By Suzanne Needham
Kids don’t always show the proclivities for what they wind up doing as adults, but for Jason Hanna, there were certainly signs. After all, he was the kid in school who got in trouble for drawing on himself and the other kids. “I was always the kid drawing in class and I naturally gravitated towards comics and such to learn how to draw on my own,” says Hanna, who’s now a professional tattoo artist.
Hanna, whose father’s tattoos got him interested, first attempted tattooing in 2003 while he was studying at UNC-Charlotte. But it wasn’t until two years ago that he started the process seriously with a new mentor, Tory Johnson from Green Light Tattoo in Charlotte. As anyone can tell these days, he’s picked a good time to become one.
Tattoos have been found on mummies dating back to 300 BC, but over the past 50 to 100 years tattoos were thought to be mostly for ex-cons and sailors. But today the acceptance of tattoos has become prominent for ordinary people. They certainly are the most permanent form of body art, and while the traditional popular designs appear to have been derived from that anti-social activity in the 1960s, today it’s essentially a fashion statement.
Hanna has been at Absolute Tattoo since September. It’s a UNCC hotspot for tattoos and piercings, conveniently located across from the campus. People with full-sleeve tattoos and neckpieces, facial dermal piercings, and nose rings are who you typically see hanging around outside this tattoo shop, grabbing a smoke and talking tats or piercings or just laughing at each other’s questionable weekends. This tattoo shop has the atmosphere of a bar, but without the booze. One girl getting a tattoo leaps off the table, pulls down part of her black yoga pants to reveal a Ford key branding on her butt cheek. She jokingly said that’s what you do in a small town and you hang out the drunken guys next to a bonfire, “you get a little redneck.”
Each artist has their own workstation, a table resembling an operating table, a swivel stool and a desk that holds the cleaning supplies, needles and inks. The three artist’s black tattoo tables sit in the middle of the shop. Skeleton posters and tattoo designs decorate the shop’s walls. A semi-closed off back area is designated for sketching and tattoo designs, while the front holds the office area for looking up designs.
Hanna received a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts, specializing in printmaking and drawing at UNCC. He says his high school art teacher wasn’t fond of him or his artwork and in turn his grades suffered. But this obviously didn’t steer him away from his joy of drawing. His professors in college helped shaped his work as an artist. He didn’t know that his art major would lead him to tattooing, but says that the things he learned about composition and color theory have helped tremendously.
At times, he wishes he had started tattooing at a younger age. The late 20s is a late start for a tattoo artist, but he says “maturity, respect and understanding goes a long way in this business and I’m not sure at a young age I would have appreciated it as much.”
Like his UNCC professors and parents, John Buscema, author of Hanna’s first instructional drawing book, played a major role in his artwork. “How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way” taught him the value of “breaking things down into shapes, and I thank the book to this day for teaching me how to draw [as a kid].”
Unlike some parents who don’t see successful futures out of their sons and daughters when they dream of becoming an actor, singer, dancer or artist, Hanna’s parents have always been supportive of his artistic endeavors. His mom couldn’t grasp the idea that her son was a tattoo artist at first, but he says she’s slowly warming up to the idea.
As for the types of tattoos he’s called upon to draw and/or apply, he says there are just as many people in the world who ask to get “weird” tattoos, as there are “weird” people. Hanna has tattooed his fair share of repulsive, questionable, and weird tattoos, including a hammer with the handle of a penis, the phrase “Tap Dat” on a girl’s butt that her mom paid for, and a boyfriend’s name on a forty-something-year-old woman’s genitals for her first tattoo.
His first tattoo was on his own leg, done in his bedroom with his friend’s tattoo machines. The first tattoo he gave to someone else was on a friend who wanted an illustration of an octopus from a Shel Silverstein book. Half of Hanna’s business is walk-ins and scheduled clients but as he continues at Absolute Tattoo more people are starting to ask for him specifically. But he still takes walk-ins on a daily basis and tattoos at least one person a day, though often many more. He said it’s rare for him not to tattoo anyone while he’s at work.
Tattoo artist Matt “Skinny” Bagwell is one major influence of Hanna’s tattoo work. Bagwell works as a tattoo artist at Ace Custom Tattoo in the Plaza-Midwood Area of Charlotte. Robert Crumb and Jim Phillips are also major influences on Hanna’s drawing. Crumb is a well-known cartoonist, artist, writer and musician. He does a lot of crosshatched and pen-and-ink work. Phillips is another well-known artist that does acrylic and oil paintings of surf scenes and designs logos and patterns for skateboards. Though each tattoo artist at Absolute has their own styles and influences, they “feed off each ‘other’s work’ in a positive way,” says co-worker Jason Sansing.
“When you first start, I think nerves can be your worst enemy,” Hanna says. “You have to go into a tattoo with confidence that you are going to knock it out of the park, and if you are nervous then you are going to be rethinking everything you know.” He’s been tattooing for two years but he knows now that there’s nothing else he would rather do. Since it’s early in his career, Hanna hasn’t had the opportunity to put his work in shows and competitions to try to win awards. He does, however, have a guest spot at a tattoo shop in Wilmington, N.C. called Glenn’s Tattoo Service, and he hopes to continue with tattooing long into the future.