Cap Szumski—Timeless Tattoo
By Bob Baxter with photographs by Bernard Clark
Cap Szumski has been working out of the same location on Cheshire Bridge Road in Atlanta for over fourteen years. The opposite of the high-ceilinged, picture-book, turn-of-the-century setting of Johnny Hollywood's 13 Roses on Flat Shoals Avenue, Timeless Tattoo is built more on Cap's solid reputation than period architecture. But the bare-bones, functional ambiance of Cap's place suits his customers just fine. A mainstay on the convention scene for years, Cap's been around long enough to be considered "old guard," and his ingratiating manner and positive attitude have made him a respected and knowledgeable representative of the tattoo scene, past and present.
"I was working for Brian Everett for six years in Albuquerque," says Cap. "I tried to go back to the San Fernando Valley, where I was born, but after living in New Mexico I just couldn't bring myself to move back to Los Angeles. So, my ex-wife and I set out driving across country. We stopped here in Atlanta and hung out with Tony Olivas for a couple of weeks. I found that folks here always had time to hang out, even though they lived in a big city. It was exactly what I was looking for. I think there were six shops when I got here. There was Tony, of course, and Kevin Cronin, who was the big deal here then.
"Black-and-gray work was my strong suit back then. I always liked it and, of course, growing up in the San Fernando Valley, I'd see the beautiful stuff that Jack Rudy, Freddy Negrete and Mike Brown had done. All these guys were doing beautiful black-and-gray tattooing. I was always drawn to it, but, at first, I didn't have the access to how to go about it. All I knew was tattooists were using the single needle and small magnum shaders, which were kind of new. I learned with a flat doing Americana tattooing, traditional, bold lines with some shading and color. That's what I was doing. So it wasn't until I started working for Brain, who was hanging out with Jack, that I had access and got those million dollar questions answered.
"When I got to Atlanta, people were mostly doing traditional tattooing. There wasn't a lot of black-and-gray. Tony was the one who really introduced the realistic black-and-gray work to the area. So, when I moved here and set up shop, there were two of us. As for staff, Keet D'Arms and Alonzo Rodriguez were a couple of guys who went to art school in Albuquerque with my wife, Bethra. They moved here and worked the shop. But, in the beginning, it was just me. I had built enough of a reputation and had a bunch of stuff published in magazines, so I got pretty busy pretty quick. Although Keet remembers it differently, I recall that they were living in my basement. Since it was so slow, I was giving them a hundred bucks a week to stay, because they were going to move back to Albuquerque. Of course, those guys are good in their own right, but, at the time, they were brand-new to tattooing.
"The first guy who taught me was Mike Pike's dad, J.R. He ran a pretty loose shop. That was my only experience with anyone other than Brian, who ran things much tighter, a more comprehensive business. He credits Colonel Todd with that. He said Colonel Todd walked into his shop one day, when he was on Fort St. in Albuquerque, and he said, 'This could be a viable business if you get out of this area and open a nice shop somewhere else.'
"The National Tattoo Association was actually my first introduction to professionalism. There was an award ceremony and a banquet dinner, a meet-and-greet. From where I was coming from, that was a big deal. I thought, This could really be decent. I had always looked at tattooing as, 'Hey, this could be fun and easy.' I enjoyed it. I was tattooing at my kitchen table. Then one day in '86, Mike Pike came up to me and said, 'I heard that you're still tattooing. Out of your kitchen, right? And are you still charging thirty-five dollars an hour? You know we're charging a hundred now.'
"I always had a knack for drawing and replication. Portraiture and realism. A lot of it is replication. I didn't have any formal training. None at all. But, I worked with a lot of guys who had, and they showed me things. I really enjoy the people. I've always had a knack for it. And I really enjoy myself. I don't think there is a downside.
"I had some real definite ideas about the kind of clientele that I wanted to attract. I knew I wanted them to be a little bit older, a little more serious about what they wanted. The younger crowd was already being catered to in town, so I created a place where there wasn't blaring music. People could come in to talk quietly about what they wanted. We kind of filled a niche. It may be a bit slower recently, because of the economy, but most of the guys in my shop have developed a clientele over a long time. It's mainly the walk-in trade that has slowed down.
"In my experience, success in the tattoo industry comes in waves. It settles down and then it starts up again. This is probably the biggest wave we've seen. The guys who are serious and doing good work will continue to do all right, but the people who aren't that committed to it, they're going to drop off. Tattooing is an art and it's a craft. You can be a phenomenal artist and a crappy craftsman. I'm a professional tattooist. I usually do what a customer wants, except for faces, necks and hands. I'll usually question that stuff with clients. I'm not really big on tops of the hands, faces and necks, but I've made exceptions in every case. I had a guy come in today who wanted a portrait on his hand and I suggested against it. I told him, 'You may think that that's a great idea right now, but, later on, you might regret it.' I myself have had my hands tattooed since I was eighteen years old. But I had the tattoo partially removed on one hand, so that I could put on a long-sleeve shirt and not have my tattoos be the first thing people see. But tattooed faces are still ixnay. There are others around who will do it, but not me."
Keeping a business alive for going on fifteen years is not an easy thing to do. A successful tattoo artist like Cap has to be skilled, not only in tattooing, but also in operating a viable business. The number of shops in Atlanta, as everywhere, has multiplied, but Cap's place still ranks at the top both locally and nationally, due to the main guy, his work ethic and the unquestioned respect he has earned from his peers in the art and craft of tattooing.
2271 Cheshire Bridge Road
Atlanta, Georgia 303242
Phone: (404) 315-6900