Adam Warmerdam moved to L.A. in 2004 as a promising young artist looking to learn some graphic design skills. Twelve years later, he’s finally found a home for his art, but in a very different place.
“I learned that computers really weren’t my thing,” Warmerdam says. “I decided graphic design wasn’t what I wanted to do. I just wanted to go back to a pencil and paper.”
With his graphic design dreams in the rear-view mirror, Warmerdam began tattooing his friends as another outlet for his art. After Warmerdam received professional-grade tattooing equipment from an artist in exchange for a tattoo, the NorCal native was offered a job at a tattoo shop, but he couldn’t take it.
“I didn’t want to be an average tattoo artist,” Warmerdam says. “I wanted to be the best. These days, there are thousands of people looking on Instagram for the one artist they want to tattoo them, and they’re willing to travel for them. You have to do something to separate yourself from the crowd.”
Before moving south to pursue graphic design, Warmerdam spent much of his time on super realistic paintings and other pieces that would likely be considered more highbrow than tattooing. Since he began his apprenticeship in 2006, Warmerdam’s been focused almost entirely on tattoo-based art.
“Once you start tattooing, everything switches to traditional flash designs,” Warmerdam says. “The other day, I saw this oil painting I did back in high school, and I don’t think I could even do that now.”
Sure, the process of painting tattoo flash gets repetitive, but it’s what Warmerdam loves to do. Long before he helped Bryan Burk start one of L.A.’s top tattoo shops, Dark Horse Tattoo, Warmerdam was drawn to American traditional designs. It’s not just about the art, it’s about the attitude and message that go with the art.
“I love the classic imagery,” Warmerdam says. “It looks so tough and bold to me. I just think of an old sailor guy with a naked lady on his forearm. When I first started, I thought I had to dumb it down to make it look like [legendary historic tattooers] Bert Grimm’s or Owen Jensen’s style.”
But since beginning his tenure at Dark Horse in 2010, Warmerdam has let his artistic skills combine with the classic styling to create a unique look. It’s a style Burk has helped him create, and the illustrative take on neotraditional tattooing has become a calling card for the shop.
“I do a lot of comic and cartoonish stuff, if that’s what you want,” Warmerdam says. “It’s a lot of oversized heads or over-exaggerated body parts on more traditional bodies. We’ll all go through half of a roll of paper redrawing one design because we want to get it just right. Our clientele comes to us for the work that we do here, and I always thought that was cool to have a specific style attached to the shop.”
Of course, the bright and colorful style of tattooing suits Warmerdam perfectly. His artistic background would make extremely simplified traditional tattooing seem like almost a waste of his talent, but he’s also not interested in doing the super realistic or fine art tattoos that many talented young tattooers turn to as a way to show off their skills. To Warmerdam, tattooing designs that belong in the fine art museums he used to strive for comes with side effects that most people don’t understand.
“Just because it looks cool on paper or on canvas doesn’t mean you want to put it on skin,” Warmerdam says. “I don’t even know how they do it, to be honest. I would rather send someone looking for a tattoo like that to someone who does it better. I want my tattoos to look like tattoos. People don’t understand that some stuff can’t be pulled off as a tattoo. We’re still human beings and everything is still handmade on skin. You can’t just print things off the Internet and expect them all to look great as tattoos just because you want to be different.”
Check out Adam's work on Instagram @adamwarmerdam or at Dark Horse Tattoo, 4644 Hollywood Blvd., East Hollywood. (323) 665-7345, darkhorsetattoolosangeles.com