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Jake Steele | Tattoo Artist | Painter | World Traveller

My Tattoo Journey Chapter 2

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My Tattoo Journey Chapter 2

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     It was the summer of 2015. The tattoo shop I had been hanging out at all year had been condemned and torn down. There was yet another huge bump in the road, but I still followed my mentor Mike around to tattoo parties and spare rooms watching him do tattoos and meeting new people trying to get my name out there. In the process of learning Tattoos, I had been doing a lot of art shows in Pittsburgh, PA and doing masonry work for a local contractor with one of my cousins while I struggled to feed myself. 

     By the fall of 2015 I got a call back for a job being a painting instructor for one of those “paint and sip” companies. Mike and his business partner had agreed to sign another lease for a newly constructed building and doors opened up yet again for an opportunity to tattoo. Both of my opportunities were promising, but I realized soon I had to pick one and stick with it. The painting company kept delaying opening the business and the tattoo shop was a vacant space in the middle of nowhere. At this point I had quit masonry and was surviving off of the last 300$ cash I had to my name while I planted my ass in the tattoo shop and hit corporate trainings at night for my painting job without getting paid. I remember one day, I walked to the tattoo shop because one of the wheels fell off my beat up old Pontiac Grand Prix on the side of the highway. Mike gave me 20$ that day cause I couldn’t feed myself. 

     I learned two things that day: I needed to throw my pride to the window, and generosity is the most valuable asset in life and business. I went in the next day to the shop, a client walked in and wanted a small piece of lettering. I drew it up, tattooed it nice and clean, and made 60$. The cash was more than I made in an 8 hour shift at the warehouse and I just pulled that off in 30-mins. After that day, I never looked back. I formally resigned from the painting opportunity and made the shop my sanctuary. 

     I soon realized that the walk-in traffic was a rare thing in a private art gallery, and saw those types of clients few and far in between. I had to learn to market myself in a more efficient way to be able to grow as an artist, but I had to build a portfolio so people would take me seriously. I was in another tough spot, but I saw my potential and believed I could reach my goals. I had given everything I had to fuel this dream and was still in copious amounts of debt, being harassed by collection agencies, and verbally attacked at home daily while I tried to help raise my baby brother watching my parents battle over custody. 

     While being crushed by everyone else’s problems, I learned another valuable lesson: before I could help anyone else, I had to help myself. I was making enough money at the time to feed myself, pay the minimum balances on my debt, and get the cheapest health insurance I could find. I was hungry for growth. I was not mentally healthy enough for it though. 

     In the midst of this hurricane of family and financial crisis, I got to a point emotionally where I needed to seek help. I found a holistic counselor named Jim ( who is still a great friend of mine ) and began to investigate the roots of all my problems. I visited his office biweekly while grinding out my artwork for 100hrs/ week living in the studio and developing my tattoos and paintings. 

     As I painfully dug deep and developed myself, I started to experience exponential growth. All my hours of grinding were starting to show through. I was becoming well fed, well known, and mentally sound. 

     By the summer of 2016, I had saved up around 15 thousand dollars, bought a new car, settled portions of my debts, and built a large following in the Pittsburgh area. I was 25. The days of self-pity were well behind me as I started to get the travel bug to expand the reach of my business. 

     With my success up to that point, I definitely developed a lot of confidence that would eventually turn into a childish arrogance and an ego that would ultimately lead to a feud between the business owner and myself. 

     The week before Christmas of 2016, I was sent a text message to, “get out of the shop”, “I can’t take it anymore.” I was furious and shocked at the same time because I had a month long waiting list and there was a lot of money sitting on the table for the both of us. In retrospect, the petty bickering eventually built into a rage storm that destroyed the team and tarnished both of our reputations and cost the team a whole lot of money and a whole lot of unnecessary heartache. 

     Luckily, I had built report with one of the local legends, Jarrod Russell. I went to Jarrod and asked him for help, and he opened his doors and played mentor for me while I was struggling with the decision to leave the state of Pennsylvania. I stayed busy and started to develop an eye for realism and large scale work while I watched the man I had admired for years do his work. Jarrod opened my mind, built me up, and believe in me. He is one of my heroes and favorite artists to this day. He encouraged me to grow and travel. The shop, BlackStar Tattoo was my new home. It was my refuge once again while another sad chapter in my family’s life unfolded.

     Day in and day out I held the fort down at home and helped pay my Dad’s bills while I watched him fall further into his depression from the divorce of my mother. I lived in the attic working tirelessly on my paintings and drawings. 

     The situation was sad, but I had grown tough from my previous trials and I now had a name in the local scene, so I always had money. 

     I also started to party a little too much again to numb my pain. I began hiding behind my success to build my emotional wall. 

     I was hitting an art showcase or show every couple of nights with my crew and getting my artwork into every big name venue in the Pittsburgh area. I took the 15 thousand and started investing my money into lavish tattoo travel trips. In 2017, I funded my own tattoo tour to the Empire State Tattoo expo in Manhattan, the Golden State Tattoo expo in Pasadena, the Philadelphia Tattoo expo, the Dallas International Tattoo expo, and a month long stay in Los Angeles. While I was on the road, I landed an opportunity to come out to LA and work full time. 

     I proceeded to burn bridges in PA and run to LaLa land with a bag of pot, my tattoo stuff, a blanket, and a laundry basket with some old clothes in the trunk of my Honda Civic.  


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