Jon Highland has had a paintbrush in his hand as long as he can remember, but he never imagined that his canvas would change to skin and his medium to ink.
Now, 18 years after he opened 12 Monkeys Tattoo, Highland can’t imagine dedicating his time to anything else.
“Tattooing is a unique art in itself,” he said. “If a work speaks to you, even though it’s on skin, it’s art.”
Highland, who employs four tattoo artists in his downtown Tracy shop, has organized two art shows in recent years. For his latest, The Grind, he invited 35 artists from around the country to display artwork on skateboard decks.
Highland plans to host art shows every few months in an effort to try to plug unconventional art into Tracy’s art scene. The next 12 Monkeys art show is in late April.
Our Town: Why did you start to tattoo, and what’s kept you at it for more than 20 years
Highland: I’ve always painted or drawn whenever I could. My friends kept asking me to draw tattoos for them to go get done, and they’d never come back like I drew them. So I decided to try it. After my first few tattoos, I underwent classes to become a professional tattoo artist.
I can’t even picture myself doing any other job other than tattooing. I like to paint organic things, like trees and flowers, that has flow with the human body. You can draw a tattoo so it fits perfectly on a particular part of the body.
Also, I get to meet new people every day; hear their stories, their reasons for the tattoo and see different tastes.
OT: How have you seen the tattoo culture change since you started
Highland: It seems that people don’t put any value in their skin.
They just want to be covered as fast as they can — the more tattoos the better — not even caring what they are. People used to put more thought and meaning behind their artwork. It used to be counterculture, now it’s popular culture.
Also, there are too many unprofessional shops opening with owners and artists that just want to make money, not caring what or who they tattoo, and not respecting the artists who came before them, taught them and paved the way with hard work.
It’s a big responsibility to tattoo. So if you don’t take it seriously, you have no reason to be in this industry. We’d rather run a professional shop, sleep well at night and not make as much money.
OT: What advice do you have for a person who wants a tattoo
Highland: Shop around. Don’t go to the cheapest shop. You’re talking about your skin, and it is permanent. Look at books of actual tattoo pictures, talk to the artists, ask questions and don’t be shy. It’s important that you make the right decision
OT: Why is it so important to you to ensure your customer is well informed
Highland: There are no health regulations in California yet so a shop has to take it upon itself to be informed and do the right thing. At 12 Monkeys, we all have passed extensive (and ongoing) health and safety classes from the Alliance of Professional Tattooists and the Red Cross. We use disposable, single-use-only equipment at 12 Monkeys.
OT: How have reality shows like TLC’s “Miami Ink,” and A
E’s “Inked,” affected the tattoo culture
Highland: Unless they have been to tattoo shops, the general public only has the TV shows to base their opinion on, and that’s not a good thing. The shows portray all tattoo artists as wannabe rock stars who don’t care about there craft and just want to be rich and famous. That is not what a professional shop is like. We are serious about what we do.
OT: How many tattoos do you have Do you plan to get more
Highland: I don’t know how many. They all blend together now. As for more, if I have space I’ll tattoo it.
OT: What’s the most common tattoo you’re asked to draw
Highland: We see a lot of stars. But there is no easy tattoo. Every tattoo is a huge responsibility. I am responsible for putting something permanent on people’s body. We take every tattoo seriously — no matter if it’s a star or a huge, intricate design.
OT: What are the biggest challenges to owning your own business
Highland: Juggling my time is the hardest. I try to put my all into every tattoo, and at the same time run the day-to-day business stuff. Sometimes, I wish there were 26 hours in a day.
OT: What changes to do you foresee at 12 Monkeys
Highland: I’m hoping to do more conventions and more art shows in the future.
OT: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not hanging out at 12 Monkeys
Highland: I love to ride dirt bikes, camp, paint, draw, work in my backyard and read. If you know me at all, you know I’m always at work doing something for the shop. I love my job. Sometimes I can’t believe I tattoo for a living, and I thank all the people I’ve ever tattooed for keeping me working.
OT: You’ve organized two art shows. What do you hope to bring to the local art community
Highland: I’d like to see more diverse shows, and maybe bring music into some shows or live painting on the spot during the shows. It’d be great to see more local shops that would showcase local artists.
In the Spotlight is a weekly profile in Our Town. This week’s interviewer was reporter Danielle MacMurchy. To nominate someone to be In the Spotlight or to comment on this week’s column, call 830-4221, or firstname.lastname@example.org.