Q&A: Eric Eye, Seattle Tattoo Artist Who Works With Cancer Survivors

Eric Eye of Dark Age Tattoo on Capitol Hill specializes in restorative tattooing and is sponsoring the Marks for Life charity event on Oct. 6
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THIS IS GOING TO HURT: Eric Eye has been doing tattoos for nearly 30 years. He says the most painful place to get one is “where the bone is close to the surface of the skin,” such as the ribcage, the hands and the feet. Photo by Hayley Young.

This article appears in print in the September 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Tattoo artist Eric Eye works at Dark Age Tattoo on Capitol Hill. While he still does conventional tattoo art, Eye specializes in restorative tattooing.

On October 6, Dark Age will sponsor Marks for Life, when all tattoos cost $50 and proceeds go to Northwest Hope & Healing, a nonprofit providing cash to breast and gynecological cancer patients at Swedish Cancer Institute.

Describe what it felt like to tattoo your first client. Terrifying.

Do you remember the first image you tattooed? It was the logo for the band Danzig — a skull. Classic ’90s.

Is tattooing different from drawing? Oh, yeah, because there are so many more variables. You’re working on a moving surface. You’re working on a curved surface. You’re worried about depth. Your canvas complains. Your canvas bleeds. You can’t see what you’re doing because of all the ink. … It’s an entirely different thing.

Have you ever made a mistake? You can’t ask me that! (Laughs.) It’s not so much mistakes as coming up with creative solutions to different problems. Like when a client’s body moves and you have to repair something as a result.

What percentage of your body is covered with tattoos? Probably around 50 percent. I still have a good amount of skin to cover.

Do you have any regrets about your own tattoos? I do regret covering up my first tattoo. It was bad, but I’d rather still have it because it was my first.

Have you ever talked someone out of getting a tattoo? Oh, yes. If somebody comes in with an idea that is just bad art, I won’t do it because I don’t want to make bad art and I don’t want them to have bad art. A lot of the job is saving people from themselves.

How do you handle it if somebody doesn’t like a tattoo? It’s crushing. And if it’s my fault and not a communication problem, I fix it. I want people to be happy.

When did you decide to be a tattoo artist? It was the late ’80s/early ’90s. I was a 20-year-old illustrator doing posters and cover art for local punk-rock bands when tattooing started to explode.

Do people get addicted to getting tattoos? There’s an old tattoo saying: “It’s a mile to your first one, a minute to your second one.” And that really holds true. Once you get that first one, you can’t stop thinking of images and it’s hard to reel yourself in. It’s a good thing they’re so expensive and so painful.

What is restorative tattooing? Restorative tattooing is not cosmetic tattooing — adding a pigment or accenting a feature. It’s recreating a missing feature in the anatomy in a three-dimensional way.

What was the impetus for wanting to do restorative tattooing? It never occurred to me that there was a need for it until I met my girlfriend, who had just gone through a double mastectomy followed by reconstruction, which involved getting her areolas and nipples tattooed on. When she described the process and the difference that it had made, I realized I was particularly suited for that type of work because I do realistic portraiture — skin tone and texture — which is a specialty within tattooing.

Your tagline is “artistry to take you beyond surgery.” What does that mean? That comes from my girlfriend describing how, when she had the nipples tattooed on, she no longer saw implanted lumps. She saw breasts.

Does doing a restorative tattoo feel different from doing an anchor or a heart wrapped in barbed wire? Definitely. With my restorative clients, I never want them to think about it as a tattoo. It’s part of their body. With my other clients, I want them to look at their tattoo constantly, show it to their friends and come back for more!

Do you work with the doctors of your clients? Not directly, but doctors and plastic surgeons from the Polyclinic and Swedish have been desperate for somebody who does restorative work locally, so they’re really excited about it and refer [patients] to me all the time.

How would you describe your relationship to money? Terrible. Art is always first for me and I am so lucky to have found a way to make a living from my art. I don’t take that for granted.

Is there anything you can’t live without? The internet! I love it! Everything’s there.

What piece of advice would you give to your younger self? Pay attention to time, how it flows, because you don’t get it back.

When do you know if something you’ve made is good? In the tattoo arena, it’s when a client is smiling ear to ear after we’re done. With a restorative client, it’s when they’re crying because that means I did my job well.

Is there a part of the creative process you like the best? Details. I obsess on little, tiny details.

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