This is the full version of the Bill Loika interview I did for Tattoo Life #61 a few years back. Apart from being a great friend through the years, Bill has always been a great influence on me not just for his work, but as far as being a Tattooer and as a person. He is one of the people I look up to the most. Stylistically speaking my work is very much based on his and his long time friend Dave Gibson. Hope you enjoy reading it and remember that no real tattoo-fans trip to Amsterdam is complete without getting tattooed by Prof. Loika!
Why don’t we start with your earliest tattoo memories.
One of my earliest tattoo memories is our next door neighbor. Tattoo Charlie. This old Scottish seaman, all sleaved up, used to walk around in his wife-beater all the time. I was eight/nine years old. I was just fascinated by that look. I used to look at his tattoos and just try to figure out what the hell they were. He had a naked lady with a snake around her. I would ask my mother and grandmother about Charlie’s tattoos and they would say that they didn’t know but that they were sure that he regretted them. But, to me it never seemed that he regretted them. Another of my early memories was seeing Nick Picaro’s shop in Hartford. And seeing the tattoo shops in New London, Connecticut, which is where I lived when I was a kid. There was Don Nolan, Hong Kong Tom Yomens, Jack Dracula and Sailor Barney. Seeing those shops in the mid 50’s, I was just drawn to them like a magnet. My mother would always just grab me and take me in the other direction. Then one time I went to the circus in New York. I was probably 10 or 11 years old. It was at the old Madison Square Garden in New York City and I went with my friend and a couple of other friends and his mom took us there. When we were coming out of the circus going to where the car was parked we walked by a tattoo shop. And at the time I didn’t know who the hell it was, but I think, from the book I read on New York City tattooing, it was probably the shop of the Colantuono brothers. It was either that or, no it was most likely the shop I saw. I wanted to look inside, but my friend’s mom grabbed me and yanked me away and told me that was terrible stuff, you know. Those are some of my earliest memories. Also just seeing sailors. Where I lived there was a navy base and tattoo shops and all these sailors had fresh tattoos. And I remember going to the amusement park with my dad and there was this sailor with this fresh tattoo. I still remember what the tattoo was. It was the cow girl leaning up against the fence off the Milton Zeis flash and he had just gotten it done that day. The sailor let me touch it and look at it. It was so bright, I was so fucking amazed by it. Those are some of my earliest memories of tattooing. Seeing guys that would come back, you know. It wasn’t as available as it is nowadays. There were tattoo shops around where I lived when I was a little boy, but they closed them down in 1962 and made it illegal in Connecticut. I was 13 and thought it was banned in the whole country. I thought it was over.
Now, you mentioned to me before that a friend of yours had gone down to Rhode Island and gotten tattooed.
Yeah, I think I was around 18. They went down there and got tattoos. When I saw it I asked them “Where the fuck did you get that?!” and they said “Down in Providence. They got tattoo shops down there.” so they gave me a business card and I went immediately to Providence, Rhode Island and got my first tattoo.
Who did it?
Ronnie Dagle, Ronnie’s Tattoo Shop on Eddy ST. It was established in 1955 and it’s still there. Ronnie is in his 70’s and he still tattoos.
Did you end up getting a few tattoos there before you went to Amsterdam?
Yeah, I had gotten a couple tattoos from Ronnie
What year did you first go to Amsterdam?
I went for the first time in 1969. I stayed for a bit, then I went back. I saw Tattoo Peter for the first time then. I ended up going back in ’72 and staying till about ’77. That was when I really started to know Tattoo Peter and getting tattoos from him and just hanging out and becoming friends with him.
And was that around the time you decided you wanted to be a Tattooer?
Oh, I already knew I wanted to be a Tattooer. I just didn’t know how to do it. I had no idea, you know. There was no internet in those days, no magazines, there weren’t really books available and to find out where to get equipment was very difficult. It was around the mid 70’s that Huck Spaulding started advertising in Rolling Stone. Before that there were advertisements for tattoo suppliers in the back of popular mechanics magazines, little tiny ads. But, I never looked at that shit. I had no Idea where to get tattoo equipment! And no tattooers would tell you.
So, when did you get your first machines?
Were you in Amsterdam?
Yeah, but I got them from California. I used to be involved with hash dealing and I met this American guy who used to buy large quantities and we just got to talking about tattoos and I told him I was interested in it. He told me he knew a guy who made tattoo equipment. So he hooked me up with Paul Fisher of Paul’s art Supplies. They’re not around anymore. This guy made some weird transistorized tattoo machines. I wished I would have kept the fuckers! Man, they’d be worth some money now! They were really unique oddities. But, I eventually switched to normal tattoo machines once I knew what I was doing and just figured these other ones were just pieces of junk. So, I gave them to this guy in Georgia. He was tattooing and he did something for me so I just said “Here, you can have ‘em.” I don’t remember what, maybe he fixed my car or something. But, fuck, I wished I would’ve kept them. Not that they were good tattoo machines, but they were just odd.
How long did you tattoo in Amsterdam before going to Georgia?
For a couple of years. Then I went to work for Jack Armstrong in Columbus Ga. I worked there for a year or so. While I was working for Jack I got to know Sailor Bill Kilingsworth. He was down the street. It was fun getting in at the tail end of the Old School era, you know. I mean, everyone thinks I’m an old school tattooer, which is what I try to be, It’s what I like. I like that style and everything, but in the 80’s the changes started coming around that we see today. In the ’70’s when I got involved in it, was really the tail end of the old school era of working filthy. I mean the fucking hygienic standards were closer to the 1920’s then they are to 2008. Same needles, same tubes, we didn’t wear gloves. Filthy rinse water, the whole bit. But, it was fun to get to know and be around some of those real old time guys and make the connection al the way back to the 1930’s, you know. Like Jack Armstrong and Sailor Bill. When I was around them in the ’70’s they were already like 60 years old. They’d been around for a long time.
Both of them really had a big influence on you as far as being a tattooer, right? Not so much as a style or actual tattooing, but being a “Tattoo Man”.
Yeah that’s true. As far as like, their technical and artistic ability, they didn’t have any pretty much. Sailor Bill was sort of good in a way, but by the time I got to know him he was an old drunk. I mean he was just passed out half the time. A lot of his old flash was painted really nice for the time. But, from those guys I learned more about being a tattooer. Like the kind of “image” that I like for tattooing. Not some artsy-fartsy, big ego shit that people have today. I don’t like tattooers that take themselves real seriously. You’re not saving the fucking world, you know what I mean?
Well of what you’ve told me Jack Armstrong used to take himself real seriously. Demanding things because he’s Jack Armstrong god-damn it!
Yeah, but he didn’t really take himself seriously. One of the first things he told me was, “In this business you gotta bullshit people.”. And these people just kinda built up a persona and they lived up to it. But it was just all making money, being this flamboyant character. It’s almost like professional wrestling.
Jack told you, you had to drive a Cadillac to work for him, right?
Yeah, he made me buy a Cadillac. But I’m glad he did. You know, I never thought of myself like that before. He made me get this Caddy that was for sale. But then after I got it I thought, shit man this is a nice fucking car! And, I’m making enough money to drive a car like this! This is cool as shit, man! After that I always drove a Cadillac, nice ones too.
It’s like Dave Gibson says, “You gotta look like money to make money!”.
Yeah that’s right, look the part. You want to make money, look like you’re worth it.
You mentioned that you caught the tail end of the Old School and that by the 80’s it really wasn’t there any more.
Well the ’80’s were a transition period. There were a lot of guys that were still around, but then you started getting some government scrutiny and what not. Health standards were being looked at and people really had to clean up their act a little bit in the tattoo business.
Not only that, but the imagery and techniques were changing too, right? You were starting to see a lot of fine-line and Japanese style. People were getting away from the old school stuff. By the mid ’90’s it was becoming popular again, but none of the young guys doing it, really knew how to do it right. All they had was the Sailor Jerry book, but you, Dave Gibson, Bob Roberts, Malone and some others always kept doing it.
Well, I just always loved those tattoo designs that incorporated all these images into something the size of a softball in a neat way. I especially liked the nautical stuff like that of old Tattoo Peter flash with the ships, flags, the sinking ship, but still bold, clean and readable. You know, when I was growing up those were the tattoo designs and it’s like anything else. When you get older, you like the music that you liked when you were young. So that’s just the stuff I like to tattoo. Japanese too, but I’ve gotten away from trying to be Hori-Bill. My style is old school traditional western tattooing. That’s what I focus on now that I’m almost 60 years old. I don’t try to do everything. In the 80’s there was a rejection of the old school stuff and everybody was doing shit like Frank Fazetta and fucking fantasy art, you know. A lot of this stuff done in the 80’s was just garbage! I realize that now, but back then we thought we were being real fucking artist! It was just crap! It doest work out good for tattoos. I’m glad to see there is such an Old School revival where so many people in the business realize this is cool, this is REAL tattoo art and these are cool images!
Do you think there has been a lack of evolution in the classic designs? I mean, if you look at stuff going back to the late 1800’s there would be stylistic changes almost every decade. Going back to the late ’80’s and early ’90’s, you, Dave, Malone, Bob Roberts, evolved it, but there hasn’t been progress since. It just went backwards to mimicking first the ’40’s and ’50’s then 20’s and 30’s…
I’ll tell you what, Malone and Bob were big influences on me, so you can’t put me in the same category with them. He (Malone) was selling his flash in the ’80’s maybe even in the late 70’s and back then we didn’t have color copies, so it was just black outline with shading and you had to paint it your self. Of course he had taken over Sailor Jerry’s shop so he had access to a lot of reference material. He just painted up all this great flash, real bold and clean, just old school style. So, he was a big influence on the way I do stuff.
But your stuff still looks quite different from Malone’s. You and Dave, on the other hand, are very much on the same page. On the west coast people call it Gibson style and back east it’s Loika style.
Well, me and Dave are the same age and we’ve worked together on the east coast and we’ve worked together on the west coast. We’ve just traded a lot of stuff with each other through the years. I mean, I look through his sketchbook and he does versions of my stuff or I got flash that is a redone version of something he drew in the shop, you know. We just share things with each other and we’ve been friends for a long time. We share the same passion for traditional old school style tattooing, not just only the artwork, but the whole image about it. So, we’re like birds of a feather, you know. Birds of a feather flock together.
What do you think of all the stuff you see nowadays where it’s just goofy versions of like Jenson and Waters’ stuff and all this “neo-traditional” bullshit? Some of these guys tattoo that stuff flawlessly, but it seems like the essence is really not there. Solid bold lines and perfect whip shading, but no balls.
I know what you mean, but I just try not to concern myself with what other people are doing. There are a lot of guys that are doing some nice traditional work. But I know what you mean about this neo-traditional it’s almost like a parody. But that’s fine, you know, people can do what ever the fuck they want. At least it’s tattooable. I try to think of it as ornamental artwork . I don’t want to do it in a real silly kind of way, but what other people want to do is their fucking business.
I read once that Bob Shaw had said that tattoos are a reflection of time.
Well everything in culture is a reflection of time. In the ’40’s and ’50’s you couldn’t be as rude and obscene as people can get away with nowadays. Comedy was much more subtle. Things were implied and artwork was the same way. You had to be subtle to get a certain message across. You had nice pin-ups that were suggestive. You really didn’t see a girl with her legs spread open with a dildo up her twat like you see now. Comedians go on stage and talk filthy, “fuck this and fuck that”, real bathroom humor. Back then you couldn’t do that.
There was a bit more class back then.
Yeah, for sure!
You ran your shop In Deep River for about 25 years?
Yeah close to that.
Now, those were the days when you worked 13-14 hour days by yourself and had a line of 20 people outside waiting to get tattooed, right?
Yeah, well I had 3 kids to raise. I had to work my ass off. My wife didn’t work. So I had to support the family with the tattoo shop. And I loved it. I had the energy. I was young and the business was there, so yeah. But actually, it was stupid when I look back on it.. If I was smarter I would have found some kid and taught him to tattoo or got some tattooers who already know what they were doing. Because I used to have to turn away as much business as I did. I should have tried to do everybody and take a piece of it all.
Well, even back then it was still a lot more secretive and you wouldn’t teach someone because they might open up down the street from you.
Yeah, and I thought about that. It’s easy in retrospective… Let me put it this way, I wasn’t a good business man, I was a tattooer. If I was a real good business man I would have capitalized even more on it. I made money on my own. I made more then enough to support my family. But, I had to turn away a lot of business. Now that I’m older, I wish I would have been smarter and invested in real estate or something.
I don’t think real estate would be such a good business these days.
Yeah you’re right. Maybe gold, then.
So after 25 years in Connecticut you moved to California and got to spend time with some old friends like Lyle and Capt. Don. What was that like.?
Well, I wasn’t friends with Capt. yet. I’ve known Lyle for a long time. Mostly through correspondence. He used to have a magazine called the tattoo historian and he was really interested in a lot of the old New England tattooers. In those days there was no emails so you would actually write with a pen. So I got to know Capt. when I moved to Chico and we became real good friends. Lyle would come down and we would hang out at conventions.
How long did you stay in Chico?
I was there for 2 years. The high point of being at Sacred Art was getting to work with a lot of good artist. The Draw back of having my own shop for 25 years was that I was the only shop in town. For the most part I was by myself. I had other people working for me from time to time, like Dave Gibson and I learned a lot from him, but for the most part I was always better then the guys I had, so there wasn’t a hell of a lot to learn from them. I did work with Jeff Denoncour and he’s a great old school tattooer. He’s not really well known but he used to work with Sailor Wes. So when I went to Chico I was working with guys that were way better and more talented then me. So that was good. It forces you to better yourself. I mean Sleepy G., he’s in a whole different world. His style is completely different from what I do and I would never attempt to do what he does. He could be putting stuff in the Rijksmuseum or something! That guy is so talented.
Now, you’re finally back in Amsterdam. Back at Tattoo Peter, where it all started for you.
Yeah, its great. It’s a perfect retirement for me. Some people want to move to Florida and play golf. My idea of retirement is living here in Amsterdam, which is a great place to live. I have a comfortable life here and I’m at one of the greatest old school shops in the world. I mean Tattoo Peter is a real historical shop in the fucking Red Light District. What better place to be for a tattoo shop! Right near the water, sea port. You can see Sailing Ships if you walk up the street!
You just said it’s like retirement but, you are still going strong, tattooing 5 days a week.
I’m still working because I like to work. I like tattooing. Someone in the shop asked me the other day about retirement and I said ”I don’t know man, what’s the point if I retire from tattooing I’d just be down here all day bothering these guys!”. So I might as well keep working. I like it! I enjoy it! Some times I might get tired, I don’t have the stamina I used to have. 4 or 5 solid hours of tattooing is enough for me now. I was working on this English guy this weekend I told you about earlier. I outlined on him 5 ½ hours on Friday and on Saturday he wanted me to work on him all day. He wanted to keep going but I had to tell him that I had enough. Partially because his skin was all stretched out after 12 hours of tattooing in 2 days. He wanted to get a full sleeve, but I was tired too man! My back was hurting. It was starting to get uncomfortable. That’s a big distraction. I can’t fucking crank it out like I used to.
Well, after 35 years…
It’ll be 34 in February 2009.
So, you still got at least another 30 years to go.
Well, you still put on a damn good solid tattoo, better than a lot of people.
There are plenty of people in this business that are way more talented, artistically than I am. I don’t have any delusions about my artistic ability. Like I said, when I worked with Sleepy G, I saw him tattoo some incredible shit.
Remember when he free-handed that ship?
Yeah, that Spanish Armada ship coming out of the Aztec calendar, without drawing anything on. For me to do that kind of shit, I mean I can tattoo it if I had it all laid out in a neat stencil and put it on, but I can’t just whip that shit out, man, like some of the stuff I see people do now.
Yeah, there may be so many talented people now, but they’re too much into the art and don’t understand the essence. Very few people have it and you definitely do, God-damn it! You’re the King of Tradition!
Well, that’s a nice compliment, but…
I know you just see yourself as some jerk that draws pictures on people all day long, but…
Yeah, I don’t have any delusions about this, man. This is going back to what we talked about that I learned from the old school guys. If you want to be successful you’ve got to create a persona, an image. And if you’re smart you don’t take it real seriously, you know what I mean? I don’t take myself real serious and now that I’m getting old, there’s young guys like you that think I’m big or something special. I don’t know, it’s almost embarrassing in a way. I feel stupid.
Well, you really do live up to the part, even if you don’t take yourself seriously.
So, a few months ago you went out for the London convention for the first time and I know you’ve done lots of conventions, but you said that that one was really special.
As you know, I resisted from going for a long time and you were bugging me and bugging me about it and I said I was through doing conventions. I had enough of it. I don’t feel like lugging all my shit everywhere… I hate airplanes! And all the other excuses I gave. Finally I went and had a great time, man! That’s the best tattoo convention I ever went to! And that’s something I would like to do every year. It’s not far and it’s the best venue I’ve ever seen for a convention. That Tobacco Dock place in London, that looks great! I’m looking forward to doing it next year! But, I’m not going to these conventions where you’ve got to pay the promoter a bunch of money just to be there and you’re making money for him. Cause then you just end up losing money. I don’t go to conventions now even like London just to make money. If I want to make money I can just stay at home and work at the shop and make money. I don’t have to stay at some expensive hotel and eat at restaurants. I go to have a good time. But, if it’s gonna cost me an arm and a leg, then forget about it.
Now as far as the caliber of artists…
Yeah, it was amazing. There were great tattooers there. There was plenty of room for everybody and plenty of distractions. I love the Vince Ray bar. I’m a big fan of Vince Ray and there was a whole Vince Ray voodoo bar with his band and all this stuff. There was a lot of cool stuff there.
So, do you have anything else you’d like to say, Bill?
Just be glad if you’re in on this. Don’t let you’re head swell up so big that you can’t fit through the fucking door, you know.
Anybody you want to thank?
Yeah, Tattoo Peter, Jack Armstrong, Paul Rogers, Kazuo Oguri (Horihide)…fuck who else, I mean there’s a lot of people I look up to in this business! But, those guys actually personally helped me.
Bill can be reached at
+31 20 626 6372