An Interview with Tattoo Artist Shannon Wages

Of all my bitches, I've probably known today's for the least amount of time. I met Shannon last September when she gave me my 9/11 tattoo. I don't know how many of you have current tattoos, but as someone with a tattoo from 1993 and another one from 2015, let me tell you, things have changed. When I got my first tattoo, I flipped through a binder until I found something I liked, then they smoked over me while they permanently etched this cursed flower vine onto my ankle, charging me $20 every time I jerked my leg. They're no longer in business. Probably because they made all of their money off unaccompanied minors.

When I decided to get my new tattoo, I talked to my friend Freya and she connected me to Shannon. She blew me away! Shannon is an artist, she drew my tattoo - no more binders! She also intuitively knew when I needed breaks and was comfortable being present while I felt all of my feelings. Y'all, that is hard to do. I can't recommend her enough. I also highly recommend her Instagram feed for tattoo inspiration. Meet today's bitch, Shannon Wages!

What do you make and what is the name of your business?

I make tattoos at Banshee Tattoo, aka Shannon Wages Tattoos.

When did you first learn about this field of work?

I started working in tattoo shops when I was 23. I was in college studying Mass Communications, circa 2003. I started as a counter girl, never having any intention of being a tattoo artist. I had 40 jobs before I was a tattooer, I swear, I counted. I kept them maybe 9 months before I would lose interest and stop going. I have a highly short attention span. I always say that tattooing only keeps me interested because it’s intense and requires a constant front row seat.

How did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I initially had no intention of tattooing, I only knew that I loved the environment of the tattoo shop and I knew where I belonged (I had that “ding” moment your college counselors tell you about). After being there long enough, seeing the way the tattooers and clients interacted, I saw that the field needed to change. I saw clients not being treated the way I thought they should, and I noticed them having more of a connection with me than their tattooer, simply because I would listen to them. My stepdad had a salvage store when I was a kid, where I worked, and I saw his relationship with his customers. He was a great business man, he always believed in being good to his customers and having relationships with them. I wanted to see a tattoo establishment that treated their customers with friendliness instead of snobbery.  

What was your path that lead you to where you are now?

The actual building:  Gentrification. I was sharing a space with Blackbird and we were all kicked out because they wanted to re-do the building and raise the rent. At that point, I was approached by Brandon to join East Tattoo Collective. 

My position as a tattooer:  Being unwilling to accept the run-of-the-mill crap of a walk-in shop. My standards were higher, I wanted more for myself as an artist and a more personal, boutique experience for my clients.  

Why did you decide to start your own business?

I hadn’t found anyone doing it the way I thought it should be done. I wanted to be able to do what I loved without getting burnt out on the same designs over and over. In my current atmosphere, I can persuade clients to choose a more personal design, instead of the typical Pinterest reboot. Setting my own terms (not to mention my own hours) helps me stay in love with what I do. Plus, I’m just a terrible employee, lol.  

What was the best piece of business advice you’ve been given?

Never have a partner. Everyone in the Collective contributes to the bills, but we operate as separate business entities. I have problems with authority, lol (not lol).

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

The fear of not having the client base to sustain me outside of a walk in shop. I’ve been lucky enough to get the best clients an artist could ask for, but I also like to think it’s because I’ve established relationships with them.  

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

Don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice from those who have been there before you. 

Pay whatever the government says you owe. 

Don’t be afraid to be different. Sometimes being the weirdo is the best trait you have! Just because no one in your friend group/industry/city is doing something, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Weirdness is the hallmark of true innovation!

Failure you learned from or that helped you improve the way you work?

I first operated with the notion that the customer is always right. The customer isn’t always right. That’s why we go to professionals, we rely on their experience. Don’t be afraid to tell your client no. Sometimes you have to stand up to them for what’s best for them, even if they take it personally (although I would argue that a good tattooer can keep it from seeming like a personal style attack). 

What would you do with 2 more hours a day?

I would learn more languages (but probably just play Sim City). OOOOO! I’d play Sim City in different languages. 

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made?

The family life. I work way too much.

What is your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) related to what you make?

My last tattoo. I always want to be most proud of the tattoo I’ve just finished. My mentor taught me that your portfolio isn’t shit if you can’t perform on command. 

What’s the first app or website you open when you wake up in the morning?

One of three websites of a very sensuous nature, not gonna lie. I make no excuses for sexuality. Then Instagram to see who has posted tattoos overnight. 

Where do you go when you need inspiration for your work?

The book store. Errrr... Well, now more my bookshelf, or Amazon. I’m so sad the bookstore has gone the way of the buffalo! The library is nowhere near as flashy. I love to look outside of digital media; it’s readily available to everyone for reference. I like to try and look outside of something that can be consumed so rapidly. Other than that, exercising (dude, I totally lift and it’s awesome), playing music, or learning something new. Learning a new art form or new instrument always helps me see more clearly what I can do to vary and reinvent my work.

How do you decompress at the end of the work day?

Boyfriend, bath, Lush, wine, weed. In no specific order, but frequently in combination.

What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?

Knowing when to turn the lights out and take time off. If there are tattoos to be done, I want to be doing them. I have recently hired someone whose list of responsibilities includes telling me to put the machine down and go home.

Lastly, and most important, what is your favorite TV show and what is your favorite snack?

Law and Order (the OG) or Peep Show. Shit. Maybe Bob’s Burgers? Are we talking animated or live action? This is a tough one. Also, I thought The Sopranos was great.

Snacks? Cereal. Hands-down, cereal. Cereal or ice cream with whole milk poured on it (it’s like ice cream soup, aka milkshakes - try it and thank me later).  

All photos courtesy of Shannon Wages

P.S. Meet last week's bitch:  Burlesque Performer, Freya West!

P.P.S. Full list of My Bitches here.

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An Interview with Burlesque Performer Freya West