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Eric Jones of Let it Bleed discuses Tattoo culture and trends

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To hear the audio version of this interview with Eric & Derek visit AusformMag.comwhere each episode you will hear a new interview with one of the wonderful personalities that make the Bay Area such a unique and magical place. 

Eric Jones was a rock and roll kid from Sacramento who moved to San Francisco in the 90s to escape the constant clashes between rival “gangs” and found his calling when he picked up a machine and started slinging ink. We sat down with Eric (the owner of Let it Bleed Tattoo on Polk St) to discuss how he got involved in tattooing, what was the hardest part about opening up his shop, and what advice he has for people who want to get tattooed.

Eric Jones of Let it Bleed Tattoo

Photo of Simmons Tobias | Eric Jones of Let it Bleed Tattoo

Ausform: Go ahead and tell us a little bit about your upbringing and where you were raised.

Eric: I was born in Monterey, but we only lived there when I was really young. Then we moved to Davis and I lived in Davis for about third grade or through third grade, and then, the summer before fourth grade, we moved to Sacramento and I primarily grew up in Sacramento from like fourth grade until I turned 18. And then I moved to San Francisco when I turned 18,

Ausform: What drew you to San Francisco?

Eric:  Well, at the time it was like 1990 and Sacramento was a particularly hostile place. I was some skinny rock and roll kid with Johnny thunders hair, so every day in Sacramento was a battle. Either you were going to be fighting Rednecks, Nazis, Skinheads, Bloods, Crips, or Cholos. You got all these different social groups that hated each other, and if you weren’t one of them, all of them hated you. So you basically just had a lot of crappy violence and aggression thrown your way. I had been coming up to San Francisco since I was a child, but on my own, since I was like 15 or 16. I would go to shows and stuff and at the time it just felt like a safe haven for weirdos and freaks that didn’t fit in where they grew up.

Tattoo by Eric Jones

Tattoo by Eric Jones

Ausform: Were you always artistic as a child?

Yeah, I always like drew and stuff, but then for a lot of years my prime focus became music. I drew a lot when I was younger. But probably when I was 12 I started playing guitar and started skateboarding a lot and those were my main outlets for a while. Then when I was 18, I started getting tattooed and I was like that’d be cool, but I thought that it was something only old bikers could do.  But then I started meeting some younger tattooers and I started focusing a lot on drawing again.

 Ausform: What was your journey in terms of coming down to San Francisco? Were you trying to do music more and then you got into the tattoo culture?

Eric: Well I got tattooed initially like two days after I turned 18, and then probably like the next month got tattooed again. So I had a couple tattoos before I moved to San Francisco. I didn’t come here specifically to play music. I moved here just to get away from Sacramento really. But I moved here when I was playing music and working crappy jobs. And I didn’t really have like a lot of money to get tattooed, but whenever I could, I’d get tattooed, and then somewhere in there I really started trying to work on drawings and started focusing on that. And after a few years of doing a lot of drawing and stuff I found somebody who was willing to give me an apprenticeship.

Tattoo by Eric Jones

Tattoo by Eric Jones

Ausform: Talk to us a little bit about the apprenticeship process and tell us what was the hardest part about learning to tattoo back then?

Eric: I have to say, I don’t know many people who have positive apprenticeship stories. I don’t want to badmouth the person that I learned from but, it was a pretty strange experience.

With that being said though, I think doing an apprenticeship is the best way to learn how to tattoo for sure. It’s such a weird uphill battle without having somebody who’s already knows a certain amount about techniques and stuff like that. I know so many people who have started tattooing out of their houses and they’ll tattoo out of their houses for years. And then they finally get into a shop and they’re like, I learned more in six months in the shop than I did in six years out of my house.

But with that being said, my, my apprenticeship experience wasn’t particularly positive.

Ausform: I think that a lot of tattoo artists would say the same thing in terms of the apprenticeship being a grind and a hellish part of the process. But do you think that  it’s necessary to weed out the people that are just trying to do this because they’re like, Oh, tattoos are cool. but if you’re willing to go through this, you’re probably going to last and you’re going to do it right?

Eric: I think that traditionally, apprentices took a lot of I don’t know that I want to use the term abuse. but they traditionally endured a lot of ribbing, and a lot of stuff like that, and that’s fine, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

I think that nowadays generationally no kids are able to cope with anything like that. They definitely would consider hazing and an apprenticeship as a horrible, abusive situation.

I’ve talked to a lot of tattooers over the years about their apprenticeship experiences. And a lot of tattooers myself included, aren’t interested in teaching anybody how to tattoo. It takes a huge commitment on the people’s part. And from my perspective, You shouldn’t teach somebody how to tattoo that you’re not willing to give a job to. and a lot of people do that where they’ll half ass teach somebody how to tattoo and then kick them loose.

And that doesn’t seem right to me. There’s definitely certain tattooers that I’ll see give half-ass apprenticeships out left and right. Like this person has got like a dozen apprentices running around. None of them ever finished their apprenticeship. I don’t know if it’s that they want free labor, or if it’s some weird ego thing or they just want someone to belittle through the apprenticeship process. But it seems  like the people that are most willing to have apprentices are probably the people that are really the least equipped to actually teach somebody how to tattoo, which is pretty unfortunate.

Flash by Eric Jones

Flash by Eric Jones

Ausform: So it seems like if you’re really going to have an apprenticeship under somebody, it really needs to be somebody that you have a relationship with. They have already invested time in you and you’re basically grinding them down to accept you as an apprentice. Not somebody that you just send an email and say, Hey, look at my stuff, can I be an apprentice?

Eric: If you really want to learn how to tattoo, the best thing you can do is go get tattooed and build relationships with tattoo artists. And be tattooed because there’s nothing worse than somebody who’s like “I’m tattooing and I don’t have any tattoos or I have like one on my foot”, that shows a real lack of interest in the craft that you’re actually trying to pursue.

Ausform: So what inspires you most when working on a new piece?

Eric: it depends on what it is, I think for everybody there are certain styles that they enjoy doing more than other things. So, the first thing is what’s the subject matter? Stylistically, how is it drawn? And then after that, I think sometimes I’d rather do a tattoo that’s not that cool on somebody who’s really cool, compared to tattooing someone who’s kind of a dick and do a rad tattoo on them.

Even if it’s not like the most thrilling tattoo, but the person’s really nice or it’s an important thing for them, that’s cool. As long as people are cool and they’re happy at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.

The one thing that’s hard is you get a lot of people that concoct an idea in their head that makes sense to them, but it doesn’t really make sense as a tattoo. They try to cram five or six tattoos worth of ideas into the one tattoo.

They’ll come in and be like, I want the Golden Gate Bridge, and I want clouds over it. And I want an angel in the clouds and he’s looking down and then under the bridge is the 64 Impala that my uncle used to have. And then I want dolphins swimming in the water and they just go on and on and on.

And you’re like, pick two of those things and I’ll make a drawing for you. Even if it was a whole back piece, it’s just so convoluted. In their head that makes sense to them, but it doesn’t make sense on paper. And most people when you explain to them, “I can’t really make that into a good drawing. Why don’t we take, these couple elements that you like and I’ll make you something nice”, most people are receptive to that and it works out.

Flash by Eric Jones

Flash by Eric Jones

Ausform: What was the biggest challenge for you when you were first opening up?

Eric: Actually getting it open, and just dealing with the city, it took months just to get open. It’s really unfortunate, San Francisco will say that they want small businesses here and that they’re supportive of that, but honestly, they’ll do everything they can to hold you up along the way, and they’ll nickel and dime you at every corner. They have different inspectors for everything, and one guy will tell you one thing, and another guy will tell you the complete opposite, it’s pretty chaotic.

Ausform: How did you go about choosing the artists that you wanted to work with?

Eric: Well, initially it was just myself and one person who I was working with at the time. I decided to open the shop and then one of my coworkers at the time was like, “Hey, I’m ready to quit here.” I didn’t want to take a bunch of people with me because that’s not fair. So we came over together and opened the shop together. And then, it was pretty slow to begin with.

So after, after about six months, another friend of ours came and worked with us. The shop has been open for around 11 years now.  We’ve had other people who’ve come and gone over the years, but you really want to be selective about who you hire. Obviously you have to think they do good tattoos and whatever, but outside of that too, just personality wise, you want everyone in the shop to get along. You don’t want to have a bunch of drama.

Tattoo by Eric Jones

Tattoo by Eric Jones

Ausform: How would you describe the vibe or the style of Let It Bleed?

Eric: I don’t know, we just like to be chill and have a good time. This last Valentine’s day, I had this woman who was covered in tattoos and she came in with her daughter and her husband, and they were all super cool, but it was really funny because they were talking to us. And first the daughter was like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe they’re playing this song. It’s like my favorite song.” And then the mom was like, “I know you guys are playing such good music.” And she started talking to me about being so bummed when she’d be getting tattooed at a shop and they’d just be playing some, really, harsh black metal or something like that.  And we started having a conversation because I feel the same way. Getting tattooed is already unpleasant enough, but then to have to listen to some music that is totally grating the entire time you’re getting tattooed, it just makes the experience kind of worse.

So I don’t know, hopefully, we make it a fun and positive experience for people.

Ausform: Obviously with coronavirus shutting down the world, you haven’t been able to open up the shop for a couple months. How have you been staying creative and positive during this situation?

Eric: Yeah,  it’s weird, when we first shut down I was making some paintings and then I just hit a wall with it and I haven’t really felt motivated to make any art or anything. I don’t know, you’d think it’s like, Oh, you got nothing but time. make art, do something cool. But its hard sometimes when you don’t know when things are going to open up again.  I have been building this spinning carnival style prize wheel for when we re-open though. There’s three different rings on it, that will have different size designs. And each will be a different price. So I’ve been building that and I’ve been exercising lot.  That’s about it unfortunately.

Ausform: I know a lot of businesses, have been selling gift cards or doing raffles for future services. Have you thought of doing anything like that?

Eric: No, I haven’t. I’m sort of reluctant to do it, because if somebody else has already done that, I don’t really want to rip off their idea. What’s crazy too is I’ve been getting a bunch of DMs or emails from people being like, “so are you tattooing during this?”  And we respond No.

And they’re like, “well, would you tattoo me out of your house or out of my house?” And we’re like, “no, man, I don’t even know you, are you kidding me right now?”  It’s kind of a bummer to see people do that.

Tattoo stencils by Eric Jones

Tattoo stencils by Eric Jones

Ausform: Have you applied for any of the assistance grants or PPP loans or anything like that?

Eric: Yeah, I applied for a PPP loan. Didn’t work out. And I am not eligible for any of the San Francisco based ones. The city of San Francisco was doing mini grants for $10,000 or something. But you’re establishment either needs to be in a designated neighborhood. And my shop is two blocks outside of what the designated Tenderloin neighborhood would be. Or you have to be a female business owner. And then there’s some other loans which I’m not eligible for, because you have to have a certain amount of employees or things like that.

I understand the need for businesses to be closed. I understand that it’s a serious situation, but let’s say we were able to open up June 1st,  in addition to the couple months of revenue that we’ve lost, I’ve also spent more than $8,000 in rent for the time that the shop wasn’t able to be open. And I think that if the government is forcing businesses to be closed, the government should either cover our rent or cancel rent for everybody.

And it’s not, which is unfortunate. If you look at even the PPP loans, they’re mostly big loans that are getting doled out. They aren’t really going to  small businesses. From my perspective, if you have a couple hundred employees, you’re not actually a small business.

I think a lot of people are going to go out of business because of this, which is really unfortunate. And I think a bigger issue is that there’s not really any protection for commercial tenants in California or San Francisco.  if you’re a residential tenant, you have a lot of protection, your landlords can’t really do much to fuck you over.

But with commercial tenants there’s no protection. Your rent could be a thousand dollars a month. And when your lease is up your landlord can be like, cool, now it’s 50 grand a month.

I mean, hopefully most business owners have enough money in the bank to keep paying their rent through this. But if you don’t it’s a pretty crappy situation. And especially in a city like this, where the rents are  pretty exorbitant to begin with.

Ausform: So let’s go away from the whole coronavirus thing. You’re right in the heart of Polk street, sandwiched in between Great American Music Hall Regency Ballroom. What used to be to Hemlock Tavern. How many bands have come through your doors? And what’s the most interesting story that you can think of?

Eric: I mean we get a fair amount of bands, especially because we have friends that work at all the venues that are close by. Usually when people from bands come in they’re all really nice. You know what is crazy though. This isn’t my story though so I’m sure I’m going to mess it up, but this just happened recently where, my coworker was walking down the street. He was walking to work and some guy walking by him on Polk street and was like, ” Hey man, I want to get tattooed while I’m just in town for a while. I see you got tattoos, where did you get tattooed?” And he’s like, I’m on my way up to the tattoo shop right now come on down. And so the guy came in and got tattooed by him. And my coworker is a huge Thin Lizzy fan, and somehow they got on the conversation of Thin Lizzie and then the guy was like, “Oh yeah, I actually play guitar in a band with the drummer from Thin Lizzie now. He was super stoked and was like, “Oh my God, l just did this thing on this guy who plays guitar in a band with the drummer, from Thin Lizzy!”

And that was kind of a weird coincidence that they just happened to bump into each other on the street

Flash by Eric Jones

Flash by Eric Jones

Ausform: What advice would you give to someone when coming into a tattoo shop for a new piece?

Eric: I guess it depends on what they want. If you’re trying to get something custom drawn, I’d say look at people’s portfolios, see if you like the style that somebody does and just talk to people. Get a feel for them, see if you like them.  You want to make sure it’s going to be a pleasant experience for you.

One unfortunate reality in tattooing these days, is that everybody now just comes in with either, something from Pinterest or, the first page of a Google image search for some tattoo. And it’s really kind of a bummer. I feel like people used to get tattooed to be different and now everybody’s just gets tattoos to be the same. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve heard people in the shop when they come in and they show you a picture of some garbage Pinterest thing.

And then they look at hand painted flash from the wall. And they’re like, “Oh, my God. That’s so lame do people really pick things off the wall?” And I’m like “You just showed me a picture of somebody else’s garbage tattoo off of Pinterest. How do you think that that’s better?”

The stuff on the wall is handmade, intended to be a tattoo. It’s got, precedents and history behind it, And far less people have whatever’s on the wall than the bullshit picture that you just showed me off of Pinterest or Google image search.

I’ve seen a lot of trends come and go in tattooing, but I would say that Pinterest was the worst thing to happen to tattooing since reality television.

Reality TV made it so you’d get these people that would come in and they’d be like, “I know if you’re going to get a tattoo, it has to have like a ton of meaning.  Because they watched this TV show and everybody that gets tattooed has some bullshit spiel about how  “I’m getting the statue because my dog got hit by a car. And my mom was really nice to me when I was upset. So I’m getting this tattoo to represent my dog and my mom”

Granted, my first tattoo, I just picked off the wall, and then after that I started thinking about stuff more and getting deeper into meaningful tattoos. But I would say, tattoos that you get solely because you liked the way that it looks, are easier to like in the long run than something that you attach a bunch of meaning or sentiment too. And I think that that was an unfortunate byproduct of reality television is that made people think that you can’t get a skull just because skulls are cool.

The funniest part about it is that none of it was real. You’d get somebody that would come in and they’d be like, ” I want 14 stars because I had 14 members of my family” and it’s like, yeah, but you guys aren’t stars. Why not just get something that looks good and say you got it for your family instead of getting like 14 dumb stars.

I had a girl one time who came in and it was in the height of reality television tattooing. And, she was like “I want this flower, and then on the leaves I want three lady bugs” and her friends were like, “why are you getting three lady bugs? and she was like, “Oh, I’ll tell you guys later”. And they’re like, “well, what is it?” She was like “I’ll just tell you guys later.” And finally, I looked at them and I was like, “Do you want to know why she’s getting three lady bugs?” And they’re like, yeah.

And I was like, “One is for her, one is her mom, and one is her sister.” Because nothing screams I watched too much Miami Ink like getting three ladybugs on a leaf.

it’s fine though people should get what they want, but I think that  the tattoos that you project all that meaning onto don’t hold up as well over time as stuff that you just got because it looked good, or it was an inside joke or they thought it was funny and whatever.

Tattoo by Eric Jones

Tattoo by Eric Jones

Ausform: We’ll go ahead and wrap up with some quick questions.  What’s your go to style of comfort food?

Eric: As someone who’s lived in San Francisco since 1990 burritos were kind of that for me. And I feel like anytime, like I travel anywhere else or anything, the minute I come back to San Francisco, the first thing I want to do is eat a Burrito.

Ausform: What’s your favorite burrito place in the city?

Eric: These days, it’s el Buen Sabor.  It’s on Valencia and, 18th, right on the corner.

Ausform: Favorite three bars in the Bay area?

Eric: Well, The Hemlock was probably my favorite bar here forever and that shut down so that’s kind of a bummer.  Honestly, I don’t really go out very much anymore, can I still put the hemlock on even though it’s gone? That was my favorite bar forever. I started going there when they first bought that place and I loved going to shows there.

But, I don’t know. I guess my favorite venue here, I think is the Great American for sure. I think it’s the perfect size. for when bands are starting to get a little bigger, but it’s still not too big by any means.

I’ve seen some of my favorite shows in my life there. I really love that. There’s a new bar called Young’s Kung Fu Action Theater & Laundry. That’s like pretty cool. It’s a where the old gangway was. It’s got a really good vibe in there and it’s kind of hidden. So that’s cool. I feel like most of the bars that used to be my favorite bars, are no longer my favorite bars.

Ausform: Three other artists that other people should follow?

Eric: I would say, my friend Thomas Fernandez does really killer graphic illustrations for bands and skate companies. His Instagram handle is @liveradstudios. Henry Lewis is a good friend of mine that does amazing tattoos, but his oil paintings are the shit!  And, my buddy @Zacamendolia,  he tattoos as well but he also makes all these like crazy toys. And he has a separate Instagram page called @greasycreeps, where he does all these killer, sixties jiggler inspired toys.

Tattoo by Eric Jones

Tattoo by Eric Jones

Ausform: First three places you want to go when everything gets better?

Eric: Definitely to El Buen Sabor, to get a burrito. All the taquerias in the mission are open, except for them, it’s just a bummer. I would like to go outside to do some climbing and I would like to get out of the country and probably go visit some friends in Spain.

Ausform: Anything else you want to promote for yourself or anyone else?

Eric: Actually, something that you could promote which is cool, Thee Parkside, which Is an awesome venue/bar That’s been here forever have been doing something while we’ve been shut down in an attempt to raise money for local bands and they’re staff.

They’ve been having virtual live stream shows. Where they’ve been having a bunch of bands play on the @TheeParkside‘s Instagram feed and you can donate to support. So that’s a pretty cool thing that they’ve been doing that more people should probably know about.


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Derek Tobias

Derek Tobias

Derek Tobias is originally from Santa Cruz. When he was only 5 years old it was his dream to grow up and be the siren on an ambulance, but after coming to the crushing realization that it was a machine at age 8 he decided to focus his efforts on more creative endeavors. Music and art fuels his life and he can often be found around San Francisco concert halls with his vintage tan camera bag around his shoulder.