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Butterfat Tattoo

A tattoo studio flowers in Chicago, but it didn’t blossom overnight.

Interview By Lucy Hewett, June 25, 2013

Studio photos by Lucy Hewett

It might be fair to say there’s no longer a typical tattoo style out there—there are as many styles as artists in an ever-expanding culture, but it is also fair to say that Esther Garcia’s work at Butterfat Tattoo in Chicago stands apart. Chicagoans have likely seen her intricate, painterly leaves and petals climbing across a woman's shoulder at the farmer's market or her birds realistically rendered on a passerby's forearm. Esther Garcia runs Butterfat from a beautiful studio filled with plants, art materials, and vintage furniture—not your typical tattoo shop. Her vision for the space and practice has been in the making for sixteen years. Nothing Major paid Butterfat a visit and learned how Garcia turned her plans into a very lovely reality. 

How did you become a tattoo artist? How did the process start and what's the story behind it?
I was a student at the School of the Art Institute Chicago and I thought that maybe I was a fine art photographer (I am not). I did a series of black and white photos of people with tattoos of vintage kitchen appliances, which I had drawn on with a Sharpie. The photos were really bad, but people in the class liked me and they wanted to find something nice to say, so they complimented me on the subjects. They wanted to know where I found people with such unique tattoos. I told them 'Whatever, it's not important, I drew them on.' Everyone in the class encouraged me to look into that and become a tattoo artist. 

I thought the idea was ridiculous, but after enough people backed the idea up, I looked into it. As it turns it out, it's one of the hardest things to get into. When I went looking (for opportunities) shop-to-shop, I got nothing but discouragement. That's what you do, you discourage the newbies; you don't want that much competition.

But that's not really how you get me to go away. It was the first time that anybody hadn't been supportive of an artistic endeavor in my life and I found it incredibly motivating.

So I found myself an apprenticeship and I've been tattooing for sixteen years.

Can you tell me about the learning process? How you sharpened your drawing skills so that you could create work on skin?
Well of course I thought I was going to be the one to revolutionize tattooing right from the beginning. I had art school pretensions—fresh art school pretensions. I was surprised and humbled to discover how hard it is—it's really, really difficult to make an acceptable tattoo, even with good drawing skills. So I basically had to start from the beginning and figure out what was applicable, what techniques I could bring over to tattooing, what was never going to be able to transfer and what I had to learn from scratch. There were years of tattooing at an average-to-mediocre level before I was able to advance and be able to make anything particularly interesting. 

When did you start finding your work particularly interesting?
Maybe six or seven years in? When I had forgotten that I had intended to do something special with tattooing and I was just getting by waiting for interesting projects to come to me. That would happen a few times a month. The rest of the time I did walk-ins and tried to adapt to whatever people asked of me. I couldn't figure out why I wasn't progressing or why I didn't have my own identifiable style the way other people I was working with did. They benefited from being able to identify with a style, old school, traditional, new school or whatever their niche was. I didn't have a niche. I was just building my blocks, really low to the ground and under the radar. 

Then I started traveling and meeting some amazing tattoo artists. After seeing their portfolios, I realized I wanted to tattoo at a much higher level. I wasn't going to be able to stay in the business and wasn't going to allow myself to continue if I didn't improve.

Since I am home-schooled and basically self-educated, I made a plan and started checking things off the list. It took a while, but inside of two years people started coming to me for me. They inquired specifically about my work instead of just coming to me because I was a girl, or inexpensive, or non-threatening or whatever had been the case in the past.

What was included in that plan?
I needed to learn my equipment better. I learned my machines, I started going to machine seminars at good conventions. I took them apart, put them back together, rebuilt them, bought as many as I could. I tried to familiarize myself with my tools better than I had in the past. Previously I had been pretty terrified of breaking them and not sure I could adjust them to the technique that I needed. I also started taking art classes again and I do that every year. I try to make sure I am always learning and make that a focus. 

Why did you choose to open a private studio?
I had a private studio for years when I was sort of rebuilding my skill set. It was just a matter of necessity at that point, because I couldn't get comfortable in other shops and I appeared to make the shop owners uncomfortable. I got fired a lot and realized I needed to have control over the environment and not just the tattooing itself. 

My clients were very pleased to not have to be exposed in a regular street shop where the personalities, musical choices, and aesthetic might not be comfortable. They often weren't for me, so I made it a place where I felt at home. Magically, people who liked the same things that I liked ended up being comfortable there, too. It worked out really well.

Eventually I had an apprentice, and it became time to make space for her. I was really focused for a long period of time on my specific responsibility to the craft, on my ability to make a tattoo that looked the way I wanted it to. Once I started to have that in hand, I could start to grow the atmosphere a little farther away from the immediate tattoo procedure. I expanded it to be a nice place to hang out in, a good place to draw, a space where people feel comfortable sharing their ideas or spending time while they're being injured. It's a vulnerable state and you don't want too many stressful influences. 

Why did you feel like Logan Square was the right place for the studio?
I've been trying to figure out Logan Square, why it's as cool as it is. It's just a little neighborhood, there's a lot of things it doesn't have. But there's a creative energy that's pretty impressive. In this small neighborhood, the number of people that are doing really incredible artwork or amazing projects is pretty stunning. It's easy to run into personal heroes, it's easy to make friends with people who are doing things at least as cool as you are doing, and it's easy to borrow some of their momentum and inspiration. The next time you run into them you want to report progress on the project you were thinking about because you know they are going to say “Oh, how did that go for you?” They've been taking steps, and you don't want to be the one that says “Oh no I'm just still thinking about that one. I haven't actually started yet.” So mildly competitive, but actually really motivating.

You've been bringing guest artists in lately, why did you make that decision and how has that influenced you?
Working alone for so long I've failed to make a community for myself. I realized a little while back that that was actually important to me and I want people to share shop-talk with. I want to be inspired by other methods and approaches—throughout the whole process of tattooing. I want to see how other people deal with their customers, I want to see how people go about setting up their work space or the weird steps all artists take to entertain their muse. We all have strange rain dances to go through to ensure that she shows up when we need her. It's fascinating to see how other people arrange their lives to make that work for them.

It's definitely been one of the benefits of opening up the shop. Knowing that I have a little more space than I need, I can find people who are fascinating to me, and offer them the space they need to do excellent work with little distraction. I also have access to them and can go peer over their shoulders, and see how they do things. It's pretty great. It's also really fun to go online and go to conventions and sort of window shop for new friends. People in Chicago are accustomed to having access to really excellent custom tattoo artists. They are very appreciative of a lot different styles, more styles than seem to be available here. I'd like to be a venue to bring some of that talent in for a while. 

What's exciting right now? What's changed? Has the industry changed to make room for your point of view?
I think it's been building for a long time. Earlier in my apprenticeship there was the impression that there had just been a significant crest/peak and we were on the downside of that. The idea was that there had been a renaissance and there were new styles that nobody had seen, and other kinds of artwork that was being generated within the industry. Everybody had had really rich summers and then it was a little bit on the downside as I came in and people were trying to predict what the pattern was going to be. Maybe there was a new wave of interest every ten years or so? But it seemed to climb again relatively quickly and then with the advent of the all the reality tattoo shows there's been a huge boom. I don't think it's ever been bigger than it currently is. It's never been more accepted, more understood by the general public (and less feared) than it is right now. 

There is tattooing happening on all levels right now: All levels of appreciation, all levels of skill. There's definitely people doing things that have never been done before and that we didn't think were possible and of course all of the conflict that goes with that. People think that things shouldn't be that painterly, or beautiful, or delicate, or that tattoos should look like their grandfathers' tattoos, and that's what a tattoo looks like. There's a lot of debate, but generally it's exciting and helpful.

You focus on floral work. Why flowers?
I've always liked flowers and plants. I've been able to see the differences and subtleties in them, more than I can with most other things in the world. I feel like I am able to identify and render the qualities of one type of leaf as separate from another kind of leaf or flower, probably the way some people are good at identifying a certain make or model of car just from one back taillight. Some things just speak to you more deeply than other subjects. And plants and flowers are the most organically flexible imagery as far as I'm concerned. I find it so much easier to build something gorgeous on a body with beautiful leaves and flowers. 

I had a good spell of birds a few years ago and other animals as well. But nothing really speaks to me or seems to have the depth of continuing possibility like plants do. I feel like I have so many more things to say about or in flowers. I don't see the end of that coming. Occasionally you feel like you've exhausted everything you have to say on a subject, and so I don't repeat certain subject matter because I feel like I've done the best that I have in me. The next effort will either be derivative or uninspired. And if I don't have any more to say on that subject than I won't do it until I do. It seems irresponsible or unfair to the previous and current client unless I can give them something really unique and beautiful.

You generally don't take on new clients. Is it part of “the plan,” being able to only work on projects that you're interested in?
It goes back to keeping the muse entertained. She throws fits and refuses to play along unless she's really entertained. It's possible that my work is more susceptible to this than other people. Other people seem to be able to turn out high-level work without any apparent effort. But there's a huge difference in my work. It can be average and mediocre or it can be something really lovely—depending on what kind of inspiration I can bring to it. It's very fickle. I have to be really invested. And I have to do everything I can to ensure that I'm going to be really invested, because there's such a dramatic difference between my inspired and uninspired work. 

I'm sort of building a prima donna reputation based on this, but if I have to put these 20 ducks in a row in order to make something lovely, then that's what I have to do. I can't settle for 13 of them. The quality of work suffers so much if I don't go through all of the steps. I take all of the precautions in order to not be distracted and to not feel harried and make sure I have the right time and attention to give to each piece.


Your plan seems to be working out pretty well. What are you looking forward to?
I'm at that point where I've caught up to a lot of the goals that I had. So I'm trying to sort through the foggy future to see what might interest me. I think maybe a new location for part of the year is in order. As much as I adore Chicago, winter gets a little rough. After spending a little bit of time in Hawaii I think that maybe it wouldn't suck to be there a couple months out of each year. Just maybe. This past visit, the ducks started aligning all by themselves. So I've gotta find out if I can make that work. The flora and fauna of Hawaii, the atmosphere itself, is just so gorgeous. Such a different set of plants, mosses, ferns, all these things that make me really nerdy and excited. I feel like I have to go and draw them, and if it means that life arranges it in such a way that I get to tattoo them on people while I'm there, then that's a pretty complete experience. That would be pretty great. It still seems like a bit of a fantasy.