Although skateboarding and tattoos have existed harmoniously in the subculture since each began becoming more mainstream in the ’90s, few can truly bring the two together like former professional skateboarder turned full-time tattoo artist Adam McNatt. After a roller coaster of a skateboarding career full of innovation and drama, the Orange County native — who’s lived and worked everywhere from Long Beach to Oceanside — has now established himself with his own style and private studio after a decade in the tattoo world.
“I’ve always been an artist,” McNatt says. “I’ve always been drawing and painting and stuff, and when I was working at a skateboard camp from 2007 to 2009, I was able to save up some money to do an apprenticeship at [Dana Point’s] Raygun Tattoo. I had to get my foot in the door there while also teaching kids to skateboard at the camp, but it meant I had money saved up, so I could afford to not work and just do the apprenticeship. Once I got that apprenticeship, I just put my head down and started working hard toward it.”
The same work ethic that landed him in videos and magazine spreads as a skateboarder has earned McNatt an equal amount of respect in his current field. While others may become easily enamored and distracted by tattooing’s flexible lifestyle, it’s not nearly enough to draw McNatt’s nose away from the grindstone. Although some may praise the lifelong artist’s dedication, he just sees it as doing what he knows is needed to succeed in a very difficult and sought-after career — which is something he’s already done once, after all.
“They’re actually very similar,” McNatt says of his former and current careers. “Skateboarding can be very difficult trickwise, but tattoos are super difficult because each one is different. The nice thing about tattooing is that not a lot of people can steal your stuff or your skate spot — they can’t take away from you. In skateboarding, you can be the first to do a trick on a rail, but then 20 others come and do a trick on the same rail and blow up the spot. Once a tattoo is done, it’s one of a kind for that person.”
Just under two years ago, McNatt made another big step in his career when he opted to leave the shop he’d been working at since his apprenticeship to open up his own private studio. Although becoming an appointment-only tattooer is always a bit of a gamble for an artist who hasn’t yet established a massive nationwide following, being able to work on his own terms has improved the quality of McNatt’s art and life over the last several months. Of course, there are still a few aspects he misses about working in a walk-in shop.
“The good thing about working in a shop is that you get a lot of experience about what the public wants,” McNatt says. “You get to learn all of the different parts of the body and different styles and types, which is really important. You also get to have the shop life with the artists and people around you feeding off of each other, which can be cool too. A private studio doesn’t get you as much work since there are no walk-ins, but you get more time to create and develop designs and make them better than you would in the shop. You don’t have to hustle to get people in the chair and get them out, so you can take a little bit more time to draw a design and acquire a more custom quality feel instead of hustling all of the time.”
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These days, McNatt gets to focus on the tattoos he likes to do the most. From illustrative neotraditional work to the most detailed color realism pieces, having an entirely private clientele means the artist can put as much time and effort as he wants into each piece of artwork. Being able to specialize and focus on their strengths is a luxury not every tattooer can afford, but don’t expect McNatt to pigeonhole himself in only one style for those who are willing to make the long drive south to visit his studio.
“It’s really cool to be able to do your own stuff, but it takes a long time to acquire your own style,” McNatt says. “It takes many years of tattooing to know where you want to project yourself and where you want to be better, but it’s more exhilarating to have your own style. Personally, I don’t want to keep myself in one corner by just doing one style of tattoos, because I think a good tattooer should be able to do just about any style of a tattoo — whether it’s more neotraditional or realism or whatever the customer wants.”
Above all else, McNatt is just happy to have found a career that allows him to express himself and use his talents to please his customers. As a guy who got into trouble for not being willing to bite his tongue as a professional skateboarder, the freedom of expression that tattooing encourages is a perfect fit for McNatt’s offbeat sense of humor and personality. Combine that with his ability and drive to perfect every piece of art he works on, and it’s no wonder the former skateboarder found a home beyond shredding the pavement.
“I love tattooing, and it basically saved my life in the transition from skateboarding,” McNatt says. “I enjoy watching people walk out of my studio super happy about what they just got tattooed because it’s on their body for the rest of their life. It really comes down to focusing on quality over quantity. I would just tell people to take their time and put the effort into every tattoo they design.”