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“I realized that if I wanted back into the business I had better get my shit together before the cat was completely out of the bag.”Sara Purr
Lady Tattooers: What inspired you to become a tattooer?
Sara Purr: I first became interested in the mysterious world of tattooing when I was about 15 (Mid-Late 90’s). My high school boyfriend (and local badass pot dealer) had tattoos that his mom had signed for, and I would go with him and watch. The first shop I ever set foot in was Sailor Fred’s Golden Needle in Rochester, NY.
It was a tiny little biker shop, full of old flash, shady characters, sweat, and cigarette smoke. I was totally fascinated, and my rebellious little suburban princess self decided I wanted in.
LT: Sounds like your typical teenage rebellion of the time… So how did you end up taking the plunge?
Sara: I got tattooed for the first time at age 18, at White Tiger in Rochester in 1997. It was a betta fish on my left calf, and it was done by a tattooer named Stephan Lanphear. His work to me at the time was unique, colorful, and original and I was totally inspired.
LT: So how did you go from getting tattooed to doing tattoos? What was it like to do your first tattoo?
Sara: Technically, I did my first tattoo on myself. It was 1999, I was living in a trailer park in upstate NY, and after being told, “No way!” by every shop I asked about apprenticing, I took matters into my own 20 year old hands.
I ordered a Spaulding and Rogers make it yourself kit, and somehow built a running machine and managed to mangle up my own leg, plus a few shitty pieces on my sister and a couple of very forgiving friends and cousins.
LT: What happened after that?
Sara: I got a job in a shop in 2000, thinking I was getting a legit apprenticeship. However, the shop turned out to be run by a total scumbag, ex-con, paranoid, bipolar weirdo with a penchant for firearms and underage girls, and I left in late 2001 only to be arrested for stealing my very own gear. After several attempts to find another shop and threats from my former employer to sue me for breach of contract and breaking the non compete clause, I gave up and got a regular job.
LT: Bummer! But not too uncommon. Sounds like you’re the kind of gal who wouldn’t let this stop you…
Sara: I continued getting tattooed for the next few years,worked at Starbucks, started a punk band called the Purrs, and secretly hoped that the local cool guy shop I was totally stoked on would maybe give me another shot at a proper apprenticeship.
I got some really good tattoos there, and drew flash, and tried really hard to prove I would be a good investment. I didn’t realize that there was actually no way I was getting a job there, since I was pretty much just a local punk party girl, and made a total ass out of myself to the owner, ran my mouth about stuff I knew nothing about, drank, smoked and partied, etc.
LT: Well getting tattooed by respected artists is always a step in the right direction. So was there a moment that stands out when you knew you’d become a professional?
Sara: In 2006, in the wake of reality TV, I realized that if I wanted back into the business I had better get my shit together before the cat was completely out of the bag.
I took my shitty portfolio to a small, amateur run shop on a busy street, bullshitted my way in, and told myself if I didn’t get a job in a better shop in 6 months I would quit forever.
And here I am. I quit partying, started painting, and worked my ass off in the faces of everyone who had denied me opportunity. I was on a mission.
LT: Wow! We love a great story of triumph! Tell us more…
Sara: Before moving to Seattle, I actually got to work for a year in the very same shop where I got my first tattoo, and that experience of coming full circle was so amazing and humbling. I can’t thank Tee Jay enough for her support.
Now that I look back, that cool guy shop had every reason not to hire me. I was a hot mess. I’m actually super grateful that they gave me such a hard time, because I feel like I learned more by doing it alone. The fact that any of those guys even put up with me as a client and gave out even a little information is amazing to me, knowing what I know now. So…thanks dudes!
LT: Sounds like you had a lot of ups and downs but managed to collect a lot of good tattoos along the way…
Sara: Today, I have about 70 percent of my body tattooed, have gotten some really great pieces from some of my heroes, and work with the most amazing crew of tattooers anyone could imagine. Every day is an inspiration and an opportunity to learn and push myself to be better.
LT: Regarding your own tattoo style, do you have any preferences?
Sara: I do mostly traditional style tattoos, with my little bubble gummy touches, but I’m really interested in studying the Japanese style now, and finally feel like I have the right people around me to guide and critique me honestly, and tell me when I’m fucking everything up! I no longer feel like I’m stumbling around in the dark with no direction.
LT: Where do you draw inspiration for your current style?
Sara: Folk art and textiles. Knitting and crocheting. I love the 1920’s + 1930’s era of tattooing for it’s clunkiness. It’s a great reflection of the ties, style and fashion. Art deco, it’s simple and powerful.
LT: Which tattooers inspire you? Any Lady Tattooers in particular?
Sara: Some of the tattooers of today who’s work I see and just say “holy shit” are Steve Byrne, Josh Wright, Eric Saner, Shawn McDonald and John Rippey just to name a few. As far as the women go, there’s so many awesome lady tattooers right here in Seattle it’s kind of mind-blowing! My colleague Krysten Dae is amazing and Hanna Sandstrom, Amanda Toy and Claudia DeSabe are rad, to name a few
On a side note, I love how many power-house chicks there are right now who specialize in traditional-style tattooing. Not that there’s anything wrong other style like fine-line or realism but that seems to be what people expect women to do. I just love seeing solid traditional tattoos made by women — it’s powerful and awesome.
LT: Since you began your career before the social media boom, how has it affected you?
Sara: I did start in the days before social media, and sometimes it amazes me how small it can make the tattoo world, and also how quickly young tattooers are able to pick up the technical aspect of the craft. It’s so crazy to see 21 year old, 2 year tattooers who can tattoo circles around those of us who have been in the business for 10+ years! But, that being said, that’s how I believe the world works now. Bigger better faster more! And you can either accept it and do your best to keep up and give back to the craft, or you can sit around and whine and miss the old days and keep doing the same shit over and over. I choose to roll with the avalanche, or ride the wave, or whatever you want to call it.
LT: What do you do for fun besides tattooing?
Sara: Aside from tattooing, I love to knit and crochet. It’s such a great stress reliever and there’s the added bonus of creating cool clothes to wear!
LT: We here at LT love animals, how about you?
Sara: I love love love animals, my fiancé and I have 3 dogs and plan on adopting more someday. I also eat a vegan diet, and love cooking cruelty free comfort food.
LT: Sounds yummy and we support that! Any other fun facts we should know about you?
Sara: I’m an enthusiastic feminist too, and I encourage all ladies to go for it and do everything they tell you not to do! Ladies make bad ass tattooers, musicians, bikers, anything!
LT: If you could tattoo anyone past or present who would it be?
Sara: Cher! She’s one of my favorite people and not necessarily because of her music. More because she was the first badass women with tattoos that was a tough feminist, role model type for me.
LT: What’s your favorite tattoo on your body, who did it and why?
Sara: My favorite tattoo I wear was done by Matt Aeriola. It’s a giant black panther on my thigh that goes up onto my hip. It’s covering many many scribbly lines that I tattooed on myself before I was a professional. So, before getting tattooed by Matt, I had one laser treatment to lighten the area. The day I got the tattoo was the happiest of my life! In fact, I never used to wear shorts or short skirts between age 20-34 but ever since getting this tattoo I wear them all the time!
LT: We’re happy to hear you can let your legs be free! It’s wonderful when a tattoo can help transform your body confidence!
LT: Tell us about your best tattoo experience…
Sara: It was around 2007-2008, I got a large leopard design on my back by Dave Fox who was my tattoo-hero at that time. The tattoo took three sessions and he free-handed with sharpie which totally blew my mind! It was a really fun and pleasant experience. We talked about guitars and cats and he was just the coolest guy. He made me feel really comfortable.
LT: Fantastic! There’s nothing better than receiving an amazing piece of art by a really nice tattooer.
LT: We’d like to wrap this interview up with a note from your biggest take-away of the first year in the biz?
Sara: (laughs) It’s not exactly a positive thing but… I learned that tattooing is really hard and just because you can draw doesn’t mean you can tattoo nor does that earn any respect amongst well-renowned tattooers.
LT: Here at LadyTattooers we’ve noticed that the general consensus about learning to tattoo is that it takes countless hours of hard-work, dedication and determination. All things you’ve proved through your body of work. Thanks Sara, it’s been a pleasure!