Christian Townes was sweating a little in the tattoo chair—it had been almost 90 minutes that tattoo artist Adam Paterson was inking an elaborate blackwork grim reaper into his upper bicep.
Townes was getting his first tattoo at Jersey City Tattoo Company, Paterson’s studio on Newark Avenue. He says he picked the design simply because he liked it. Paterson praised his good taste.
“It’s a classic—reapers, jaguars, both classics,” says Paterson, who co-owns the company with fellow Jersey City resident Chuck Daly. “When I started out I was doing a reaper or a jaguar every week. You don’t see them so often now. It’s cool stuff.”
The tattoo gun’s whining stopped as Paterson dipped the tip into a tiny vial of black ink and it roared to life again as he added a flourish on the reaper’s scythe.
“It’s a powerful image,” Paterson says, not taking his eyes off Townes’ arm, deftly crafting a hair-thin line and then wiping away excess ink. “Death is always there so you’d better enjoy life.”
Paterson, 34, and Daly opened the studio in 2007. Paterson had been living in Brooklyn but wound up moving to Jersey City when he worked his first gig at another tattoo studio in Hudson County.
“I sort of found Nirvana here,” he says. “Jersey City is a great mixed bag—you’ve got the very affluent and the not-so affluent and I get a chance to see it all. I get hipsters and I get thugs. In some parts of New Jersey you’re just going to be tattooing soccer moms, and that’s cool and you can probably make a lot more money but this is what I like.”
One of the words you could use to describe Paterson is “clean cut,” despite the earrings in each ear and countless tattoos on his body. (Ask how many he has and he says, “At some point, you just want it to be one.”) He seems like the kind of guy who might apologize to a woman if someone else in the room swears.
Paterson’s average Joe vibe might be one of the reasons why people come to his shop—both first-timers and tattoo veterans.
“He’s really personable,” says Stephanie Caldwell, who has about 45 percent of her body tattooed, including an elaborate “sleeve” that Paterson crafted on her arm that depicts an octopus fighting a Samurai.
“He’s one of those guys who is breaking the stereotype that tattoos are only for those people on the fringes of society,” she says. “He totally listens to the person coming in. … He can custom draw anything. He has a great artistic mind.”
Paterson, 34, grew up in Maine, far from the urban hustle of a town like Jersey City.
“I was a latchkey kid, I spent a lot of time by myself. I don’t think we got cable until I was in 8th grade,” he says. “I was really into superhero comic books. I was always drawing and painting.”
He graduated from the Parson’s School of Design in 1996 with a degree in fine arts. Before he started tattooing, he worked in graphic design, but was unfulfilled. He had long nurtured a passion for his own tattoos. As he got more and more tattoos, he met other tattoo artists, worked odd jobs in tattoo shops, and started apprenticing.
Paterson says he sees tattooing as somewhere between fine art, craft, and folk art. And while he has a background in the arts, he says he doesn’t see himself as an artist as much as a “gun for hire.”
“Tattooing is not for me as an artist,” he says. “It’s for the other person. People are wearing these things so you have to be conscious of their needs. It’s not a piece of clay, it’s a human being. If you don’t make them happy, I don’t care if it’s the most beautiful thing in the world, it’s not a success.”
And although Paterson does mostly large-scale pieces and he’s particularly drawn to Japanese-style designs, he is just as happy to put that butterfly on your ankle or a Tweety Bird on your hip.
“You want a Tweety Bird and I’ll do the best Tweety Bird you’ve ever seen,” he says. “I’m happy to do it. I don’t think it’s lowering myself to do stuff like that, I think it’s great.”
Clients are drawn to tattoos to mark a special occasion, as a meaningful reminder of something, or simply because they like an image, Paterson says.
“For a lot of people the more tattoos you get, the more you want, and the more you want to think bigger,” he says. “For me I think it has something to do with it being a pretty big thing that you can have the final word on.”
“I’m far from finished,” he says. “I feel a responsibility to keep getting tattooed—you know— the whole thing about how you can’t trust a skinny chef, right?”—JCM Resources Body & Soul
286 First Street
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Jersey City Tattoo
253 Newark Avenue