We had the good fortune of connecting with Sharon Healy and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Sharon, is there a quote or affirmation that’s meaningful to you?
The Roman philosopher Seneca once said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” This particular quote resonates with me because a lot of people have told me I am lucky to be a full time artist. I am very lucky, but that luck comes from a lot of preparation, study, humility, patience, work and recognizing an opportunity when it presents itself.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I just wrote a paper as a requirement to graduate from my apprenticeship about my experience being a painter and becoming a tattoo artist. You can use whatever of this suits your needs for the article. I think it encompasses a lot of my recent struggles as a creative. Luck Is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity by Sharon Healy “One does not discover new lands without first consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” -Andre Gide PREPARATION Looking back on the path that led me to this apprenticeship, I now see it the way a person sees a magic eye: what is dizzying at first- suddenly, when you squint the right way, makes a clear and logical picture. Unlike a lot of tattoo artists, I didn’t know right away that it was my calling. I was first and foremost a painter. I say that even now with longing passion—the smell of oil paint, the long nights in front of the easel with music carrying my vision, to the contact of the brush. There is nothing like it. And yet, I would be remiss if I did not also admit to the pain I have felt as a painter—the pain of loving something that is often fickle, sometimes indifferent, and almost always impoverishing. How do you possibly explain to someone the call to be an artist? It’s like a soul contract, you are bound in service to. Despite all logic that says, “Turn around! Mayday! You’re going to be poor! Painting is a dead art!” You try anyway. You can’t not. It’s like a moth to the flame. Like many who have felt the call to be an artist, I figured going to art school would be the natural course. I would love to wax poetic about my time in art school, but the truth is that no one could quite define this thing that I had chosen as a career path. I left more confused than when I started. There were no parameters, no pass or fail because that would require a definition of one word… “art.” Art can be anything… and is subjective.. and in reality so is everything… and what is education, or time for that matter…? After countless hours of navel gazing about the meaning of art, hundreds of projects that in no way prepare a person for a career path, and enduring critiques that always devolved into weird meta deconstructed conversations (ie. “Is it art or is it about art?”), I realized that I just spent tens of thousands of dollars on an accredited existential crisis. What does one do with such knowledge? Well clearly, become a bartender. The kind of bartender that always has witty, dark, delirious banter because they are half drunk and half sleep deprived under a mountain of student loan debt. There is no other way to say it: the service industry is a sinkhole of despair, a bootcamp in humility, a soul-crushing exercise in brown-nosing, a whorish-feeling performance for money. I can not tell you the amount of charm, wit, sweat, swallowed pride and hustle that went into paying for that bullshit education. Miraculously, late nights into the wee hours of the morning spent painting, renting a studio in the Santa Fe Art District, live painting at concerts, having booths at festivals, applying for grants and shows, traveling to different states, showing in museums and galleries, and making art through the night. Dreams never say “thank you,” they just get bigger, more demanding, more consuming. The turning point was when my brother died in an avalanche while skiing in Japan. He was so young, too young to have died. I can say that now because I am older than he was when he died. Death has a way of making you question, making you dissolve your previous self, and become something new, willingly or unwillingly. I lost many people in my life but none has changed me quite like losing my brother. He was in the military, a doctor, married with two kids, the golden child and keystone of our immediate family. He always supported my art, and his last words to me were to “keep painting.” I did not take it well. In my grief (that I had already accepted as perpetual), Aries, the tattoo artist who recently tattooed my thigh, reached out and said he would tattoo me, and anyone in my family that wanted to get a memorial piece for my brother, for free. I will never fully understand his generosity, and will never forget it. My sisters and I set up a small alter dedicated to my brother in his work station, and he patiently tattooed all of us. I am sure we were the absolute worst clients, needing our group to all be present, with shell-shocked indecision about what could possibly represent what we had lost. It was in that moment, that the question was asked by my twin sister, not for the first time, but the first time it was taken seriously, “why don’t you become a tattoo artist?” I’m not going to lie, my tattoo has been the only thing to bring any sort of healing to an indescribable loss. Our culture has so few rights of passage or ways to deal with loss, it’s a miracle we feel alive at all. When I was given my tattoo, I realized this permanent mark was a piece of art that changed me, healed me, reminded me and challenged me. It became me and made me want to become. Made in blood and ink, marking people for life, I realized this art can heal, identify, and symbolize. The potency, and even magic, I was seeking in fine art presented itself in tattooing. Why had I never seen it that way before? I didn’t encounter true artistry within tattooing until I was in my late twenties. I was under the impression that you needed to have a clear and simple drawing of what you intended to get tattooed and/or you will likely be disappointed in the outcome. It wasn’t until my early thirties that I started to meet tattoo artists that were well… actual artists. After my twin planted the seed of “become a tattooer” I nurtured it with the fervor of a naive child. Being a life-long student of the School of YouTube, I watched videos (full of terrible misleading information) and bought things I thought I would need, (which ended up not being anything I would need) and I realized quickly I would not be able to teach myself. I reached out to everyone I knew that was a tattooer. I wanted to know what their day was like, what the shop was like, what an apprenticeship was like etc. In my pursuit, I was offered a few apprenticeships but most were shops that had a revolving door of apprentices, using them as free labor to run the front desk until they got frustrated with not learning anything and quit. I had no problem trading labor for education, but being in my thirties, I didn’t have time to waste if I wasn’t going to learn. Then I talked to my friend, Brian. We met at a restaurant and I asked him all of my usual questions, but he worked at a private studio called Black Sage. At Black Sage there’s no “walk-ins.” Every artist runs their own business, makes their own schedule, and choose the projects that best suit their style. The artists travel to conventions around the world, are painters outside of tattooing, and are passionate about creating tattoos that are works of art. The caliber of work coming out of Black Sage was exponentially higher, and I knew I wanted to learn from these artists, at this studio . So after several margaritas I worked up the courage to ask Brian if he would take me on as an apprentice, to which he said… no. He went on to explain, for several reasons, I should really be asking the owner of the shop, Melis for an apprenticeship. Honestly I was a bit relieved. After years as a bartender, I’ve never been all that great with men telling me what to do, and loved the idea of learning from a woman who was a painter before she was a tattooer, that had a fierce command of color. OPPORTUNITY I am fairly positive Melis did not want an apprentice. I think she was coaxed into considering me as an apprentice by Brian (her best friend), and my insistence that she was going to be my mentor. We met at an Indian restaurant, where she outlined what would be expected of me. I would clean the shop, set everyone up, break everyone down, help in any way I could, run errands, answer emails, watch people getting tattooed and draw. After a year I would start tattooing, and give away 50 free tattoos. When she finished outlining my responsibilities, I remember asking, “what do you get out of it?” It seemed like she was not getting enough for the exchange of information. “Help.” She responded. That week, beginning of December 2017, we started a month long trial period to make sure this was a good fit. I would spend the next year learning how the shop was run, sweeping and mopping, taking out the trash, making sure I knew how to properly clean, set up and break down a station. I learned about blood borne pathogens, the health risks, tattoo aftercare, how to prep clients, and make and position a stencil. I answered countless emails, learning how to choose projects, and communicate with clients to steer their ideas to successful outcomes. I learned what supplies I would need and where to get them. I spent hours watching people get tattooed, asking every single question I could think of about inks, needles, voltage, and techniques. Melis patiently answered all of my questions, never once withholding information. Over time, Melis became my mentor in more ways than just tattooing; she became my confidant, and one of my best friends. I was Melis’s apprentice, but the solo student to a whole shop full of teachers. For the first time in my career as an artist, I felt like there were people that cared about wether I succeeded or failed. Tattooing consumed my thoughts, the shop became my home, my teachers became my family. Most importantly, I spent my time drawing. I had to come to the ego-crushing realization that despite my eleven year career as a painter and my four years of art school, I did not know how to draw for a tattoo. What was possible to create with a vibrating machine, with needles on skin, that aged and over time, expanded, and flowed with a body on a non-flat surface, was wildly different than the art I knew how to make. None of that previous life would give me an advantage in this department. I was at the beginning again, and embarrassingly bad at it. Not only that, but all of these people, my new friends, that I looked up to, respected, and were so good at tattooing, would be witnessing me fail… over and over again. I was also not used to drawing such a wide variety of subject matter. The “idea jar” was a glass jar, that artists in the shop would write down ideas for hypothetical tattoos and I would have to reach in, grab a folded up slip of paper, and draw whatever was written on it. I drew everything from “a mermaid being chopped up into sushi” to a “walrus and giraffe in a fight.” Allow me to clarify, this was not a part-time gig. I would be at the shop four to five days a week. Being the first one there to clean, sweep mop and set up and the last to leave. I was also still bartending four nights a week. Some days I would leave from the shop, to bartend all night, and be back again in the morning. One of those nights, the owner of another shop, one that had offered me an apprenticeship, came into the bar where I was working. When I told him I had taken the apprenticeship at Black Sage, he said I would “never get good at tattooing without walk-in clientele.” He implied that the only way to learn would be at the expense of the skin of the unknowing. His insistence of my impending failure reeked of the needless hazing and archaic frat-boy bullshit I had heard about in apprenticeships. This “sink or swim” type of “teaching” creates a bad image for the industry. I was learning a respect for the craft, that included preparing yourself in any way possible. If that meant: wait, take your time, I would rather that, than hurt others in the name of education. Everyone’s apprenticeship is different. There’s no playbook to teach someone how to tattoo. The learning takes the shape of the mentor and the student. My apprenticeship was unique. Before I was able to pick up a machine, I travelled out of state to tattoo conventions with my mentor. She introduced me to the artists who were in the documentaries I watched about tattooing, and wrote the books I was learning from. I wasn’t tracing flash of others, I made my own sheets of custom hand-painted flash. I learned to draw with a pen and an iPad. I was taught how to to take a picture of a tattoo and properly promote myself on platforms like Instagram. I learned to use a coil machine and a rotary machine. I learned different styles of tattooing so I could easily adapt to the my clients requests. Starting in October of 2018, I spent several months tattooing pumpkins, squashes and fake skin. A friend from the restaurant industry gave me real pig-skin to tattoo, thinking it would have a texture closer to human skin. It looked, felt, and smelled awful. Being a vegetarian, this was a testament to my desire to learn. My mentor was preparing me, in every way she knew how, for every situation in tattooing possible. God bless her heart, she is truly the most patient person I have ever met. I finally felt like I was getting somewhere… then I started tattooing. Melis’s husband, Jim, was the first person I tattooed. Melis planned on tattooing a semicolon on the side of her husband’s finger, talking me through her approach. She then handed me the machine and said “Ok now you do it.” I was surprised and nervous. We joked that it wasn’t my “first”tattoo it was my “.5”. Most of the ink fell out. What I consider to be my first tattoo, of my own design, was a pinecone tattooed on my husband. I had drawn the pinecone so many times, and practiced tattooing the design on fake skin, so when I was finally tattooing it on a person, it felt natural. It was actually not bad for a first tattoo. LOSING SIGHT OF THE SHORE My following appointments were with people that signed up for free tattoos knowing that they were a learning experience for me. I cannot express my gratitude for these brave, wonderful people. While I can say that every tattoo was to the best of my abilities, I cannot say they were all good. Every drawing was reviewed by Melis, where she told me how to make it better. I would re-draw as many times as it took to get the “OK” to go ahead and tattoo. Several times Melis had to “clip my wings” to save me from myself. This was a super frustrating time because the transition from knowing to doing wasn’t going well for me. I was of the mindset that I just needed more practice or more time tattooing. Melis wanted me to slow down, tattoo less, and focus on fundamentals like line-work and draw more. Trusting my mentor was imperative, but the feeling that I had already invested a year into this and I was bad at it, I was failing, was overwhelming. Of course, Melis was right in her guidance, but instead of just saying “do this because I say so” she called a meeting of the shop and Melis, Brian and Milo weighed in on how I can improve. They put together a list of action items, talked about self-discipline, not getting ahead of myself, setting aside the ego, the importance of baby steps and patience. They even put together some inspirational quotes, that I still have hanging on the wall of my studio at home. I had to accept that in order to be good at something, I would need to be not good at it first. Around this time we had an artist at the shop (that I will not name) leave. Seeing the reasons she departed, was a crash course in the way ego, and passive-aggressive behavior are self-sabotaging. DISCOVERING NEW LANDS In July of 2019, I finished my 50th tattoo. I was allowed to start charging people for tattoos. I quit bartending. This enormous leap of faith, was starting to pay off. It was exciting and terrifying. I was creating a new identity, becoming a full time artist. I remember running into Milo’s room after one of my clients left and saying, “ I can’t believe people pay me to tattoo them. This is the best job ever.” In January of 2020 I was starting to make smaller tattoos that I was proud of. At this point I was a bit unclear of how long this apprenticeship would last. Technically Melis had upheld her end of the bargain and I believed I had too, but I still wanted to be an apprentice and she didn’t feel like I was done. I was still learning so much everyday, with every tattoo. I would learn about a new needle grouping or color, mix colors to make a new color, or a way to move the machine to create a different texture. I started doing projects that were cover-ups, re-designing old tattoos, or designs that went around an existing piece. Around February is when I accepted my first sleeve project, and was heavily relying on Melis’s guidance. It is one thing to draw a tattoo, it is another to design a sleeve, or larger project. Then Covid hit. Fuck Covid. I never imagined that I would be in an apprenticeship and starting my career during a pandemic. (I guess I should have expected something because I graduated college in 2007 into the “Great Recession of 2008.”) It started as something we heard about happening in China, then Italy… then us too. A pandemic was making people sick and they started dying by the hundreds of thousands. Hospitals and morgues were overwhelmed, medical supplies started running thin, and cities began shutting down. Our shop donated gloves and other useful supplies to the local hospitals, and we were asked to close shop for two months to quarantine. Everything closed except those industries considered “essential.” Most of the artists at the shop were thankfully able to get unemployment, but because I had worked at the bar within the last 18 months I was unable to. In this bizarre, post-apocalyptic-style world, I thankfully I had a wonderful husband that was considered “essential” due to the riots that ensued after Colorado tried to shut down marijuana dispensaries. At the end of two months in quarantine, we were getting ready to go back to work, abiding by a list of obligations given to us by the health department and our own new protocols. Everyone was required to wear a mask. We made a table by the front door with hand sanitizer and bleach wipes, where we took everyones temperature. The waiting room was re-arranged so clients could sit 6 ft apart. Cleaning became a tedious wiping down of every doorknob, pen and light switch. Only one client was allowed in the building per artist, and we were not allowed to be there if we weren’t tattooing. These protocols are still in place as I write this a year later. Reduced occupancy put Melis and I working on different days and shifted my apprenticeship into a more long distance form. I was texting Melis drawings, and tattoos and she would talk to me about what was working and what wasn’t. It became a “leave the nest moment;” a situational force into self-reliance. Also happening on a national level, around this time is when a police officer killed George Floyd, which sparked riots protesting police brutality, especially toward black people. These riots and protests clashed with the police in violent, destructive ways in cities across the nation. The rise of the BLM movement made America have to face our issues of systemic racism, while a large portion of the population fueled by the president, denied the existence of the pandemic and became openly racist. Businesses started closing after being unable to support themselves during quarantine, including all of the bars I previously worked at. So much of my life was dictated by things were happening on a national level. It was a strange time, full of political upheaval, and here I was just trying to cross the finish line of my apprenticeship. By July my face began having a reaction to wearing a mask all of the time. I had to go to urgent care and get a handful of prescriptions to help. By the end of the year everyone in the shop had to take a Covid test, at one point in time, and stay home until they could be cleared. It was a complete dumpster fire of a year. LUCK Sounds not so great, huh? The craziest part is, while it seems like this should be the worst time ever, it’s actually been amazing. I’m not going to lie, it’s been challenging, but I have been so lucky to be where I am. I have been able to work, make good money, and surround myself with people who prioritize my learning despite a pandemic. They still continue to teach me. It amazes me that I have a schedule booked with brave clients who pay me to create art. I have been able to thrive, against all odds and I am proud that I became a full time tattoo artist in 2020. I am now at the point where I feel a level of humble confidence in my abilities. I am so grateful to have found a home at Black Sage. Melis changed my life. This story is not a “self-made” story. It’s quite the opposite. I owe everything to my mentor Melis. She made this dream possible. In teaching me, she gave me a new life, full of friends and art. All I have ever wanted was to pursue art full time and be supported by it. I have been pushed to be a better artist more in the last 3 years than all of my time in art school. I have found more support and love in the tattoo community than I ever found in the fine art world. I have learned about myself, my ability to adapt, and accept critique. I have learned how to set aside my preconceived notions about what I should be able to do, or how I compare to others, and focus on just being better than I was the day before. I have had the opportunity to create art that heals others, and can see the look in their eyes when they know that this art is theirs to wear forever; it has changed them, and will be one of the few things they take to their grave. Melis made this possible, and I am not done learning from her. I still feel like the help she got in return is not adequate payment for the life I was given. Her kindness, patience, and guidance are a debt I will never be able to repay. I would be remiss if I didn’t give a huge thank you to my by-proxy mentors, Milo and Brian. Both took on an enormous responsibility assisting Melis in teaching me this trade. I peered over their shoulders for hours while they worked, and interrogated them about how they were doing this or that. I made them look at hundreds of stencils to make sure my placement was just right. Both tattooed me, where I learned about how they worked and what their processes were. They made me feel like I was a part of the family. They gave me pep talks and hugs when I was feeling down and they became my tattoo brothers. Additionally, I cannot stress enough my gratitude for my support network without which I would never have made it through this apprenticeship. A handful of patient, kind supportive people including but not limited to: my wonderful husband Brent who cheered me on, supported me, and looked at every revision of every drawing. My sister, who helped me keep a level head, and perspective. My parents, who hate tattoos but secretly brag about my accomplishments behind my back. It takes a village to make a tattoo artist, and I have relied on my entire network of friends and family. Last, to my clients. I am so honored that you have allowed me to tattoo you. Thank you.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
A few of my favorite spots in Denver are the Denver Art Museum and The Museum of Nature and Science. A lot of my favorite places to eat have closed over the last year due to Covid, but I think a few that are still around are Osteria Marco on Larimer Square, and City, O’ City. Also I am a total sucker for a rooftop patio and a margarita so Los Chingones, is great. I lived in Denver for most of my life but recently moved up to the St Mary’s area, so hiking is a big interest and passion.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I would like to dedicate my shoutout to my mentor Melis Fusco. I started my apprenticeship a little over 3 years ago, and she has patiently taught me how to translate my art into the medium of tattooing, how to run my business, and given me the ability to become a full time artist. Black Sage Studio has become my little art family. I also have a wonderful support network that has helped me to pursue these goals, particularly my husband and my sister.