Pop Culture

Bar Tats: Houston Bartenders Show Off Their Ink

Marla Martinez’s tattoos are mostly inspired by poems and lyrics.
Marla Martinez’s tattoos are mostly inspired by poems and lyrics. Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox

Back at Tales of the Cocktail in 2007, the largest spirits industry conference in the world, held each July in New Orleans, tattooed bartenders weren’t in the majority. I know this because I actually worked for the event that year and again in 2008, when the Sasha Petraske-driven Gatsby style had started infiltrating the booze scenes of New York City and San Francisco. By 2009 a noticeable jump in the Brooklynesque bartender, complete with tattoos, suspenders and funny mustaches, was taking over nationally. By 2012, even though the speakeasy look had primarily died out, Tales seemed more like a tattoo convention than an actual tattoo convention, and it has stayed that way ever since.

So it’s not just Houston, then, that has its fair share of tattooed bartenders, or chefs for that matter. When asked if he had suggestions for local bartenders with tats, Christopher Huang at Ninja Ramen joked, “It would be 25,000 images long. I’m pretty sure that non-tattooed bartenders only make up like 10 percent of us.” Three of his staff members, he noted, had just gotten new tattoos in the previous two weeks alone.

So why exactly has the service industry embraced tattoos seemingly more than any other occupational sector in America? It probably has a little bit to do with demographics. Back in 2010 a Pew poll revealed that 38 percent of Millennials (in this case, those born after 1980) had tattoos. That’s one in four people under the age of 36. That’s a lot of bartenders.

Tattoos have also become much more mainstream in the past decade, an occurrence that Hay Merchant manager Dusty Brittain pegs on the rise of reality television shows about the subject. “All of a sudden, everybody stopped giving me weird looks,” he jokes.

Plus, let’s not even talk about how many people gobble up tat pics on Instagram with the voracity of food-porn lovers. No surprise, then, that there are more than 1,200 tattoo studios in Texas, with 20 awesome ones making the Houston Press best list last year.

Perhaps, though, for bartenders, a carefree lifestyle and easy access to disposable income play a major factor in getting inked, along with a laid-back attitude among industry leaders and business that allows for freedom of expression when it comes to appearances. Or perhaps it’s just the fact that everybody knows that Dolly Parton secretly has a bunch of tattoos.

Whatever the case, bartenders these days walk around with some of the finest body art you can imagine. For the six Houston favorites we spoke with, their body art represents meaningful life moments, hobbies, good and bad memories, and, well, sometimes nothing at all.

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Sarah Ip, a bartender at Ninja Ramen, is known for her beautiful sleeve.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox

Sarah Ip, Ninja Ramen

“I’m actually really quiet and reserved, so this is just a gift for myself, to say that I’m also a baby badass,” Sarah Ip says. She was in nursing school before she found herself switching things up and jumping behind the bar — she’s been with Ninja Ramen for two years — and it’s a mind-set that carries over to her body art.

Having racked up more than 16 hours of ink at around $200 an hour, Ip’s $3,000-plus worth of tattoos are investment pieces. Beautiful, traditional Chinese renderings and watercolors splash across her upper arm in a bold statement. It’s one that her parents don’t yet know she’s making. “I think my mom might know,” she says. “But my dad is in China. He has no idea.”

She gets her work done at Assassin on Westheimer (behind Uchi) because she prefers that studio’s Chinese-style tattoos, which represent her heritage, featuring warm tones and a propensity for nature. Her arm is bedecked in a large peony, which in the Chinese tradition symbolizes loneliness or a longing for another half. Her koi fish represents a playful quality. She is also a fan of Steven Compton at Red Dagger.

Before getting a tattoo, Ip does extensive research on the Internet. She also follows Hong Kong and Korean artists on Instagram, noting how much easier it is to find great artists, though many have insane waiting lists.

“The Chinese artists are really expensive,” she explains, which she chocks up to a “gangster” stigma tattoos have in that country and an overwhelmingly conservative attitude, which she also found evident in the American medical field.

“Older doctors frown upon tattoos pretty heavily,” she says. “They won’t take you seriously if you have them.”

Such old-fashioned ideals can be a shame because tattoos are in their heyday artistically.

“Some people like to paint memories on their bodies.” Just make sure you choose wisely. Ip’s first tattoo was a Chinese symbol for her family name. Her boyfriend at the time got the complete instructions for making a folded paper airplane on his arm.

“We’re no longer together.”

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Josh Alden, head bartender at Worcester’s Annex, is relatively new to tattoos.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox

Josh Alden, Worcester’s Annex

While most people associate getting tattooed with being super-young, Josh Alden of Wooster’s actually didn’t get his first tattoo until three years ago at the age of 24. In fact, he’s just getting into ink, with just two high-quality pieces that represent his love of family.

His first tattoo?

“I got a matching one with my sister,” he says. An infinity sign plus one. It’s an inside reference from their childhood. Growing up they always joked, “I love you to infinity, but I’ll always be one higher than you.” He picked that one up at 713 Tattoo.

A bare-knuckle boxing bear tattoo also represents his willingness to fight for family, which will be an ongoing theme as Alden pursues more tattoos. Right now, he’s a big fan of Alex Cetina at Richmond Ave. Tattoo.

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Kristine Nguyen has two tattoos inspired by Bad News.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox
Kristine Nguyen, Captain Foxheart’s Bad News Bar & Spirit Lodge

Kristine Nguyen got her first tattoo, a large Betty Boop on her left upper arm, at 18 years old back in Washington, just to see what it felt like. Oh yeah, and she still happened to be in high school. Today she has 34 tattoos, including a series of insects, a lady spider, a lady bug and a “sexy cockroach” in fishnet stockings.

“That’s my Texas tattoo,” she says. She has a series of upcoming insects already planned based on renderings by a biologist who studied insects that mutated because of radiation at Chernobyl. For her, getting a tattoo is akin to a “spa day” and she admits they’re pretty addicting.

She also has two tattoos that are related to bartending, but far different from what you’d expect. One is of a fox wearing a cocktail scarf with a mouse in its jaw, an ode to a tiny mouse she accidentally stepped on and crushed to death one night behind the bar at Foxheart’s. The other, on the left side of her torso, is of a broken pour spout oozing blood, in memory of when she slipped and fell one night while bartending, landing on a pour spout that basically punctured her and left a huge scar.

Nguyen goes to Julian Issac at Houston Ink Society and Brandon Madrid of Richmond Ave. Tattoo for her ink, as her style leans more toward black and gray and traditional tattoos.

She recently had her sternum tattooed, which was her most painful go of it. “Usually you go numb after ten minutes, but this one, I felt the entire two and a half hours.”

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Hay Merchant’s Dusty Brittain started getting tattooed in the age of dirty looks.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox

Dusty Brittain, Hay Merchant

He grew up in Deer Park, idolizing rockers and guys with tats. He got tattooed at the age of 23, a 45-insert in honor of vinyl, and invested hours more in ink work in the days before tattoos were common enough not to have people staring. His parents gave him the ubiquitous “you’ll never be able to get a real job with those.” He didn’t want a real job. He knew early on that he would never thrive in a cubicle or office.

“I remember seeing Anthony [Calleo, now of Pi Pizza] around back then. I didn’t know him, but he had this sleeve of Nightmare Before Christmas. It was awesome.”

Brittain never got into fads. “No tribal.” He estimates having spent 100 hours and somewhere around $7,000 on tattoos — “they’re all kind of blending together now.” His favorite artists in town are Brett Osborne and Jared Green.

Now on the cusp of turning 36, Dusty notes that the bar industry does sort of allow people to act like rock stars even when they’re not rock stars. He has plenty of music-inspired tattoos anyways, a monkey-angel inspired by the Pixies’ “Monkey Gone To Heaven,” a heart-shaped box of the Nirvana nature and a box of rain in honor of the Grateful Dead. What he doesn’t really have are any pieces inspired by being a bartender.

“I have a hot dog, though.” As does his wife. They both have matching Wild Animals tattoos as well.

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Marla Martinez shows off her ink.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox
Marla Martinez, Etoile Cuisine et Bar

The way Marla Martinez was tattooed for the first time sounds like the opening to a horror film. She was just 16. “A friend of a friend asked if we wanted to get tattoos and was like, ‘I can do it at my house.’” So they did. She got a random written word tattooed on her inner lip.

While that’s basically every parent’s worst nightmare, her parents didn’t find out until two years later, when Martinez got her second tattoo, a pin-up girl on her shoulder. Turns out the inner lip didn’t hurt or swell and was completely concealable.

Today Martinez’s tattoos have much more meaning for her. “A lot of lyrics and poetry,” she says. A singer who was trained both classically and in jazz, she has lyrics by both the Doors and the Beatles. She has Harry Potter, and at least one bartender-themed tat — a shaker tin and a mixing spoon — and some ink tats “that are for the moment.”

“Some are ugly, but I don’t regret it,” Martinez says. Some aren’t painful, like the Ganesha on her rib cage, which she endured a portion of at a four-and-a-half-hour sitting.

Today she counts Mario Rodriguez at Houston Ink Society as her go-to tattoo artist. She doesn’t count her tattoos, but has “a bunch,” including realist and traditional styles.

“This industry is more accepting,” she says of bartending, though she has worked some jobs where she’s had to cover her tattoos. “My parents are becoming a little more accepting now too.” They just shrug when she gets a new tattoo, but they’ve laid off with the “are you done yet” questioning. Marla has a daughter, but won’t be allowing her to get a tattoo until she is 18.

“Unless she does it without me knowing.”

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Joseph Seahorn left the tattoo industry for the world of craft cocktails.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox
Joseph Seahorn, Wooster’s Garden

Not every bartender can say he or she has actually worked as a tattoo artist as well, but such is the case with Wooster Garden GM Joseph Seahorn. He apprenticed in a Dallas studio more than ten years ago, practicing on friends, grapefruits, honeydew melons and his own body — “You learn the limitations of where you can reach real quick” — before moving on to Gaslight Gallery (now closed) off Westheimer in Houston, where he was known for his clean lines and great work.

What got him into bartending was actually a gig he also had as a caterer. From there he picked up shifts as a bar back at House of Blues, and he has since entered the competitive world of craft cocktails. He’s seen both tattoo and cocktail conventions, including Tales, and does note some similarities in terms of atmosphere and camaraderie.

“I don’t think it’s surprising that tattoo artists love bars and bartenders love tattoo shops,” he says. “They both have sort of the same mystique. The histories have been romanticized.”

As he’s watched the idea of the “alternative” person with tattoos become more accepted by society, he still believes “there’s a huge responsibility for people with tattoos” to not act like degenerates. It’s a stigma, but “there’s always the people that are like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you’re such a nice, respectful person.’”

As for the occupations themselves, tattooing is far more intimate, he says, and bartending is more physically demanding, but both bring in about the same amount of money per hour.

While Seahorn has his share of wacky tattoos — a Rocky and Bullwinkle villain, Snidely Whiplash, for one — his tattoos carry a lot of meaning. His right arm is all about his mother, including a tattoo on his hand representing her battle against breast cancer (thankfully, she won). His left arm represents his father, including a sparrow on his right hand, which symbolizes following his heart.

He even had the chance to tattoo his own mother, who wanted a rose, reminiscent of Seahorn’s own first tattoo when he was 18. It was a heart with a rose on his shoulder, to represent his parents, that his mother was a tad shocked by at the time, having no idea her son would grow up to be a tattoo artist himself.
“She was like, ‘It’s so big,’ but it wasn’t anything at all.” Seahorn laughs. “Years later, I’m tattooing her and I’m like, I can’t believe this. I never thought my mom would get a tattoo.”

Turns out the trend is catching on.
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Gwendolyn Knapp is the food editor at the Houston Press. A sixth-generation Floridian, she is still torn as to whether she likes smoked fish dip or queso better.