By ANGYE MORRISON
Thomas Cowart is the father of three girls, has been in the Statesboro area since he was about 12, and is originally from Arizona. He’s an artist — but you may not even realize you’ve seen his work.
Sketch, as he is now known, is a tattoo artist in Statesboro. He’s been working professionally as a tattoo artist for about 11 years, in addition to the apprenticeship he did before that.
Art is something that he’s always been drawn to.
“I was just always attracted to art,” he said, “in all forms. From painting to graffiti. I was into it all.”
But tattoos weren’t necessarily on his artistic radar. He began drawing designs for a guy who tattooed but couldn’t draw, and who pressed Sketch into doing tattoos on him.
“It just kind of snowballed from that,” Sketch said.
A few years after that, he was in a tattoo shop and it came out that he did a little bit of tattooing, and they offered to teach him to do it the right way, and help him to become a tattoo professional. He took them up on the offer.
To become a tattoo artist, a person must first apprentice, working under an experienced artist who is licensed and knows what he or she is doing. It costs at least $2,000, because you have to purchase the proper equipment, and the apprenticeship can take two to five years. The right equipment is crucial, Sketch said.
“You can’t just go back there and start doing something permanent on someone’s body and only have half the tools to do it with. You have to know what you’re doing before you start making things permanent," he said.
Apprentices also must learn about keeping equipment clean and sterilized, all about about blood-borne pathogens and disease control, and CPR. They also have to learn how to work with people.
“If you can’t get anybody to trust you to do the tattoo, it doesn’t matter how good you are. You have to get them in your chair first. That’s a big part of it. You’re dealing with different people all the time, and tattooing is an expression for each person,” he said.
Sketch is now the owner of Blue Phoenix Tattoos & Piercings in Statesboro, which employs about five people. He says his art is ever evolving, and these days, he’s into “new school,” a style of tattooing that is often characterized by the use of heavy outlines, vivid colors and exaggerated depictions of the subject. But he says he doesn’t have a favorite thing to draw.
“It’s one of those things where you’re always finding new things, you know what I mean? A few years ago I was working in this direction, and then you start seeing things and new things catch your eye, so you want to try those,” he said.
New school, he says, appeals to him when he’s just playing around because of the bright colors and the opportunity to use lots of layers and depth.
“I like that it looks like a real thing and not just a cartoon. It’s the light sourcing and the depth and the layers, and how they all come together to make it more realistic. It will actually look like it’s reaching out at you and popping off the skin. It’s just something that really amazes me, how you can take a cartoon and do that. I’ve been attracted to that a lot lately,” he said.
But Sketch says he works hard at doing a bit of everything and staying versatile. And he doesn’t always agree with the message that’s portrayed in the tattoos he does. He says he often counsels his clients, to help them to be sure about the tattoo they’re getting. He also works with them on placement and positioning of the tattoo.
“It’s not my job to judge them. As a professional courtesy thing, though, I do ask them, is this really what you want?” he said. “It’s my job to give them a good quality tattoo, not take out my own agenda and my own beliefs. I just have to listen. That’s part of it. If somebody wants to express themselves, that’s part of it and it’s part of our job. We can’t step on those toes. If anything, we’re trying to help them express things in the way they really want to.”
Sketch says that just like with any other job, there are good and bad days in the shop. There are days when a client is squirming and shouting, yet still expecting a quality piece of artwork. Then there are those clients that come in and get a memorial piece or something with great meaning during a difficult time.
“Helping somebody through that hard time, you see the emotion that is real in people’s faces, and the way they’re talking to you and acting. That’s something they can’t fake. It’s a rewarding job on those good days,” he said.
Tattoos in his shop can cost as little as $40 to $60, and the cost can go up into the thousands for the larger and more complicated pieces. Artists charge around $100 to $150 per hour.
Customers are encouraged to look through the artists’ portfolios to seek out the artist and the style that best suits them. Every artist, including Sketch, has their own style and specialty. For him, it’s about the fine lines and a Spanish influence. He loves it when a customer gives him free reign.
“When people let me do my thing, it’s not going to be like anybody else’s around here. It’s going to stand out,” he said.
Sketch is also known for giving people exactly what they want, and he takes pride in that.
“Tattoos aren’t cheap, and if you’re going to entrust your body and pay somebody, you want to feel comfortable with them and that they’re taking pride in what they’re doing; that they’re not just looking at you as a paycheck. That’s something that I’ve always tried to hold onto,” he said.
Sketch is well aware that word of mouth is everything, and when people are wearing the art you’ve created, that word of mouth is even more crucial.
“Everybody who comes in the door is not just that little $40 or $60 tattoo. They have the potential to be endless. You leave them with a good experience and a good quality tattoo, who knows how many people will come back. Lasting impression is important, and you want it to be positive, because a negative one is just as lasting,” he said.
Focus for tattoo artists is really important, since what they do is incredibly mentally demanding. The artists have to be on top of their game at all times, and they can’t let outside issues get in the way of what they’re doing.
“You can’t let those things get in the way. But that’s the beauty of most artists. They use art to escape from everything else. So a good artist is going to have that ability to block out the other stuff and get into the zone. And not everyone doing tattoos can be called artists,” he said.
When asked what inspires him, Sketch smiles and pauses.
“Other art, more than anything else, not just tattoos. I really do love how in the last 10 or 15 years, how tattooing has become more acceptable. So you have people coming out of art school, wanting to do tattooing,” he said.
Sketch says there are people now trying to make a career out of tattooing and trying to push the limits of what can be done.
“They’re not doing things the same, they’re trying different things. They’re making better equipment, better ink, better needles. You can see some truly amazing tattoos that 10 or 15 years ago, were unheard of,” he said. “It’s grown to that point where just about anything you can imagine can be done.”