It’s why Hart & Huntington tattoo artist Doug McGrath got into the game in the first place.
Tattooing is an artform you actually get paid to do.
Doug grew up in Wayne, Michigan, your average suburban factory town just outside of Detroit. He was always doodling with crayons as a kid and fell in love with comic books when he was pretty young.
I remember thinking how cool it was to tell a story with pictures. I guess it’s in my blood.
My aunt used to draw for newspaper ads when that was still a thing.
When he got to high school, he found his way to a vocational program where he dug into graphic design...and realized it wasn’t for him.
Designing websites and labels, you don’t really get to be as creative as when you draw by hand.
Part of his assignment was to design labels for sauces. So he picked up his pencil and tapped into a talent he never knew he had.
I started developing photorealism skills. I’d do pencil portraits of the characters on the sauce jar labels, like an old lady for “Mom’s Spaghetti Sauce.”
From there, he started sketching all kinds of things. Doug was big into the small punk rock scene in Detroit, and he began to draw tattoos for his friends.
I never thought of tattooing as a career at that point. I didn’t really know how to get involved.
But there was something about it that kept his interest.
When Doug was 10, he remembers watching punk rock music videos, the kind they wouldn’t air on MTV at the time.
The bands were all covered in tattoos, wearing plaid pants and looking super weird. I was like, “That’s awesome, I wanna be like that!”
Fast forward 10 or 15 years, his friend from California who loved tattoos saw his artwork and told him he should be a professional tattoo artist.
He bought me a kit with a coil machine so I could mess around with it. I realized pretty fast that tattooing isn’t the same as drawing on paper—there are no takebacks! It’s not something you can just figure out; you can’t just grab another piece of paper. That’s when I started looking for an apprenticeship.
Doug was 29 when he decided to get serious about tattooing. He was living in California at the time and visited all the tattoo shops in his neighborhood...but no luck. He and his then-girlfriend decided to pack up and head east to her home state of Tennessee.
After a couple years doing construction and working at a hotel, Doug finally found his calling.
I saw an ad on Craigslist by a guy opening a new tattoo shop in Hendersonville who was looking for a piercing apprentice. I saw it as a way to get my foot in the door.
The owner appreciated Doug’s work ethic and ambition. He took him under his wing and showed him the ropes.
It was a stepping stone for where I really wanted to be in my career.
The best part was just soaking it all in, being around people who cared about tattoos all day.
The hardest part?
Going a year without pay, but luckily, I had a pretty good support system. I’d work weekends and do odd jobs to stay afloat. I knew it would all be worth it in the end.
His mentor taught him the fundamentals of tattooing, including proper hygiene practices. He never let Doug practice on skin until he’d made a hundred stencils, and even then, he would only allow him to work on little silhouettes of hearts and other simple shapes that could be easily fixed.
My mentor was very medical-oriented. He’d do these classes for war medical protocols, like if someone has a severed leg, how to take care of that. I learned a lot about biology from him, how wounds heal. Essentially, when you get a tattoo, you’re creating a wound. As a tattoo artist, you need to know how to take care of it. You can’t go tanning or jumping in a pool after.
It’s advice he’d pass onto an apprentice of his own today.
You’ve got to take this seriously and be professional. There are a lot of kids out there getting at-home tattoo kits and not considering the fact that this is something permanent you’re doing to someone. You can really mess up someone’s life with a bad tattoo.
My first introduction to Hart & Huntington was on Inked. When I moved to Nashville, I remember walking in the store and thinking it was awesome. The artists were behind this wall where you could watch them do their thing. They had cool clothes at the front that you’d otherwise have to travel to conventions to find. I remember thinking it’d be awesome if I could work here.
Years later, he saw one of our Instagram ads and applied for a job as a Hart & Huntington tattoo artist. He nailed it, of course.
The work environment is great here. Everyone is super chill. Our clientele is a lot of tourists that are excited to be on vacation, which makes the work even more fun.
Most importantly, he’s surrounded by artists just as talented as he is.
Everybody is really good at what they do. It helps me aspire to do better and better. I can bounce from booth to booth to see what other artists are doing and how they’re doing it.
That’s not what it’s like in most tattoo shops.
Other places are way more secretive, like watching another tattoo artist work means you’re trying to steal their knowledge or something. I don’t feel that way here. Everyone wants each other to do well so we can work at this cool shop and be awesome.
That’s what art is all about. Being inspired by the world—the people—around you. Learning new techniques. Perfecting your own style.
You kind of work for yourself as a tattoo artist. There’s no boss telling you what to do or not to do. As someone who likes to draw, you just want to create. And having the freedom to create something that’s permanent in the skin, that can change a person and how they seem themselves, is amazing.
Just like when he was a kid, Doug’s favorite style of tattoo art is still photorealism.
I love to copy pictures and try to make things look as real as they can. I work to get better and better at that. If you can trick someone into thinking your drawing is a photo, that’s the best feeling.
Doug’s photorealism tattoos are incredible. He also has a love for American Traditional tattoo imagery, with its bright lines and bold colors, and often blends them into his finished designs. The results are unforgettable.
I had a client not that long ago who wanted an old timey microphone tattooed on her, but she gave me leeway to make it my own. She didn’t have much money, but I told her I wanted to do this tattoo and make it a portfolio piece.
It became her favorite piece: a photorealist mic rising from a bed of Sailor Jerry red roses.
That was definitely one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever tattooed.
Maybe not the most memorable though.
I had a dude walk in asking for his friend’s name tattooed on his ass. Apparently, he lost a bet. The guy who won paid for it or I would have done it for free.
On that subject, some good advice from Doug:
Before you get a tattoo for the first time, remember that it doesn’t wash off. Really think about it. This decision is going to stay with you.
Doug was decisive about his own collection of ink. His favorite is his newest: the word “Dead” written across his fingers in a gothic font.
It’s a reminder to live like you’re already dead. Might as well live it up!
He also has a Gibson flanked by roses and a skull-and-crossbones with a dagger coming out of it. Then there are some others that have more of a story behind them.
There’s a concert venue here in Nashville that if you get their logo tattooed on you, you get in for free, so I did that. It reminds me of the good times I had there. Another one my friend drew when we were 15 and I said I want to get that tattooed one day. As soon as I turned 18, I did.
When it comes to art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But when it comes to tattoo art, you need to have a true artist at the needle. Doug is exactly that.
I want to be remembered as a cool, very professional guy who did clean work and who will be missed. Just a good person and a good tattooer.