Brian Lindenmuth: What was the first tattoo you ever got and why did you decide to get it?
Nik Korpon: First one I ever got was the line-drawing of a guardian angel on the inside of my left bicep. I’ve always believed in angels and demons and ghosts but I had this weird experience when I was 18. I got into a fender-bender with this women and was really angry, only to realize 10 seconds later that if I hadn’t bumped into her, I would’ve gotten t-boned by another car and likely died. Her insurance info didn’t go through when I filed the report so I tried to track her down, but she didn’t exist (according to what she’d given me). I thought she was an angel and that feeling stuck for a long time, though that might’ve just been teenage neurosis. She probably just didn’t want her insurance to go up because of some dumb kid.
What was that first experience like?
Not bad. I think I was awkward because I didn’t know what you were supposed to do when getting tattooed.
Tattoos can capture a memory, or are representative of a feeling or a person. What is your most meaningful tattoo, and why?
I have a big lion head that goes across my chest and down past my sternum. I got it for my son based on a book we read when he was little, about a daddy lion and his cub, and it’s the most meaningful one that I have. I also really like the Hitchcock stuff I have on my leg.
What was your last tattoo?
Last finished tattoo was probably a banger on my leg that we all gave each other when a friend from out of town came back to visit the shop. I’m still getting the lion finished, seven years later, because I don’t have any free time.
When will you get your next one?
I was hoping to get my ribs covered up with a big panther and shark, but I think it’ll have to wait till my kids get a bit older and I have more free time. I live an hour from my old shop and (unfortunately) don’t get down there often. Or anywhere, for that matter.
Any tattoos you regret?
Not any that I explicitly regret, but ones that I wouldn’t do the same. But they’re all representative of some part of my life.
What do your tattoos say about you?
They’re as random and scattered as I am. They’re almost all traditional, but some have a ton of significance and some were just slow days at the shop and “I’m bored. Y’wanna put something on me?”
How do others react to your tattoos?
I had both sleeves about fifteen years ago and I’d get tons of looks. This was before Miami Ink and before tattoos got super popular. All my friends and roommates were artists so within my group it wasn’t a big deal (they were all more heavily tattooed than I was) but other people would look at me sideways, sometimes cross the street. I got lots of scared looks when I was traveling through Eastern Europe because it was mostly Russian mafias and whatnot that were heavily tattooed. Now it’s no big deal.
What do tattoos bring to our culture?
Ideally, they tell stories visually. That’s what always attracted me, especially with Japanese tattoos. They’re works of art and they change the viewer to understand what they mean, to really study them. I’m out of the loop now (I left the shop four years ago) but in the five years I was there, we saw a huge shift toward Instagram tattoos—like those dandelions that dissolve into birds and arrow line-drawings—and lots of text. Stuff that doesn’t require any thought, that’s just immediately understandable. It’s kind of a bummer, but it kept the lights on so…
Do you have a go to tattoo person/shop? Give them a shout-out!
I worked at Saints and Sinners in Baltimore for five years and those dudes make incredible tattoos. Most of mine were done by Christian Beckman (who is the namesake for the character in Stay God, if anyone’s read that). Anyone in Baltimore should go get tattooed there.
Bio: Nik Korpon is the author of The Rebellion’s Last Traitor, Queen of the Struggle, and The Soul Standard, among others. He lives in Baltimore.