Auburn tattoo artist’s passion goes beyond skin-deep

“If I were doing something else for a living,” said Cody Hart, “this is what I would be doing with all of my free time.”

Fresh off three days and early morning hours at the Tattoo Convention in Seattle last weekend, Auburn Tattooer Cody Hart might have been pardoned for indulging in some well-earned shut-eye Monday morning.

Nope. There Hart was, Monday morning, back at Derm F/X Tattoo & Piercing Shop at 3312 Auburn Way South, looking a bit blurry-eyed and rumpled, but jazzed as ever to be at work.

In Hart’s case, “jazzed” may be an understatement.

Because one thing that becomes clear in a flash about this Auburn native is that here stands one of the lucky few human beings who is certain he is doing exactly what he was put on Earth to do.

And, like guitar master Eric Clapton, who, word has it cannot stop talking about the blues or about past masters like blues legend Robert Johnson, this fellow cannot, perhaps never will, get enough of what he does.

“If I were doing something else for a living, this is what I would be doing with all of my free time,” Hart said in his office as he prepared for the day.

Word about people like that, whose heart is in everything they do, gets around, including into the ears of Madalyn Johnston, who had just hopped a plane from California to have Hart finish her tattoo.

“He does amazing work,” said Johnston, holding out her right arm, sporting Disney characters. “He did this arm a year and a half ago, and now he’s finishing it all. I am a huge Disney fanatic. I love everything about Disney.”

Looking down on Hart is a print of artist Bob Ross, given to him by a client, which shares wall space with prints of surrealist artist Salvador Dali’s work, including one image a visitor can only surmise must be Dali’s weird, wonderful idea of, er, a cosmic egg?

Unlike Dali, however, who was famous for painting in a bath tub, Hart works his magic sitting down or standing up, on an actual floor, tools of the trade in hand, eyes on the customers as they ease themselves into a perfectly ordinary black chair that shows no sign of Dali-esque melting.

Hart said he figured out exactly what he wanted to do with his life when he was just a little kid, going in and out of the various tattoo shops his motorcycle-life-loving father frequented, the future arist forming valuable connections with tattooers. In those shops, the boy found tubes a little kid could scrub and then clean in an autoclave to earn candy money.

“One of the guys that my dad grew up with had a son that was learning from his uncle, and we were always in that shop, and the son had been learning about tattooing for 10 years,” said Hart. “And one day, when I was maybe 15, he says, ‘You’re always here, you’re always in love with what’s going on. Do you want to learn? Is this something that interests you?’”

“‘I love it. absolutely. I really do,’” Hart replied.

Hart’s parents backed his play, on the condition that he move out of the house and start supporting himself, which he did. And before he’d even begun his junior year at Auburn Riverside High School, he dropped out.

“Not that I encourage it for kids, but for me, I knew what I wanted, I saw the path,” Hart explained.

Hart, who later earned his GED, said if his own son should announce that he wanted to drop out of school and become a tattoo artist, he would say no — the kid needs to finish school first.

By the time Hart was 16, he was fully involved in learning — “earning,” he said, “my place at the table for an apprenticeship.” His education began with instruction on and practice in the finer points of piercings.

In those days, Hart recalled, he was all ambition, and it was push, push, push, all the time.

“When I was an apprentice and I was allowed to tattoo on people for practice, there were all those kids I’d gone to school with — fresh out of school, you know, still in their party phase — and I would literally leave and go to my old high school and walk around and say, ‘Hey, aren’t you 18? You’re 18, right? Can I practice on you?’ Hart recalled with a laugh.

When Hart’s father — not a tattoo artist himself — retired, the senior suggested the two, father and son, open up a tattoo parlor together. But when his dad suffered a massive heart attack, which he survived, Cody took over.

The world the budding tattoo artist entered nearly 20 years ago, Hart said, was an entirely different beast from what it is today. In those days, the pay wasn’t all that great, and none of the equipment was disposable. Indeed, each artist had to make everything — the machines, the power supplies, the cords — then “go to Radio Shack” to buy the wiring. Then the artist had to fetch a needle bar and solder individual needles in formations that would make sense for his or her own techniques. Artists would pride themselves on their ability to make needles. Now all the gear can be bought ready to go.

Up into the early 2000s, there were well founded concerns about the possibility of infections with all those needles. When the state finally stepped in to regulate the profession, it began requiring licenses, which demanded that tattooers know about safety and blood-born pathogens.

“Money well spent every year,” Hart said of the annual $250 licensing fee.

Today Hart is himself training a budding tattoo artist, Dylan Fontanero, who is just as bug-eyed about the work as his teacher.

“I absolutely love it,” said Fontanero.

Hart recounted some of the hard lessons he himself learned about the craft in his younger days.

“I learned early in my career to respect what somebody wants in a tattoo,” Hart recalled. “One of the hardest lessons I ever took was in Vegas doing an expo down there, a 4-day show. And at the end of the show, I was exhausted. It was Sunday, I’d been tattooing my heart out all weekend, I have tickets to the Cirque-de-Soleil show in my pocket, I’m packing up my gear, I’m getting out, man. Then this kid comes up to me, maybe 18, and he says, ‘Everyone’s booked up, I really, desperately ,need this tattoo.’”

As Hart’s talking to the kid, he asked him what he wanted, figuring that perhaps if the tattoo was small enough, he could do something. What the kid wanted was a solid, pink triangle on his back.

Hart didn’t really want to tell him no, so he high-balled the cost, thinking the young man would walk away,and he, Hart, wouldn’t feel so bad about it.

“And he says, ‘No problem, let’s do it.’ And I get halfway through this solid pink triangle, and I ask him, ‘What do you want this tattoo for? And he starts telling me about his great grandfather, who was in Germany during the Hitler years. His great grandfather was not Jewish, but he was a homosexual, and the Nazis persecuted and then murdered him.

“And here he was, this young guy in front of me, showing love and compassion to his family. So I returned all his money to him, took him out to get something to eat, hung out with him for a couple of hours. I should have paid more attention to how special the request was, even though it was a pink triangle. The lesson is, whatever it is to you, if it really is that important to you, then I want to do the most beautiful pink triangle because that’s what it’s all about.”

One of Hart’s fondest memories is when one of his former teachers at Auburn Riverside, Ms. Campbell, who’d no doubt held her breath when the bright kid announced he was leaving high school, stepped into his establishment years later to see how things had gone for him, and was delighted to learn he was happy and thriving.

And, Hart said, teach got a small tattoo of her own, a Campbell’s soup can.

“I could not believe she remembered me,” Hart said.

If Hart has a message for young people just starting out, it is this. If they know what they want to pour their life’s energies into and are lucky enough to meet someone who’s doing that thing, whatever that thing is, buttonhole them, pick their brains, pay attention to how the passion that informs their work flashes in their eyes, quickens their speech, makes them flush.

That is, find where their own deep joy meets the world’s needs, and they will do well and be happy, even if they don’t make a pile of money.

“I loved drawing and painting, but every time that I got into drawing for myself, I’d be envisioning it as a tattoo. . At the end of the day, I’m a tattooer. I like needles, skin. I like creating tattoos. That’s my medium,” Hart said.