by Camilla H. Mortensen

L.A. Tattoo is located on eccentric Venice boardwalk in Los Angeles, California. The beach is lined with stores hawking wares from sunglasses to body piercing. L.A. Tattoo is no different. Some customers are attracted away from the sun and waves by the part of the store that sells t-shirts and toys, or their attention is caught by the bright sign proclaiming the tattoo shop within. Many other customers come because they have been recommended to the artists there. Upon entering, one is faced with white walls plastered with tattoo designs of all shapes and sizes. Ears are bombarded with music and the constant whir of the tattoo gun. Handmade signs proclaim prices and encourage tips: "Tipping is NOT a place in China."

Vince Wiener will tell you that in tattooing, as with anything else, you get what you pay for. A cheap tattoo looks exactly like a cheap tattoo. At L.A. Tattoo the prices start at a $100 an hour with a $40 minimum. Because Vince is an apprentice, he does not charge the people he works on. Instead he seeks to find people who want a free tattoo and are willing to be his guinea pigs. After all, he can't practice everything on his own body.

In fact, Vince has done a lot of his practicing on his own legs; they are splattered with tattoos. His arms are almost sleeved with brightly colored, elaborate designs. His nose is pierced, as is his chin. His ears are not only pierced, but the holes are stretched to permit large wooden plugs. The only undecorated part of his body is his bald head. He is six feet tall, athletic and eye-catching.

People often make comments about his looks within hearing range. Vince is gregarious and friendly, and uses these occurrences as opportunities to open peoples' minds: "What I try to do is give a person enough space so that they can ask me if they want. Then I can change how they feel about it. Then if I can do that with one person, they can tell someone else. Then I made a difference."

Tattooing, like many other folk arts, is learned mainly through apprenticeship. Vince already knew how to draw; now he wants to learn everything it takes to execute a good tattoo. Vince likes to call himself a "blue-collar artist." He uses this adjective because, as he explains it, no matter how good his work is, the fact that it is tattooing will always keep it out of the realm of fine art. Even worse is the fact that the average tattooist will probably never make a lot of money. Tattooing is an art, but it is also a job and aesthetic concerns are not only the choice of the artist but of the wearer as well.

As I watched Vince negotiate with a rather difficult customer, I began to realize that he was learning how to deal with a canvas that not only talks back, but argues, sweats and sometimes smells bad. Curious, I asked him what motivated him to become a body artist in the first place. "My background is weird, I don't even know how I ended up here. I was always kind of an artist, kind of different from everybody else. Gee, imagine that." he laughs. "I pierced my own ears when I was ten and I was always curious about not what it would feel like but what it would look and why, and then how."

A former ballet dancer, bartender and nursing school student, Vince's background is indeed "kind of weird." He grew up in Florida, where he met his wife Tasha. While in Florida he also started learning to tattoo but was not satisfied with the results. His interest in body art led him away from the humid beaches of Florida to the glittering heat of Los Angeles. His desire to learn to tattoo soon took him to the menagerie that is Venice Beach, where he now spends a couple of days a week creating art on living skin. Why does he do this? As he put it, "It's remarkable what you're willing to do for aesthetics."


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