Nearly twenty years ago, Errol Engelbrecht opened up Blue Flame Tattoo, a Raleigh shop that would grow to be one of the best-reputed outlets for body art in the Triangle. Though he still owns the business, Engelbrecht retired from tattooing three years ago due to a long-term work-related ailment. He's since turned his artistic focus toward painting. Here, he discusses his decades in the business, why he thinks of himself as an amateur psychiatrist, and what it takes to keep even the most persnickety customers happy.
You just have to be constantly prepared for anything. Most people are pretty good, but once in a while, you get a screw loose. You never know what can happen. People with attitudes—you have to learn how to deal with handling those kinds of situations. You get those people who have such high expectations. Those are usually the worst. They have an idea and they don't want to hear no, but a professional's going to know what's going to look good. If they don't get what they want when they want it, they're going to throw a fit. And then next thing you know, they're going to go write you a bad review because they didn't get what they wanted. They didn't get their way. They're the worst.
I had a guy come in, and he had a dragon that was just awful. I can draw a dragon a million times better than this. He was just set on that one. If you're dead set, then OK. I don't think it's going to look good, but I'm not the one wearing it. That's where the lines get kind of blurry. Sometimes it's not about you, it's about them and what they want and what's important to them. I've had people come in with stuff that their three- or four-year-old kid drew. What are you going to say? That's just kind of cute.
Most of the time, I find you learn how to be an amateur psychiatrist, and I found how to defuse situations pretty quickly and how to handle people pretty well. I could talk someone down, talk them into a better idea. Every once in a while, you'll get one that's just complete bonkers.
Tattoos go through phases. There was the tribal armband, the barbwire armband. Tasmanian devils were big, panthers were big. Now it's all lettering. Everyone wants a whole bunch of words. A picture is a thousand words, so you don't need to get a thousand words. Get a picture. It's nicer to look at. A word or two is usually OK. You don't need to have a whole scripture or entire song tattooed on you. Young girls never had a tattoo and they want fifty words tattooed on their ribs. I'm just like, "You're not going to be happy with this."
The ribs are difficult. The foot is just awful. God, that hurts. I got my foot tattooed, and it was the most painful tattoo I've got. Tattooing other people's feet—better sit still. You get started and they're all squirmy. That's when it gets difficult, when they're screaming and crying and moving around, you're going, "God, you're just going to screw this up if you can't sit still."
Nowadays, everyone comes in and they just show their phones and they're like, "I want this." Something they found on Pinterest. I was like, "Lame." Come up with something original. Usually, something you find on Pinterest, a million people will already have the same tattoo. You need to try to be a little more original.
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I've learned you never can judge a book by its cover. People will surprise you, and it makes it really interesting. You see someone coming up and you think, "They're going to want this." And they come in and they what something totally unexpected. I've had some people come in and think, "Oh, this is going to be a great customer." And they turn out to be the biggest assholes. You never know. The best part of the job was that people in a group may be different, but when you get them in a room one on one, they let their guard down. You get to be in there for hours. You get talking and getting to know each other.
I've tattooed everyone from all over the world, all different ethnic groups, all different economic backgrounds, religion, everything. It can be very eye-opening if you let it be. I did a lot of portrait work, where they get a memorial tattoo. There were days I just cried.
It's a totally different thing, sitting there for hours working on someone and really getting to know them. Most of my friends all come from people I've tattooed. Tattooing is just like, "What's going to happen today?" You have some idea, you've got your schedule of what you're going to tattoo today, but it might be a new person. God, the millions of stories I've heard.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Stories on Skin"