When Skin Meets Ink

Local tattoo artist talks about his punk rocker past, supporting his family, and the talent it takes to produce a decent tattoo.

By Cari Johnson

Bright pigments. Intricate details. Tools as sharp as pins.

Oh, and human skin.

Shawn “Felix the Tat” Epperson, 44, is one of three tattoo artists at Julien’s Black Lotus Tattoo & Piercing, which borders the edge of the Whiteaker neighborhood at 1011 W 6th Ave.

Epperson’s hands are enclosed in white rubber gloves as he dips a tattoo machine into rippling black ink. A bright floor lamp beams over his station. If it weren’t for the black skulled Los Angeles T-Shirt he wore, Epperson would almost resemble a doctor.

“Your doctor don’t touch you as much as I do!” Epperson remarks.

Epperson holds the tattoo machine close to his client’s arm.

Unlike many tattoo artists today, Epperson skipped tattoo school and attended art school in the late ‘80s at the former Phoenix Institute of Technology in Arizona. There, he studied drawing, pen and ink, pastel work, painting, and sculpture. He graduated at the top of his class.

Epperson chats with his client casually as he brings the tattoo machine to her skin. He grins through his peppered goatee.

“Back in the day you would hang out at a tattoo shop and bug the owner,” Epperson explains. “Nowadays the market is saturated with people with tattoo machines in their hands, but they don’t have the skill set.”

Epperson was first tattooed at age 18, and subsequently got a new tattoo each year.

He turned down a tattoo shop apprenticeship offer at 19 while he was at art school, years before the consideration of tattooing as a career.

“I was like, no way dude,” Epperson says.

Deidri Marquez sits peacefully in her chair as Epperson begins to work on her arm. Marquez has been a client of his since 2008, and regularly gets touched up every other week.

“He truly knows the art of laying a tattoo in skin,” she says with a genuine smile. She points to her right arm and strokes a brilliant flaming heart tattoo.

Epperson prepares ink to touch-up a tattoo for long-time client Deidri Marquez.

Epperson moved to Phoenix from North Bend in the mid-1980s, where he attended art school and worked as a courier. His friend married into a tattoo family, so he began hanging around a tattoo shop.  A year and a half  later (spending all waking hours sketching tattoos) he got behind the tattoo machine himself.

“I was a punk rocker, tattoo collector, artist, and tired of driving in circles,” Epperson explains.

Epperson resided in Maui for nearly 8 years with his wife, Michelle, where he worked his way up at a tattoo shop and eventually ran it himself. He began to receive regular clients – many coming from other islands and even the mainland just to see him.

Tired of Hawaii’s tourist-driven culture, Epperson and his wife moved to Eugene in 2006.

Marquez peers over her arm to inspect his work.

“I will continue to come to him,” Marquez says. “I don’t care if I’m in Hawaii, I’ll fly back to see him.”

Epperson’s tattoo philosophy is simple, and falls under traditional American and Japanese style. He never fails to use a clean black outline, black shading, and of course, color.

“Tattooing is the only thing I’ve ever done in my life that doesn’t get easier the more you do it,” Epperson says. “I always had the experience in life that things get easier and easier the more you do it!”

Epperson’s workspace is speckled with tattoo designs to small model cars. A 5” inch Felix the Cat bobblehead stands on his windowsill, peeping behind a stone Buddha.

“Its kind of corny, honestly,” Epperson says, regarding his nickname.

Epperson was first called “Felix” after he began attending punk rock shows in Phoenix. After struggling to prove himself to the punk rock crowd, a new friend coincidentally began introducing him as Felix after seeing his tattoo of Felix the Cat.

“They want to call me Felix?” Epperson recalls.  “Then call me Felix.”

The nickname has caught on ever since.

“[My wife] was dating me for several months before she found out I wasn’t Felix!” Epperson says.

Epperson and his wife have one daughter, 15, and two boys ages 7 and 10. His daughter, Exene, is an honor roll student with interests in the ukulele and bass. Ten-year-old Jerome follows close behind his sister by playing the drums. A seven-year-old Jasper?

“He can keep a beat,” Epperson says.

Marquez chuckles softly as she hears about Epperson’s family. Epperson speaks confidently as he brings the tattoo gun to her arm. A high pitched buzzing fills the room once again.

“Being self-employed is no joke,” Epperson says. “You got to be used to getting behind the bills and keep the faith that you’ll get ahead eventually.”

For Epperson, tattooing is a love-hate relationship. Yet with a steady stream of loyal clients, he hopes to be in the same tattoo station ten years down the road with a tattoo machine in hand.

“I want to build tattoos that are built for life,” Epperson said. “Every time.”

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