Flesh and Blood Podcast

Mark Barbera

November 09, 2022 HyperTattoo Season 1 Episode 6
Flesh and Blood Podcast
Mark Barbera
Show Notes Transcript

Mark Barbera, owner operator of Externus Tattoo joins Andrew and Michael to share details of his journey on the way to becoming an amazing addition to the vibrant tattoo scene in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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Michael:

So, where are you located, Mark?

Mark:

So I'm located in the south side of Pittsburgh. We have a studio on, uh, right off of the famous Carson Street right here in South Side. There's like 13 tattoo shops on this street. So it's a, it's a buzz in tattoo culture. So Mark, you just

Andrew:

opened your own studio. I didn't realize there were 13 other studios right around you. Were you just at one of those other ones? So

Mark:

I had worked at two other, Shops on this street. And then I was at another shop in, uh, another part of the city, and then, uh, this space became available. And so we moved back here and it, it's a private studio. It's just me tattooing, my girlfriend does microblading permanent makeup here. So we're not doing any competition with, uh, you know, the walk-in shops or anything like that. But it's just a, it's a really cool street. Lot of like, uh, you know, I, I did all my walk-in type of tattooing here, so it's a, it's good to be back. Let's start talking

Andrew:

about, uh, your journey to coming up to this point. I mean, you're a young dude, but when, when did you realize that you were an artist and when did you realize specifically that tattoo artist free could be an avenue that was open to

Mark:

up until a couple years, like a few years ago? I really never thought about tattooing, um, as a career. I had always been super artistic. My mom would tell me that like I. Just go through pages of sketchbooks when I was young, like five or six, just perfecting like, you know, I wanted to draw like an arm. I would draw like an arm like 10 times over on one page or whatever. So I did that and I was always really in art in school and, uh, leading up to high school I did like APR and stuff and so that was really fun. I don't know if I really had any kind of a style or anything, but, uh, I didn't really think about it as an option tattooing as an option until, you know, I was getting tattooed a lot myself. Mainly very traditional style and I had a lot of time on my hands. I was painting a lot of flash and yeah, so that's kind of where I, where I started building a portfolio, if you will, and that's how I got my apprenticeship.

Michael:

So when you say painting flash, what, what kind of

Mark:

medium? Yeah, so when you paint flash, it's typically, uh, traditional flash. It's usually called spit shading, which is kind, it's like a form of watercolor painting, but it's not like your typical wispy watercolor that you think it's, you use a very specific, uh, it's called Arches cold pressed paper, which is a really high quality watercolor paper. Usually used like a Dr. pH Martin. Inc. Which is like a variation of, I believe, an India Inc. Then you, you kinda make everything that you would see, you know, like hanging up on, you know, on a wall in a, in a traditional shop and you do it that way. So it's a really fun process. Uh, I would, at one point I was like so obsessed with it. This was personally, I had like just gotten out of a rehab and I was like, damn, I have like no other things going on in my life right now that are positive. So I. Make a point to start and like finish a, a flash like painting every day for like, probably, this was probably for like three months, so I had like a ton, probably like 15 or. 20 really, really nice ones, and probably like 45 other ones that I was just like messing around with whenever I like first talked to artists about an apprenticeship. So they, they appreciated that kind of style. It wasn't just like iPad work, it was like, you know, draw it out and then I would line it all with a paintbrush instead of like a marker. And, uh, yeah, it was really fun. You know,

Andrew:

that is a really interesting background that you came from painting and like using a brush in your style, because I could have put my finger on it, but your style is so unique and interesting and it's hard to kind of pin down from my perspective, but I'm not an expert. So can you tell us what do you think your style is and, and, and what, you know, what do you think informs your.

Mark:

I think I'm, I'm gravitating more and more towards elements of realism, but I, I also like to do a lot of my work with like, uh, with a liner. So, uh, a lot of my shading, I should say, with a liner. So it kind of just gets a different type of texture than your traditional super, super, uh, saturated mag shading in a, uh, in a, you know, a large scale realism piece. But yeah, moving more towards realism. I used to like be pretty heavy. I'd say black and gray, neo trad, which, you know, has more bold lines. But then again, like once I'm doing, when I do large scale work, if somebody like wants to sleeve, I usually tend to, rather than piecing it together with small pieces, I, I, I usually like to go with like more of a drawn on approach where we do really large scale like, Chris Anthems or PS with, with a lot of, utilizing a lot of negative space and like large fields of black. Um, I think that like, looks really, really rad and, uh, it, it's seen it done really well by some other artists that I look up to. So, yeah. Yeah,

Andrew:

there's this one ar arm sleeve that you have that specifically, there's a use of negative space where it's, you know, it's beautiful and illustrative and then there's like a moon or a sun sort of right here. I dunno if you remember that piece. And I, I have actually have that screenshotted in my favorites folder cuz I looked at that and I'm like, man, that takes a lot of, uh, cahones, let's say. Uh, or maybe just experience to be like, I'm not gonna put ink everywhere. And it's almost like draws your eye more to look at where there's, you know, not.

Mark:

Yeah, I'm, I'm really focusing on that more now. And the reason being, you know, traditionally if you have something where you're, you're heavy online work or heavy on, like, you know, for example, the other day I just did a tattooed a tree, and I don't really like tattooing trees as a subject matter. It, you know, rather than doing a tree that uh, you know, had all of its branches with that were done in just your standard black, like maybe with a liner. I just inverted the entire thing. So the only black was in the background and the actual tree was like in, in the foreground as just skin, skin gaps. And I think that will age better overall because it will look, you know, a little bit less messy and a little bit more recognizable. Um, so yeah, I really, really love messing with negative space. I think it's a cool technique and. I definitely wanna do that more, so. Very cool. Let me ask

Andrew:

you one other question about technique. I saw a post of yours recently that is, is a zes looking character with some, you know, squiggles across it. And I'm wondering, did you, did you do that or did you use, you know, a computer to, Do you ever use a computer to aid you in, in some of your design or what's your, what's your sort of, uh, process?

Mark:

I mean, honestly, everything right now is so iPad heavy, so like I still love getting down and grabbing out a piece of like just normal printer paper and sketching out a concept. If it's like a large scale piece, I might just really, really roughly sketch out a concept. But other than that, everything, like for the final line work for a stencil is gonna be pretty much done on an iPad. It's gonna be rendered on an iPad digitally. So right now too, like if somebody asked me to do, you know, anything that's short of like something that I could completely recreate in a neo trad style, a realistic neo trad style, I'm almost always gonna reference a photo and make the stencil based off of photograph. And so that's what happened with that zoo statue. I, I really liked. The statue itself. Uh, I want to do something a little bit different than just tattooing a statue. So I, uh, warped it. And this is a common thing that you see, like all over the place. People like, you know, multiplying eyes on, uh, you know, lady faces or what have you. But I think that's a really cool way to, for me personally, I'm really anal about like the anatomy of things being correct and the proportion being correct. So I love using photographs as reference, um, rather than like just, you know, drawings or what have you.

Andrew:

One of your recent posts is this spider that you know, goes up a hip. And now that I look at it with you talking about negative space, I'm like, Yeah, you're right. That is a, First of all, it's a big canvas, but there's, it's probably. 10% filled with ink and I didn't really see that before until you just explained that. And yeah, that will age a little better. Um, I, you know, I've got some quarter sleeves that are like super high saturation and people are like, Well, that's not gonna look good when you're, you know, 60, 70. I'm like, well, I don't know how much we'll look good at that age anyway. But yeah, I guess now I have something to have nightmares about , but, uh, that, that is a

Mark:

gorgeous piece. For what it's worth. I mean, I think that's a good point too. Like I, I want, I want my tattoos to look really good in like 10 years, but you know, realistically, You know, these tattoos, you're, everything expands, it changes your, your skin changes, you're aging, whatever. So like, there's a lot of factors to play, but, um, yeah, I mean that in those situations, those, to me, those are like super easy tattoos to do. Like, that was like a. Person came in, she's a friend of mine. She was like, Oh, I wanna do a spider. I was like, All right, cool. Like, that's something I probably would've drawn on. I didn't draw that on the whole thing, but I drew on parts of that. Like, that's, that's a simple concept that I wouldn't really have to think too much into. So if there is an opportunity for me to like, uh, you know, draw something that I'm gonna do that. But yeah, again, utilizing like large fields of ne negative space, it worked with what she had on her leg already. It didn't look like super disruptive, so I was like, cool to kind of roll with.

Michael:

What do you love to do? What, what's your favorite subject matter or piece to work

Mark:

on? I think right now I'm, it's, they're so different, but I'm between really large scale, kind of black work, simple organic, uh, subjects on like a whole sleeve. Or, uh, just because that's a journey and it's like, you know, multiple sessions and each session you're kind of, at least for me, I just draw a lot on and I'm just kinda adding as we go. And then the second is a totally different ball game, but like miniature portraits, I think they're really, really fun. Uh, I can spend like literally the same amount of. On a, on a miniature portrait as like a, you know, a four hour session on an arm sleeve that's just super heavy black work and get the same amount of like done, which is something I have to explain to people. Like, if you want this really crazy, granular detail that looks super real in a, you know, five inch tall portrait, it's gonna take a ton of time. It's not something that you can just rush. And in that same amount of time, I might be able to pull out a liner and a, and a huge 23 mag and do like literally half of your arm with black work. So it's, it's crazy. But those are like my two favorite concentrations right now.

Michael:

Are the mini portraits new for you? Cuz I, I'm looking at Instagram and, and noticing that there's more in the recent. History.

Mark:

I think I did my first portrait literally like seven months ago. Like I never, never messed with that before. The Mac Miller portrait that a lot of people liked that had like an orange outline. That was just a new concept that I was trying to do. And that was like the first time I had ever really done like a, tried to do a portrait and I did it a little bit more like illustrative. It's not super realistic in the way that it was like shaded, but I had a lot of fun with that. And so I'm, I've been doing different variations of that kinda style ever since. Let's talk a

Michael:

little bit about some of the challenges early on. Um, you mentioned recovery, by the way, Uh mm-hmm. , you and I share that journey, but talk about some of the tougher times that you had getting into the business. Do you have any like notable, memorable, like even from a negative perspective, memorable tattoos that that just didn't turn

Mark:

out? Oh yeah. I mean, that's, everybody's gonna have their tattoos that they're not like proud of. I was really lucky though. I had a really unconventional path, by the way, like getting into tattooing. Uh, I had an apprenticeship, but it really only lasted for like five months. Um, and they were with like real, it, it was an apprenticeship with a, a couple who are really, really high level tattooers, phenomenal artists, but they just decided they, they had a private studio. They just kind of didn't wanna. Continue the apprenticeship. They just wanted to keep it, the two of them. So I respected it. Uh, at that point I had been driving like an hour each way for this apprenticeship. It was like during the very beginning of Covid actually. And uh, so I was like, you know, I didn't, I didn't really know what to do next and I wanted to tattoo more. At that point in my apprenticeship, I was tattooing like piggy ears. So I was kind of comfortable with actually laying down some mink at very, very baby steps. But they had told me something that stuck with me, like, if you wanna. Practice. Pick one friend who you're willing to like fuck up who they're okay with. Getting messed up so that down the road you don't have like 20 people who are like, Oh, this is one of your first tattoos and you're super embarrassed by it. You know? And I think that's something I share, I've told with like told a lot of people too who are getting a tattoo in. Cause that's important. I had my best friend. RJ from back home, and I don't think they're bad tattoos, honestly. They're not like horrible. Uh, they were just, I, I played it really safe. Like I didn't do tattoos that I didn't feel comfortable doing. So like I said, I started out with super traditional stuff and I tattooed myself with super traditional stuff, you know, I dice and shit. And uh, it just kind of got my bearings. And then also the learning curve too is definitely a lot easier right now. Like I started. My mentors were like, Yeah, honestly, like if you wanna learn about coil machines, you can do that on your own time. And I was like, What? Cause I wanted to, I was, I wanted to be in traditional tattooing, but everything's so like, you know, rotary pen focus now. So. It's just a lot easier to use those machines. It's, it's you, There's really no learning curve. You don't have to tune anything. It's ready to rock and roll. But yeah, sure. I had some really, some really funny tattoos. Ones that I didn't love. I worked at a walkin shop for a while, super poppin walkin shop where we might have like, I don't know, I might do in one day, I would probably do like 10 walk-in tattoos in a day. The shot. Mm-hmm. . So anytime you're dealing with that, there were definitely some. Black widows fighters on the side of the face, tattoos. That might not have been a good decision. , like stuff like that. But, uh, yeah, man. But yeah, I think the biggest challenge was just that transition from when I got the news and my apprenticeship wasn't really gonna like be completed. So it was a, it was a negative cause I didn't know what to do, but it was also a huge positive because I was able, Here in pa, we don't have a ton of really any legislation on tattooing, so I didn't have to have a two year sign off from a mentor. Be able to start a professional tattooing career. So I actually was able to start tattooing people and, and pocketing a much larger percentage than I would have if I would've stayed on as an apprentice. So that was really nice. Uh, so what I did was I ended up, uh, tattooing in my hometown. There was a new shop that just opened up. Uh, the owner's a good friend of mine. He was a newer tattooer, so we were there for a little while and then I moved down to Pittsburgh and I, I bounced from shops, uh, like really quickly. If I didn't like it, I just, I just kind of dipped out and it wasn't anything personal. It. You know, trying to be at the best position for myself, the best place for my clients. So the first one was a street shop. Lots of wild stuff happened there. I mean, I had to like physically remove a, a guy there. He shattered our window. It was crazy, man. This was like a really rowdy street shop. I left there and then I went to a, a studio. Got a bunch of artists. The, the owner is another phenomenal award-winning artist. And it was good. But, you know, I just, I didn't, I didn't really vibe with just sort of a, i, I don't wanna be an employee, right? Like, I'm a private contractor, so I just wanna do my own thing. And so I moved to another studio in a more chill part of the city. Uh, and that's the first time I like really got along with my coworker. And one of my best friends, uh, Eric Ryan tattoos on Instagram, He owns that studio, but he just moved to Denver. So right before he moved I was like, Hey, this space is open now let's move. So now I have my own spot. He's in Denver and everything kind of worked out really well. I

Andrew:

wanna ask you about your future, but before I do that, just wanna go over two quick things. One is tell us the order of operations for someone that is a, a young version of you, like a 10 year old or something version of you that's out there right now that, that might become a tattoo artist. What is the order of operations in terms of starting to tattoo? Is it yourself and then pig years, and then rj or what, what, what's the, uh, And I didn't even know pig years was a thing. Can you tell us more about.

Mark:

Sure. So the first, the first thing that I do, I don't have an apprentice yet. I mean, I, I don't know if I will, uh, for a while, but, uh, I heard this is pretty standard practice. Typically, you have the apprentice starting out, drawing on paper. Like on a light box old school show that they have stability that they can trace and all that stuff. Then, uh, for me they were like, Okay, you, you prove yourself there with these paintings and stuff. Let's bring you onto the iPad. So then I was designing on the iPad, and then what's cool is you can go straight from the iPad. And you can start stenciling on pig ears. Pig uh, skin is the closest to human skin, so you get a feedback when you're tattooing it. It's very similar to human skin. You can see when there's a blowout, which is not really common whenever you're using like the fake rubber skin. It's not good for that. So you can actually see when you're tattooing pig skin, like, you know, where you've like, definitely penetrated too deep and it would, it would be a blowout or, you know, you, you haven't saturated the lines enough or whatever. So, Yeah, whenever I, they started me tattooing, it was right onto pig ears. I did like three or four of those and we would literally get them from the butcher shop and, uh, they were free cuz they would've just been thrown away. And you'd shave 'em and you'd handle everything exactly like it was a tattoo. You know, the sterilization, the setup, the cross contamination was all the same as if you had a client, but they were just a big year. And then once the apprenticeship was over, I tattooed myself, which is kind of standard practice tattoo yourself first. Um, I think that's kind of a thing that it would've happened that way if I would've stayed in the apprenticeship and then I tattooed my best friend. And that would've been the same also, if I would've been in the apprenticeship, I would've tattooed my best friend first, probably a few times with my, you know, my mentors watching on. Um, so yeah, that's, that's how it all went down.

Andrew:

Gotcha. But specifically, I'm not gonna go to PetSmart to get my pigs ears. You gotta go to the local butcher. Stay organic.

Mark:

Yeah, I mean, yeah, you just gotta go to the butcher. I, yeah, I don't even know where else you could get, get figures, but they're, they're pretty gnarly. You gotta like, uh, I don't know. We had 'em in the fridge and one of 'em got moldy. It was kind of gross, man. Not gonna lie, but, uh, but it, it was, uh, it was cool. I still have the pictures and stuff of those first figures and I, I. It was really an awesome experience, honestly. So,

Andrew:

uh, you just opened your own studio. That's extremely exciting. What is it that you want people to feel when they, when they come into your studio, uh, and is it pronounced ex sternness?

Mark:

Yeah. Ex sternness. Yeah. Well, first of all, the, the name, a lot of people are like, What does that mean? So I, I did like a super simple Google pronoun search, and it was like ex sternness means of, or on the outside of the body in Latin. So it's very appropriate. It's tattooing, I thought. But when people come in, you know, it's a, it's an employment only situation. I'm not like super expensive, but I'm not super cheap. And so I want people to like just come in and feel really welcome and feel really chill. Like we have a, a love sack right here where you can just plop down and hang out while we're getting everything set up, really, uh, open and airy. It's a lot of natural light. So I, I don't know. I just don't want, I don't, I didn't want people to feel intimidated or, uh, you know, kinda. Kind of push aside in any type of a way. I've, I've worked in super traditional shops where you walk in and, you know, I, I've always thought as a 14 year old or you know, 15 year old girl, you walk in with your 20 year old sister and she's about to ask for an infinity sign, and you, you see the horror in their face as they step into a shop from like excitement. Oh my God. Cuz there's death metal playing, which is cool. I love death metal, but there's death metal playing and the guy that approaches them is like, What do you want? It's like, it's just really weird. I, I remember when I first started getting tattooed, I was like, Nobody's telling me how this works, you know? So I just want it to be a really open space where they can ask any questions, you know, and just like, not feel like dumb about, you know, any, not knowing something or whatever. So just really welcoming, uh, kind. Plain and simple, not one style or the other. And that's what we did. Just really simple, simple modern decor. And that's, that's kind of, uh, what we have rocking. It looks

Andrew:

beautiful for the people out there, you know, that are wondering about how the industry works. I'm curious about the, you you mentioned splitting of revenue. I assume that when your apprentice, you get probably 50% of your revenue or something like that, and then it kind of hopefully increases over time until you own a studio. But maybe you give us like the, the high level on that and how that.

Mark:

This is a really interesting point too, because like I have, uh, a little bit of a business background before this, so I was kind shocked to learn like how this all worked. But usually, you know, you might earn as low as 40% of your, your first walk-in tattoos as an apprentice. Um, so like, you're literally, like, you always have to have another job to, to survive as an apprentice and then as you go along, Typically, the best percentage you're gonna find in a shop is like 70%. So that means of your daily tattoo earnings, you're giving 30% to the shop, excluding tips. Or the alternative now is someplace to just have a flat booth fee per month, which typically, if you're a prolific tattooer, that that works out better in your favor. Like for me, I was, I was at the shop, the last shop that I worked at. On this street I was paying out 3,600 a month in rent. So, and that's for like a 10 by 10 booth. And I was like, Nope. What the hell? You know what I mean? Like this is stupid. I could literally go get my own commercial property and have my own shop. So for less so that's just what I did. And that's what you're seeing a lot now I think is like back in the day it was, I wanna go to X shop cuz that's where the good work is. And now it's like, I want to go to X person. Mm-hmm. , I don't care where they are. So I've had. I have so many clients who have followed me to these four shops, and I always thought like, Man, I'm gonna look stupid, but like, they don't care. You know what I mean? Like if the work's the same. So a lot of people are opening up their own private studios. It's not a bad thing, it's not bashing the old industry. I, I love, you know, good walk-in shop. I've covered in traditional tattoos. But yeah, it just works out better that way. Um, as if you have that type of appointment only business to have your own studio, I think. Where do you get

Michael:

your new customers? Is it word of mouth? Are you doing any kind of

Mark:

advertising? Um, yeah, so it's a lot. Word of mouth is still really strong. Um, but it's, I mean, Instagram is huge. I don't really do as many paid ads on Instagram as I used to. But, uh, like, like I said, I have a, I had a business that was retail, uh, online retail sales. So I just kind of plugged that same formula into tattooing. It's really simple, uh, you know, boost sync posts, you know, geographically and, you know, setting the interests, uh, accordingly. And that's really all I did. And Instagram is huge. Still is big, but then there's also really cool things like I'm sponsoring. A fighter coming up in December, on December 9th. A client of mine, he's, he's really awesome. He's number nine in Bellator MMA right now. Um, and he's fighting, uh, so I'll be sponsoring his fight. And that's like another little way. Um, I've opened up a lot of clients from that because they saw Cody law got tattooed and they're like, Man, if he has the tattoos, and he's like, the. We should go to him. So like I have a lot of people from that little corner of the world, which is awesome. So word of mouth is still like really, really strong. For sure.

Michael:

What kinda advice would you have for somebody that's thinking about getting a tattoo from you? What would you say to them if they, if they were to walk

Mark:

in today? Sure. That's a good question. I would actually say it's a marathon. It's not a sprint. A lot of people, they get a tattoo or they're looking for a tattoo and then they just wanna. Rush through and get a bunch more tattoos. And I think, I don't think everything has to have meaning in tattoos at all, but I do think that coming in, uh, with a few really good reference pictures and uh, a pretty solid understanding of what you want is really important because as an artist, as a custom artist, personally, I am not the type of, I'm not the artist for you to just come in and be. Do whatever you want. It's not really what I do. Like I need to be put pointed in a direction in most cases. Right? Unless you're like, totally okay with me. Just blasting a huge flower on your arm, , you know? Um, so having that kind of prepared, uh, is really important. And, and I think that's also important because like what you get on your forearm might determine what you're gonna. Stylistically on your shoulder or whatever. So that's what I meant by like, just try to think things through a little bit, because these are permanent decisions. So it really sucks when somebody like, just like myself, you know, like you just bounce around, you get a bunch of bullshit tattoos and you're like, Five years down the, you know, and you're like, Come on man, why did I do that? So do some research, man. Find, find the artist that's best for you. And I'm totally not one of those guys that's like, Man, come to me. Like, dude, there's a million awesome tattoo artists out there. There's so many cool artists in this city that I respect, that I send people to. So find a style you want, style that you want, you know, And then move from that. Let that determine the actual subject matter that you're gonna get tattooed. Yeah. I.

Andrew:

You mentioned something about, uh, Pittsburgh, and there's so many artists in that block. The way I I think about cities for tattooing is probably not correct now that I think about it, which is like how popular it is, uh, in each city or how many artists are in each city. Do different cities have different reputations or like what, you know, what is the, what is the identity of Pittsburgh? Is, is it a tattoo city or, you know, let me tell us about other, other cities that you think, uh, are.

Mark:

Uh, yeah, I think, you know, I haven't been everywhere, but I've been able to tattoo in Portland, Nashville, Denver, some other spots, like some other really cool cities. But I think that Pittsburgh has a reputation for sure, um, for kind of old school, really solid, traditional tattooing that's like, just runs deep in Pittsburgh. And you know, just given the amount of clients that I have driving. All through Ohio and Maryland and even New York and uh, other parts of PA to Pittsburgh to get tattooed. It kind of just proves that. So I think Pittsburgh's like a really big tattoo city when I'm coming to learn for the size of the city. It's just, uh, you know, tattoos are, are everywhere here. So you've

Michael:

got a really great setup. You've got a great head on your shoulders. It sounds like you've got a good business sense and you're doing great today. What's next for you? What do you see in the future for yourself?

Mark:

You know, I, I, I love tattooing right now. I'm so obsessed with tattooing. Like I said, I'm, Yeah, I, I have an addict mentality, so like I just get super into something and I just run a thousand miles an hour at it. So I do have to control, like I have set, cut back a little bit just because I, I wanna avoid burnout, which is inevitable for most tattoo artists. I really want to create, uh, I do, I do wanna have a couple other artists in here at some point. Uh, eventually I have absolutely no pressure to bring anyone in who I'm not super stoked on, who's literally not like more talented than me. That's kinda what I, I'm like, I just want somebody who's gonna really impress me. I can work with, So that's, that's one thing. I want to grow the shop. Um, we're gonna be having merchandise with the shop, so I wanna kind of build that out as a brand as well. And yeah, we'll just kind of see how things go. I never knew that tattoo could be so lucrative, um, and so enjoyable and so flexible for like my schedule. So it's literally like a dream job for sure.