TERRY TWEED INTERVIEW

with Bob Baxter

January 2002 issue of Skin and Ink Magazine.

For a couple weeks in June, I fulfilled a couple of personal goals and hopped in a car for an amazing road trip from the California-Oregon border all the way north to Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia. Basically, I was shooting pictures and interviewing artists I met along the way for a book I’m putting together for Schiffer Publishing called Tattoo Road Trip—The Pacific Northwest. So, for one, I got an opportunity to write a book about my travels, and, two, I got a chance meet some of the legendary tattoo artists that live in the Pacific Northwest; people like Pete Stevens, Vyvyn, Don Deaton, Dave Shore, Dave Lum, John the Dutchman and Krystyne Kolorful.

But, without a doubt, the name that generated the most excitement when I told people in the tattoo world that I was going to visit artists in the Pacific Northwest was Terry Tweed at Deluxe Tattoo in Portland. To say Terry Tweed is a legend is an understatement. Terry Tweed is not only the last of the gentlemen tattooers, he comes with an amazing lineage. While many artists built their reputations through their own devices, Terry Tweed worked alongside some of the greatest artists of the last 30 years. A list of shops he worked at is not only a trip down memory lane, but a solid list of nominees for the all-time tattoo hall of fame.

I dropped by Tweed’s meticulously detailed shop at about two in the afternoon. I sensed he was a little uncomfortable, not knowing what to expect from me. But we warmed up to each other in no time. I have applauded a few gorgeous shops on the road, but Terry Tweeds’ Deluxe Tattoo is in a class by itself. Situated in a completely tweaked and polished, free standing building, every room, every wall, every inch of floor space is ready for the white-glove test. Not only were the books in the bookcase neatly placed and sorted, the front edges were all perfectly aligned, edge to edge, binding to binding.

With his slicked-back hair, high-rise trousers and filterless cigarettes like they smoked in the ’50s, Tweed takes me back a couple of eras when men wore slicked-back hair, high-rise trousers and smoked filterless cigarettes. Terry Tweed is Tattoo Terry, the tattoo artist from a Dick Tracy comic strip. And, thanks to my friend Palmer Utterback, I got a chance to meet Terry on his home turf and talk about old times.

TERRY TWEED: Greg Irons, Henry Goldfield, Sailor Cam Cook, the late Tom Slick and Frank Fumano, we all worked together in San Francisco in 1981, ’82, just after I had moved down there after working for Tom in Portland. I used to live in San Francisco before, when I was on the other side of the dummy rail, you might say. I was working for Dean Dennis at the Barbary Coast, across from Henry’s place. Fumano was tattooing part-time; he was living down in San Mateo. Sailor Cam had just got out of the Navy and was an apprentice for Henry. And Greg Irons was working for Henry. Tom had come down to Portland just to visit.

BOB BAXTER: You stayed in San Francisco?

TT: No, that’s when I really started traveling around. I went to work for Mike Malone in Hawaii. I worked for Hanky Panky in Amsterdam after that, and then I worked for Mike Malone in Austin, Texas. I worked for Pete Stevens–actually I worked for J.D. Crowe. Whenever I see him I always call him Boss, because he’s one of the best bosses I ever worked for–without taking anything away from the other guys. He’s got the sense of proportion that makes it good for somebody like me to work for him.

BB: Yes, he’s a really good businessman. He’s able to look at businesses objectively and make money with them and not be full of tension, like a lot of other people because they don’t know what they’re doing.

TT: You really described it well. I’m always impressed by how calm he is in the midst of whatever craziness is surrounding him.

BB: What caused you to return to Portland?

TT: I returned to start Deluxe Tattoo by myself in 1989. I was going to run it as a single-person shop. It was up the street from here, about a mile up the road on Powell. I didn’t last a year there and felt the need to get back on the road. I just got itchy feet again, and Tom Slick took over the shop. I went to Europe a couple of times and worked in Amsterdam again and worked in Italy a while. Then I came back about ten years ago. Frank and Tom were working at the old Deluxe location. Then Frank left the shop, and Tom and I worked a short time there. Then Tom found this place here and we moved in. Then, after Tom died, his parents offered the shop to me, which was a big change to move out of a foot locker to being a member of the landed gentry. That was roughly eight years ago, and I’ve had the place ever since.

BB: What do you know about the history of Portland tattooing?

TT: It used to be more of a port city than it is now. It’s days as a port are really gone. During the heyday, Danny Danzel was here–to my knowledge, he worked down on West Brunside or very close to it. That was the old Barbary Coast area where all the sailors hung out. There used to be a saloon–it had the longest bar in the world. Danny Danzel was here, George Fosdick was here, and I think Fred Marquand was here. And, kind of later on, Max Pelz was here. Max Pelz did Tom’s first tattoo.

BB: How old where you when you started tattooing?

TT: I started in 1979. I would have been 32.

BB: Really. That’s starting rather late. And who gave you your first tattoo?

TT: I got my first tattoo from somebody at Pinky Yun’s in Hong Kong. That was just my “get it in the service” kind of tattoo.

BB: Did that first tattoo inspire you to become a tattoo artist?

TT: No, it didn’t. At the time I got that tattoo, I knew that I wanted one. I knew that I needed to have one, but even though I was fascinated by people who where heavily tattooed, I just didn’t think I was going to be one of those people. I was a draftsman. I ended up working a fair number of years for different telephone companies. I worked as a contractor and moved around a lot. The main thing was the moving. I’ve always liked to do that. I started getting tattooed by Pat Martynuik when he was working at Lyle Tuttle’s. He was kind of like my tattoo guy for quite a while.

BB: Where did you learn the designs? Did you learn by watching people tattoo you?

TT: Well, that was it. And when I started to get tattooed in the places I went, if it wasn’t on the wall, then I didn’t get it. I did definitely admire the West Coast style that was Bob Shaw and Sailor Jerry–I’m sure I’m omitting ten names–but there was a distinct way to do a tattoo eagle versus an oil-painting eagle. And that was great, and that’s what I wanted to get. That was when I was in high school, but in my adult life I always had drafting tools in my hands. When I started tattooing, it was pretty scary, because I didn’t have a T-square to put my fist against.

BB: What was the motivating force that caused you to begin tattooing if you had never done it before? Were you out of work and someone offered you a job?

TT: I had some health problems that were keeping me from doing the kind of work that I’d been doing. The work I had been doing involved a lot of walking and a bit of climbing in the air and down into underground stuff. But mostly walking. Walk, walk, walk, and I was starting to not be able to do that. I was getting tattooed in a little town east of here called Hood River. And the fellow that was tattooing me said he wanted to set up a shop, but he couldn’t afford it. Since I was a high-paid field engineer, he said, “You set me up, and, if you want to, I’ll teach you how to tattoo.” Because my career as a field draftsman was looking pretty iffy, I said, “Okay, let’s do that.” The first tattoo I ever did I put on a friend of mine on my birthday in 1979–that’s early in July. At the end of September, I put on the second tattoo I ever did, and got money for it. That was in a tattoo shop we built here called Rose City Tattoo. I was at Rose about one and a half years and then left there and went to work for Tom Slick at America Tattoo in Oregon City. I worked there for awhile, maybe about a year, then San Francisco and then back to Oregon again.

BB: You really like to move around.

TT: Yes, I did, and whenever I wanted to move to a new location, Tom Slick would let me work at one of his shops. He had three different American Tattoo locations in the Portland area. It was good. We both understood each other’s idiosyncrasies, which made for a great working relationship.

BB: When did you say you opened Deluxe?

TT: In 1989, up the street from here. It was a real small shop. I had visions of having a one-man shop, but I got itchy feet and started traveling around again. So Tom took it over. Basically, I traveled for three years. I worked for Hanky Panky in Amsterdam. Back and forth. I spent some time with Marco Pisa in Bologna, Italy. And then Tom died, and his shop was offered to me. I had to make a decision to buy the place or not. I guess I decided to take over the shop and settle down, because, after 20 years, what looked like an adventure now seemed to be a pain in the butt. The next thing I knew, it was ten years. I even had a ticket to Stuttgart when Tom died. That’s just how it worked out. But I have no regrets. Tattooing has been very good to me.

Terry Tweed is, to me, the essence of tattooing. His shop is a marvel, and his quirky idiosyncrasies harken back to a time when the thought of going to Tattoo Town had an air of mystery and danger. Walking into Tweed’s shop, there is definitely something going on at a different pace, a different point of reference. It’s the perfect tattoo parlor—a tattoo parlor not many of us have the focus and skill to duplicate. As far as Deluxe Tattoo is concerned, both the shop and owner are national treasures.

Courtesy Skin & Ink Magazine. Used with permission.

HOME