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Interview with Female Tattoo Artist Deanna Smith (James now! Congrats Deanna!)

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Deanna James (Smith) is an incredible realism tattooer working out of Dallas, Texas.  Her style is extremely recognizable and distinct which is one of the main reasons she has become such an in-demand tattooer for collectors across America/elsewhere.  She paid her dues as an apprentice for five plus years, and is now seeing the fruits of her labor.  I got the chance to ask her about things like advice she has for other female tattooers in this at times cold-blooded industry, her struggles with mental health which I resonate with as well, and more.  I hope you guys enjoy the read.

 

 

So now you’re absolutely killing it and have a name that’s highly respected in the realism genre, but I remember you’ve mentioned starting out as an apprentice and what not before.  Can you describe a little bit about that?

 
What a lot of people don’t know is that I spent 5 years doing a “traditional” apprenticeship.  When I say traditional, I mean the kind of apprenticeship where you’re hazed.  I had to drink milk until I threw up, eat patrolium jelly and Pepto Bismol, steal a vacuum cleaner, hold up signs outside a shop with a helmet and floaties on…  just to name a few of the more silly tasks.  I also spent 5 years apprenticing because it took me a few mentors and shops for me to find one that would take me seriously enough as a young female to teach how to tattoo.  I started when I was 17 years old and still in High School.  Every day after school I would head to the tattoo shop to watch people, clean floors and toilets, and practicing drawing tattoo designs.

 

You seem to have really solidified the style of tattoo that you’re going for which is absolutely beautiful by the way.  How important do you think it is for up-and-coming artists to kind of pick a niche in order to get a steady stream of clients?

 
Thank you first of all!  To answer your question, YES!  It is absolutely important to find a style.  This was something I learned from my years of training in art classes and schools which was also mentioned by Rember Orellana  (one of the guys who taught me a lot about tattooing).  Finding your style is one of the hardest things to accomplish as a tattooer and artist because everything has been done already, and something that is completely 100% unique is most of the time not aesthetically pleasing.  I believe this also goes for music.  My older brother once said “you can dangle a dead rat on a keyboard and say its original, but it doesn’t mean it sounds good.”  To find the balance of uniqueness and aesthetically pleasing is a hard one to accomplish.  Also, like Rember told me; “It’s better to be the best at one thing then to spread yourself out thin and be pretty good at a lot of things.”   Unfortunately, this is something Ink Master has instilled in some people outside the tattoo community who think an artist is only as good as their versatility.  You wouldn’t commission Picasso to do a Renaissance styled oil painting.  
 
 You wouldn’t commission Picasso to do a Renaissance styled oil painting.
 

This industry can be kind of cold blooded…  What are your top three pieces of advice for the bad ass female tattooers trying to make a name for themselves in this industry?

 
 I have been asked this a few times and it has been a journey of finding the right answer and advice.  I know that women get treated differently then men in this industry.  Men would say females have it easier but in my years of experience, the guy apprentices I’ve worked with had slid by with doing half the amount of work I had to.  Only problem with that, is that it has also created a better work ethic in me that has in the end made me more successful.  To women apprentices, its not going to be easy.  You will have to go through issues most men wouldn’t have to deal with.  Sexual abuse is more common. I was always told “you have to do this if you want to be a tattooer”.  I Know that that is not always the case.  Know your boundaries and take care of your bodies.  Also, work twice has hard as anyone else you know, clean twice as fast, take care of the shop, and represent the rest of the woman to show we are hard fucking workers who can succeed far and high just like anyone else.  My biggest thing I tell anyone is, if you want something bad enough, you will find a way.  Your work will be critiqued, you will be told you cant succeed, you could get fired a million times (like I did) but in the end…  if you want it bad enough, you will pick yourself up to find a way and keep going. 
 

Anybody you were hoping to collect a tattoo from yourself? Anyone you were hoping to collab with in the near future?

 
 My favorite tattooers right now are Alex Sorsa and Bobby Johnson.  I would love to collect work from them.  As for as collaborating,  I just like having fun and doing hood rat shit with my friends.  My favorite collabs to do are the ones with the homies.  I mostly enjoy working with Jay Joree.  Not just because our different styles look tight together, but because working and having fun reminds me why I wanted to tattoo in the first place.

 

Can you tell me about your most bizarre experience with any client so far?

 
I dont know about most bizarre besides getting to do two butt hole tattoos, but ill never forget the cringey moment when I was doing walk in tattoos still and I had a client want a quote from me of lyrics from the song “The sound of silence”.  Which would have been fine but he said the lyrics were from the band Disturbed. That hurt coming from a big Simon and Garfunkel fan.

Three things you wish every client of yours knew without you having to explain it to them?

 
The biggest thing is I wish every client came in fully trusting in what I do.  Luckily most of my clients do, but there are still some who have a very specific design in mind and when I try to suggest options and colors, they seem concerned.  The thing is, I also want you to have the best tattoo possible, because I want to DO the best tattoo possible.  Anything I suggest I promise is to give you your moneys worth. Also, Aesthetics > meaning. 

 

How has this industry shifted since the time you first came into it up until now?  What shift do you expect/hope to see in the next couple of years?

 
The shift since I first came into this industry when I was 17 ( I’m 26 now) is unbelievable.  Just to see the difference in the quality of tattoos produced makes me so excited that I came up the time that I did in the very (what I believe) is the renaissance of tattooing.  One of my favorite things I get to do is tattoo actual Boroque paintings on people because it feels like that’s the ultimate length you can go when it comes to applying art to skin.  My only concern is that now that we have reached a peak in tattooing, its only going to go downhill.  Smaller, prison looking tattoos are now becoming more and more popular.  I think trends come in waves, and the next thing coming is the fall of tattooing.  At this point, only the best of the best will survive, and the ones who keep up with trends rather than go against it.  Hopefully after that, bigger more artistic pieces come back into demand.

 

I have struggled with some mental health stuff my whole life and it was interesting seeing you open up about it…  What has been the most beneficial thing as far as moving in the right direction to getting your mind free?

 

This has been a very important issue for me which is why I like opening discussion about it.  It’s great to see this question asked as well from you.  I’ll also add that my mind is never truly free.  It’s a day to day struggle and it always will be.  To take it day by day, minute by minute, is the best way to keep moving. It’s important to remind yourself what makes you happy, and to also do things that scientifically help you have those “feel good” chemicals.  This includes working out, meditation, eating right, and weirder things like making yourself smile.  I struggle with mental and physical health every day but its gotten a million times easier after spending a year a few years ago thinking I was dying.  When you have a true near death experience, it forces you into survival mode.  This forced me to find out how to get better not just for myself, but for my loved ones.  What no one knows is that I was sick like this during Ink Master.  Doing that show was mostly to put myself out there so everyone could see my work, and myself.  I wanted to be remembered for what I have worked so hard to do.  This is also why I didn’t bother fighting or speaking much on the show even if it meant having more “air time”.  In return, people appreciated me not just for my art, but for my good nature…  who I really am.  So I guess another thing to help mental health, is take good risks, work on what your good at, and think about the impact you want to leave behind and on others. Spread light and love.  For me, light and love is kindness, and my love for my craft.

Hardest lesson you’ve had to learn since you started tattooing?

 
The hardest lesson I have learned when I started tattooing is that its all on me.  This is my business and if I dont work, I dont make money.  I have recently had to think about new ways to earn revinue “in my sleep”.  I have also thought about becoming a painter now that I have some sort of notoritity.  At some point, I would like to tattoo just for fun, not to survive.

Best piece of advice for a tattoo collectors?

 
I feel like tattoo collectors get it.  I would want to give advice on the people that know a little less about the tattoo industry.  To get the best piece possible, is to not think up a design yourself, but research the best artists, and find styles you love.  Then to go to those specific artist and give them free range on what they do best.  Save up money, travel if needed, and enjoy the art collection to add to your art gallery (skin). 

Most challenging part of being a tattooer?

 

 The most challenging part besides running a business by myself, is the mental and physical toll it plays on your body.  You put yourself in an awkward position for a long period of time, and you pour all your mental and creative energy into every piece you do.  For someone with underlying anxiety who cant handle much more stress then I already put onto myself, this tends to drain me.  I find myself making many lifestyle changes and doctor appointments to makes sure I’m ok as a person.  Also, when you give your passion, and hobby to your career- what do you do for fun?

 

Most rewarding part?

I get to turn my passion and hobby into a career.
 
Thanks so much for your time Deanna!  I appreciate your work and outlook so much!  Please give this amazing artist a follow at @deanna_art
 
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