By Jess Winans
Upon entering Left Hand Black in South Park, skulls, stomach-churning art, pumping metal sounds and hints of taxidermy may make visitors think they’re in a badass dissident’s lair.
But shop owner, veteran tattooist and family-man Adam Turk doesn’t want people to think that spooky stuff is all he does.
“I just love tattooing, but what I’m personally into, or the things that I collect, are weird, bizarre things,” Turk said. “I think that people assume I’m gonna be some creepy guy with a top hat and a cane pretending I’m from the 1800s [but] no, I’m just a normal dude. … I’m fixated on all things tattooing.”
As a contestant on the Paramount Network TV series “Ink Master,” Turk uses his 20-plus years of experience as a tattoo artist to compete on “Team Clean” for a $100,000 cash prize, a feature in Ink Magazine, and the title of Ink Master.
“I’ve done conventions every year since 1998, so it’s like, you have people over your shoulder making noise, bands playing, [and] flashes going off, but nothing bothers me,” he said. “I’ve been training for ‘Ink Master’ for 20 years — I just didn’t know it.”
The competition-based reality show is centered around tattooing and each episode features a new challenge. The judges (Chris Nuñez and Oliver Peck) and host (Dave Navarro) decide which contestant to send home based on how well (or poorly) they tattoo the desired concept.
“I’ve got a mind like a steel trap that’s filled with minds that have steel traps, man,” Turk said in an “Ink Master” teaser trailer for season 11. “I’m going to pick up every detail I can and I’m going to carry it with me across the finish line.”
Back home in South Park, Turk can usually be found in his studio on Fern Street or spending time with his wife Crystal — who curates an art gallery in Left Hand Black’s lobby — and their toddler.
San Diego Uptown News sat down with Turk to talk about his art, style, cred and years in the tattoo business.
Jess Winans, San Diego Uptown News (JW): Where are you from originally?
Adam Turk (AT): Originally, I’m from San Bernardino, California … It’s not a great area. It’s a pretty violent, gang-ridden area and luckily, I got out alive.
JW: How did you end up in San Diego?
AT: I moved to San Diego in 2003. I had already been tattooing a few years before and I had been traveling … I was in bands and stuff and one of the guys, who was an A&R [artists and repertoire] rep for a clothing company, was on this big Warped Tour thing we were on and this other tour. He had tattoos from a guy that owns a shop here in San Diego. I was talking about how I wanted to move out of the Inland Empire and he was like, “Oh, well my guy is about to open a shop you should go talk to him.” … I started working at Guru Tattoo when it very first opened up. I was one of the original crew members there from the first day it opened, but I moved here specifically for that and then I’ve been here ever since.
JW: How did you get into tattooing?
AT: Tattooing for me — getting into it was kind of weird because I have a lot of uncles that have tattoos [and] a lot of military people in my family, so I’ve always liked seeing tattoos … Because that’s always just kind of been around. My uncle had a hot-stuff devil on his arm because that was a thing you got in the ’70s when you were in the military. So I always would draw little pictures on my arms and stuff like that.
I did a tattoo on one of my friends when I was 15. A friend of ours and his brother … had the “electric motor, cassette player, prison-style” tattoo machine. We had found it when we were at a friend’s house and my buddy was like, “Well you’re a good tattoo artist, you do a tattoo on me!” So I did one. It was a logo for the band Screeching Weasel and it’s a weasel with a leather jacket. It was literally the first tattoo I had ever done.
I had no aspirations of even being a tattoo artist, I just have always been an artist. I’ve always drawn my whole life … Fast-forward to after high school, I ended up meeting a tattoo artist in the Bay Area and befriended her and I would just kind of hang out at the tattoo shop. I didn’t really have a lot of friends up there when I moved and after a while of seeing my little sketchbooks and little things, it just turned into…
JW: Into a “why not tattoo it” sort of thing?
AT: It’s way more complicated than that, but that’s the boiled-down version of it.
JW: What was your first tattoo?
AT: A set of Black Flag bars on the back of my neck — because I’m super cool, I guess.
I got a job at Peet’s Coffee and started working in the morning then I’d go help out at the tattoo shop in the afternoon. Then, it just became a full-on apprenticeship and it was seven days a week, from noon to midnight, every day.
JW: During that time you were answering the phones and making copies, correct? You weren’t actually tattooing?
AT: You shouldn’t tattoo when you’re an apprentice. You shouldn’t. You can, but it depends on how much time your teacher has to dedicate to you for that. For me, the answer was no, not at all. You’re not ready. Then [I learned] all of the aspects of it, how to make needles, how to clean everything properly, how to set up things, tear down things, how machines work … but it was a year of putting in that time first.
Then after that, you’re tattooing, you just kind of go off. But those first couple of months that I’m talking about, that’s when I was just answering phones and helping out and stuff like that. Kicking bums out or drunk people or whatever. But that’s not what an apprentice does. That’s the [regular stuff] that you do to show that you are worthy of them taking you on as an apprentice. Then, when you can show and prove your worth that way, if you have decent art and put in your time showing that, you may start tattooing.
You gotta fight club, you know? You gotta get hit with the broom a bunch of times on the porch before they’re finally like, “Alright, come on in.” It should still be like that in this industry, it’s changed a little bit now.
JW: How have you seen it change?
AT: Well, I think as far as apprenticeships go, now you’ll see guys who have only been tattooing a couple of years taking on an apprentice. … You don’t have anything figured out. How are you going to impart your wisdom that you’ve accumulated in your two years? I’ve been tattooing 20 years and I’m only just now taking on an apprentice.
JW: What was the first “real tattoo” you did? Where you nervous?
AT: The one I did on my friend shouldn’t count. It was cool and I wish I had a picture of it somewhere because it would be the front page of every portfolio ever.
The first tattoo I did on an actual client was a piece of flash, a cherry creek flash, from a wall. It was a Japanese tiger coming down the rocks and it was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time, but more terrifying.
I’m way more confident now but that fear still exists. Every time you sit down to do a tattoo, anything can go wrong. How the customer feels or moves or anything — like all [those factors] can change.
I’m way more confident now in how skilled I am with my machines, it’s almost like muscle memory now, and I can hear my machine and know if something’s wrong with it.
In the beginning, you don’t have anything like that. On top of that, for your first tattoo, you have your teacher and everyone else in the shop yelling and throwing things … They do that crap because you’re not going to have a perfect environment to tattoo in all of the time. Very few tattoo artists have that perfect environment all the time, so you better get used to something happening. You can’t be jumpy or whatever.
It was terrifying, too, because [a tattoo] is a permanent thing. Especially back in the late ’90s when I was getting started, laser was not really a thing. Tattoo removal was skin-grafts and things like that, so it was like if you [mess] somebody up, it’s going to really affect their life.
JW: When was your individual breakthrough?
AT: I think it was 2005 when I started doing more international conventions and started really kind of just pushing my thing. I wasn’t really taking on design works that were stuff that people were giving me. It was like, no I’m going to just do my art and that’s it. And it was, there was a little lull in the beginning but then it turned into people really taking notice that it was something different. And once you start, I started getting printed in a couple of magazines and then I would go to these big conventions and I’d come home with rewards.
For the longest time in those first couple of years … you’re kind of like, what’s the point, right? So rather than give up, I just kind of put my head down and focused more on my technical stuff. I was still drawing all of my weird crap on the side but it was just doing flash over and over. I’m just going to keep doing stuff on the walls until I can do it perfect.
I know tons of tattooists that their drawings are amazing but they don’t understand the body or the anatomy or how the body works. [A tattoo] has to look like it’s part of you. If you just draw something on a piece of paper and stick it on somebody’s arm, it will still look cool but even if somebody just wants something on their forearm, I still make them come and I still trace their forearm and mark where their muscles are and things like that because it’s more like I’m tailoring it to you.
JW: Would you say that sets you apart from other artists?
AT: I’d say that’s one of them. I’m not the only one doing it, I don’t want to make that claim either. I’m not the only one who pays attention to it, but really what kind of sets apart tattooers is you can tell that some people are just tattooers, and that means that they are good technical application tattooers, but they’re not really artists. Like, if you brought a design to them, they would replicate it no problem. But if you were like, “Can you design something for me?” They’re like, “ehh…”
Then there’s tattoo artists that are guys like myself that want to conceptualize the whole thing and want you to tell me the story and conceptualize the art.
JW: Have you had a certain moment that stood out to you as an “aha moment”? That made you realize that this is what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
I think that the biggest [moment] … is when people tell me, “I was at the grocery store buying bread and somebody walked by and said did Turk do that?” Like, the fact that people can just see a certain signature in the way that I do my tattoos that they recognize it — there’s people who struggle as artists their entire lives to have something that can be recognized like that.
The fact that people can identify it and know that it’s mine, that’s huge.
There’s a million tattooers. And I didn’t invent skulls. Skulls have been part of our art. In art, they are probably one of the first things that people started drawing or definitely one of the first most recognizable symbols because before we even knew what language was, even before there was a full language, that was a symbol for death. It’s been around for eons, but I just have my own weird way of doing it and I love how people recognize it.
—Reach Jess Winans at firstname.lastname@example.org.