Oakley 'tattoo dad' has watched art form come full circle
By Lou Fancher
Despite still carrying the stigma of being a detriment in the workplace, tattoo art's uneasy alliance with mainstream American culture arguably hit its stride in 2015.
Even though such "job stoppers" as tats on the neck, face or the back of a hand can cause an employer to balk, and there are places where a person with a full sleeve of tattoos hesitates to display them for fear of a negative reaction, the art form is nevertheless proliferating.
Museums, libraries and galleries mount national exhibits. Professional athletes from Warriors star Stephen Curry to the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick brandish images. Television shows featuring real and fictitious tattoo studios have given rise to NBC's Blindspot, a show about a woman with amnesia whose tattoo-covered body yields clues to crimes the FBI must solve. Celebrities including Rihanna and Adele flock to Keith McCurdy, a New York City tattooer who carries enough cache to sport a nickname, "Bang Bang," due to his double pistol neck art.
And in the surest sign that the tattoo has arced from underground expression to societal acceptance and respect, there are people like Brian Richter, a local tattoo dad.Eighteen years ago, the Oakley-based body artist was a 23-year-old graffiti tagger, living in a two-bedroom apartment he shared with four other people. He was into DJing, street dance and spreading throughout the greater Bay Area his name and the name of the art group he had joined.
"Now, I'm a dad. My wife and I have a home and a child. I'm a taxpayer," Richter says. "People are surprised that this has been my source of income for 18 years. But they're starting to see it as art: it's a drawing with color, depth and other elements.
"Whether it's skin or canvas, it's art."
Richter adheres to traditional tattoo styles, preferring bold, black outlines and bright colors. He is influenced by contemporary artists, including Bert Grimm, Owen Jensen and Sailor Jerry. But he also finds inspiration in centuries-old Asian tattoo, nature, the beauty of vintage handcrafted tools, old buildings and more.
"You have to love it all and be well-rounded.," he says. "You have to please the customer and steer them in the direction that you excel in."
Which doesn't mean Richter is a "yes" man.
"I make sure people think well and hard about an image that will be on their body for the rest of their life.
There are things I won't do anymore. An 18-year-old with cash in hand who wants their first tattoo on the side of their neck, I'm going to try to talk them out of it. I'd say they could put it somewhere else. I talk about their career. If you have that skull on the back of your hand, you might not be getting that banker job."
But Richter's boss, Siobahn Delfani, who with her husband Moe Delfani owns Zebra Tattoo & Body Piercing, says customers at their Berkeley and downtown Walnut Creek shops range from age 18 to 80 and increasingly, they come from all circuits of employment and lifestyles.
"When we first opened, women got butterflies and cute things. Now they get full sleeves (entire arm tattoos)," she says. School teachers, lawyers, moms, dads, and even one local banker are customers.
"In 1992, when we started, there were just a handful of shops in the Bay Area," says her husband. "Now, 370 shops are registered in Contra Costa County."
Richter learned his craft at Jerry's Tattoo, a long-closed establishment in San Francisco's Mission District. The first tattoo he ever had on his body was a grim reaper holding an hourglass and a scythe. The blade said "wastin' time." The first tattoo he ever gave was a black rose.
"The bosses told the lady it was my first tattoo and stood over me while I sweated and shook. I was nervous for three years because it was a rough-and-tumble neighborhood -- doctors, pimps, lawyers, school teachers, gang members. You just never knew what mix would walk in the door."
His Walnut Creek work space, a streamlined, immaculately clean room in the plush but casual shop, shouts "salon" more than anything else. And sentimental? Richter doesn't have a heart tattooed on his sleeve, but he speaks with tenderness about the most meaningful tattoos he wears or has created.
"I have a chest piece dedicated to the birth of my child. It's a floral design with a banner that has her name. It says "7-7-7" too, because she was 7 pounds, born in the seventh month, at 7 a.m."
A client restricted to a wheelchair after a random shooting caused permanent injury comes to Richter for faith-related images. "He was in his chair, with a nurse holding his breathing tube. I did the tattoos right there in his chair. He believes the images protect him. I guess that's the most meaningful job I've done."
At home in Oakley, his 5-year-old daughter dances and draws, just like her dad.
"She steers that ship," says Richter, who has performed some pretty swift strutting and boogaloo style b-boying of his own. (Check out Richter, at 4:32 minutes into Walnut Creek photographer James Fidelibus' "Walnut Creek Happy Video" on YouTube.)
Now rarely practicing the moves he perfected on the San Francisco Sunset District streets of his childhood -- "I'm a dad and too busy," he claims -- he says the dancing shoes belong to his daughter.
And will he allow his daughter to get a tattoo?
"By law, you have to be 18 to get one, but we'll see how it plays out. Maybe if she's seventeen-and-a-half and she wants a lady bug, well-hidden ... and she's doing great in school and she won't show her friends, maybe. But I'll probably make her wait."