Saturday, January 3, 2009

Dingwell the tattooist and Mel Tillis' dancer's derriere

This is an old image of my friend, the tattoo artist Chris Dingwell, and what would now count as an example of his early work. The river image dates from one summer when Dingwell - then an art school refugee who had fairly recently turned to the needle and ink - worked a chair at a tattoo shop in the Ozark tourist town of Branson.

I remember walking into the shop after five hours on the road to find him at work on the rear end of a girl who danced for Mel Tillis. "Please don't put this in the paper where Mel will find out," she said, when she learned that I worked as a journalist, which at least told me that Mel didn't turn out his teen talent, since she was certain Tillis wouldn't find out she had a tattoo on her rump unless he learned as much from the press.

Dingwell is on my mind tonight because of a new MySpace blogpost of his providing really interesting excerpts from a recent interview with him in Tattoo Artist Magazine. It's enough to make me track down and buy the issue, but I recommend at least the blogpost for anyone interested in the tattoo arts or any number of issues and concerns shared by all working artists. Dingwell is an unpretentious truth-talker of the first order.

For example:

"I don't believe that inspiration just hits you like lightning. It's something you have to cultivate and build on. Each thing you do leads to the next. I think it's important to just keep working every day, whether the lightning strikes or not. You have to trust that the process will carry you through. It's also important to know when not to beat a dead horse. If I feel really stuck with a particular project, I put it down and work with something else; something fresh and different. Doing something totally unrelated will often lead me back to the work I started with. What's important is that you keep working though, and don't let the roadblocks stop you altogether. It's also really important to live a life outside of your artwork; tattooing or otherwise. You have to experience life in order to bring life to your work."

True, that.

Scene history aside: Dingwell was a proto-pioneer in the South Grand revival here in St. Louis. I joined him in a four-family flat at Michigan and Arsenal in something like 1992. It was a rougher neighborhood back then, with much, much less to do and far, far fewer people with whom you would want to do it with.

The hardcore hoosiers had started leaving, as black folks started to move in, and that was good thing, but turf wars between the Bloods and the Crips (and between rival Vietnamese gangs that I could never figure out) had filled the void. Just ask Thomas Crone, who got caught up in a Vietnamese mob shakedown one day. Add a chop shop at the end of our alley, and it was a pretty creepy part of town.

It was full of potential for Dingwell, though - potential for tattoo shops.

While we were living down there, the original Way Out Club opened up on Cherokee Street, just across Gravois from our flat, so most nights we would walk down the street for a cheap beer and part of a cult film, and then keep walking and talking. We often walked the length of Cherokee Street, still years before its arts revival. I think Dingwell saw a tattoo shop lurking in the shadows of every single abandoned building on Cherokee Street that now houses a hipster art space or anarchist collective.

He was years ahead of his time, but then again people down there today are still years ahead of their time. St. Louis keeps slipping, slipping, slipping - slowly - into the future.

For more recent examples of Dingwell's work, check out that there MySpace page. He now co-owns and works out of Sanctuary Tattoo in Portland, Maine (one of three or four favorite cities in the U.S.), but it looks like he's using MySpace (he calls it MySpaz) to archive his work these days.


A.A. said...

That ink is amazing! Some of his black/whites look like Durer etchings!

leela said...

I adore Chris, that photo made my day, thank you:)

Poetry Scores said...