Most artists would settle for being the frontman of a long-standing successful hard-rock band, but that wasn’t enough for Atreyu vocalist Alex Varkatzas.
With Atreyu becoming more of a part-time project after returning from hiatus in 2014 and releasing Long Live the following year, Varkatzas decided to pursue a new artistic passion. As an avid tattoo collector for nearly as long as he’s been in a band, it was time for the renowned metalcore singer to cross the line from fan to artist.
“I’ve always loved tattoos, especially the American traditional tattoos like I do,” Varkatzas says. “I’ve been painting for a while, and it seemed like a logical progression. I’d been getting tattooed since before I was legally allowed to get them, but the band had always been the priority. Life’s changed, and now I have more time to devote to art.”
While Varkatzas may currently specialize in bold and bright American traditional tattoos, he learned under one of the local masters of realism, Rich Pineda. As a punk rocker and musician himself, Pineda was more than willing to show Varkatzas the ropes from the very beginning of his ink career, even if some artists may have scoffed at the 35-year-old’s desire to transition to a more visual medium.
“Rich is a great dude, so that’s the best part for me,” Varkatzas says. “On top of that, he’s insanely talented and has a ton of knowledge. It’s really good for me to be around someone with that spirit and be able to pick his brain every day.”
Although tattooing and songwriting may seem like completely different art forms, Varkatzas believes they have more in common than most people would realize. In many ways, the same thoughts and creative processes that went into crafting the songs on classic Atreyu albums such as The Curse and Suicide Notes and Butterfly Kisses go into every one of Varkatzas’ tattoos. Since he can only write and release music when the band is ready to work on a new album, tattooing fills the creative void whenever the multitalented artist needs it.
“The way you come up with a tattoo design might be the same as how you come up with a song or with some lyrics,” Varkatzas says. “I think it’s that same creative part of your brain. Tattooing fills that need for me to constantly be creating something. With the band, we only write an album every so often, so I wanted another outlet.”
Of course, fronting a band as big as Atreyu offers some perks that most fledgling tattooers don’t get. Social media and touring gave Varkatzas a chance to bring his ink across the map before most tattooers would be able to get out of their hometown. On Atreyu's most recent tours, Varkatzas would line up a spot at a local tattoo shop in whatever town or city the band was playing and tell fans where to find him. Other times, he would get more creative.
“My first couple of journeys out, I just went into different shops [during each tour stop],” Varkatzas says. “Then it became a mixture of hotel rooms and shops where I know people. On Warped Tour, we’d find out our schedule at 9 in the morning every day, so I’d book appointments and tell [customers] that I’d let them know what time I could tattoo them in the morning. The guys were nice enough to let me set up a station to tattoo in our home on the bus.”
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When he’s not on the road, the Orange County–based artist works out of a private studio at Sullen Art Collective’s headquarters in Seal Beach. Thanks to Sullen’s reputable name in the tattoo industry and Varkatzas’ growing following, he's been able to turn tattooing in a full-fledged second career.
“It’s just been fun,” Varkatzas says. “It occupies my time, and a little extra scratch never hurt anybody. I’ve got two kids, a wife and a mortgage, but on top of that, it occupies my days. I get up, I do a quick workout, and then I come back, eat lunch, and tattoo until it’s time to play a show. It’s a great and unique day.”
Even with all of his progression as a tattoo artist, Varkatzas isn’t hanging up his microphone anytime soon. As Atreyu close in on their 20th anniversary, the metalcore quintet are already planning to release a seventh record, most likely sometime in 2018. But until the writing and recording process starts taking up too much of his time, you’ll find Varkatzas hard at work on people’s skin in Seal Beach.
“It’s pretty easy to balance everything,” Varkatzas says. “I ran a gym for a while, and it was tough to be hands-off for that. With anything art-based, you need some time off once in a while, and it’s all very self-motivating. It comes down to your work ethic and if you have the will to put it in. When we tour, I get to tattoo a lot, and when we’re home I get to tattoo as well. I can’t get enough of either.”