Rap, Ink: Hip Hop's First National Emcee With A Tattoo Parlor
Emcee and tattoo parlor owner Isaiah Toothtaker speaks about putting ink on Rapper Big Pooh, Murs, Jean Grae and others, and how this Hell's Angels affiliate feels about co-opting gang culture.
By Brandon E. Roos
It can be tough to move past an accolade as stunning as being involved in “over 400 witnessed bare knuckle street fights” (as his Tumblr notes), but with clear success in two separate fields, focusing on Isaiah Toothtaker's history of violence can tend to overshadow his other accomplishments. The owner of the respected Tucson tattoo shop Staring Without Caring, in addition to being the co-creator of the collective and record label Machina Muerte (with fellow rapper Mestizo), the Arizona native has made much of a potential invitation from the Hell's Angels and a co-sign from Murs.
With Hip Hop's tattoos, especially those of the facial variety, gaining a lot prominence in recent months, Hip Hop DX reached out to a man with a hand in both fields to speak not only on what's happening with Machina Muerte but what's been happening in his shop as well. In an exclusive interview with HipHopDX, Isaiah shares a short list oft who he's tattooed, how he feels about the focus on his criminal record in interviews, and how the rise in face tattoos signals a paradigm shift in tattoo culture as a whole.
HipHopDX: How did you get involved in the tattoo business to begin with?
Isaiah Toothtaker: I had just been getting tattooed at a really early age. I had been getting tattooed from practically 13 and then heavily tattooed from 15 and on, and I had just been very heavy into street activity. I sort of held form and [ran] a local gang, a bunch of street kinda thugs, and we got the attention of the president of the local chapter of the Hell's Angels. [After] befriending and becoming acquainted with them, he prospectively was interested in having myself and another member link up or join up – become a Hell's Angel ourselves – but it just wasn't really my personal interest and not so much of my partner's [either]. I just never really took to motocycle culture. I think that I missed the era by being born a little later and being younger. It just wasn't appealing to me in that way, but because he had already started mentoring certain aspects that were part of the dialogue of violence and this thug and outlaw kind of culture, he opened up his door to [other possibilities]. So rather than take on his mentorship under the wings of the motorcycle gang, [I started] working for him as his direct apprentice at his tattoo shop.
Through that tutelage, I started learning how to tattoo. He was already mentoring me in a lot of senses and this was a big aspect of his life, so I took on learning how to tattoo. It was a very traditional and very staunch apprenticeship by the older sort of traditions of tattooing culture, stuff that you would kind of see lost now, but I definitely got into it by making needles, learning how to build and fix machines – a hands-on approach of knowledge and learning the equipment and the construction of the tools and whatever else. [I began] tattooing just aboutm9 years ago, and just got into it that way. So that was my introduction, just kind of being a violent street thug, and instead of joining up with Hell's Angels, I joined up with the Hell's Angels tattoo shop and was under his employment.
DX: When did you open your shop Staring Without Caring?
Isaiah Toothtaker: This will be the fifth year.
DX: With the shop open for five years, what's your clientele like now and how has it shifted since it first opened? It seems like you've become known the best shop in Tucson, so with that kind of a label, have you seen the shop gain a regional, or even a national, clientele?
Isaiah Toothtaker: The clientele that I've done have [come from] all over the place geographically. I've seen people come from Canada. I've had people who [were] from India. We've even had a few guest artists from different regions of the nation work here for periods of time here too, so we have a draw to it. They're all respectable artists here in addition to myself, and I think that we have developed, locally even, a high regard from people who are [knowledgeable about] tattooing and are aware of what would be a better quality of work. We are considered one of the most reputable, if not the most reputable, shop in town and that does something [not just for us but for] the state of Arizona.
In addition, I've had a clientele, to some degree, of other artists and celebrities. I've done a half sleeve on the drummer of Arcade Fire. I've tattooed Jean Grae. I've tattooed Murs. I've tattooed 2Mex. I can continue to go on – Eligh from Living Legends, Lucky.i.am Living Legends. I did [Rapper] Big Pooh of Little Brother's first tattoo at the hotel adjacent to the Skribble Jam that Little Brother had performed at. As I was doing the tattoo, I was politicking with Murs, 9th Wonder, Phonte, [and] Big Dho, their manager, about different things as I was giving him his first tattoo, and look at him now – I think he has full sleeves at this point.
Just having this element of clientele, I'm sure, aids the reputation as well, but mostly people attend us for the quality of work.
DX: What sets your shop apart? What do you specialize in? Do you ascribe to a particular aesthetic?
Isaiah Toothtaker: I think that what people might expect is Americana or the American traditional style of tattooing just because we do post a lot of photos of that, more so than any others. And I think that there is a fondness that everybody here shares for it, more so than whatever else we will post. But, I mean, I grew and had learned in a street shop that was known for black and grey work and doing a lot of script stuff. I'd be doing a fuckin' portrait of a pit bull for six hours and then flip over to do an M.O.B. – money over bitches – script across somebody's shoulders in the same day. [I grew] from doing stuff like that to doing more custom, traditional Japanese and traditional Chinese sleeves. [We do] everything from traditional Americana to portrait-type stuff, so we don't have a specialty.
We don't have a niche where we use it as a crutch or as a gimmick or as a sales point. I think the fondness we have for Americana is that it definitely needs to be refined for it to look appropriate. And that's the challenge with doing something that has had its staple designs last the ages of time. It's definitely lasted and there's a reason for that: it's designed really well. I think the challenge of making an Americana tattoo look appropriate and be to its maximum quality and highest aesthetic is that it has to be a well-refined tattoo design. But it's nothing that we stick to only because of preference.
DX: Do you have a particular tattoo design that you consider to be your favorite or best work?
Isaiah Toothtaker: Not necessarily. It's really something that I don't put too much of a personal investment in to where I'm concerned about it for years to come. It's almost like once you tattoo something, you have to be willing to accept that it could walk out the door and the person could possibly not take care of it and that could ruin the integrity of the art or the propriety of the tattoo itself. You develop a frigid sort of separation from it, and I think that over the years that I've been tattooing, not that I've detached completely from it – I definitely consider and care enough about it to maintain its quality – but I don't have a favorite.
DX: I had asked about the influences and aesthetic behind Staring Without Caring. Musically, what would you consider to be your influences that either got your into Rap or guide your musical vision?
Isaiah Toothtaker: It's come from a lot of different places. I grew up in the Punk Rock scene here [because] my father was an active sort of member as far as the community of it went. I would say direct influences, though, would have to be early Wu-Tang [Clan] albums, Ice-T, Organized Konfusion, a lot of late '90s east coast Rap, and then I'd say the west coast underground kind of tape culture. A lot of polyrhythmic kind of emcees – anybody who had a high amount of density or if there was a lot of depth to their schemes or the rhymes itself. If there seemed to be something that I wouldn't necessarily get upon first or second listen, but then after becoming familiar with a larger amount of the rhyme itself, I would develop a different sort of epiphany about it. Stuff like that would resonate longer with me, so stuff that was definitely more intensely written would be anything that would be the influence upon what I do now.
DX: I think you can definitely see that with your delivery. Just speaking on that as well, it's always nice when you put in that extra effort and you see something that you've never seen in a song that you've heard maybe 10, 20 times and all of a sudden it's fresh and brand new.
Isaiah Toothtaker: Right. And that's the same thing about having these challenges with art and having these challenges with the medium of art. It's something that you want to have last the span of time. You want something that's gonna hold up against ages and still kind of remain or have a high regard, regardless of when it's been played or how many times it's been played. That's the appeal and the excitement of even participating in music.
DX: I noticed in other interviews that there's usually a focus on your criminal past. Do you ever feel that your rep can sometimes overshadow your rap, so to speak? Do you feel like there's too much of a focus on that sometimes?
Isaiah Toothtaker: You know, it's hard to say sometimes really, because it's been such . . . I don't want to say the biggest part of my life, but it's been such a heavy [part] of my life that it doesn't really strike a different or a kind of peculiar awareness when people tend to ask about it. It's something that has been so regularly asked or questioned and under scrutiny, for better or worse, for so so so long, especially being a father [and a] business owner. It doesn't strike me now as something that's strange or frustrating if an interviewer or if the public or anybody questions it or is curious about it. It's something to where I'm completely aware of the fact that my life, with violence and with fighting, has been so unique in a way where the numbers themselves have been outstanding to most.
I definitely lend myself to explaining it with no reluctance to how it affects peoples' perception of my music because, at the same time, I have a tattoo on my face, and I've had this face tattoo for just about nine years now, you know, before the craze [in] Rap culture – you know, Game and any of these artists or whatever else [who] started to do that. It's something to where I was aware of my identity or reputation [and how it] affects people's interpretation of me, so [it's a challenge] seeing if I can kind of – I don't want to say manipulate, but if I can kind of get past it or if I can overcome it. It's now become part of my lexicon, so to speak, [just like] if I had a drawl in my speech or if I utilized more slang to somebody who wasn't as aware or understanding of what specifics or semantics I was talking, so it's like something now that comes as part of the way my language kind of hits.
When people talk about it, I understand that it's a [major] aspect, and that it does sort of make sense for a lot of the songs, because there's some stuff that kind of does, as far as the content in songs, lend to metaphor more than what's literal. Some of them have more theory or metaphor and there's definitely a play of words on some stuff. I think that even just understanding that there's that history behind it, it lends to the explanation of where it's being projected from, so it's kind of important to some degree, and I never feel offended by people questioning that. It's something true to life – true to my life. It's been a large aspect to it, and I don't see it stopping any time now, especially as I'm still kind of – I don't want to say recovering from it, but I'm still dealing with some of the more severe repercussions of more recent violent acts, you know.
DX: Tell me a little bit about what you've got going on musically right now, both with yourself and the label.
Isaiah Toothtaker: With the label, it's myself and Mestizo really at the base of the operation, and really hands-deep inside of how it's going to be released, where it's gonna be released, and just everything that kind of encompasses it. As we're still kind of graduating from the incubation of it, there's a lot of leg work and stuff that has to kind of be filed through that we're getting finalized and finished still, so that's a big portion of it.
I just released Illuminati Thug Mafia on January 25th. We've got a couple videos that [have] yet to be released. [The next is] “Faith No More.” The one that will follow that will be “Homeboy Get Housed,” featuring Murs, from Illuminati Thug Mafia as well. And then I'm about to finish up the second song for these deejay/mash-up producers called Hood Internet. After I turn in the second song to them that I had promised, I'm basically jumping in completely and utterly into the Humansuit project, which will be our debut album as the group itself and our very first album to have its own release. That's something that we're hoping to have finished by the middle of the year and release by the end of the year, so [those are] kind of the next steps.
Basically, me and Mestizo are collecting beats and getting everything together for the Humansuit project. Really, that's the next big step. The relationship that he and I share while we're on stage – it's very dynamic and it's very high energy and it's something that we want to try to convert more so into an album to give people. It's definitely a chemistry that needs to come into its own as well, so that record has been a long time coming.
DX: Explain your connection with Murs. How much of a part is he still playing in your career?
Isaiah Toothtaker: As far as presently, not so much. He [was] integral to the beginning stages of it. Obviously, he released the record that was kind of my semi-official debut in a way. I've had other independent releases or had pressed physical copies of CDs professionally or whatever else and had been working them locally or to a local network and a closer sort of west coast network, but he really helped bring the album I released with him into its own. I had gone on my very first national tour on the Murs For President Tour and that was by his aid. He's definitely had advice for me and I think a lot of it just stemmed from a really true relationship that he and I have had. Our friendship has dated back since before 2000. I couldn't specifically say when, but it's been a long time now that I've known him.
We had a podcast together that was sort of like – I don't know if you're familiar with Kevin Smith's smodcast, but it was kind of in the same vein as that. It was a humorous kind of talk podcast that he and I had [where we] went back and forth on some banter or we would discuss various topics.
DX: Is that up on iTunes?
Isaiah Toothtaker: Yeah, it's still currently up on iTunes. It's called Werd2Murs. I go by a handle of WerdEmUp, obviously, on Twitter. It's just something that from earlier in stages in music, from [releasing] a song to getting a semi record label together by it or promoting different weekly deejay events with it. It's just something I use as an a handle or an alias at times, but not so much a moniker. That is what we decided to combine into the podcast, so it was W-E-R-D, the number two, Murs. And there's still episodes up.
DX: You had mentioned your face tattoo. With the increased exposure of face tattoos, have you seen more requests for them at your shop?
Slightly. I'd say that the rise of it – it spawned from Mike Tyson, just because he was such a figure and celebrity that it just started spawning from then. [There have been] a couple face tattoos here in the shop, but mostly they're somewhat regular to gang members, so a couple of them were cover-ups of certain messed up gang tattoos that just didn't come over well or were done really poorly and other ones were just higher quality, professional versions of gang tattoos. That's something that's kind been a regular thing with tattooing, but seeing an influx of it because of rappers, not so much.
What I've noticed is that there's been sort of a backwards way about approaching first tattoos or accumulating your first tattoos. Before, people would acquire them in places that they could either cover or that would be easily covered. If you were gonna get them visible [on] your arm by short sleeve shirt, you could still put a long sleeve on and you would wear them. And even in just the tattooing culture, you were kind of mocked and looked at as an idiot if you went about it in a way where you were tattooing your hands or your neck, anything that was difficult to cover without having full sleeves and without having a higher amount of tattoos, because it was like saying you weren't aware and you were going about getting tattoos for inappropriate reasons, more so just to peacock and garner novel attention rather than true, thoughtful commitment or anything that was by preference necessarily.
It's hard to say. With these areas, they're kind of gray because who's truly to say why somebody gets something or what's working in their mind. But definitely since the popularization of it, you see people with much more visible tattoos in areas they can't cover without having the experience of tattooing – without having full sleeves, without sort of dealing with the repercussions that come with people identifying you as somebody with tattoos. [Even if it's] a slightly archaic kind of taboo, people still have their opinions of it. It's definitely a glorification of a villain or of an infamous kind of perception, and I think that that's [come from] these personas trying to portray gangsterism without having the experience of it. A lot of people want to portray themselves as criminals without having to commit crimes – it's much [easier] that way. And [wearing more visible tattoos] was kind of a way to identify who was more real versus who was fake.
When I got my face tattoo, it was just to kind of boisterously show that I was so committed to outlaw and criminal culture that I could care less. It was definitely a strong, striking change for me to sort of now be kind of clustered in ways with [this new wave]. From somebody who did it out of criminality and sort of to prove that – you know, one of the more recent things that I got busted for was stabbing somebody in the face a bunch of times, so I have an experience with it. It makes sense for me to have a dagger on my face tattoo. But when you start seeing people with butterflies on their face or doing these weird faux cover ups of cartoon characters or, you know, rainbows and ice creams and things like that, it becomes a novelty. It becomes ridiculous in a humorous way – a mockery of oneself.
DX: So you're telling me with the rise in face tattoos and it kind of going against the grain of what it used to mean that it's kind of –
Isaiah Toothtaker: I think it's becoming a parody in a way and it's becoming kind of novel.
DX: So instead of it meaning something before and knowing that you had earned it, so to speak, nowadays it's kind of changed that whole dynamic.
Isaiah Toothtaker: Right. And I think to some degree though, the dynamic has changed over because – I wouldn't necessarily say the ability to voice but more so the amount of people who should voice things about it. Being a tattooer myself, having tattoos, being a criminal – having those two intertwined with each other, I would definitely see the difference between it. I feel like more people should have [seen that difference] before hand and that might have impeded it, or at least it might have changed the amount of it or it definitely could've had a hand [in shaping] the existence of it now. I think there's just more of an over saturated amount of existence and presence of it.
DX: That was something I certainly didn't know. That's really eye-opening.
Isaiah Toothtaker: Right. And I still feel like people don't know that, so you had mainstream culture just sort of push it on you and [there] was this huge wave of popularity. It was everywhere you looked yet it wasn't completely being explained. There were certain details of the history that made sense to practice, but, you know, traditions die. Things change. Times move forward and it's part of the progression. In some ways, something new will come from it or I think that there will be a different type of clarity.
DX: Since you have such an active role with both your label and your shop, do you ever find yourself gravitating more to one than the other or finding one more difficult when juggling the two? Have you found a good medium yet?
Isaiah Toothtaker: I feel like I'm starting to balancing them a lot better than I have before, but I feel more so that tattooing has become my job. I've done it as sort of a way of exploit to perform music as a second interest. It sort of became tattooing as a way to function and provide for music. As things had progressed, music didn't necessarily take a back seat, but I definitely had to sort of keep up with the pace as my career really progressed in the ways that it did.
It's different for me to tattoo than it is for me rapping or making music because there's a different type of way it resonates. I feel like here [in the shop], somebody comes in with their ideas, of even if I add my own characteristic to it, or if it's something I dictate to degrees, it's still exploited for money. I trade it off for funds and then the care of it or how it's appropriated after the fact is dependent on somebody's attitude or feeling or perception or independence after they walk out the door. I don't get to own it. I don't get to see it unless I take a picture of it, but even then it's something that I can't live and it's nothing I carry through beyond just getting better at it.
They definitely parallel each other, but one takes more of a physical strain on you as well because it still is a job. Even though I own the shop, I still take dictations from the customer because of the industry that it is – it's a service industry. Performing these services, I have somebody who makes a request that I have to live to, but with music, it's sort of boundless. I choose to do whatever it is by free will and it's something that I can step away from without feeling like I'm neglecting or being irresponsible, so that's the difference between the two.
If I had to choose between one or the other, I would definitely choose music, but would I compromise music in a way to where I would have to use it to make money? No, and that's why I'm fortunate enough to have the two of them.