When Swedish contortionist twins came calling, Charlie Spencer didn’t even flinch. The “old man” of Studio 21 Tattoo Gallery has worked on rock stars, actresses, doctors, artists, firemen, footballers and the Qatari prime minister’s personal bodyguard. Skin became his business after his own threatened his life—carcinoma from more than 30 years of work under the blazing sun. For the last 10, the 57-year-old has been perfecting a tattoo style that borrows from folk art and old-school icons like Sailor Jerry and Cap Coleman. His canvas is covered with gems, from a goat on a pogo stick inked by the legendary Bowery Stan Moskowitz to a corn dog experiment done by his rookie daughter. No regrets.
Were you already inked when you looked into a tattoo apprenticeship?
I got my first tattoo when I moved to Vegas in ’89, and my son Austin went with me. We walked out of there, and I remember saying to him in the parking lot: ‘We should tattoo together.’ The image is called “All is Vanity,” [a famous visual pun by 20th century artist Charles Allan Gilbert.]
You followed Austin into the field and co-founded Studio 21 in 2003. What artistic roots did you bring to the table?
I won my first art contest in kindergarten. ... That inspired me, and I had an artist grandmother who took me to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts every Sunday, religiously. … You never get tired of looking at those old Rembrandts, the old masters. We don’t have anything like that in Vegas, unless you want to pay Steve Wynn to look at it.
Is making art on someone’s body intense?
It’s an intimate experience every time, no matter how many thousands of tattoos you’ve done. There’s no room for error. You don’t have an eraser. You can’t make a mistake.
Mistakes must be inevitable sometimes because people are so jumpy around needles. Do most clients handle the physical discomfort gracefully?
Usually the biggest whiners are the ones who tell me how tough they are before they sit down.
How do you diplomatically counsel someone with a really ugly tattoo idea?
I don’t want to help somebody make a mistake. … If they want too much information, like 40 grandkids’ initials in a ship’s wheel, a lot of the time I’ll use that phrase: A picture is worth a thousand words. And it really is. … It doesn’t have to tell your life story or be really profound. To me it’s about the images. If you just like the image, get it. I would much rather your tattoo look good than mean something.
You have artists working with you who are experts at everything from graffiti to photo-realism. Your style is pretty old-school.
I had nine uncles. Eight were in the Navy, and their tattoos left images in my mind ... lots of pin-up girls, anchors, ships, roses. I could do roses all day. I wouldn’t mind doing a full body suit of roses. … [Although] I like to use a lot of skin with my artwork for highlights and color, let the skin show through.
Some people want tattoos in very intimate places. How do you go about it professionally?
I’m looking at the tattoo; I’m thinking about the tattoo. It’s like doing surgery or something. You don’t want to be distracted. … Guys who aren’t tattooers come in here and think: Wow you’re in the room tattooing hot, naked chicks all day. It’s not like that. It’s a job. And some of them are dudes. Some of them just aren’t hot. Some of them look like me (laughs). You never know what you’re going to get. ... There’s a lot of pressure and stress involved. It’s a harder job than it appears to be.
Is there any false advertising in the industry?
I’ve had people walk in with a portfolio looking for a job with a piece of my artwork in it. You gotta be real careful about that. Just because somebody shows you a picture and says they did it doesn’t mean they did it. … Tattooing is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do. It’s no joke. To start to feel successful at it—not necessarily money-wise but just looking at your art and being really proud of what you do on someone’s skin—takes a long time.
Given the beating tattoo culture once took, it’s refreshing to see that Las Vegas has more than 200 shops and a diverse clientele. It seems like there’s less judgment.
I think a lot of that comes from the casino industry. You can’t look at somebody and go, ‘he doesn’t have a million dollars in his pocket,’ because he might.