Epidermis avant garde

PT tattoo studio a cultural destination

Posted 11/6/19

Getting inked with an original Clae Welch has become a rite of passage for some entire families, who make the trek to Port Townsend to offer up their epidermal canvasses to the world-renowned tattoo artist.

“Destination tattoo artists and tattoo shops are working well,” Welch said. “I think it is because I do put back into the art world. I am still trying to do the top quality that is on the cusp with everybody else.”

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Epidermis avant garde

PT tattoo studio a cultural destination


Getting inked with an original Clae Welch has become a rite of passage for some entire families, who make the trek to Port Townsend to offer up their epidermal canvasses to the world-renowned tattoo artist.

“Destination tattoo artists and tattoo shops are working well,” Welch said. “I think it is because I do put back into the art world. I am still trying to do the top quality that is on the cusp with everybody else.”

Welch has become an institution unto himself within the tattoo industry, racking up awards in North America and Europe.

The flesh-based art has drawn the attention of the Warfield family of Seattle, the members of which have spent many hours getting poked expertly by Welch’s steady needlework.

Johnnie Warfield is in the process of receiving a full sleeve tattoo which will include floral elements, a leopard, a gecko and even cacti.

The process is not for the faint of heart, as it will take many hours and several sessions to complete.

Laid out on a table this past week at Welch’s Port Townsend shop, Towns End, Johnnie Warfield maintained a zen-like state as Welch guided his custom tattoo gun along her arm, which was twitching from nerves during the process.

To those who have never received a tattoo, Welch described it as being scratched by a cat combined with an intense sunburn.

Since a full sleeve is not a one-and-done experience, it requires mental discipline to endure.

“I focus on the breathing,” Johnnie said. “Once you start, there is no going back. You are doing it now. It is worth it. When I wake up the next day it is still there. It is fun to look at.”

Johnnie’s brother came with her for her most recent session, sitting nearby to offer emotional support. He has been tattooed by Welch as has their mother, who received a large back piece and a full sleeve.

“I have tattooed people I met one day and later on I am tattooing their kids,” Welch said. “Now in some cases I have tattooed the whole family and will get messages on holidays. It is like I am included.”

As an artist, Welch said he is a people person, and derives joy from the social interactions he makes through the intimate process.

“It is a pleasure. It makes me feel really fulfilled to give to others and I do that on a daily basis with my art.”

In many ways, although the art will likely only be viewed for the lifetime of the wearer, it can provide more meaning than a painting hanging on the wall of a museum for hundreds of years, Welch said.

“You can do a tattoo on somebody and affect them to the core very personally, which is an incredible feat to do as an artist, or you can paint a painting that may last 1,000 years and hang on the wall and not affect many of the people that pass by it very much at all.”

Welch’s illustrative style is well-known in the industry, an achievement he said he has worked tirelessly to cultivate.

“It has become something where people look at a tattoo and they say, ‘That one is done by Clae Welch. I can tell by how bright the color is. I can tell by how the lines flow.’”

Now in the business for about 25 years, Welch has tattooed thousands of people.

“My reach, as you can imagine, after this many years is enormous. I have an enormous clientele and that is what made it possible for me to say, ‘Let me go do this in Port Townsend.’ I love that place. I feel the magic as everybody else does when they move here. It has provided for me and given me comfort and stability.”

Welch said it is the community support Port Townsend offers to artists he really appreciates.

“I walk down the street and everybody says ‘Hi’ to me. All day long the locals stop in and out. They just want to see what art is happening and what new tattoos are going on. They want to support this beautiful tattoo shop and my artists.”

Not one to rest on his laurels

Welch is at the top of his game in the tattoo industry, but never lets his collection of trophies and accolades sate his hunger to push to the next level, he said.

“When I look at my background, I realize I am standing up on a mountain of achievements in tattooing. I can pile up the book publications I am published in. I can line up a big pile of trophies — first place, best in shows. I can look at many different articles. I have been on TV and covered in magazines and newspapers.”

But behind the many public acknowledgements, Welch is essentially the same underneath it all, he said.

“I, in all truth, am still the same artist that has been producing and achieving this whole time, a working artist.”

Now, Welch hopes to achieve the master status of those who have mentored him.

“My mentors who in the industry of tattooing are at the top of their game,” he said. “They are older fellas who are amazing. I am 43 now. They are in their late 60s and 70s and I want to be at their level doing humongous Japanese body suits. I am already getting there.”

Urban and rural roots

Welch was born in California, and split his time living with his father in Alaska and with his mother in the San Francisco Bay area.

“It was really great for me to be raised that way because I had ultimate wilderness. We lived five miles out of Eagle River Valley. There was a glacier at one end we could see from the house. Now you can’t see it. It has receded 40 miles back. The opposite of that, I would go live with my mom and skateboard and go to punk shows, essentially just hang out with my gutter punk sister who was OG (original gangsta) as f***.”

While tooling around with his big sis, Welch took note of the tattoos the gutter punks were sporting in the early 1990s.

“I was pretty young, but I had always wanted to tattoo.”

Welch’s father was a Navy veteran who was often with a group of heavily tattooed bikers.

“When I was a kid, all the older guys would be hanging out with their motorcycles. There were a lot of bikers around. They would have me draw pictures of their Harleys.”

Welch would also draw them tattoos, he said.

“There were a lot of traditional military tattoos and stuff like that. A lot of them were in the Navy.”

When he was in California, he was exposed to the local art scene through his mother, who was involved in area art galleries.

“My mom had taught me to draw. It was a natural progression.”

On the streets of the big city, Welch took a liking to street graffiti.

“I started chasing art as a daily mission when I started doing graffiti. During the early 90s the graffiti boom had become enormous. California was completely painted. All the kids were doing that.”

Although getting caught in the act could have landed him in juvie, Welch said he had the full support of his mother.

“My mom, as an artist, would tell me it was the most avante-garde art form. Her meaning was kids would go out and paint a picture or their names on a wall just to have the other kids able to see it, just to have it be seen for a couple of weeks before it gets painted over while at the same time risking your freedom to do so. She was all about it.”

It wasn’t long before Welch made his way into a legendary tattoo parlor where he got poked for the first time in 1991.

Ink in his blood

Welch got his first tattoo when he was about 16 at Body Manipulations of San Francisco, an illegal feat he took great pride in achieving.

“It was a walk-up tattoo studio with these incredible tattooers there … all these guys that were in the magazines and really well known.”

Downstairs of the tattoo parlor was the piercing shop, which was a huge driver in pushing body piercing and body manipulation, Welch said.

“I am at that time just going around getting my septum pierced and collecting piercings. Then I finally get the nerve up and start sneaking upstairs to get in line at the tattoo shop. They hand me a file of Celtic stuff. Some of my friends were getting Celtic things. I found a Celtic piece I liked and went and handed it to them at the rail. They said, ‘OK. Just get in line. You are the next one.’

Welch said he didn’t say a word because he was worried the pitch of his voice was too high and would give him away.

“But I was 6’4” and had a little f***ing scruff on my chin. I could get away with it. I just quietly went and waited in line.”

Then it was his turn.

“They called me and for 90 bucks I went behind the rail, sat down, turned my back around and the guy stenciled me and tattooed me in 20 minutes.”

Welch said he was elated.

“I was buzzing, you can imagine, because I have pulled this off. All I remember is thinking to myself, ‘I can totally get the rest of my body tattooed.’ That is all I remembered. ‘This is doable. I can definitely handle this.’ That was it. That was the turning point. I was back in three weeks later ordering a half sleeve on my left arm of Celtic work.”

Chasing the dragon

By the time Welch was 18 he had already lived on his own for several years, having couch surfed for a time. He decided he wanted more than just getting tattoos, he wanted to be one of the masters giving them.

That led him to Original Smitty.

“He is down in Bremerton now, but we worked together in Alaska,” Welch said. “He is well known.”

Smitty is part of an unbroken knowledge line stretching back to Danny Danzl, founder of the Seattle Tattoo Emporium who got his start tattooing out of brothels in Portland, Oregon.

“Before that is Sailor Barney and these incredible tattooers from the East Coast that then reach over to Europe before that,” Welch said. “The knowledge line of what I ended up apprenticing into ends up being one of the most important traditional tattoo knowledge lines there could have been. When you talk about pedigree I landed myself in a really great knowledge line of tattooing and I have carried the torch.”

But it wasn’t easy being Smitty’s apprentice, Welch said.

“He was very loving to me, but required me to work 365 days a year. ‘Don’t get sick or you are fired.’”

Welch worked two jobs to support himself, as he did not make enough in the beginning as a tattoo artist to make ends meet.

“I worked pretty much full time at the tattoo studio. I also worked at an advertising company as a (graphic artist). It was in the early days of Adobe Illustrator and we drew products for the newspaper for sale for the local grocery store.”

Welch also worked in construction for his father.

“I did a lot of roofing,” Welch said. “I would go to the tattoo studio at 2 in the afternoon after being at work in the morning, tattoo all the way until midnight, close it down, sleep at the studio, wake up three hours later and get up on a roof, pick up an axe, and bust three feet of ice off a roof to tear the roof off.”

In the end, such sacrifices were well worth it, Welch said.

“My mentor made it evident that I needed to apply myself with all of my time to become a relevant tattoo artist. If you want to be relevant you have to be riding the cusp all the time. Somehow I wandered into a really popular industry. It is the best growing industry for artists who want to make a buck the day they go to work. You know what I mean? I am really lucky to have that.”

Continuing his studies

Nowadays, Welch spends time guest spotting in tattoo studios across the United States, in Europe and in Hawaii.

“I have worked with a lot of Polynesian tattooers,” he said. “Over in Hawaii we have a shop called Soul Signature. I work at that shop pretty often and they are part of (a) clan of Polynesian tattooers who have pretty much been looking out over tatau all the way back into recorded history, so one

single family line.”

Tatau is the Samoan word for “to strike,” and is the origination of the word tattoo,

The Polynesian tattooers have unofficially adopted Welch into their family, he said.

“Having a relationship to traditional tattooing and the iconography through the history of tattooers over the last 100 years is important to me, but ultimately the most important thing about the history of tattooing is it has been an interesting anthropological study for people in their autonomy. They are saying, ‘I am different from the rest.’”

Welch continues to perfect his craft, bringing home the knowledge he absorbs when in Europe and in Hawaii.

“Having the studio operating here and pushing forward and being able to jump out, gain more knowledge and inspiration and love of tattooing and bringing it back home to Port Townsend and pushing harder, that is what it is about. My whole life has been about inspiration.”

Ultimately, the art is for the people, Welch said.

“I help people gain that ownership of their own body where they may change it and do what they feel like they are on the inside and wear it on the outside.”

Towns End is located at 919 Washington St. in Port Townsend. For more information call 360-774-2450 or follow Welch (claewelch) on Instagram.


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