Business: Captains Tattoo Company LTD.
Owner: Spencer Kymta
Location: Chilliwack, BC
Years operating: 10
What age did you get your first Tattoo, what and where is it?
I got my first tattoo when I was 12 years old, it was a Ramones band logo on my right shoulder-blade, about 3 inches x 3 inches. It hurt like hell, I don’t think I was ready for it at all but I wanted it bad enough and my parents were strange enough to give me permission.
What inspired you to become a tattoo artist?
I think the influences were scattered throughout my life, and I don’t think I knew the direction they were pushing me at the time. When I was a little kid, I had this uncle. Actually he was a great-uncle through marriage and he was a real Johnny Cash type, at least from my perspective. I remember his white beard and his full sleeves that looked like they were done in prison or some equivalent. I remember walking behind him when I was maybe 4 years old in a hardware store and gazing at his arm covered in pictures. I don’t think I understood what a tattoo was, and coming from a very Christian home environment nobody ever mentioned his tattoos or spoke about them. Anyways, this uncle of mine was different from everyone else in my extended family. More real. There was a day where I was skipping rocks at Cultus Lake around 10 years old, and a stranger hollered at me to stop throwing rocks in the lake. My Uncle Mart flew off the handle and told this guy to leave me alone. I guess he was a little rough around the edges but no one had ever stuck up for me like that before. I’ll never forget it. I think he was a really big influence on me.
What did the beginning of your career look like and did you envision it becoming what it is today?
The beginning of my career was a mess. I’m honestly stunned I lasted more than a few months. My early beginnings were as a self taught teenager with little knowledge and some type of eBay “beginners tattoo kit” as they called it. Tattooing out of my parents houses, or my friends houses. I tattooed in exchange for free rent for a while. I once tattooed for free pizza. You know, it was about surviving, not starting a career. I didn’t see it ever becoming what it is today, probably because I never chose this, I fell into it and stuck with it, and before I knew it there wasn’t anything else I could imagine doing with my time. Today I am a proud business owner. Next to my children, my tattoo shop is my greatest life achievement. For a high school drop out that nobody believed in to run a highly successful and growing business for over 10 years feels great.
The last year has brought some significant changes within your business. What inspired the change from being a solo working artist to running an apprenticeship program? What’s unique about your apprenticeship program? Do you have a favourite apprentice, or are apprentices like kids and you love them all equally? 😉
I ran my shop alone for 9 years. I was the only tattoo artist, the receptionist, the janitor, the book keeper… I suppose I built this company on nothing, and I’ve had a hard time trusting anyone else to have the same level of enthusiasm. Last year, actually a year ago today, I made a really big decision and hired 3 very talented artists to apprentice. The apprenticeship program is a project that meant a lot to me because although I have found a certain amount of success over the years, and my skills have advanced, I can’t help but think how many years I could have shaved off of those early days if I had been able to find someone willing to give me a shot and guide me. The tattoo industry is very tight lip and overly prestigious. Nobody likes the share information, and they like to shame anyone who is willing to share information. I guess it just feels really great to give back in some way by giving deserving hard working artists a chance to have a rewarding career. My program was unique because I took on three apprentices instead of one, kind of breaking the traditional mold of what an apprenticeship looks like. Theory being – group learning is more tactical in that it allows for more questions, more examples, it’s more motivating and appropriately competitive. I also let them practice tattooing from day one which was highly controversial as most apprenticeship involve being more of an intern for the first one or two years before ever picking up a tattoo machine. I received some nasty emails from other shops in my area when I started this program a year ago. Today I am very proud to say that it’s been a huge success and all three apprentices are still working under me and doing fantastic. Much much further along than I was even at 4 years.
Where is the most common place people get tattooed? Is there a basic tattoo, words or picture, that multiple people get?
Tattoo trends come and go, every year there’s a new trend. Usually the first few times it’s genuinely pretty cool and I’ll think it’s sweet, but then for the next 12 months 30% of your clients are looking for generally the same thing. Probably without even knowing how trendy that actually is. That’s the problem with the internet though, these days all of us find the same reference photos, the same tattoo photos, the internet is so much smaller than we give it credit for. Pinterest and Google images especially. If you’re looking for a unique tattoo idea, try to avoid both of these sources. Find some photographers websites, try finding artist portfolios, and shoot them an email asking permission to use their images. That little bit of respect and courtesy goes along way in today’s world.
Where is the most painful place to get tattooed? Is it common for people to get tattooed here, and what’s their facial expression during the process?
That honestly really varies from client to client. Women typically sit better than men, younger clients tend to sit better than older clients. It’s always a gamble though. Some times you anticipate a rough session and your client sits like a rock, then other times a session seems like it should be a breeze and you have a client that turns pale and starts passing out.
Do you prefer free handing or stencilling your artwork? Has the process of creating your art evolved over the years?
These days I do both for just about every session. Stencilling portions of a tattoo that will save time and make it easiest to apply detail more efficiently, while free handing parts that are necessary to help the tattoo fit the natural shape and contour of the clients body. I think it’s important to utilize both methods! My creative process evolves every day. I’m always looking for ways to become more efficient, while looking for ways to improve my abilities as well on a technical end.
Throughout the years of tattooing is there one piece that remains a favourite or special to you, and can you share what it was and why?
I did a portrait tattoo for my brother of our grandmothers face. She’s an outstanding woman, and a very big influence on me both as a person and as an artist. That tattoo will always be one of the most meaningful to me. Another very special tattoo for me, was tattooing Spider-Man on a good client of mine who had a meet and greet scheduled with Stan Lee. Stan was apparently told my client he was very impressed with my Spider-Man I had created, and signed his name next to the tattoo (Later that day we tattooed over the Sharpie to make the signature permanent). I grew up drawing Spider-Man every day – so hearing those words come out of Stan Lee’s mouth, even second hand via my client was career defining in some way! My favourite tattoo is usually a recent tattoo I did where I was able to surprise myself a little bit by how much detail I was able to fit into it. So there’s always a new favourite.
Would you say you have a specific style that you tattoo, or pieces you prefer to create? Are there any other artists that inspire your style?
It was really important to me to tattoo in all styles to expand my skill set, build my portfolio and my business… But after 10 years of tattooing professionally I decided to specialize in black and grey realism and portraits. That’s the style I’m most confident in, and the style that still brings me the most challenge simultaneously. I feel like it’s a style an artist can grow into for decades, creating a perfect individualized style. I love it. I’m very inspired by a handful of artists who like me, only tattoo black and grey ( sometimes realism, sometimes with a personalized illustrative edge). David Vega, Carlos Torres, James Spencer Briggs, Greg Nicholson to name a few… but it’s a long list.
What advice would you give to an individual wanting to pursue a career as a tattoo artist?
Make sure you’re committed (Kmyta’d), it’s a super challenging art form, and a very hard industry to tap into. It takes most new tattoo artists 3 – 7 years just to feel good about the work they’re creating, and another few I would say to find your style and comfort.
What’s the best thing about being a tattoo artist?
The people. It’s bitter sweet for me to say because I’m pretty introverted and a little anti-social, but I can’t believe the cool people I have met through tattooing. Everyone from different walks of life, different careers, living in different places, and you get hours and hours together to just open up and learn from each other. I think because of that tattooing has made me a better more well rounded person with extensive knowledge on things I would have never even heard about without this great job.
Considering you’re a very popular artist in Chilliwack and the surround area do you ever feel like you’re a local celebrity? How do you navigate your work life and personal life being in the public eye?
I may be one of the least social people I know, possibly because I socialize with customers for a living. So when I’m not at work, I try to live in a bit of a bubble. Chilliwack isn’t very big it’s true, and on an average day I run into 2 – 5 customers, of which I probably talk to 1 or 2, either at their place of work, or out walking or what have you. In many ways it’s nice, it’s extra helpful to know people when you need a hand, and I love to support other local businesses and business owners! I would never use the phrase local celebrity, but I think you stand out a little extra when you have head and neck tattoos.
You’ve recently started pursuing painting, what inspired this new medium and do you have any goals for this pursuit?
I got into tattooing to be an artist for a living. Tattooing is a great medium and has given me many opportunities in life, including the opportunity to paint, and have an audience interested in looking at my paintings. Looking ahead I just want to be able to paint as well as I can tattoo. I would love to make a living tattooing and painting 50/50. Painting allows me the opportunity to create art without a customer looking over my shoulder calling the shots, I can also paint at home with my children around me. Tattooing is definitely a tremendous passion of mine, and will always be there for me to make a living – painting for me is self exploration.
Looking ahead, do you have any goals for your business?
I want Captains Tattoo Company to one day have a legacy for unbeatable talent and innovation as Dutchman Tattoos, and John the Dutchman in Burnaby, BC have had for decades. I want to own a business that allows me to do what I do best, that is inviting to everyone, and a business that introduces new talent to the world, giving artists the opportunity to make a living working in the greatest industry on earth.
What do you fill your time with when you aren’t at the shop? What are your favourite places to visit in Chilliwack and the surrounding areas?
When I’m not tattooing, or riding motorcycles, I am raising my beautiful daughters. I have 3 daughters, and another due in two weeks from today. They are beautiful kids, with big personalities, and loads of imagination. They are wonderful, and exhausting, and challenging, and I love every second of it. They are my best friends. Sarah and I really like to get out and our favourite locally owned restaurant (my favourite anyways) in Chilliwack is Chilies on Yale road. Excellent Thai food, and Tina (the owner) is fantastic and pleasant to talk to!
I really want to thank Stade Magazine for the interview, I really appreciate the opportunity and the chance to answer some of these questions to anyone interested in learning more about the inner workings of a tattoo shop. Please check out my apprentices and I at @captainstattoocompany on Instagram, or myself at @kmytaart. You can also check out the shop’s website: captainstattoocompany.com
Photo credit: Carly Neuman @carlylouiseneuman