Local artist strives to be neighborhood ‘stronghold’ for giving back
By Morgan M. Hurley | SDUN Assistant Editor
Steph Burnside has been inking skin in San Diego for over a decade, eventually opening her own shop Vivid Tattoo and Piercings in University Heights back in 2009.
Last year that property was put up for sale, and although Burnside was given first dibs on it, in October she packed up her goods and moved to Hillcrest. The new shop is located at 449 University Ave., near the iconic Hillcrest sign and just above Gilbert’s Shoe Repair.
This new venture has ushered in not only a new location for Burnside, but also a new chapter; a fresh start.
In the past, Burnside took what she called a “back-seat” role when it came to her artists, letting them do their own thing while she established herself as a new business owner and kept pace with her own clientele. She admits she lost some artists that way, because what people actually need are guidance and a more structured environment.
Since the move, she’s spread out some of the responsibilities and even allows her girlfriend Dana to pitch in. These changes have freed her up to focus on growing the business, mentoring her staff and getting more involved with the community.
“This has all taught me to really appreciate people,” Burnside said. “Back when I was younger I was always such a giver. It was so uncomfortable for me to ‘get,’ … and now I realize … you are taking something away from [people] by not letting them give to you. It was a really hard lesson for me to learn.”
The shop itself is a large, industrial-looking space, with high open ceilings, red brick sidewalls and wall-to-wall metal and glass sliding windows facing out over University Avenue. Burnside, who originally went to art school with plans to be an art curator, has adorned the space with an eclectic assortment of art.
“My whole goal with this shop is one, to have a safe and comfortable environment for everybody to come to,” Burnside said. “The second thing is [to] focus on custom stuff. … I don’t want to be the shop where you just get the next guy and he doesn’t know how to do what you are looking for, but there’s a guy right there who does it perfectly and it’s his life studies.”
She said this doesn’t mean they won’t still take walk-ins, they just prefer to do a better job matching up their artists with the work the clients want. As such, her clients and her staff remain the most important pieces of the puzzle, especially if she expects repeat business.
“I want it to be a big party, like an event,” she said. “I want people to really have a great feeling after they leave here.”
One thing Burnside is very vocal about are people who do tattoos at home on the weekend.
“‘I’m gonna do a gall bladder surgery on you, because I read a book about it and I have the instruments. Is that cool? We’re gonna do it at my house,’” she said sarcastically.
“You’re opening skin, creating blood [and] scarring people for life,” she said. “They are ruining people and creating a harder job for us. It’s creating plenty of work; most of my work is cover up work now.”
Though her staff has changed along the way for various reasons, she feels she’s got a good fit.
“It’s about getting the right frame of mind, the right mode, the right zing,” she said. “We have such an amazing vibe 99 percent of the time, it’s just getting to the 100 percent. I’m trying to really fill in the gaps.”
Currently Vivid has two piercers, Molly Smiley and Ironhead Mike. Artist Daniel Silva, also shop manager, specializes in portraits, realism, 3D and has “the tightest, most fine lines ever,” Burnside said. Another full-timer is female artist Devon Dagger, a “neo-traditional,” while Ian Malcolm does lettering and bold “new-school” designs. Several part-timers round out the staff, including traditional artist Nikki Degner and Hondre Moreno, whose “Polynesian flowers look so real it seems like you can wipe the dew drops off of them,” Burnside said.
Willis Thweat is a black and grey fantasy and skull work specialist who recently fell victim to a tragic motorcycle accident, putting him in a temporary coma. The shop recently held a very successful fundraiser at Ruby Room to assist with bills while he is on the mend.
Getting more involved in the community is also at the top of Burnside’s bucket list. Mardi Gras was held right below their windows, and she is excited about CityFest, participating in the LGBT Pride parade and getting more involved in fundraisers.
“If anyone has a benefit we will always donate gift certificates,” Burnside said. “I want people to know that they can always come to us, because we want to be a neighborhood stronghold for giving and we are part of the community.
“We want to give back as much as we can,” she said.
449 University Ave. #24