Wednesday, November 25, 2009

king of route 66

reprinted from skin & ink november 2009

By Samara Alpern
Brian Everett builds things from the ground up. A master black-and-gray artist, Everett—along with Goodtime Charlie Cartwright, Jack Rudy and Freddy Negrete—gave wheels to the single-needle art movement back in the 1970s and opened one of the first tattoo studios in the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico nearly three decades ago. Now he serves as president of the National Tattoo Association and stands at the apex of his career.
At his studio, Route 66 Fine Line Tattoo, Brian leans back in his chair and reflects upon success. With his massive scorpion belt buckle and silver mane tied back in a neat ponytail, he takes his time when he speaks.
"They don't ever tell you what's coming next," says Everett. "It's not bad-it's good. It's just different." He folds his hands, each finger resplendent in heavy, gold rings. "You don't realize you're there until you're there."
The "there" that Brian refers to is "at the top of the class" as one of the most respected artists working in tattoo scene today. The awards crammed among the pinups and classic flash on the studio walls tell the tale: Chicago?Best Portrait, Tattoo Rendezvous?Best Cover Up, Living Art Association?Most Realistic, Old San Juan Tattoo Extravaganza?Best Portrait, Mad Hatter's Tea Party Award for Merit, National Tattoo Association?Artist Choice Award, just to list a handful.
Everett has worked throughout his life in a variety of media outside of tattooing, including landscape painting, architecture and custom cars. But tattooing continues to be his singular passion. You can hear it in his voice, when he talks about his most celebrated ink work, portraiture.
"Portraiture is the pursuit of capturing the soul," he says. "It's important that you catch that likeness, that sparkle."
The pages of his portfolio are stocked with photo-perfect tattoo images of his adoring and memorialized customers, mustachioed grandfathers, guitar heroes, laughing babies, movie stars and mothers in their heyday, posing shyly for the camera.
"The tattooing I'm doing now is probably as good as I've ever done," he says, frankly. But Everett isn't limited to portraiture. He produces a variety of images, and, despite his fame as a black-and-gray icon, he also works in color. His departures from portraiture include some recent forays into flora and fauna. Challenging the boundaries of realism, one of his panels features maple leaves delicately rendered in subtle, pale values found in nature. The effect is almost abstract. In another large, ribpiece, a peacock perches on a crooked branch beneath a cloudy night sky. Everett's gift for detail creates an interplay of light and dark, with the cascading peacock tail rich in reflected moonlight.
Brian has never limited himself to black-and-gray. "Before I started to specialize in black-and-gray, I did color all the time. But once I started specializing, it was the order of the day." Yet, never to be hemmed in, one of his latest color pieces is a favorite subject, a pinup girl, her ripe curves blossoming out from under a citrus-striped miniskirt.
And his penchant for quality, combined with an ongoing demand for his services, has left Everett in an enviable position as an artist. He has the luxury of being choosy about his clientele. Ever a champion of professionalism in tattooing, Everett has high standards for prospective clients. "I'm just taking the cream off the top," he says. "My clients are educated about what they want. They understand what I do, and they're as dedicated as I am to the work I'm doing on them."
Everett's scrupulous devotion to tattooing goes beyond the artwork itself. He's applied his energy and talents to every aspect of tattoo, from technique to mechanics. For Everett, an understanding of the tattoo machine itself is integral to achieving quality ink work. "Tattooing is a medium that has a whole tech end," he says. "You have to know that end of the business in order to be a good tattoo artist."
Tattoo machines haven't changed much since they were first patented in 1891, but their manufacture has. Today, most machines are fabricated with CNC robotics-where specs are fed into a machine and a robot arm cuts the perfect shape every time. It's an efficient process, but notably lacking in artisanship. Not content with conformity, Everett started making his own equipment, the old-fashioned way.
"I believe that the tools you use should be built from scratch," he says, and his line of machines reflect that gospel. Everett uses the lost wax process to come up with the initial machine and then has the parts die-cast at a shop a short distance from his studio. Everett does the final grinding and fine-tuning by hand. "I want to build these machines the old-school way, like in the '40s," he affirms.
He cites Paul Rogers, a mentor to many in Everett's generation of tattoo artists, as his inspiration in design. "I've always used Paul Rogers irons. To me he was the guru of building tattoo machines. I've probably incorporated a lot of his philosophy in building mine." His machines come in several styles: the Mariposa (butterfly), La Avispa Loca (the crazy wasp) and La Tinta Pica (the ink that stings). Consequently, in mechanics and form, the machines are a reflection of Everett's ideology. "I like the idea of handmade craftsmanship," he explains. "I want each one to be like a piece of jewelry."
One might think that working in the studio and building his own tattoo machines is enough to keep Everett busy, yet he has also been a tireless promoter of the industry, working to generate respect for tattooing across a wide cultural spectrum. He's done this by transmitting his mantra of quality through the conventions he captains with longtime friend Terry "Tramp" Welker, with whom he produces the Texas Tattoo Round-Up in Dallas and the Motor City Tattoo Expo in Detroit. Everett got involved with the conventions when Tramp approached him fifteen years ago. Tramp saw an opportunity to fuel the shows with some star power and to create a convention that served the best interests of the artists, while Everett saw an opportunity to use his reputation to promote tattooing as a serious art form. He credits Tramp with doing most of the hard work and the organizing, while Everett lends his cred to attracting top-flight artists. "Once you have a certain degree of notoriety, people repeat what you say. I took advantage of that, using it as a tool to promote the right artists," says Brian.
By "right artists," Brian means those with high standards and exceptional talent. Screening participants, Everett wants to know, "Are these artists going to legitimately push tattooing in the right direction?"
Welker and Everett started up the conventions in 1996, when tattoo was first experiencing an explosion of popularity. At the time, Everett was concerned that quality would be lost in the glut. "In the mid-'90s, conventions were popping up everywhere, but which ones had credibility? Who was in it for the right reasons, and who was in it to make a buck?" he pondered.
Everett believes that promoting only the best professionals at the conventions is a key reason tattooing has earned wider respect in recent years. "Tattooing has always had a problem with credibility, and it's because of the efforts of like-minded people that tattooing has the credibility it enjoys today."

And, of course, Everett gets the same charge as everyone else from the shows, getting a glimpse of the future of the art form. "It's an opportunity to keep your thumb on the pulse of what's going on in tattooing now, today. What we wanted to do was present tattooing-where it is going, not where it's been. Tattoo is an evolution of new artists, all pushing the envelope further."
Now, with the Texas Tattoo Round-Up in its tenth year and Motor City Tattoo Expo in its fifteenth, Everett feels confident that the goals have been met. "They've evolved into shows that are on the cutting edge, showing tattooing in its best light," he says.
Everett's relentless pursuit of quality is born from the traditional art training he received in his youth, first in landscape painting and, later, in architecture. When he was twelve years old, young Brian was an apprentice to one of the great painters in the southwest, Karl Von Hassler. Affiliated with the exalted Taos Painters, Von Hassler was known as the Dean of Albuquerque Artists and was revered for his depictions of the New Mexican people and panoramas. Von Hassler, who was born in the late 1800s, was at the end of his career when Brian began to study with him. Von Hassler is acclaimed in part for his secret, egg, tempera paint formulas, which the old landscapist tried to pass on to Everett. But, unfortunately, Brian quit his studies before he acquired the recipe. Famously, Von Hassler's formula died with him in 1969.
When he realized how difficult it was to earn a living as a painter, Everett quit and turned to needle and ink. "I never wanted to be a starving artist," he says. "Something I noticed with tattooing: Every piece is a commission and it doesn't sit in a gallery for a year or more."
Fast forward thirty-five years?Brian is working with landscapes again, albeit with pastels instead of temperas. A consummate builder, Brian prefers pastels because of their capacity to build up color and texture. One of his favorite subjects is the Ghost Ranch, once the home and inspiration of legendary artist Georgia O'Keeffe. This and little, remote New Mexico towns, with their dust-blanched houses and steep mountain vistas, significantly figure into Brian's artwork. Landscapes are a distinct pleasure for Everett, offering a total change of pace from his tattoo work. "Landscapes offer more freedom than portraiture," he says. "Portraiture is unforgiving. In landscaping, God has already done the work for you. All you have to do is render the beauty."
When Brian was younger, he dismissed the possibility of making a living selling his paintings in galleries, but now he's looking forward to opening his own gallery to display his pastels. Like all of his other undertakings, it's a project that he's working on from the ground up-from design to construction to operation. He looks at building the gallery as "another chance to create." Not your typical art space, the site will also serve as a bed and breakfast, and, on occasion, a vacation spot where he can host his friends.
This endeavor, too, is a return to past interests. As a young man, Everett flirted with a career in architecture, spending a short time studying at the University of New Mexico. Today, Everett's son Matthew is enrolled in the very same program, and he and Brian are designing the art gallery, a traditional pitched roof New Mexican Territorial building overlooking the Ortiz mountains in a little town north of Albuquerque called Cerrillos. But it won't be the first building Brian has executed from start to finish. He designed and built his own home in Sedillo, a town located in central New Mexico's east mountains.
The compound he built is large enough to comfortably house his wife, Paula, six kids, and his squadron of thirty hot rods. It's a rustic, sprawling ranch-style place with hodgepodge décor. The living room is stocked with his grandmother's lace and antique furnishings, while the room next door features an indoor hot tub with a neon sunset painted on the walls. In his wood-paneled den, the artwork on the walls is a mix of Brian's favorite subjects. Western realism in the form of wolves and Native American portraits hang alongside a wide array of Catholic imagery and a few cooing pinup girls. Outside, against the backdrop of the Manzano mountains, Brian's vast collection of old cars sit in various states of rehabilitation. He's in the middle of building a garage so he can do the customizing and painting at home. As with everything else, Brian looks at custom cars as an important creative outlet.
"Cars to me are like a piece of artwork," he explains. "Bodywork and styling are what I'm all about." They're an obsession he shares with his tattoo mentor and longtime friend, Jack Rudy. Brian's current pride and joy is a clean 1940 Mercury, a glamorous burnt-gold, all-out, full custom with extended front fenders, '40s Zephyr rear fenders, chopped top, peaked hood and rounded trunk corners. "It sits right on the floor," he says. "It glides."
Brian travels around the country, hitting the car shows. In 1996, Everett, along with Rudy, co-founded the Beatniks Car Club, a small society of heavily tattooed artists devoted to tricked-out vintage rides. When the Beatniks get together, it tends to be a family affair. Everett often brings his kids along. "They enjoy the car thing," he says. "It's quality time."
On a Tuesday evening, after attending his son Danny's junior high school basketball game, Everett gets ready to meet up with Beatniks in Fresno. He's loading his Mercury into a plush auto-hauler outfitted with diamond running boards and a tile floor. He's presenting the Mercury at the prestigious Fresno Autorama, an invitation-only event. But as much as he loves that Mercury, he'll be back tattooing after the show is done.
"Tattoo's my whole life," he says. "I'm not ever going to be out of the tattoo world. As long as my quality of work doesn't decline, I'll continue to tattoo and promote tattooing in its best light. I'll do until the day that I die."

Brian Everett
Route 66 Fineline Tattoo
5511 Central NE
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87108
(505) 255-3784

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