The owner of Ghost in the Machine Tattoo in Boston (Massachusetts) tells us his story: the main stages of his career, his travels, tattoos, his love of Japanese and his new eBook 50 Dragon Backpieces… Let’s find out more! 

Would you like to introduce yourself to our readers?
I’m Erik Rieth, owner of Ghost in the Machine Tattoo in Boston, Massachusetts.

Erik Rieth, Ghost in the Machine Tattoo, Boston
Erik Rieth, Ghost in the Machine Tattoo, Boston

When did you start tattooing?
I started tattooing the summer of 1992, when I was half way through getting my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in sculpture, from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

What have been the main stages of your career so far?
I tattooed through most of the 90’s with a really fun crew at Bill Funk’s Body Graphics in Philadelphia. I owe him for the start of my career. He took a chance on me when I really had no business tattooing. I learned a lot hustling long hours at his walk-in shops back when people chose flash off the wall and you could make $50 doing a 5 minute kanji ($100 if it was on the chest or stomach!). By the late 90s I was starting to travel a lot to tattoo and get tattooed – I had the privilege of doing guest spots at top tier shops like Smilin Buddha, Graphicaderm, Hawaiian Tattoo Company, Royal Tattoo, and others.

I got my arms done by Filip Leu at Family Iron in 97-98 and needless to say that was a game changer.

Amazingly inspirational and had a profound effect on my tattooing. As I started becoming confident enough to really pursue larger scale custom work, I jumped at the chance to move to San Francisco for the first time in 98 to work with Mike Davis and a great crew at Everlasting Tattoo.

How was the San Francisco scene?
The SF tattoo scene in the 90s was really a golden age and I was thrilled to have some small part in it. After a few years there I moved once again, this time to Switzerland, to work with Mick Tattoo in Zurich. He and I had gotten to know each other over the course of several sessions doing my legs. Again, an amazing influence and a great guy. It was back to Philly by 2002, working with the notorious Cosmic Commander at his shop Kadillac Tattoo. RIP Cosmo. He was the kind of larger than life character that you hardly see in tattooing anymore. During this time period I was still going out to SF on a semi-regular basis to do guest spots at Artwork Rebels with Grime and Jason Kundell.

Erik Rieth, Ghost in the Machine Tattoo, Boston
Erik Rieth, Ghost in the Machine Tattoo, Boston

And what happened then?
By 2005, after returning from a stint in Spain, Kundell was ready to open a new shop and asked if I’d be interested in partnering up. He and I and Luke Stewart opened 7th Son Tattoo in SF that year and I remained co-owner for 8 years, ultimately deciding I needed to get back to my East Coast roots. I moved to the Boston area with a desire to shed the responsibilities of shop ownership, and to be honest, even the responsibilities of a regular work schedule. Redemption in Cambridge, Regeneration in Boston, and Torchbearer in Providence were kind enough to give me homes and allow me the freedom to make my own schedule. In 2017 I returned to being a shop owner and opened Ghost in the Machine Tattoo in Brighton, just on the edge of Boston.

Erik Rieth, Ghost in the Machine Tattoo, Boston
Erik Rieth, Ghost in the Machine Tattoo, Boston

Do you want to tell us more about your studio? Do you think your travelling days are over and that you’ve finally arrived?
I was fortunate enough to assemble an excellent crew right off the bat, with Brian Hemming, Josh McAlear, Bill Byers, and Dan Bythewood holding down the fort and making great tattoos. I’m still traveling a bit for conventions and the occasional guest spot, but my wandering days are past and I have planted a flag at my favourite shop I’ve ever worked at.

Erik Rieth, Ghost in the Machine Tattoo, Boston
Erik Rieth, Ghost in the Machine Tattoo, Boston

How would you define your style?
I’d say the majority of my work tends towards the Japanese style. Over the years there’s always been a bit of a push and pull with wanting to lean into a more “traditional” Japanese look versus embracing my aesthetic and individualism as a western artist. I hope this tension gives my work a somewhat unique style. I’m sure I display some of my influences more than others but I’ve always striven to find my own voice. There is such a multitude of talent and styles now that

I think that’s more important than ever to try to stand out in a crowd. Not an easy task these days in the white noise of social media.

Erik Rieth, Ghost in the Machine Tattoo, Boston
Erik Rieth, Ghost in the Machine Tattoo, Boston

Where did the idea of your eBook come from?
My “50 Dragon Backpieces” eBook was an idea I had germinating for quite some time, so when Miki asked if I’d like to do a project it provided the impetus to finally get it done. The past few years I have periodically been giving a Dragon Basics drawing seminar to other tattooers so my artwork had been more focused on them than ever. And placing them on the largest open canvas on your body is the most appropriate way to present them!

Tell us more about the eBook and about this subject as well…
The dragon, especially the Asian dragon, has always been one of the most powerful and quintessential tattoo images. I knew I wanted to have them tattooed on me and that I wanted to pursue the image artistically as soon as I started tattooing. The bulk of the book is dragons of the Japanese or Chinese persuasion but I had fun throwing in a few western styled ones as well as a nod to my obsession with medieval dragons as a kid. Some of my favourites in the book are the Taoist Immortal Conjuring Dragons, Kwan-yin riding a dragon, Tolkien’s Nazgul on his fell beast, the finger wave dragon, and a number of the head/neck/claw compositions that allow you to go over-size for maximum visual impact.

Erik Rieth, Ghost in the Machine Tattoo, Boston
Erik Rieth, Ghost in the Machine Tattoo, Boston

What are your projects for the future?
As the current incarnation of the book is all blacklines, my next project is a continuation of this one. I’m presently 11 pages into fully painting all 50. With the creative task of conceiving, lining, and designing the drawings done, it’s nice to just get in the zone and bring them all to life with colour and Black & Grey. Filling in those eyes at the very end to bring a dragon to life is particularly satisfying. After this I’m not sure but I really like the structure of a long-term project with a theme running through all the pieces. Maybe 50 big cat back pieces?…

Follow Erik on Instagram: @erik_rieth