Interview with Zach Nelligan

I had the pleasure of getting tattooed by Zach during the Roc City Tattoo Expo last month. While tattooing me, I picked his brain for a little and got to shoot the breeze with him. Thanks to Zach for giving me a quality tattoo and answering my questions. Here’s the interview:

OED: For those that have never seen your work before, how would you describe your style?

Zach: It’s definitely traditional, Americana based in subject and in style. I try to pick up where I think people kind of branch off in the 60’s, with doing fine-line and biker stuff. I’m trying to pick up where everyone left off at with just straight, tear it down traditional stuff where you only include what matters…I’m still keeping modern sensibilities in mind too, you know? I’m not trying to give people crappy looking tattoos that are just rushed or clunky just for the sake of being clunky. It’s gotta look good too. There’s definitely something else involved, but for the most part I try to keep the genuine spirit of traditional tattooing evident in the foreground of everything I do.

OED: That’s what you use as your base?

Zach: Yeah. That’s where I’m coming from.

OED: How old were you when you had your first experience with tattoos?

Zach: 18

OED: What was your first tattoo of?

Zach: Haha my first tattoo was of the Bat Symbol.

OED: The Batman symbol?

Zach: Yeah, yeah.

OED: So I’m assuming you’re a big fan of Batman then?

Zach: Not necessarily. I mean, I like Batman and all, but it was like a dumb 18 year old tattoo. You know? Previous to that I had never thought about tattooing, I had never looked at that many tattoos, I didn’t know that many tattooed people. The way I got introduced into the world of tattooing was by a friend of mine. He wanted to get tattooed. We were both 18, but he didn’t want to be the only one in our group to get tattooed, so he wanted me and our other friend to get tattooed as well. So, we started kinda going around to different tattoo shops and looking at what to get and stuff. I wanted something that I liked and that I was always going to like, something that wouldn’t betray me and be a temporal thing. And so, in my naivity as an 18 year old, I figured, “Well, okay. I’ve always liked Batman and I can’t imagine Batman ever breaking my heart, so let’s get the Batman logo.” And that’s why I believe 18 year olds should not get tattooed.

OED: Dude, I’m glad I didn’t get tattooed when I was 18.

Zach: You shouldn’t be getting tattooed until you’re in your twenties.

OED: I will definitely agree with that statement. And where did you get it tattooed?

Zach: My upper, right arm.

OED:How old were you when you started getting into tattooing?

Zach: Well, I started getting tattooed when I was 18 and I just went from there. The first few were typical, small, simple tattoos because I got hooked from the first one, like everyone else. My second one was a Kanji, which is now gone-it was lasered off. The third one was a nautical star. Um…what was my fourth one? I don’t know. They just kept getting a little bit bigger and a little bigger until I finally started getting better tattoos.

OED: Did you apprentice before tattooing?

Zach: Yeah.

OED: What was the like and how long was it? Whom did you apprentice under?

Zach: It was under Scott Ellis, at a shop called True Blue in Downtown Austin. It was about a year, and the apprenticeship that I had was more of a professional apprenticeship than a more typical biker apprenticeship. It was a paid situation; we both had an agreement of the curriculum before we started. It definitely wasn’t like a tattoo school kinda thing, where I definitely had to sit back and watch the guy a little bit. I had to hang out at the shop a lot before he agreed to it. I was constantly talking to the guy about tattoos, always expressing this interest without being too forthcoming or nagging. I was always making sure that my interests were known, but I waited until I felt like I was ready to pop the question. And then, yeah, It was all the way throughout…Me and the guy have a lot of respect for each other, so it was never too demeaning or any of that kind of stuff. It was the typical kind of thing where you make needles, you set up stations, you trace a lot of flash or look at a lot or reference stuff to learn, and a lot of walk-in’s, a lot of observation, you know? (There was a lot of) over the shoulder kind of stuff, just non-stop, everyday that I was there. I would go in everyday that he was there, just about, for his entire shift and just watch over his shoulder the entire time.

OED: At what point did you decide that you wanted to become a tattooer?

Zach: It was late in college when I really thought that maybe it might be for me. I had been getting tattooed the entire time. I had always been a drawer; I’ve always, non-stop throughout my life, always been drawing. So, it was natural that once I came into contact with it that I’d want to kind of figure it out. I developed more and more of an interest for it doing my own research online, going to the school library at the university, and getting any book on tattooing that I could.

OED: You were able to find some of that stuff at your school’s library?

Zach: Yeah. I found this one book…It was called Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos by Phil Sparrow. It was about this guy that was a scholar and decided to become a tattooer. He explored a lot of the psychology of people he encountered and why they were getting tattooed. But, yeah, any magazine-I subscribed to International Tattoo Art; I’d look online and research Ed Hardy and all of the old tattooers that I could find information on; I did a presentation in class about Ed Hardy-and this was back before the general public had even heard his name-because they asked us to present about… I forget what the presentation was about, but I did a presentation about Ed Hardy, and actually did an interview on the guy that ended up tattooing me. Oh, that’s what it was about! They asked us to research contemporaries artists for the class, so I did one presentation on Ed Hardy and then I did an interview with Scott, the guy that ended up teaching me. So, yeah, I just started doing my own research. And then after a while, after kind of learning the history, and kind of seeing what was going on with contemporary tattooing, I started drawing my own designs, not that I got tattooed on myself, but just in a sketchbook, you know? I’d draw my own rendition of tattoo designs and just practice that style, that more tattooy kind of style.

OED: What were you in school for?

Zach: I was in school for general studio art. I didn’t really know exactly what I was going to do after I graduated, just some kind of art.

OED: Did you wind up finishing?

Zach: Yeah, it was a four year BFA.

OED: Do you remember the first tattoo that you did? What was it of?

Zach: Yeah. It was an outline of the state of Texas with a star over Austin.

OED: Was it a big one?

Zach: Nah, it was about baseball size.

OED: Early on, who were some tattooers that inspired you?

Zach: The reason I got into traditional tattooing and that style, is because at the shop that I learned at, there was this guy named Jon Reed that was doing his take on traditional stuff. I fell in love with the boldness of the designs, and the colors, and the stylization of it that lended itself so well to what a tattoo needs to be. He’s the reason that I got into traditional tattooing. After that, at the shop that I was working at, there wasn’t much direction as far as of who to look at for traditional tattooing. Scott doesn’t really himself do traditional tattooing; he does more Japanese stuff. He was in the middle of developing his stuff as well, so he was still figuring out himself and who to look at. So, I was never really told who to look at from the start. I had to kinda of do a bunch of crappy designs inspired by contemporary neo-traditional kinda guys and kind of find out more and more from there until I started looking at the proper stuff. And I kind of rebooted my way of thinking and my way of approaching tattoo designs after doing enough research and finding enough proper references to look at.

OED: How long into your tattooing career did you wind up finding out about traditional tattooing, and some of the old-school tattooers, and kind of moving your style more towards that?

Zach: That was just in the last few years now. I was always trying to mimic that style, but was never looking at the right stuff. And then finally, a few years ago, I finally did the reboot and started honing in on what’s really important to tattooing and what’s not, and trying to avoid the trendiness of tattooing in certain things and just trying to make purely timeless designs.

OED: How long have you been tattooing for?

Zach: It’s been about seven years now.

OED:How long was it until you felt confident in your abilities?

Zach: Um…it’s really a funny thing, because I’ve always, since day one and since I actually did my first tattoo, I was more nervous before I started tattooing than once I started tattooing. Once I started tattooing, I’ve felt confident ever since. And I think that’s something that every artist brings into it, they feel confident about it and they get that rush of drawing something that they like a lot, and you look at it like a week later, or even sometimes before I can finish it; you’re really excited while you’re doing it and you finish it, and then you’re like “Oh shit. I could’ve drawn that one spot much better. That one part is kind of weird looking.” Or, you’ll look at your stuff from a few months ago and you’ll be like, “Oh, man. That stuff is complete garbage.” So, I’ve never had a problem with confidence, it’s just a matter of constantly upgrading and constantly learning and doing it a little better and a little better over time.

OED: What attracted you to traditional tattoos?

Zach: Kind of what I said before. The bold outlines and the way it’s simplified down to the pure essentials, so you’re not putting a bunch of fluff on it, which it ensures that it’ll last you a good long while, and that people are gonna be able to see it across the bar and across the street.

OED: What are some of your favorite traditional tattoo designs?

Zach: Um…I like all of the classic canon of stuff, you know? Eagles, snakes, flags, daggers, whatever. The stuff that I’m particularly drawn to is the stuff that has some delicacy to it as well. It’s gotta have an edge to it, and I think every classic tattoo has a good balance of an edge; it’s gotta little bit of a finesse too. Whether it’s in the decorations or the actual subject matter, every design has a little bit of romance and sadness to it as well. Whether it’s a dagger, or a skull, or a wildcat’s face, it’s something that you know it’s gonna last forever until it dies and then it won’t be there anymore. Every design has something about it that’s a little bit tragic, you know? Even if it’s hope, you know? Even if it’s a heart with roses around it, that stuff’s not gonna last forever. If it’s the longing to be an aggressive person through getting a tiger face, it has that fragility to it because you know that person wants to be that tiger and so it’s exciting and it’s a little bit sad at the same time. That’s one of the reason that I’m drawn to traditional stuff. It has some of that hope and some of that romance, and it’s some excitement and some sadness. It captures all of these different emotions and elements in one single, little design. If it’s a clipper ship or a lady, it’s all things that we’re longing for something and excited about potential things that could be, and all of that kind of stuff.

OED: How often do you paint flash?

Zach: I don’t paint nearly as much as I’d like to, because I like to keep a balance in my life. I don’t put myself to heavily into one thing or the other. When I’m at work, I’m tattooing and that’s all I’m thinking about-tattoos and my customers, painting and the designs. After I get home, all I want to do is relax with my wife, enjoy our time together, make some dinner, work in the garden, play with our animals, and enjoy that part of life too. Because that’s why I work so hard, so I can enjoy those things. I’m not gonna let my passion for tattooing cancel out and nullify my love for everything else. I’m definitely not one of those guys that thinks he’s cool because he paints flash every night.

Something that actually really bugs me is all the people that are repainting old flash and putting it out, either on the internet or wherever. If you’re going to study it and practice it, that’s fine, but don’t put it out and try to brag that you paint flash. These people poison tattooing by watering it down. It’s like hearing crappy cover songs all day long. After a while, the original has lost some of it’s charm and magic because you’ve seen it everywhere you look. If you’re not putting something new in the pot, than you’re just watering it down. Anyway, I’m enjoying my life just as much, if not more, because I’m enjoying all of the small things in life as well. So, to answer your question-I end up painting, on average, just a few times a year.

OED: Any piece of flash you’d like to tattoo that you haven’t gotten the chance to?

Zach: Yeah. There’s always a lot of those. I can’t name em off the top of my head. It’s just things that I notice whenever I go through my reference material. I see a certain design and think about how cool it would be able to do a rendition of that. But I think everyone has a lot of those. I’ve been lucky, because I think that my style is so specialized that I definitely do attract people that want this certain niche of tattooing. I’ve gotten to tattoo a bunch of cool stuff that I wouldn’t have expected to tattoo. It’s especially nice being able to tattoo it considering since the shop that I work at is all custom, so there’s no flash on the walls, there’s no prior reference for people to look at before they come in and ask for certain things. There’s definitely a direction that I might push someone in if they’re unsure of what they want. Some of those people will go through my reference and find cool things that they like. I’ve definitely gotten lucky to tattoo things that I have.

OED: For the most part, people that come in to get tattooed by you, they’re into traditional tattooing and have a good sense of what they want to get?

Zach: Yeah, it’s people that have sought me out and kind of have an idea of what they want already.

OED: Do you have a favorite sheet of flash, or anything that you’ve painted?

Zach: I don’t have a favorite, because each one that I do is better than the last. I’ve liked them all as my favorite at some point until I do another, and then that one is my favorite.

OED: Which old-time tattooers would you say are some of your favorite?

Zach: It’s definitely the ones that everyone kind of knows about already. Like William Grimshaw, Ben Corday, Bert Grimm, George Burchett-I like him a lot-Percy Waters. All of those iconic guys.

OED: Any favorite current tattooers?

Zach: I don’t look at a lot of current tattooing. I have a lot of tattooers that I like to glance at and see there stuff, but not that I use for reference or anything like that. There’s so many tattooers nowadays that I can’t keep track of them all.

OED: You recently took part in painting flash for the Milton Zeis book Milton H. Zeis: Tattooing as you like it. How did you come to be apart of this book?

Zach: Haha, I was actually a last-minute replacement. The guy got a really shitty sheet from somebody, so he asked me to redo it.

OED: What did you paint for the book?

Zach: It’s a page of all peacocks.

OED: You’ve also released several books. What are the names of those books, and what made you want to put them out?

Zach: My co-worker, Ezra Haidet, and I have a publishing company called LLL Books. This represents our philosophy on life: live, laugh, love, haha. We organize and put out high-end, limited-edition books exclusively featuring tattooers. It started with our first book, Coquille or be Killed. This was the biggest, but also most limited, of our books. We just did it for fun and didn’t know how it would be received, so we only put out 500 copies. There were over 250 artists in the book and most of them got one, so only about half were available for purchase. It sold out in only a few months. The theme of that book was just the medium that everybody used, coquille paper. It’s a paper with a texture that creates a natural stipple. It’s something that a lot of tattooers have used because it’s really fast and easy to work on and reproduces really easily with Xerox or screen-printing.

Our second book was Unobserved: A Celebration of Obscure Holidays and Observances. This one is an edition of 1,000 and still available. It started as us tossing around the idea of people painting greeting cards, and became greeting cards for the holidays that fall on every day of the year that most people don’t know about.  

Our latest book is 2012: The End is Here. It’s obviously about 2012, and each artist’s visual interpretation. This one is cool because it also includes text from a lot of the artists pertaining to their thoughts or their paintings. Each book has gotten progressively better, both in content and presentation. We’re currently working on our next book, called Bound by Honor: A Tribute to Black and Grey Flash. This one is a little different because we’re actually publishing for our friend, Enrique Castillo. He’s a big black and grey guy and has been organizing the whole project. We’re laying it out and presenting it for him. We’ve got some really top-notch people in it, and I’m really excited to see it. It features a lot of new flash, plus photos of tattoos and other art, biographies, and interviews. We take them one at a time, so it’s definitely not something we’re trying to pursue as a full-time thing. It’s just a hobby, but we also happen to put out some of the finest books you can buy. They’re available through  

OED: Career wise, was there something else that you considered doing before you started tattooing? I know you said that you went to school, and that that was up in the air, but was there any field that you thought you might get into?

Zach: No, not really. I figured I’d just kind of jump into it and see.

OED: Any crazy tattoo stories?

Zach: Nah, I’m not really a crazy guy. I’m kind of boring.

OED: This is kind of random, but last album you listened to?

Zach: The last full album I listened to was Can’t Slow Down by Saves the Day.

OED: That’s pretty much everything I’ve got for you. Anything else you’d like to say?

Zach: I’d like to thank everybody that’s chosen me to do their tattoo, has ever felt an emotional response from looking at my stuff, or that has even sent me a message asking me when I’ll be in their area to tattoo them. All these things mean so much, especially in times like these when the market is flooded.


About Our Endless Days

I am an avid traditional tattoo enthusiast that enjoys the rich culture, history, and art of tattoos. At this point in time, I'm slowly but surely adding to my tattoos.
This entry was posted in Interviews, Tattooers and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Interview with Zach Nelligan

  1. Useless Dude #489 says:

    “…Enrique Castillo. He’s a big black and grey guy… ” just made me think of how it would sound like he’s “a big black angry guy” if you said it out loud. That is all

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