Art of Ink with Chris Garver

'Miami Ink' star Chris Garver shares his love for tattooing, a craft that demands attention to detail and a passion for great penmanship.

Growing up in Point Breeze, world-renowned tattoo artist Chris Garver always had an interest in art. At 18, he decided to pursue a career in tattooing and rose to fame within the industry. Garver’s mother, an artist who worked at the Carnegie Museum of Art, promoted his interest in the field. After he chose his career path, he pursued degrees at the Art Institute of Chicago and the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

At one point, he forgot about his ink ambitions, but that changed when he tested his roommate’s tattoo equipment. When he starting drawing and his roommate’s customers began enjoying his designs, Garver, 40, knew it was his true calling.

In 1990, his big break came in New York City when he drew a dragon-sleeve design on local artist Chris Henry. The sketch attracted recognition at the Meeting of the Marked Tattoo Arts Expo, which led to his first real job with famed tattoo artist Jonathan Shaw. The door was opened to international conventions and long-lasting friendships.

Garver has built an international portfolio through global travel and a period spent living in Japan. Most recently, he appeared on TLC’s hit series “Miami Ink” with fellow artists Ami James, Kat Von D, Darren Brass, Yoji Harada and Chris Nuñez. Though the show ended in 2008, he continues to travel frequently, pursuing clients and experiencing tattoo culture around the world.

Pittsburgh magazine caught up with globe-trotting Garver to talk about his inspirations, passions and newest venture.

Q+A

PM: What made you realize you wanted to be a tattoo artist rather than pursuing a traditional art career?
CG: A lot of my friends were older than me. They were getting tattooed by Craig Helmich at Island Avenue Tattoo in McKees Rocks, and I was drawing a lot of their designs. When I would see my drawings on them, it was exciting for me. I didn’t know if it was going to be something I would choose as a career or not, but to me, there was definitely a lot of magic to it.

In your career, who has inspired you the most?
I’m inspired by a lot of different people, and I’ve been inspired by a lot of artists who I haven’t even met. I would say Greg Irons, Ed Hardy (not the fashion brand), Jack Rudy, Bob Roberts and Filip Leu—to name a few.

In your worldly travels, which country has the best tattoo scene?
Japan for sure. It’s a part of the culture. The artwork hasn’t changed over the years. Some people use machines now, so they have more colors, but Japan has the richest culture for tattooing. Most people who get tattooed get pretty large designs, so it’s not just a little daisy on their ankle—not that there’s anything wrong with a daisy on the ankle, but they take it pretty seriously.

Why are you so passionate about tattooing?
I like that it’s always something different. One day, I could do portraits of somebody’s kid or parent, or I could do fancy writing or it could be abstract. You never know what you’re going to get. I kind of pick and choose what I do at this point, but I like the variety. And I like the people, too.

In what ways can aspiring tattoo artists further their expertise?  
The most important thing is to have a good apprenticeship, or have somebody who has the patience to tell you how to do things properly. Don’t jump into it before you’re ready. Also, I think it’s best to have an art background. You should be able to draw as well as you can before you start tattooing people. Put all you have into being as good as you can be. Take it seriously, and do the best job that you can every time.

Can you tell us about your new Ruthless and Toothless line?  
On “Miami Ink,” Yoji and Darren both had kids. They were looking for more hip stuff for their kids and had a hard time finding it. They decided they wanted to make it themselves. A few months later, they asked me to jump on board, and I started learning computer graphics to help them out. It’s a clothing line with kids’ stuff and ink skins, which we’re doing for cellphone covers and other accessories. It’s a lot of fun.

Fans and tattoo enthusiasts alike can follow Garver’s worldly travels and ever-growing portfolio at blog.chrisgarvertattoo.com.