On the last Tuesday of every month, I feature a fellow type lover from the Richmond, VA area.
Talk about pressure to create flawless lettering! This month I interviewed tattoo artist Willie Kirby. Read on to find out how he got into it, what his process looks like, and the strangest phrase that he's permanently inked on someone.
SARAH BARTON: How did you get into tattooing? Did you go to art school or anything like that? How long have you been doing it?
WILLIE KIRBY: I got into tattooing about 12 years ago. I grew up a commercial fisherman with my father. When fishing took a dive and the catch was slim my homie Jesse Smith propositioned me with a trade. In return, I ended up with what I needed to start off in the right direction and enough knowledge to be dangerous at it. I grew up doing art and graf so it was just another medium at the time. After that, I got my ass into a shop: Phat Bottom Tattoos owned by the late "Haystack" (Thomas Satterwhite).
SB: In addition to illustrative tattoos, you also create some beautiful typographic tattoos. Which one did you start doing first, pictures or words? Do you prefer one over the other?
WK: I started off doing more pictures than letras. Mostly BNG (black and gray) tattoos on hoodrats or color flowers on crazy white chicks. I prefer doing BNG and letters in all handstyles. Letters are dope and can capture an entire thought in one word with the right font.
SB: It looks like you can do quite a few styles, but a lot of your lettering work for tattoos seems more calligraphic. Is that by request? What is your favorite style to draw?
WK: Sometimes, through my career I have learned to just do what I think looks best unless the customer has a specific font or better idea than mine. It takes a lot of practice to develop a product that people just trust you with. My favorite style? I can't even call it really. There are so many it's hard to pick just one.
SB: What does your creative process look like from start to finish?
WK: Basically I break out the Sharpie, bust out a rough draft on skin, then hit it with a final line and have the customer double check it. After that, I take a pic have them triple check it then start rippin' n' runnin'. I keep it simple. If I have time (which is rare) I put it on paper. 80% is on skin I would say.
SB: What has been your favorite word or phrase that you've tattooed and why? Strangest?
WK: My favorite? I would say the Hawaiian word "ku'uipo" (meaning sweetheart). It's a tattoo on my leg of someone I love very much, Teriz. She has it down her thigh as well. The strangest? "God's Son." You ain't Jesus fool! WTF.
SB: Where do you get inspiration for your work?
WK: I get inspiration from everywhere: signs, stickers, social media; but mainly the classics. I look at a lot of 1800-1900 typography pages.
SB: If you had a list of ‘best-kept secrets’ (websites, books, coaches) you’d recommend for lettering, especially for tattooing, what would you include and why?
WK: Nothing I do is a secret. It's a skill or craft. Basically a trade anyone can learn if you practice enough and want it bad enough. Basically find what you love and latch on to it. From there, do your homework on its history and its history's history. There you will find your secrets.
SB: What do you love most about being a creative in Richmond, Virginia?
WK: What do I love most? What isn't to love? "804!" "2 up 2 down!" "VA all day!" "Virginia is for lovers!" "Life on the James!"
SB: Who are some fellow Richmonders that inspire you? Non-Richmonders?
WK: Fellow Richmonders: I don't get out as much as I should so unfortunately there are not a lot of letterheads here that I know yet. For me it's the haters I love. I come from the other side of the tracks, so growing up we hustled to get what we needed.
SB: What's something that would surprise people about tattoos or being a tattoo artist?
WK: Hmmmm, I would have to say the biggest surprise to people would be that we are artists. Most people treat us as a vending machine: you put the design in and it comes out a tattoo or like fast food where they order it like a Whopper their way and expect it good, quick and cheap. On the flip side, I appreciate those people because they pay my bills and are simple thinkers that are easily pleased as long as there's fireworks at the end of the show. Others realize we do art, but not to the extent that we do, while the rest trust in us and treat us like creative skin pioneers ready to do art as we see it.
SB: What can we look forward to seeing from you in the next few months?
WK: Next few months? Follow me @hitmute to find out...
SB: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
WK: Thank you to Teri Z for pushing me harder and harder every day. Thank you to PCK for making life real, realer than I thought it could be. Talna Pettigrew, our late mother for pushing me into art. And Kid Richmond, my lil bro, for helping me get shit done. I got love for mad people, this one I'm just gonna give to my family.