Jay Wheeler

Jay Wheeler: When the community was smaller, it seemed more protective of its “secrets”.

Jay Wheeler Interview

  • First off, thanks for doing this. I remember, when I moved to the city in 1998 and started checking out the new style of more artistic tattoo art, you were in all the magazines. Guy Aitchison, Tom Renshaw, Eric Merrill, and a few others were blowing up all the magazines! Let’s start at the beginning, when did you start tattooing, and how long after that did you get into the magazines?

I was very fortunate to get published, and I am honored that you included me with Guy. He was a big inspiration that kept me going in those early years. Tom and I started about the same time. I started in ’92 and I believe he started in ’91. Tom and I both apprenticed under Terry “Tramp” Welker. I didn’t feel real comfortable with my stuff until around ’95. It was then that I started to travel and promote my work.

Jay Wheeler Tattoo
  • How old were you when you started tattooing?


  • Did you do anything job wise before that?

I was going to art school at Wayne State University, working on a degree in painting/drawing with a minor in art history. At the time I was working as a picture framer and was trying to get certified as a museum-quality picture framer.

  • That helps explain why your stuff was so much more realistic than everyone else’s at the time! Did you stay for a degree?

I didn’t. As soon as Tramp took me on as an apprentice I quit school. I regret it, looking back now.

  • Why do you harbor regret? I left art school early too. I moved to NYC, but with the goal of being a comic artist.

That would explain your killer illustrations!

  • Ha-touche. Thanks.

I harbor regret just because I didn’t get more info. I guess we can get all that now on Youtube.

  • My art teacher seemed to imply that I’d developed a style and learned technique, I just needed to go find work. That pushed me out of school early. But I feel I never stop learning! I check out new artists all the time.

Yeah, sometimes (most of the time) you just have to get out there and do it!

  • Unfortunately, many of the one’s would I consider great artists don’t make nearly what they deserve.

I agree with both points. As soon as you feel complacent its over.

  • Some artists seem to starve, or at least barely scrape by, plodding through their old age as art teachers. But let’s get back to you! How long did you do simpler, more flash-style tattoos before you moved on to your more realistic style?

Three years was about the time I started taking on bigger projects. But honestly, I never stopped taking on simple flash-style work. I believe that it is up to us to convey the collectors’ artistic goals. And… if it is some JD Crow flash, then that is fine with me. Luckily people let me do more advanced tattoos…. ha.

  • Do you still do flash to this day?

I have not done flash in a while. We don’t have any flash at our studio. But I wouldn’t have a problem with it if someone brought something in. They often do, in the form of google images, and other tattoo artists work, that I have to customize and redesign. I am sure you know what I am talking about. Lots of clock faces out there.

  • Haha yeah. It seems, even when most of my work is huge, someone always brings in that Instagram flash piece.

Ha. Oh yeah.

  • Back in those early days, was there a big market for your realism, and how was it taken by the rest of the tattoo community?

It was just getting started, at least around here anyway. Probably Tom did it more than me. People just didn’t know (at that time) that you could do something like a portrait. Once they saw a few examples, a lot of people got on board with it and I had a heavy of demand.

The community seemed okay with my work. I got quite a bit of support from more established artists, but there was that other side that felt threatened and did not want to share, converse, or support an upcoming tattoo artist.

  • The “that doesn’t look like a tattoo” crowd?

Yep. “That will fall out” or “You cant do that with a tattoo”.

  • Sounds familiar. I don’t know about you, but it seemed like I got a lot more drama back in the day, and most of that’s fallen away now.

I agree. When the community was smaller, it seemed more protective of its “secrets”.

  • Do you still do much of the same realism you did back in the late ’90s? Even then, I don’t know if that was primarily what you did, it was just in all of the magazines.

I do a lot of realism. Most of the body of my work is reproduction-based. Portraits, animals, etc… but I get some custom stuff in there too.

  • Has that changed over time? Like trend or clientele wise?

I think it has. My clientele is older now, and they want some kind of commemoration of a loved one, memory, or whatever. A piece that means something to them, rather than the kind of crazy, dynamic composition a younger client might want. Not that either is wrong, it just seems like the younger clients want something snazzy and the older clients want something classic. But both are good.

  • I feel like most people have their “15 minutes of fame”, where they are winning all the awards, in all the magazines, and are the talk of the town. I felt I had it, Paul Acker had it, Timmy B had it, and so on. The cycle never ends! Did you go through that?

I don’t know. When the Detroit black and gray artists started building up (Me, Tom, Bob, Marshal, Ron) it felt kind of like a force. I felt pretty cool to be part of this group. I think I have more ’15 minutes’ on deck, maybe there is more to come. We shall see, its not over yet.

  • Back then, it seemed great artists were the talk of the town for much longer! There are so many people in the game now, and the quality level has risen so dramatically, it’s ever harder for any one person to get noticed. Not too mention that social media changed the game dramatically.

Man, you are SO right on that. I get what you are saying. It is much harder to get noticed in this modern-day and age. All of a sudden artists with real talent realized they could make an honest living drawing pictures.

  • I remember, back in like 2006, I called up Donato Giancola, to buy some of his art prints. The contact number he had on his website turned out to be his home number in Brooklyn. We shot the shit for a little bit, he asked what I do, and when I told him I tattoo, he said “maybe I should try that”. Here was a world class, book and magazine cover artist and he was worried about making consistent money. How’s the shop going for you?

Ha, that sounds like an artist. As you said, so many wonderful artists don’t get the recognition that they deserve (and the pay check to go along with it).

  • Are you a shop owner now?

Yes, I own North Main Tattoo Studio with my partner Aaron Ruby, and the shop is great. We have a great crew of artists and everyone is booked out at least 6 months or so. It is a very slow paced-almost boring shop. But it is homey and full of talent, and that is what we wanted.

  • Nice. I remember, the first time I did the Motor City Expo, back in 2009 I think, I was a bit surprised at all the quality artists, considering how desolate some of Detroit is.

You should have saw Detroit in the ’80s. Lol

  • It was worse?

Ha, yes, quite a bit.

  • How was it such a hot bed of talent? I remember that Eternal was one of those “super shops”, like Darkside.

I don’t know, It was a super shop. Detroit has a great tattoo culture. I remember the first expo it took me nearly an hour to get to from my booth to the bathroom. It was jammed packed, shoulder to shoulder, for the whole floor.

  • Yeah, it feels like nothing beats those old shows. I remember there was a line around the door at the Roseland in NYC.

I was supposed to go to that, but never made it!

  • It seemed everyone attended! Joe Cappobianco, Fillip Leu, Paul Booth…

I don’t think we ever got Fillip in Detroit.

  • It seems they all went out to an after party too. I sound like an old man… So, do you travel much these days?

Ha… Back in my day Paul, Fil, and I had a drink. At one of the old conventions in Detroit, Guy invited me back to the room to smoke. Paul and a few others were there. I was so lit, that I just made an ass of myself. Oi….. to be young and stupid… Okay.. back to it.

I really only do the Motor City Tattoo Expo. I prefer to work out of my room at the studio, so Conventions don’t appeal to me that much anymore. I have not done a guest spot in a very long time. I don’t really travel anymore.

  • Do you have any travel goals inside or outside of tattooing?

Hmm, right now, not really. For the last 20 something years, I lived in a condo with very few responsibilities. A few years ago, I moved to the country and now live in a house that involves much more homeowner maintenance than I expected.

So most of my time off is spent working around the house. I will travel back to a German-speaking country eventually. I’ve been teaching myself the German language.

  • How’s that going for you? I lived in Germany when I was a little kid for 3 years. I know maybe 5 words.

I have resolved to take it more seriously this year. In the past, I really tried to treat it like a casual hobby. Sadly, you can’t learn a language as a casual hobby. I just didn’t want it to feel like work. I do really enjoy it. I worked under Mario Barth in Graz, Austria, back in the mid-’90s. Maybe that is my inspiration.

Jay Wheeler Tattoo
  • Yeah, I worked for Mario too. At one of his Jersey shops for like 7 months. He opens all his shops with a partner, and this relationship went south!

That sucks about the Mario experience. I have not spoken with him in like 15 years. Maybe 20.

Jay Wheeler Tattoo
  • So what else are you doing these days?

I am reconnecting with painting. Currently, I am in the middle of two owl paintings (I have a thing for owls). We are celebrating our 5 year anniversary the studio this year with a big show that involves all of our artists.

Jay Wheeler Tattoo

I’m preparing for that, and I hope to get a few drawings done as well. Besides that, I volunteer at a nature center every week and try to maintain some kind of workout program.

  • I find going for an hour bike ride before work enhances my mood, and it’s good for my MMA cardio! I worked with a guy that was almost bi-polar years ago, and you could tell if he went bike riding that morning by the tone of his mood

Very interesting.

  • Anyways, I know you have a family to get back to. Thanks again for taking the time to do this, and let’s get your social media links so people can find you!

I hate bike riding. That little seat sucks! But, any kind of fitness in the morning works for me. I wish I liked bikes.

  • Way better on the knees!

True. Ok. my media links are jaywheelerart on IG and, just jay wheeler on Facebook, and my main one is JAYWHEELER.COM. It was nice chatting. Hit me up if you are ever in Detroit.

  • Thanks, Jay.

Thank you for taking the time to talk. I look forward to seeing more of your books, illustrations, and of course tattoos. cheers.. over and out.

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