Houston Music

At Houston Tattoo Shops, "Nothing Gets Done Unless Music Is Playing"

Late last year, I asked my daughter what she wanted for Christmas and she said she wanted the entire family to get tattooed together.

It was so much easier when I could just buy her a Barbie dream house and be done with it; but, as she'd just left home to live on her own, how could I deny her? It was tougher to convince Mrs. Sendejas this was a fine idea, but was managed and so off we all went one Friday evening to get inked.

At nearly 50, I had no tattoos on my body until last month. I'd been in tattoo shops before, of course. One thing I appreciated about them was that they always had music going. I'd heard better music in some tattoo shops than I'd heard in bars or other music venues on occasion.

I researched how often music is a part of the tattoo studio experience. The closest thing I found to an answer was this note from a careers blog explaining what the work environment will be like should you choose to tattoo professionally.

"Music is playing more often than not," the blogger informed. "Heavy metal, hip-hop, reggae or almost any other type of music you can think of has been played in a tattoo studio."

It's easy to see why music and body art are natural mates. Like the ink, once music permeates its way into you, it's there forever. But if I was going to offer up my virgin skin to the invasive probing and lasting effects of the needle, I was going to need music to distract me.

I decided to check with some area shops to see what music they played, and its role in the whole process. At Virtue Tattoo in Stafford, it's clear the music is a mix designed with both customers and artists in mind.

"If the shop is open there is music on," says Virtue's Matt Burgdorf. "We listen to just about everything. From Beethoven to Buzzoven. Frank Zappa to Frank Sinatra."

"Yes, the music makes people feel more comfortable," adds Jay McCaslin. "Going into any place that is silent, or nothing but buzzing in the case of a tattoo shop, makes it seem a little scary."

I was pretty sure I wanted to pick a shop where the musical offerings were going to be indelibly etched in my memory. Though I had no tattoos of my own, I took my son to a shop for his first; not counting the many stick n' pokes he already had. When he was sitting in the chair, the shop played Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! in its entirety. That was nearly as cool as his tattoo, I always thought. And his tattoo was pretty damn cool.

"I still remember what was playing in the shop I got my first tattoo in, 20 years ago," says Stephanie Purnell, a tattoo artist and body piercer with Electric Chair Tattoo. "Music can help relax or provide distractions for someone getting a tattoo. And, most importantly, music is what puts an artist in their 'zone' to work."

Adriana Hernandez and her husband, Omar, run Los Muertos Tattoo Studio. Music is an integral part of their Nance Street shop. The staff has put together a list of genres and acts they favor, indicating the music is there more for the artists than the customers.

"Due to the size of the crew, our music varies," she says. "Anywhere from artists and bands like King Diamond, Butthole Surfers, Motorhead, Psycho Realm, Pink Floyd, UGK and, randomly, Los Tigres del Norte."

How important is the music at the shop?

"Nothing gets done unless music is playing," says Los Muertos' Javier Alvarez.

"Music is what keeps me in my zone and keeps me in my tattooing rhythm," adds co-owner Omar Hernandez.

"Straight good music, any genre, no bullshit," bottom-lines Freddy Guerrero.

At Electric Chair, the shop artists aren't building personalized playlists. Purnell says they simply dial up a diverse group of Internet radio stations.

"On any given day, you could hear a mix ranging from Leadbelly, Beastie Boys or Otis Redding to the Pixies or Sleigh Bells," she says.

Story continues on the next page.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.