Meeting Teresa Sharpe at the 15th International London Tattoo Convention, you could tell she was extremely mature for her age (34), yet still playful during our interview. She grew up quickly taking care of her younger siblings — adopting them when she was 21 while balancing her life in college and then later starting a career in the tattoo industry.
In 2013, her life changed forever when she took part in the TV competition show “Best Ink.” She was that Season’s winner and her name soared to new heights in the United States and beyond as she became well-known in respected magazines and tattoo conventions. Fame has not fazed her, Sharpe has continued to passionately pursue the arts (especially in tattooing), creating expressive fantasy-like characters and worlds on her clients’ bodies. Her color and shading are applied on skin with a refined skill of a traditional illustrator, painter.
You mentioned in past interviews that you’ve had much responsibility at an early age, such as taking care of your younger siblings.
My father passed away when I was 19, and my mother hasn’t really been in the picture. At 19, I adopted, got custody of both my brother and my sister. I’m the eldest in the family as far as siblings go. My brother was two years younger than me and my sister was six years younger. I had to get them through school, and get myself through college. And then about halfway through college, I was offered a chance to adopt my youngest brother, who is 20 years younger than me. I basically became a mom when I was about 21.
That’s really difficult. And you were still able to do so much in terms of your career.
Yeah. You’ve gotta just use those opportunities to really get yourself organized.
Having kids isn’t the end of being successful, or the end of being able to go for a career. It just means that you have to organize your life and get things together.
In 2013, you won “Best Ink” Season 2, winning a grand prize of $100,000. How did this prize change your life?
The prize didn’t really change my life. It just, maybe, accelerated some of the stuff that I wanted to do, such as open a shop in Virginia. So I used a lot of those funds to pursue that goal.
You are originally from Indiana, however, you opened your studio in Richmond, VA. Why, there?
Warmer weather. [Laughs] The Mid-West is very cold in the winter. I feel like it gets colder early in the year and I always struggled with that. And the art scene… they have a good art scene in Indianapolis. But where I grew up was a small town, and there’s not much going on there. So I saw a bigger field to work in.
What is the tattoo scene like in Richmond?
The tattoo scene in Richmond is very popular. They have had a tattoo scene probably for over 30 years. It has been more traditional though. When I moved [to Richmond], there were only a few shops doing stuff that wasn’t Traditional. And it’s nice to be one of the few shops [doing something different]. There’s just not a lot of them that focus on something outside of traditional in Richmond. That’s kind of their history there.
The traditional style has been commonly seen at US conventions.
Yeah, I think the old-school style has definitely recirculated and become popular again. It’s a nice way to get tattoos without having to commit to a giant tattoo. It’s a lot of little fun things, and you piece it together and make a sleeve out of it.
I just prefer pieces that are completely developed ideas, before it gets on the skin, and it [becomes] like a whole sleeve or a whole back piece.
Not everyone knows that you have a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. Why did you choose to be a tattooer, instead of pursuing a job as a traditional illustrator or painter?
I went to college for traditional painting. I did a lot of portrait paintings and stuff based off of Photorealism. The issue with that is, it can be really tough to have a full-time career as just a painter. And tattooing has consistently grown as a commissioned art form. And I wanted something that I could do every day that was pursuing art, but had a commission-basis behind it. It was kind of this balance of being able to do something creative while still being able to pay my bills, and then have time on the side for personal projects.
That reminds me of David Gluck, who used to be a painter and transitioned to becoming a tattooer to make a better living in the arts.
At this point, it’s very difficult to make a living off of painting. And even illustration, a lot of magazines have closed, unfortunately. And there’s not as many illustrators as there used to be. I do have a few friends that are comic-book illustrators, and I’ve always felt like they work so much harder than I do for less than what I make as a tattoo artist. Which is insane, because they are cranking out drawings every single day, constantly working on new projects. Sometimes they have more than one project in the works! And they have deadlines that are a lot harder than tattoo deadlines. Whenever I hear a tattoo artist complaining about drawing a sleeve or a back piece, I just get so frustrated, because I’m like “You don’t understand how good you have it.”
Tattooing is a golden opportunity, and I am so thankful every day that I have it.
Although you use a tablet as a drawing tool, you are still devoted to drawing on paper.
There’s something that I will always love about drawing on physical surfaces (paper, canvas, board) … just something that you can’t recreate with an iPad or even the Wacom Cintiq. There’s that divide between you and the image. There’s an electronic divide. I also think the nice thing about paper and canvas is that there’s an original that exists in the world, whereas, on an iPad everything can get deleted and be gone forever. Unless you’ve printed it, which in that case, is still a mass, producible thing. Prints will never look like an original painting and that’s why I love it!
You have focused on large-scale tattoos. Have your clients been immediately interested in sizable art pieces? How much creative freedom do they give you?
It took about five years to get clients to come to me for bigger tattoos. I definitely spent a lot of years doing just whatever walked in the door — [i.e.] small tattoos. And slowly, I created a portfolio of bigger pieces. And now, I kind of have stopped taking a lot of input from my clients. I usually come up with a theme (or a few different themes) that I want to do, and I will put that out there and offer that to clients. And if they love my work; generally, they’re pretty excited to get whatever I want to do. And so I try to come up with themes that people can resonate with.
And if they love that theme and I love that theme, then we’re going to create something beautiful together.
Some of your clients have actually pitched you themes (e.g. fantasy films), and they’ve requested it in your artistic style. You’ve said yes, and have watched those movies carefully for inspiration.
It is important as a client to look at somebody’s whole portfolio, and see if it is something you would wear. If you have like 100% love, or a 90% love of what they do, then you know that that’s the percentage of love you’re going to have for whatever they create for you. And if you walk into a shop and you only like 50% of what that person does, then it’s a 50/50 chance that you might not be happy with what they draw. So it is important to find the right artist.
Especially for what I do—I’m just creating off a loose reign. You want to make sure that you really into what I do because I might draw a cat for you, and if you’re not into cats then we got problems. [loud laughter]
I’m more into dogs. [laughing]
That’s not my go to [laughing more].
Your aesthetic resembles somewhat comics and graphic novel art. Have you considered illustrating your own book?
I have thought about it, but I am terrified of having to [produce] that much artwork for a novel. It is really scary for me. I think I’m gonna start small with like a sketchbook, and hopefully release a sketchbook.
You are co-owner of “Unkindness Art” studio, which includes both tattooing and laser tattoo removal services. Is this the evolution of tattoo businesses?
We have actually paired with this laser-tattoo-removal service that travels. So they setup at a few different shops throughout the year. And they see us probably like every two to three months. I think it is definitely something that tattoo shops should consider. We have a lot of people that come in wanting cover-up tattoos. Tattoos are popular; they’re very pop culture, now. And people are getting them really young. [When they get tattooed, sometimes] six years later, they’re like, “I really wish I hadn’t got this when I was 19.” This was definitely happening 20 years ago [people getting tattooed at a young age], but there wasn’t the option of laser tattoo removal. And now with that being an option … if you’re willing to sit through the pain, you have the reward of getting something totally different. [Laughs]
It is said that laser removal treatment is more painful than getting tattooed.
I have not had any myself, as of yet. But it is supposedly more painful than getting tattooed. However, it takes less time than getting tattooed. Because you can get your whole forearm lasered in 15 minutes; whereas, tattooing can take up to 10 hours.
In recent years, there’s also been an increase in cover-ups.
I think so, because more people are getting tattooed and starting at younger ages. And there’s such a wide-range of shops, that somebody will put something on you for 50 bucks, and then you realize later on, “Maybe that wasn’t a great idea. I should have saved up and got the $300 tattoo.” And now they’re coming back wanting the bigger tattoo. Or, they just want something that doesn’t remind them of when and where they first got tattooed.
Cover-ups are still a big part of the industry.
And it’s not something that we should shy away from because you never know when you’re going to be wanting one too. [laughs]
The industry has grown, there are many tattoo styles that were not available in the past. In some cases, it may not be a “mistake,” but just someone’s tastes changing over time.
Absolutely. There is definitely the aging of tattoos and the aging of styles. There was a bigger biomechanical tattoo culture in the ’90s … it’s still there, just not as popular as it was. I think that we’re going to see that happening a lot when there’s an influx of a certain style, and then it dies off, and then something else comes in and replaces it, or maybe something comes back again.