Long Live the Old School: The Traditional Tattoo Art of Zach Nelligan

Long Live the Old School: The Traditional Tattoo Art of Zach Nelligan

By Josh Woodhouse / joshwoodhouse.com

Traditional, Old School, Americana, whatever term you use to describe it, Zach Nelligan and his fellow band of artists at Mainstay Tattoo in Austin, Texas are answering the call to keep classic tattoo style alive and well. So what exactly is the allure and how has it evolved from an over one-hundred-year-old art form, traditionally seen on sailors and circus performers, to a style now commonly seen on your local coffee shop barista?

Zach Nelligan is no stranger to change. Born and raised in Austin he has witnessed a humble little city once labeled “the live music capital of the world," that was all about supporting the local art scene and community farmers markets, grow into a bustling metropolis fueled by startup companies and a major influx of big tech, such as Apple and Tesla. Zach started tattooing in 2005 and since then a lot of things may have changed, but his passion for the craft remains. His roots are humble and his love for art started early on.

“As a child, I never had any doubt introduced by my parents. They never tried to steer me in a different direction. They never tried to tell me that I needed to consider a backup plan or a real job. From the very beginning, art is what I always assumed I’d be doing. If anyone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up I just said I’m going to be an artist.”

After an upbringing that encouraged his abilities, Zach set off to university. During his education at the University of Texas and after having made the leap to getting tattoos himself, he started to look into tattooing as a possible career path. So he asked his art professors about a possible path of tattooing as a career and came to no resolve. He would then ask his own tattoo artist if he would be his mentor. His tattooist obliged and so began the journey.  

It was a little bit of a different scene back then, Zach recalls. “In the early 2000s, tattoo shops in Austin started to branch out, but previous to that it was primarily “walk-in” shops on 6th street. At that point with flash, unless you were a college kid or random walk-in, most people were looking for custom tattoos. Flash was looked down upon by tattoo enthusiasts and collectors. It was like “Oh, so you just picked that tattoo off the wall?”

“Back then with walk-in shops, the big thing was custom tattoos.” As an artist, Zach explained “You were expected to do whatever someone walked in and wanted. I’m glad I got that kind of skillset.” Starting at such a young age seems to have come in handy for the up-and-coming artist. Zach continues, “Being able to draw things quickly and on the spot kind of came natural, that’s the mentality that I started with.”

Working in the walk-in shop, he began to feel like things were a bit unorganized and that there wasn’t a cohesive approach to things. He started to notice that there were just a lot of artists with different styles on top of each other. He would later take notice of another artist in the shop that was focusing more on traditional work.

“He was using a little brighter colors, but still simple designs, really simple elegant designs, very filled out and he had a bunch of flash he had drawn up on the walls of the shop we were working in that started catching my eye more and more. So that’s what I became more gravitated towards,” Zach recalls.

In 2007 Zach would be invited to work in the shop that his mentor was about to open in East Austin. He would gladly take the opportunity.

“Back then I wasn’t fully authentically as traditional as I am now. I was trying to do that style but still trying to figure out how to do it my own way, with my own color pallets, trying different imagery and drawing it in different ways. Just trying to do it my way, my version of traditional.”

Zach would continue to work at the downtown Austin shop until 2013. Mostly a “by appointment” custom shop. However, he points out, “There wasn’t flash on the walls. Mostly just paintings and prints and random stuff. At that point, I was getting pretty heavy into painting flash. 

I was cranking out tons and tons of sheets and that shop just didn’t really feel like it had the right aesthetic for that kind of stuff. I started craving a traditional shop that had a unified vision and unified team that were all going in the same direction and could feed off one another.”

“I realized that kind of shop didn’t exist in Austin. I started thinking, well where else would I want to work? But I looked at a list of shops and none of them really felt right. None of them had that dynamic of 'everyone’s doing traditional, everybody’s painting flash.' At that point, most of the shops in Austin started looking the same. If it was a 'walk-in' shop, everybody had the same laminated flash on the walls and if it was a full custom shop they just had a bunch of paintings on the walls. No one’s shop walls were covered in their own flash, kind of how it used to be years ago. I was like, man, it’d be cool to do something like that again.”

So in a bold move, Zach concluded that if he couldn’t find a shop and a group of artists that shared his desire for the old school he was going to have to come up with a plan.

“I realized that if it didn’t exist in Austin, I had to make it”

In 2013 Zach and a fellow artist, Ezra Haidet, who was working at the same shop as him, started looking around at spaces and found the building that would become Mainstay Tattoo.

In regards to the size of the new tattoo shop, Zach mentions his intent: “Part of the reason we chose that space was because it was small and it forced us to stay small and avoid the temptation of growing too much. We currently have 4 artists with frequent guest artists. Once you start getting past that, the communication starts to break down and it’s hard to keep everyone on the same page.”

So one might ask themselves, why all this work to branch out and find one’s own space and artistic outlet for a tattoo style that was dated and considered old school? Zach replies: “Obviously there is the history behind it, it’s been around forever, it's eye-catching, it’s bold, and you can see it across the room. It grabs your attention and it communicates very easily what it is. It’s built to last. You can see an 80-year-old man with an eagle on his arm and know what it is. It’s functional, it’s aesthetic, and it’s boiled down and concentrated. It’s expressions of basic human wants and desires. You can express it in a very paired down way, romance, adventure, or, danger. Zach continues, “Beauty, Life, Death, you can get it across real quick. No one has to ask you what it means or try to figure out what it is.”

The taboo behind what was once only seen on sailors and bikers has faded and become perhaps more of a vanity thing. A trend perhaps? Zach replies, “Nowadays, you don’t see a guy with a skull and a dagger on his arm and think, “I need to stay away from that guy, he’s dangerous, and 100 years ago he probably was someone you’d look out for. Nowadays, it could just be a hipster with glasses on a bicycle. But still, it expresses that human art and built in desires and fears.”  

With tattoos more popular than ever and new styles popping up every day on Instagram, one wonders what it is that draws people to traditional style? Why would such an antiquated art form become popular again after all these years? Or did it ever leave?  

“People still crave adventure and romance and they want to express love and sorrow and you can do that with a traditional tattoo very simply without having to think of some complex meaning or abstract imagery. It just speaks very clearly to those basic human emotions,” Zach responds.

“I get to tattoo all types of people, it’s not like I’m tattooing bikers and rock stars all day. A lot of my clients may work in a start-up or in tech or even a college professor. Of course, I still get the bikers and military, but now it’s opened up to all types of individuals. Especially in bigger cities like Austin, where you have more creative people and in creative hubs, you can get away with more and more.”  

“I remember when I started tattooing in 2005, you wouldn’t tattoo necks or hands or faces unless that person was already covered in tattoos or a tattoo artist themselves or they had a job that allowed them to have visible tattoos. Nowadays, it’s just like any other spot on the body. Like oh, you’re a teacher and you want to get your hand tattooed and you have 5 other tattoos, sure!”  

“It’s a whole different world now. I can’t give you that argument that you should reconsider this visible hand or neck tattoo, because it could cut you off from certain job opportunities or that people may look at you differently. It’s like the world, in general, has opened up and realized that everyone just wants to express themselves differently and it doesn’t necessarily mean they are any specific type or lesser person for doing it.” Zach goes on to reflect, “People used to see my tattoos and ask if I was a tattoo artist. Now they don’t even look at me twice, because there are plenty of people out there that aren’t even artists that have more tattoos than I do!”

So beyond working in a shop that specializes in traditional flash tattoos, driving a super cool classic Ford Falcon, tattooing a large dynamic of people including locals like hot rod builder Murph from Murphos Rods and Customs, living the family life with the wife and children, traveling constantly for work, Zach certainly doesn’t have time for anything else…right? Zach laughs.

“Back in 2009, my fellow artist Ezra wanted to put a book out. We invited a bunch of artists we knew to submit for it and they did. We were like, cool! We put it out having paid for it ourselves. The scanning, the layout, it’s always just been us and the printer. The first run we only printed 500 of them and they sold out pretty quick. So the next year we did another one and that was it, we’ve done one every year since.” 

With Ezra moving to California and pursuing his further ventures there, he was unable to continue to contribute. 

Since then Zach has continued with it himself and keeps it going.

“It’s been cool, it’s been a fun side project. When it started off we thought it would be this one book. In that era it was very trendy for college girls to come in and want “Live, Laugh, Love” tattooed on them. So as a joke we called the company Live, Laugh, Love Publishing. After a couple years we realized the publishing was becoming a real thing so we were like we can’t keep calling it Live, Laugh, Love Publishing, that’s stupid. So we just shortened it to LLL Books.”  

And so the tradition lives on within the pages of LLL Books and on the skin of every client that visits Mainstay Tattoo.  

Long live the old school.






Leave a comment