Luke Wessman has been getting tattooed for over a quarter century. He got his first piece at age sixteen and never looked back. In the years that followed, Luke has been tattooed around the world by more than 50 artists. He has so many tattoos now that he’s actually lost track of how many adorn his skin. When people ask him how many he has, Luke usually just says he has one big one. He hopes to count them one day, but for now it’s just easier to say one.
After getting into tattoos at an early age, it wasn’t long before Luke was on the other side of the chair. He entered the industry as a 19-year-old and began honing his skills as a tattoo artist. While Luke practiced traditional tattooing, he was influenced by the gangster style – from his roots growing up in coastal California – and he soon began incorporating the two techniques into his work. After years of mastering his craft, Luke has established himself as one of the premier tattoo artists in the United States. Following stints at shops that were featured on the television programs Miami Ink and NY Ink, Luke returned to California in 2015 and opened the Summertown Inn studio in Orange County.
Luke’s connection with Violent Gentlemen runs deep and he was kind enough to share his time with us to talk about his humble beginnings, the world of tattooing, and discovering hockey.
Violent Gentlemen: First things first. Your Twitter bio says you were born on a hippie farm in Tennessee. Can you tell us the story behind that?
Luke Wessman: My parents were old-school hippies and they lived on this farm in Tennessee that was all about organic living and living off the land. My parents actually got kicked out of the farm because they thought it was too structured. They were really trying to be free hippies. At the time, my mom was pregnant with me and after they left, they went traveling around through Chicago. When I was close to coming out, they went back to see if they could have the baby there because that place was famous for midwives. So, I was born there and when I was healthy enough to leave, they hitchhiked all the way to California. I don’t even think I was there a year. I didn’t grow up there at all, I was just born there and then I grew up around the California coast.
VG: You got your first tattoo at a young age, what was it?
LW: The first one I got was my last name across my back. It was “Wessman” in Old English. It was kind of the gang neighborhood standard. You’d see a lot of the gangsters with it. So, as a young skinny kid, without going too deep into it, I used to get tattooed to look a lot tougher. That was my first one.
VG: You have received a lot of tattoos over the years, can you pinpoint a favorite piece?
LW: I don’t have one that stands out to me as a favorite. I have a few that I just think are really beautiful and I have a few that are very meaningful. I have one for a dear friend who died. Some can mean the most and some can be the prettiest or the most artistic. It’s hard to pick one. It’s hard to pick your favorite child.
VG: Can you tell us about the style of tattoos you specialize in?
LW: The style I focus on is primarily traditional. I guess you could say it’s close to a “Sailor Jerry” style or Don Ed Hardy, where it’s a classic pin-up and bold and solid. I was also influenced in my early days by Los Angeles street culture, so I did really like the fine-line black and grey. Throughout my career, I‘ve implemented a little bit of that to create an interesting mix of that gangster style and the traditional style. I worked with Miami Ink and LA Ink, so we had clients coming from all over the world, asking for all types of work, so I think 15 years of that kind of work helped round me into being able to do most styles really well. Traditional is my favorite. I think it’s the voice of tattooing. I think it’s the foundation of what tattoos look like in my opinion.
VG: What advice would you give to someone who doesn’t have a tattoo yet, but is considering getting their first one?
LW: It’s a tough thing because the first few, especially the first one, are so important. It’s really a big leap of faith and a big jump. I find doing as much research as possible and getting an eye for quality of technique is important. From there, it’s all about finding the style you like. It’s really difficult because there are so many variables and so many different styles of artists out there. I think you need to do as much research as you can. Any good tattooer can make a great tattoo of any idea, so you just have to do your research and find a great tattooer.
VG: Can you tell us about your connection to Violent Gentlemen?
LW: Brian Talbert, one of the founders – I call him my brother, but we’re not blood – he and his mom took me in when I was a kid. So, I grew up with Brian and have been really close to him since my early teens. We basically took care of each other. I know him very well, he’s a very dear friend and more than that, a brother. Even when I moved away to Miami and New York, we just always stayed in each other’s lives. Now, I’m here, and as available to him and his company whether its artwork or promotion, I’m his number one fan.
VG: What does Violent Gentlemen brand mean to you and how does it relate to the way you live your life?
LW: I definitely see a lot of the things I live by in them. We kind of grew up together so we have a lot of the same opinions on life, respect, and honor. I see a lot of that in hockey, too, which I love. Growing up in southern California, I didn’t really catch any hockey until my brother [Brian] started working in it, so it’s been really amazing to see and learn about it. My first ever game was in Montreal, it was the Maple Leafs against the Canadiens. So, I felt the proud spirit of hockey right away. There’s a lot of correlation in hockey with being tough guys and having honor and carrying yourself with a lot of respect. I’m a huge fan of the sport and I thank Violent Gentlemen for bringing me in because it opened up a whole new sport for me.
VG: The “Great One” tattoo-themed painting you did for Violent Gentlemen is incredible. What’s the story behind that?
LW: I did that painting for a Violent Gentlemen art show. They had some tattooers and different artists do some hockey-themed artwork. So, I painted that Gretzky painting and had the original sitting in my studio. Sheldon Souray, who had become a great friend and client over the years, came in one day and saw the painting. He saw it and said, “I’m going to go play golf with Gretzky, do you want me to bring that and have him sign it?” I said, “yeah, sure,” but then I thought I may never see this painting again just because he’s a busy guy and if Souray takes this, I don’t know when I’m going to see it again. But, I said, “go for it.” Sure enough, a month later, he brings it back and it had Gretzky’s signature in the top corner. Now I keep it at my home.
VG: Your longstanding relationship with Violent Gentlemen introduced you to hockey, what team do you cheer for?
LW: I’m a Ducks fan by default, but I kind of have some roots in Chicago, so I have some Blackhawks love and some Kings love because I lived in LA. I’m just trying to be a big fan of the sport and learn about it. I’ve tattooed some of the players across the league, so I like to follow them and cheer them on.
VG: Do you have a favorite player on the ice?
LW: Actually, I just met him recently in Ottawa with Nate Thompson. Erik Karlsson. He was hanging out when I went up to do a big tattoo on Nate and he came along and we got to talking and hung out a bit. So, I’ve been following him, but I didn’t know he was such a hotshot. I spent some time with him before I realized he was such a big dude in the game. He’s been exciting to watch. I always watch Nate and look for him. Matt Beleskey, he went down to the American Hockey League, but I was watching him pretty closely and cheering him on. He and I became good friends over some long tattoos I did on him.
VG: Many players are coming into the NHL now with significantly more tattoos than their predecessors. Do you have any insights as to why hockey players are becoming more prominently tattooed?
LW: There could be a couple reasons. One could be an athlete’s awareness to build his following and brand. Another reason could be to express their individuality. When they’re all in their pads, they just have their skill and their attitude, so tattoos can really help them stand out by adding some uniqueness to their personality. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I think it helps the individual player feel like an individual because when they’re in their uniform, they’re just in there with everybody else. It gives them a little piece of their own voice as far as style goes. But, obviously, it has to do with trends too. If you see another guy with a tattoo, you might think about wanting to get one too. I know all the guys in Ottawa, all of them seem to have one sleeve. It felt like it was almost a requirement at this point. But, it’s mostly covered up when they’re in their gear and in their suits, so it’s just a little way for them to express themselves.
Nate Thompson, Ottawa Senators
Ryan Kesler, Anaheim Ducks
Matt Beleskey, Boston Bruins
Sheldon Souray, 13 yrs in the NHL
VG: What’s the best hockey tattoo you’ve ever done?
LW: I’ve done some really cool Blackhawks ones and some pinup girls with the favorite team, but not necessarily one in particular. I’ve done some tattoo events with the Violent Gentlemen and I tattooed a lot of hockey fans at one time. Doing little Stanley Cups or even little Violent Gentlemen so the fans can show their support and loyalty to the company. The event as a whole with tattooing gives these loyal hockey fans a quick excuse to show their pride.
VG: Outside of tattooing, you're also a Master Mason. What spurred your interest in Freemasonry?
LW: I came into tattooing at a time when it was really a tough, rugged industry and career. The guy I ended up working for and learning from, Dave Gibson, was one of the classiest tattoo artists I ever met. He was just a gentlemen tattooer and he was a mason. So, as a young guy and looking up to him and working at his shop, and seeing the interactions he had with other masons who came in, I was just drawn to it. I was intrigued by it early on and knew it was something I wanted to be a part of. At the time, all the things it was about were in line with what I was about. Everything it’s founded on, the symbolism, the honor, the self-reflection, the charity, and community, really made me want to be a part of that. I made my way in there and I’ve been a Mason for almost ten years now.
VG: We’ll close out with a question from one of our readers. @TechnoDaddyD from Twitter wants to know what’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
LW: I have a few creeds and mottos, but one thing I always refer to is, “if you’re not doing it today, you’re not doing it.” As an artist, if I’m not actually working, then I’m not doing it. So, it’s always been an affirmation to keep working hard and keep it up. Another one of my favorites is, “you can’t win today’s game off of yesterday’s home runs,” and that one just motivates me to keep going and not revel in my accomplishments. Keep pushing.