Tattooing becomes a way of life

by Steve Zegalia

High Priestess has a welcoming, quiet waiting room, but step through the door to the tattooing rooms and you’ll enter a different world. The buzzing of needles and loud music pervades the air, over which the chatter between artists and clients can be heard. With brown dreaded hair, gauged ears, and a houndstooth fedora, an artist works quickly and skillfully as he details a purple rose on the ribcage of his latest client. Splat Ter, 37, is in his element, working on a piece that depicts a woman with flowers as hair, for a client who has come down from Portland for him to complete its next stage.

His office is a space in the back area of High Priestess, cornered by a waist-high wall, from which he can shout to any other artist who might also be working. A depiction of Vishnu sits in the middle of a wall plastered with drawings and sketches of past tattoos, and a variety of Star Wars and Eastern ephemera occupy much of the shelf space. Ter is talkative and gregarious, engaging his client on subjects that range from the amount of pain she’s feeling (“ribcages are a bitch”, he says) to the sounds of Nirvana that emanate from his iPod speaker. Although a novice might imagine that a tattoo session would be tense and full of concentration, Ter is not afraid to crack jokes and tell stories as the needle runs, such as how his father grew up with Van Morrison or how he let his son give him a “Happy Birthday” tattoo.

Ter, 37, was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but his family moved to Orange County when he was 3 years old, although he frequently made trips back, and as he says “I got a nice balance of car-bombs and Disney Land.” It was in Orange County that he got his first tattoo, at the age of 17. That was also where he got his first job as a tattoo artist, at the shop now known as Outer Limits. He has now been working as a tattoo artist for 16 years, the past 4 and a half of which he has spent in Eugene at High Priestess.

Ter says he loves his job for the simple fact that he loves tattooing people. The sense of accomplishment when he completes a tattoo plays into his job satisfaction as well. “If you put into it what you’re supposed to put into it, you’ll get miraculous things out of it. And you need to, to succeed in this industry.” The same love of tattooing that makes him love his job, however, can also be its greatest problem: “ (In this profession), You live, breath, and shit tattooing. You don’t walk away from this job. At the end of the day, my job’s not even over, I’ll be drawing for a couple hours.” Splat works at High Priestess four days a week, and spends the other time with his 7-year-old son. His time is in high demand, though; he is usually fully scheduled for several weeks, if not a month, in advance.

“I think it would be cool to have this done by the end of the year”, says his client. Ter laughs incredulously as they discuss the design and process of getting the rest of the tattoo done. He’s been working on her for about an hour, but says he has tattooed for as long as 11 hours at a time in the past. This is the latest in a series of sessions to complete her current tattoo. As he finishes up, he wipes the tattoo down and bandages it, instructing her on how best to let it heal. As they laugh and joke, she schedules the next appointment and admires the new ink in a mirror. For the client this is a momentous occasion, but for Ter it’s just another day of helping clients realize their artistic dreams.

Splat Ter in his office.

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