The buzz of the tattoo machines carving black lines and shading into the skin of brave clients echoes throughout the Irish Rose Tattoo shop in Pawcatuck. Westerly resident and tattoo artist Tony “Asian” Nguyen is bent over his customer’s forearm in full on concentration as the head and background of a wolf takes shape and becomes permanent body art.
The walls around Tony’s tattoo chair and space are decorated with his art displays; colors of dark and light hues, angels, dragons, faces, shapes, along with his tattoo tools belonging to the trade decorate his space. Entirely self-taught, Tony is in his element.
“Art was my form of escape and I drew whatever came to mind,” Tony said. “I was a good student but didn’t have friends and kept very much to myself; the teachers didn’t know how to reach me.”
His painting and drawing took on another life when during his early teenage years, he transferred his love of art expression to tattooing.
“I couldn’t afford to pay for it, I went online, got cheap things off eBay and started tattooing my friends in the basement,” he said, adding that the first practice tattoo he did was some sort of initials on his friend’s wrist. “I had no idea what I was doing, it came out awful.”
But being self-taught, he discovered it was trial and error and he learned from his mistakes. He practiced tattooing on himself and took on the challenge of self body art by looking in the mirror to design the word Reckless inked across his lower throat – a reminder of his dedication and determination to succeed at something he loved doing.
Having no consistent positive role models Tony found himself basically responsible for his own care, shelter, and food, which left him doing what he could to get by financially. He got into trouble at an early age, spent some time in jail and decided to turn his rebellious streak into a reinvention, molding his artistic side into a love of tattooing.
“I was infatuated with everything about it, culture, design, it turned into this and my life.”
After moving from his parents’ house he worked briefly at a tattoo shop in Groton before landing on his feet at Irish Rose where he assisted owner Josiah Dodge set up the shop. He’s now been there for the past three years. Along the way he has earned a great reputation and built a strong following of clientele who keep coming back for their second and third tattoos and tell their friends.
He still remembers being a wily teenager and people not taking him seriously with his tattoo skills. Now at 28 he has come into his own artistically and looks back at his early years of hardship as the fuel that drives his ambitions and his muse for his body art.
“I would rather use my past in a positive way than negative,” Tony said. “I have learned self-discipline and patience from tattooing and being self-taught.”
In the state of Connecticut, before you can become a certified tattoo artist, you need 2,000 hours of supervised tattooing, as well as blood born pathogen and first aid training. Working on her tattooing apprentice time at Irish Rose for a year is Rabbit Mortrude I met while interviewing Tony. She was working on a snake wrapped around a dragon on her client’s leg. She and Tony met when she was working at Perks and Corks in Westerly and shared a common bond of painting and art appreciation.
“Tony he is a great mentor,” Rabbit said. “I love it here. Tony and Joe are two of the greatest people and super supportive. They go above and beyond, Tony helps me every day, and I don’t want to leave here anytime soon.”
When a client comes to Tony with an idea for a tattoo they want he takes the time to work through the details of the design, suggesting ways to make it more original and unique, and making sure the artwork is positioned on their body exactly where they want it, cause there it can’t be moved once it’s inked! In his self-taught efforts, he has read a lot of books on human anatomy and color theory; studying muscle structure and what warm and cool colors work well with different body parts to create a bright visual image.
“Everything I work on comes from during the moment,” Tony said. “Everybody’s body is a different canvas and you have to learn that persons’ body, ease your way in.”