By Annamarya Scaccia for the Brooklyn College Kingsman (Winter 2006)
At 7 p.m. on a drizzling and curiously dark November evening, tattoo apprentice Shannon Daugherty is sitting backwards on a black rolling chair, her chest pressed forward and her arms crossed on top of its back rest. She is parked next to a slim, Hispanic chap covered with tattoos and as they look closely at a flimsy piece of dirty beige textile, marked with sharp, black lines and gray shading, he talks in a rather animated fashion. In response to his words, she nods observantly, letting out the occasional “mhm hmm,” followed by either a question or remark.
The place is Asylum Tattoo, a clean and sundry shop located on North 4th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where Daugherty is learning the tools of the tattooing trade. With its shelves of Middle Eastern and Asian-inspired trinkets, a spiral rack of t-shirts, flip boards with flash designs, assorted knick-knacks and a 1982 Cosmopolitan magazine that give the shop that edgy but warm ambiance, Asylum, opened daily from noon to 10 p.m., is one of four throughout the city and the brainchild of one of the famed Brooklyn tattoo chain Studio Enigma partners.
It’s a place where Daugherty seems to fit right in – her absorption with music, film, subcultures, art and the ilk coincide with the anomaly of the shop and the ’80s era Ska blaring from the stereo. And unlike the ” Beverly Hills 90210″ vixen with a tendency to be absurdly nasty, who shares her name (“I think it’s funny. I poke fun at it a lot,” tittered Daugherty. “I use it as a way for people to remember me”), the Daugherty of Brooklyn, by way of Ohio, is nothing if not incredibly delightful.
“She’s definitely one of the better people I’ve seen come through here,” says Asylum tattoo artist John Poplawski with a slight scoff that seemed only as a result of a bothered memory. “She’s obviously into tattoos as an art form as opposed to making a cool career out of it.”
“And she keeps me in tacos,” he added with a laugh, hinting at San Loco, the Tex-Mex dive across the street from the shop where Daugherty works as a bartender and burrito slinger.
It came down to, according to Poplawski and Daugherty, the septum-pierced Daugherty and another wishful tattooist for the apprenticeship. The way Daugherty tells it, her three-quarter sleeve of Japanese fish and red flowers bright underneath the ceiling lights as she tattoos the beige textile – fake skin to be exact – she spoke with the owner of Asylum while one day working at San Loco and presented him with a sketchbook of her artwork. Impressed with what he saw, he invited her to the shop and after a few other meetings, one with her apprentice teacher Eric Diaz, the Hispanic man from before, she became the obvious choice and the rest equals history. “I am always carrying my sketchbook,” she says. “I thought it wasn’t beneficial, but it was.”
For the full-figured 22-year-old, with round cheeks and an endearing smile, tattooing seems to be a natural step from what she came to New York City to do – work her way into the art world. In the fall of 2002, Daugherty started Pratt University – an arts-centric institution in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn – where she felt her way around what is now the basis of her amateur vocation. “I started off initially wanting to be a print major,” said Daugherty. “I went into illustration because I felt it was important to learn the commercial aspect of art.”
“It helped me find my niche,” she added.
Her nascent covetousness for art began when she was just a tiny tot of five. According to Daugherty, when she was younger she would visit her artistically-inclined grandfather, whom, she says, studied art and worked in wood cut – one part of the niche she now finds herself in. And, because of this, her art sensibilities flourished.
A native of Ohio, Daugherty exhausted her childhood shifting from place to place until she and her family – her inspirational mother Terrina (“I admire her for raising two children by herself and educating herself while doing it,” says Daugherty. “She is the biggest example in my life of strong will”) and younger brother Dick – settled in Euclid, a suburban town just off of Cleveland, when she was ten. And her neighborhood in Euclid, (“Pukelid, the mistake by the lake,” ribbed Daugherty), a “very blue-collar orientated area,” shaped her “drive and determination” to become a tattoo artist.
Her family have also lent a hand in molding the person the 22-year-old illustrative aficionado is today, citing their hard work as a quality that made her “want to be a better person.” “I always admired the fact that, even though it was the three of us, we were strong, loving and supportive of each others decisions,” Daugherty says.
“She’s a good sister,” says her 21-year-old brother Dick, also a bartender at San Loco. “We were very close when we were kids. I use to get in trouble a lot and she’d always try to help.”
Notwithstanding that she had an “awesome” time in college, she admits she didn’t billow out of her shell until her junior year. Her freshman year, she says, wasn’t the best of years, as she spent time with a “man who didn’t support my vision.” She also spent the early part of her four-year academy stay working in a “ton of bad bars,” where she was illegally paid with tips only, at a high-end furniture store in the Upper East Side, house-sitting for Gloria Steinem and Michael Moore, as a librarian, and as a residential advisor in the Pratt dorms where, she says, the “rich kids” were snobs. But all those bad memories – little obstacles played out on a stage of a seemingly awarding experience – were only stepping stones to an anticipated future.
“I liked the idea of the opportunity to leave Ohio and go to a big city and try to make it on my own,” said Daugherty, now a Pratt graduate with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree in Communication Design. “The school offered the programs I wanted, and the city offered the opportunity I was looking for.”
In spite of the fact of the small, but important, detail of her apprenticeship – she has only been at it for a couple of months – Daugherty, who spends her Tuesday and Wednesday nights studying at the shop, explains the art of tattooing with the ease of an expert.
“You never wanna splatter.”
“You always gotta clean [the skin].”
“If you go too deep, you can shred the skin.”
“You always gotta remember to lubricate if because if you don’t, you get more skin up.”
Listening to Daugherty explain the process can easily make you forget she is only in the learning stages. These tidbits – essential rules to remember while prodding someone’s skin with a needle – all seem to be a natural part of her daily speech – something never taught to her but, instead, she always knew. What’s more, as she shifts positions from student to teacher, she carefully points out each step one by one, from beginning to end, from preparation to cleaning, making sure you understand what is going on. “It’s about perfection,” she asserts.
Her surprising expertise is something noticed by her teacher. According to Daugherty, Diaz has commented that she is advanced in terms of her drawings, which, she says, is flattering “on so many levels.”
Still, with the end result of perfection in her line of vision, she isn’t without her faults. “The only problem I am having right now is getting the rhythm down,” she says. “I want to be able to get a better control of line.”
But, Daugherty says, there is an easy solution to that: just listening to the circular rotating motion of the tattooing gun lets an artist know that what they’re doing, they’re doing right. And, with her mouth opened and her chin pressed to her chest, she imitates the obstreperous sound: “Wah wah wah.”
While absorbed in that telling “wah wah wah,” her focus on the tribal design of her fake skin unbreakable, she stops a relaxed Diaz, looking for some guidance.
“I did it from here up. Is that satisfactory?” asks an inquisitive Daugherty, her voice chipper yet stained with worry over the accuracy of her work.
With a cool and distracted stance, he answers “Yeah.”
Armed with a 9 magnum tattooing gun in her hand, generally used for filling inside the lines, Daugherty is steadfast in her practice – at this moment, it’s a black-tinted tribal design, which Diaz has helped her freelance, that she is working on. “Tribal designs are generally harder to do,” she says, her head tilted downwards towards the fake skin she had her eyes fixed on all day.
“I think it’s good she’s trying to be a tattoo artist. I’m happy for her,” says Dick. “I hope she’s very successful.”
Even if it seems, on the surface, that Daugherty is fervent by her new career path, (“I would like to become a full-time artist,” she says. “I would love to tattoo and create children stories”), her promising future and hectic present are both bittersweet. “I feel bad because I don’t get to see my friends that often,” she says. Friends that, Daugherty feels, are “amazing for many reasons,” particularly for their support. “It’s good to know that the people surrounding you in your life are there for you.”
A sentiment echoed by the friends she loves. “She’s a sweetheart,” said close friend Casey Diebold, a 26-year-old illustration student at Pratt University. “And honestly, one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met.”