Simi Valley , California
Danielle Oberosler—The Tattoo Room
By Bob Baxter with photographs by Bernard Clark
Having covered countless events and tattoo shops in various major locales around the globe—San Francisco, Tokyo, London, Amsterdam and Los Angeles, to name a few—we thought it might be cool to visit some relatively obscure power shops situated on the outskirts of the big cities, away from the epicenters of population and notoriety. Places like Boise, Idaho, Asheville, North Carolina and Grants Pass, Oregon.
This time, we took the road south from Portland, Oregon to the outlying, desert communities of Southern California—places like Simi Valley, Lancaster, Rosamond, Apple Valley, Riverside and the suburb of Reseda in the San Fernando Valley. Traveling with me in a jam-packed SUV were photographer Bernard Clark, my wife Mary and our dog Jack the Australian Shepherd. We followed up several weeks of planning with an itinerary that included a handful of cherry-picked shops, each one ready and waiting for us with "twelve and not more then twenty-four"of their most beautifully tattooed customers to photograph. Those were the rules. That was the plan. Each shop was a gem and the artists were at the top of their game. The reception that we received (except for two shops that dropped the ball big-time) was consistently gratifying, edifying and fun.
Driving down the Interstate 5 from Portland, we logged a lot of miles and saw a lot of snow-capped mountains, blossoming farmlands, wind-swept orchards, fragrant cattle stockyards and arid deserts dotted with yucca and tumbleweeds. We picked up Bernard in Berkeley (where Mary interviewed Karen Roze for a forthcoming feature on Karen's shop, Sacred Rose on University Avenue). Bernard had flown in from Canada for the project. Jack was tail gunner and I was at the wheel.
We arrived about six hours out of Berkeley in Simi Valley. Once a remote conclave of trailer parks, chicken farms and retired police officers, Simi has become a megalopolis of strip malls, neatly groomed residential neighborhoods and relatively fresh-air living. Hotter than a three-dollar pistol in the summer, Simi was spring-like and beautiful on the day we arrived. I was anxious to see my longtime friend Dani Oberosler's new shop. I remember standing on the docket a few years ago at a town meeting, beseeching the Valencia, California board of supervisors, along with a hundred or so other Dani and Robert Atkinson supporters, to grant these great artists the privilege of opening a tattoo shop in their "perfect" little community. It got really messy, as the city fathers got all prudish and twisted about the prospect. Nothing that I or a couple dozen other speakers said would change their minds. So, after even more haggling and demeaning confrontations, Robert and Dani said, "Forget it," and opened a shop in Granada Hills. But that wasn't the end of their location troubles. Dani and Robert were told to vacate the Granada premises, because of a heretofore undisclosed zoning restriction. Enough is enough, so, Oberosler and Atkinson closed the shop they had shared for four years and she relocated solo, a few miles away in Simi. Not to worry. This shiny new location is away from it all but close to the action, situated as it is only a few yards south of the first freeway ramp inside the city limits, at the western-most edge of the San Fernando Valley "just thirty minutes from Los Angeles, a dozen different Valley towns, Ventura and Valencia."
In some aspects, the emergence of Danielle Oberosler as one of America's top tattoo artists has been difficult, but, for the most part, it has been a story of overcoming, working hard and basking in the rare light enjoyed by a handful of top tattooists who enjoy their roles as masters of the art form. This is her story.
"My aunt was doing permanent cosmetic tattooing. She did my eyeliner a long time ago. It hurt so bad, so I thought, Well then, now I can get a tattoo, because the only thing keeping me from getting one is I didn't know what it would feel like. So, after the eyeliner, I got a tattoo on my arm. It was a little sketch I did. Pretty stupid, but I went to a local tattoo shop and the guy liked my sketch and my sketch book. In fact, he liked it so much that he wanted to keep my book. I was twenty years old at the time, working at my parent's print shop and majoring in art at college. So, when he wanted to keep my sketch book I thought, If I can draw better than him, then I can do this, so my aunt gave me a little tattooing lesson and then I got an apprenticeship with a biker guy at a shop in Santa Clarita called Santa Clarita Tattoo. That's where I started.
"I left because the guy that was teaching me was a drug addict, you know, the way it was back then. He told me, after he took me on, that if I learned from him and left to work elsewhere he would kill me and that he'd already followed me home and knew where I lived. Basically, I'd have to relocate somewhere. Of course, I didn't quit, but even if I was sick I had to go in. He was kind of crazy. Eventually, his business slowed up and he said I didn't have to come anymore, so that's how I left there and got a job at Easy Riders on Melrose in L.A. I was barely able to tattoo at the time. Actually, the apprenticeship I got was more a lesson in what not to do. My drawing skills were much better than my tattooing skills, back then. Tattooing was hard to learn. Sure, the biker guy thought I pulled better lines than him right away, but that's not saying much.
"Tattooing is a whole different thing. I don't think that just because you can draw that you can tattoo. Sometimes you can tattoo and not draw. There's all the technical side of it and all of the medical side of it. It's a lot more than just drawing or painting on canvas.
"Then I got a job offer in Australia. I was supposed to live there for two years, but Australia makes it very hard to live there. So, I only ended up staying there six months and moved to D.C. I worked in D.C. for four years, and then I ended up back to Los Angeles and I worked with Erika Stanley for a little bit. I worked at Tattoo Asylum. I worked at Body Electric. And then I worked at Melrose Tattoo. I was there for almost eight years. I was there mostly with Dean Burton and, when Robert Atkinson moved back from Europe, he picked up a day a week there. And thats it. We worked one day a week together. And after he quit working there, we began working conventions together and stuff. I was there until 2004 and opened a shop with Robert in Granada Hills. I was there four years, until we got cited and I had to move my shop to Simi Valley.
"There are a couple people that I've worked with that have definitely influenced my tattoo abilities, for sure. Stan Corona is one of them. He's now at Good Time Charlie's. He worked with me at Easy Riders and then he worked with me at Erika's Shop, Art & Soul Tattoo. He taught me how to do black-and-gray shading. It was back at Easy Riders and I was just barely tattooing. I learned a lot working with Stan. A lot. He actually let me do my first black-and-gray piece on his calf. He was right there and showed me how to do it. He showed me a lot about machines, needles, all that. It was like he was apprenticing me, again. He was a sweet. guy. I consider him a good friend.
"Another great influence was working with Robert. We have totally different styles, he and I, but his ideas on composition and body flow, the things he taught me about working on a larger scale, working larger needles than I was comfortable with&mdashI learned a lot from him, things I still apply. I got a bit of this from Robert and a bit of that from Stan.
"I don't think my tattoo skills will ever be where I want them. I'm very self-critical. I'm critical of my artwork, too. I'm always trying really hard. I guess I should ask other artists questions, but I don't. Maybe I should network better. Writing for Skin&Ink did a lot for me. [Danielle wrote the On the Road column with Erika Stanley for six issues, starting in January of 1999 and then wrote her Spotlight column from May of 2000 through January 2009.] When I first started writing for Skin&Ink and I had to call someone and interview them, I actually had anxiety in my stomach. I was upset. I didn't like to talk to people that I didn't know, and I think interviewing someone is very difficult, like knowing what questions to ask to keep the conversation rolling. Something that's going to be interesting to someone else to read, you know? It's not easy. I had occasional interviews where it was like pulling teeth to get an answer or anything that you can really use about the person. It got to where I can talk to anybody now. By the end, getting an interview was easy. I thought it was a great way to overcome fear at talking to people. Now I'm pretty outgoing and can talk to anybody. I thought that writing for the magazine would make my name better known or something like that, but hardly anyone ever put it together that I wrote for Skin&Ink and tattooed.
"I think that, if I weren't tattooing, I would still be an artist of some sort. Even if I were a graphic artist I would probably have tattoos and stuff. I'm so surprised with the people I have worked with. I've come across people who are geniuses, and they tattoo. Really smart people that don't want to do the daily grind and go to college. I am just so surprised. I have worked with tattooers and piercers who have absolutely blown my mind with how smart they are.
"When I look at magazines or MySpace with all the tattooers, there are such talented people around. People I've never heard of. I've been tattooing for seventeen years, but you have to work hard just to be relevant. I guess I really want to be relevant, which is why I'll always have to work hard. I used to do conventions and it was super fun. Then I had a baby, and now I'm chilling out because I don't want to take away from the time with her. Right now I'm concentrating more on the shop.
"I think, in the beginning, because I was a female, I got apprenticeships easier. I think it was right at that time when women were getting a lot of tattoos and I think the guys that had shops knew that having a female in the shop would bring in more business. More female business. Even if I wasn't the one who did the tattoo, just the fact that I was there. You know, when you are a woman, it's intimidating walking past construction sites. You get harassed, and you don't know what you're going to walk into when you walk into a tattoo shop—like if you're going to get harassed. Some women want that sort of attention, but some of us just want to go in and get a tattoo. They don't want that sort of "show me your boobs and I'll tattoo you for free" kind of crap.
"One of the best things is that I love my work. I'm happy at work. I feel lucky. I know so many people that don't love their jobs. They just do it to make a living, and here I am making a living. I'm in a great mood every day.
"The downside of tattooing? I guess I could talk about split-ups with partners, but I guess that can happen in any business, so that's not really tattoo-related. I guess whatever mistakes I did make I could fix. In the beginning, my work tended to fall out more than be too deep and spread. But if something falls out it's easier to put it back in than to have it really dark and blocky, something where you have to do a major cover-up.
"I'm digging Jo Harrison from England. And there's Sabine Gaffron from Switzerland. My God, her work is so good. I can't believe it. I think women have gone so far. As for the industry, I'm afraid to say where it's all going today. For me, I just keep working. I'll do color photorealistic and Japanese. I haven't tried to specialize. I like to do pinups. I like to do Japanese. I just feel I have to do more homework, more drawing to prepare for it. And some guys come to me for tribal, so go figure.
"Getting better is not simple, but that is my goal, to amass a body of work that's good and holds up to the test of time. I'm really loving portraits right now and find it challenging. There's a point when everything clicked, when I started doing portraits. I thought they looked done to me, but there were a lot of mid-tones that I wasn't putting in. I think I was looking at the contrasts and the highlights and not the tons of variations in the mid-tones. When I see portraits that look good, they have all those mid-tones. It was silly that it would take me all that time to notice it, but it did. I saw it in my work and other people's work. On one, I had to rework two portraits because the kids with the dad looked like two different ethnic groups. The guy had all these mid-tones and no contrast, so that was pretty easy to repair. Somebody else had done the work and I fixed it. Now, they look like they belong to him.
"As for my aftercare product, Cherry Bomb, I have some changes I want to make, but I do plan to get back on it. I realized I was doing too much, tattooing, writing and manufacturing a product. Now I can concentrate on my tattooing. A lot of my customers come from L.A. or from the Valley. They come all the way from Orange County. I like that my shop is so freeway accessible, being right off the ramp in Simi Valley. Before, customers had to fight the traffic to get to Granada Hills, or Melrose Avenue, forget it.
"I know a lot of people take the opportunity in an interview to complain about the industry, and it would be nice if tattoo designs were not on every shirt in every store, but I love the images anyway. I'd buy one of the shirts. I like the imagery, so it's great that everybody loves it. People are starting to be educated about what they are getting, too, so that's good. I know there are a lot of tattooers that like to grumble and complain all the time. I think it was Jason Schroder who said that tattooists are just like an old women's quilting club, where they all sit around and grumble together. But do we really want it different? I don't know."
After a pleasant afternoon, we all drove to a Japanese restaurant for dinner, walked the dog, curled up in our nice warm beds at Dani's house ten minutes from her shop and set out the next morning for Jojo Ackermann's American Made Tattoo on the edge of a remote strip of blacktop in Rosamond, about an hour or so away in the breathtaking stillness of the Mojave Desert.
THE TATTOO ROOM
2315 Kuehner Drive
Simi Valley, California 93063
Phone: (805) 520-01118