The tattoo boom has without a doubt benefited Pussykat Tattoo Parlor. But that doesn’t mean owner/artist/punk rocker Dirk Vermin likes it.
“You’re more unique not to have a tattoo at this point,” laments the Las Vegas tattoo pioneer.
Many feel the same way. But nobody captures the odd tension between what’s lost (meaning) and what’s gained (income) quite as fervently or as eloquently as Vermin: “You see your livelihood, the thing you’re passionate about, the thing you kept your integrity for, the thing that was so personal to you that you wear it on your body and are treated a certain way because of it—now it’s a reality show and it’s a casino and it’s a T-shirt at Wal-Mart. It’s just been oversaturated, and it’s been completely watered down.”
The sight of bored housewives turning pinstriper Von Dutch (“a real hero for lowbrow culture”) into a fashion statement pierces his heart. But the real effects seem to be positive: eager customers and long waiting lists. The parlor has grown to include eight private rooms and as many contracted artists, all by word of mouth. As Pussykat’s 13th anniversary (a beloved number in tattoo culture) approaches next year, the shop has never done better. But the conversation comes back to integrity. “I always joke that it’s easy not to sell out when no one’s asking,” he says, as if he sometimes wonders how he missed out on the gold rush. “But at this point, there’s no reason. I stay in my little corner of the ghetto. I do good tattoos, and I make everyone happy. I’m glad to be busy, but it’s earned. Being here and keeping our integrity, that’s the thing.”
The tattooing community rewards his values with respect. “I’m very proud of this place for what it’s become and how it, I think, changed the face of Vegas tattooing,” he says. “So many people who used to work here went on to open their own shops and make big names for themselves, as well.”
Nevertheless, self-respect nearly drove him from the business. A few years ago, he wanted to go flip burgers because he was tired of fielding questions about why he didn’t have a reality show.
“I didn’t get into this to get on TV. I really did this because I love tattooing,” says the 46-year-old father of two pre-teen girls. “So many of the young people today, they don’t even know where they came from. They don’t know anything about soldering needles or the people who came before them. And the reason that a mag needle is formed a certain way, because some guy 80 years ago designed it. Do you know who that is? No you don’t, motherfucker.”
Vermin’s shop has a cozy feel to it. There’s a Norman Rockwell poster of a tattooist and a framed Hard Rock blackjack tabletop that Vermin helped design. There are even drawings of superheroes that Dirk drew as a child. It all creates a feeling that interior designers are handsomely paid to copy.
In the middle of this curated eclectica, a phone rings. Vermin answers.
“Tattoo artists want to make bigger art, not smaller art,” he bellows at the unsuspecting caller seeking a postage-stamp-size portrait. Small tattoos don’t wear well, Vermin says. “I don’t care what you saw in a photograph, nobody can guarantee results after it’s healed. And five years after that, who knows?”
Vermin shoos the man off the phone and wishes him good luck shopping his competitors.