained and licensed to be a tattoo artist. Recently, she has been focusing on raising the couple's 3-year-old daughter, Koyuki, though.

"She's already painting!" Brown said of his daughter.

On Thursday, Brown's illustration work began just after 1 p.m. He pulled up an image of a tiger's head on a backroom computer as Forrest waited near the shop's entrance, repainting the image on his screen with a writing utensil. His digital creation served as the basis for some stencil work he then pressed on Forrest's arm. With markers, he began adding lines distinct from the original photo up and down Forrest's upper arm.

"These are just a template, too," Brown said. "These will change as I tattoo."

Client and artist had already agreed to shift the tattoo from the forearm to the upper arm. It was growing in size.

"That's a huge tattoo to start, man, but that's the way to do it. That way your arm will be a masterpiece," Brown told his client.

The tattoo artist said that larger works have more longevity than small, rigid works.

"Your body's always changing, so you try to put a good structure down to keep form over time," he said.

Wearing black gloves, wireless headphones and glasses, Brown began inking Forrest just after 3:30 p.m. Brown uses long needles, a new-age cartridge system and "everything disposable," keeping up to speed on the latest safety measures.

"Anything that I can push further to keep things more sterile, I'm all for it," Brown said.

Forrest was sitting in a plastic-covered chair akin to one in a doctor's office. The buzz or feel of Brown's inking apparatus didn't appear to bother the customer too much.

"Not so bad, huh?" Brown said.

The artist wrapped up the day's work nearly five hours later, but Forrest would be returning Friday. They talked about adding details to the tiger's eyes and hair in the second session. They were even contemplating inserting a skull into the animal's mouth. Brown wasn't ready to commit to that, though.

"We'll see where things go," he said.

But his approach tends to lean toward the wild.

"I never want to do it just for a job," he said of tattooing. "There's got to be passion and progression. I'm a progressive artist, so my biggest fear is to not be progressing."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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