Gabe Ripley is an avid tattoo collector, studio owner, and convention producer as well as a key figure in hosting professional artists and studios online, just like we are, LOL. His site Tattoonow.com hosts hundreds of great artists and studios. He developed the Paradise Tattoo Gathering as a forum for artists to gather and exchange ideas and techniques as well he founded Off the Map, a well-respected tattoo studio in its own right. Many would ask, “aren’t you doing a feature on your competition”? Well, yes we are. But it is the professional respect and admiration we have for each other’s sites and our parallel views on how tattooing should be treated as an art form that makes us more brethren than competitors which only solidifies our need to support and promote each other’s work in the industry. So, to promote someone that has the same respect for tattooing that we do is a no-brainer.
Tattoo Observer: Let’s start from the beginning when did you start getting into tattooing, and where and what was the experience?
When I was 17 a few friends and I went to downtown New Haven to a biker shop to get some tattoos. A dingy biker shop. The tattooer didn’t care I was underage. The experience was practically out of an after-school special tv show, the skinny gawky underage kid in the big city at the tough tattoo spot. “ID?” “Nope” “Would yer mom care?” “Nope”. “Ok, sit down”. The parrot was too expensive, I didn’t have the dough, so I got the dove. Not the toughest first tattoo.
Birds are my favorite animal so many of my first tattoos were birds. It has since been covered, then the whole shebang lasered a ton and the area has been since tattooed with an Eskimo pinup girl with a penguin by Tony Ciavarro. People often want to hang onto their first tattoo no matter how bad it is because of the memories, but I’ll never forget that first tattoo. I remember it every time I see the Eskimo! Well, I found out that you can indeed fix tattoo mistakes, you just need to burn them out from the inside!
Tattoo Observer: How did this lead to Tattoo Now?, and what was the evolution of that site for you?
Gabe Ripley: For the next few years I sought out the best tattooer in the area, and eventually began trading out computer work for larger tattoos. I was a pretty accomplished freelance computer programmer at the time, kind of a poor white trash computer geek wiz kid. The colorful bird tattoos set me apart from the other freelance computer programmers, and I was traveling the world programming children’s video games and multimedia sales presentations. In my spare time I would work for musicians, doing the same level of multimedia promotions I did for Honda or the Epcot Center for the bands I knew in the area. Soon enough I started applying my skills to promoting the shop I was getting tattooed at.
At first, websites were very boring compared to the multimedia I was producing, but the equation was magic – great tattooers and a large audience online means more custom tattoos for artists. Pictures and words were all you needed to attract great tattoo clients. The studio eventually grew to 13 full-time tattooers. The success of the websites and multimedia made it obvious we should be doing the same for other quality tattooers and studios. TattooNOW has grown into a network of over 150 tattoo artists, studios, and convention websites. We have been launching integrated mobile apps frequently too. While we have (both) watched many other tattoo websites and social networks come and go, we have built a really stable company from the foundation up. While we don’t have everything, Facebook or Instagram has (they both have teams of dozens of programmers) we have been producing real tangible results for tattooers for over a decade. Because we take our cues from tattooing, we think long-term and are in this until death.
Tattoo Observer: How did the website hosting evolve into Off the Map
Gabe Ripley: While many of our clients were finding success with our websites and multimedia promotions, it became apparent that we would be our own best clients. Also, our network of artists was growing and we needed a home base. A place to teach our website clients how to use websites and show new guests how the system works. Not being a tattooer, I had to be very careful and didn’t want to open a shop until it was stupid not too. Watching artists and shops use tools to be very successful while still struggling was rough, but it illuminated a path I had to follow. In short, working with tattooing and tattooers all day long from my kitchen table wasn’t what I wanted, and I figured with traffic and a network of guests what could go wrong? hahahahah. While far from easy, the network of artists who cared for what we were doing Off the Map survived through some rough times. I can’t thank the first few years of guest artists enough, or my family for being so accommodating to a zillion new people. For the first few years, TattooNOW supported the shop, I have a lot of people ask me about owning a shop. Their interest generally stops when I tell them I didn’t draw a check from the shop for nearly three years, and already had a full-time job working inside the tattoo industry with millions of unique tattoo fans a month browsing through our websites. Even with all the support we had, it was pretty insane trying to get it all together. Lots of people helped out and pitched in getting Off the Map started and rolling. We have been collecting an amazing tattooer and support staff that has been vital in the evolution of everything.
Tattoo Observer: Where did the idea of the Paradise tattoo gatherings come from?
Gabe Ripley: Well, I’ve always loved traveling to conventions and biker shows. As soon as I got my first real tattoo I was tagging along with the shop to the tattoo shows. While very interested, I’m not much good as a spectator so I would always find work to do. I had worked a ton of biker shows, music festivals, and other events, so transitioning into producing a tattoo event was not as crazy as it may have seemed. Traveling has always been something I loved for years as I was hustling TattooNOW on the convention scene. Eventually, TattooNOW grew to the point where artists asked why I wasn’t producing a convention. My reply was always sure and quick, I wanna live a long healthy life, and I will help YOU run a convention. hah.
Still, New England needed a great show and I knew we could offer a world-class lineup. Eventually Off the Map Tattoo had enough guests so it became obvious a show was in order. If all our guests that had been building a cliental came together in one place, we’d have a great time and enough clients to support it. At first, I asked Durb from Hell City fame to bring his show to New England. He was headed west to Phoenix at the time, but he offered to help us run a show. That’s when the switch changed, I knew he didn’t offer that kind of help to too many people, and so I had to take him up on the offer. It was still a year before the right venue presented itself: an off-season ski resort in the middle of the Berkshire mountains. Still, we needed a good reason to run another show, as there were already a ton going on every weekend, never mind everyone attending would have to get out in the middle of nowhere (Hancock Mass is the least densely populated town in Massachusetts!). My wife has been a teacher her whole life, and even though I hated school and got little out of it she had shown me the amazing return on investment you can get from education. So the focus on education and inspiration completed the weekend of world-class tattooing in this environment. After a few meetings and site visits with Durb, Brett from Pulse tattoo, and other key sponsors, the Gathering took shape that first year. All of these big risks were all successful because of our widespread internet presence. We have had to make sure to use the power wisely and have built an amazing team, but having so many eyeballs coming to TattooNOW and Off the Map has helped us run successful events in very hard-to-get places.
Tattoo Observer: What do you want to see with the Tattoo Gatherings for the future?
Gabe Ripley: Interesting you ask, as we have no immediate plans for future Gatherings. From the beginning, I knew it takes at least 10 years for a show to have a real impact, and so maybe that means we bring back the show in 2017ish? Keystone was a great venue and both shows were successful all around, but I think that having a tattoo floor that big shifts the focus of the show a bit. In the future, we will end up with a smaller venue, which means less space for the tattoo floor and more focus on education. It is truly a privilege to have so many tattooers work the Gathering, but the event needs to shift its focus back to education. In the meantime, we plan on taking the same energy and putting it into TattooNOWtv where we webcast discussion panels, interviews, webinars, and even Guy Aitchison and Michlele Wortman’s Hypercast. By producing events we can broadcast through the internet we can reach a worldwide audience, and go home to the families at the end of the night. In the tattooing webinars (which do require studio addresses for vetting) the camera is very close in the action, so in some ways its a superior experience to a live seminar. We have one a month planned for the foreseeable future with the likes of Guy Aitchison, Jeff Gogue, Chet Zar, and many more. So, we’ll do online Gatherings for the next few years, and then make sure we do a show again, it’s worth the wait. Where and when is anyones guess, we’re open to suggestions!
Tattoo Observer: What changes do you feel have been the most significant in tattooing in the last decade?
Gabe Ripley: Ok, since 2003. Two years before Miami Ink. I’d have to say that the social acceptance of tattoos has been the most significant change. Many of the other changes stem from the fact that tattoos have gone from the underground to the mainstream. That’s a pretty big swing, from grandmothers crossing to the other side of the street to avoid you and nowadays they may cross the street just to talk to you! I have always had pretty high-quality and non-offensive tattoos, so had been able to be successful with many highly visible tattoos before this shift, but man, the difference in the public mindset is undeniable. Of course, there is still plenty of irrational hatred toward the art, but it’s not unique to have a tattoo anymore. I hear many tattooers grumbling that the spirit of tattooing is getting watered down, but I just see it getting stronger. It used to be that to be unique you could go get a shitty tattoo and you were part of the thug club. Nowadays, to be unique, you need to work a little harder and get a great tattoo. While everyone’s interested in the art these days, getting large-scale high quality tattoos is still pretty unique, most of the work out there is pretty rough certainly not done by the highest quality of artists. I like to think that instead of TV sucking the life out of tattooing, the spirit of tattooing is much stronger and it is the other way ’round. Tattooing can truly make people better people, more open-minded, more long-term thinking, and more patient, truly tattooing will help people perfect themselves on a mental level as well as physical… And now with more and more people getting tattooed, I think tattooing will help teach even more people these important lessons.
Tattoo Observer: I hear you are opening a studio in Europe. How did this all come about?
Gabe Ripley: As I mentioned I have always tried to travel as much as possible and have a hard time not doing something productive, so there was no choice. I started traveling white trash style, in 92 I went over to eastern Europe and ate like a king for a quarter a meal. Because the Iron Curtain had just fallen, we were some of the first American travelers through many of the places we went. I then freelanced as a computer programmer for a few years. In the mid 90′s I got tattooed by Tin Tin in Paris while working a freelance contract. Belgium and the Netherlands for more kids games, the UK. Flash forward and as more and more guests were getting busy at Off the Map in Easthampton, I started asking the guests if they would land in Europe if we ever opened up a shop there. Nearly everyone asked said yes, so it became a great goal to work for. Over the course of 4-5 years of doing various business with Alex De Pase, he became a possible partner. Jeff Gogue, who is a partner in Off the Map, had taught at the Worldwide Tattoo Conference a few times and was very excited about working with Alex. In fact, I also taught at the Rome Conference that sparked the Off the Map Northwest partnership with Jeff. We went on to partner with Alex to co-produce the US Chicago and Boston conferences, so it’s almost as if this studio and partnership we’re inevitable. It became apparent that this could become a real reality a year or so ago, but we still had to get our second location rolling and prove the management methodologies. We also needed to clear the plate enough so that managing a shop halfway around the true world would be enjoyable (note earlier reference to taking a few years off the Gathering). After word got out we partnered with Jeff Gogue the offers for other studios have been coming in regularly. While we are happy for every offer we receive, and we are lucky that it seems like every year or so there’s an opportunity that we have to take. We have a few amazing opportunities percolating, it will be very exciting to see how this all plays out. If we keep listening to what our 50-80 regular guest artists want and go where they would like, we can make sure Off the Map grows responsibly.