TattooFinder.com is proud to present the first ever official interview with the one and only Edward Lee! Not only is his style original and unique, it can be seen in tattoo studios worldwide. We picked his brain about tattoo flash, where he gets his ideas from, and the complications of creating tattoo flash while in prison. See what he had to say . . .
TattooFinder.com: Hey Ed, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Not many people know much about you aside from your artwork, and we’ve had so many requests to “get the scoop” on you out to the public. Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
Ed Lee: I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area until 1987 when I moved to Wyoming to work with Greg Skibo.
TattooFinder.com: What was your experience with art growing up?
Ed Lee: As far back as I can remember I’ve been drawing. As a kid who hated school, I used to sit in class and draw Harleys and hot rods when I wasn’t being harassed by the teachers. I would draw tattoos on myself and my friends. I used to hang out in the mall with fake tattoos drawn on myself thinking I was the coolest thing in the world.
TattooFinder.com: Did the darker side of your artwork come out at an early age too, or was that later in life?
Ed Lee: Dark side! I’ve always been attracted to dark type images. What I like most is that the rules don’t apply to these so-called “dark images.” It’s a free for all — as Ted Nugent would sing - but for me, it’s all just a learning experience to grow and keep growing in my art on skin, as well as flash.
TattooFinder.com: Tell us about your first actual tattoo.
Ed Lee: My first tattoo was the name “Pam” on my left shoulder that I did myself with a needle, thread and Pelican ink. I still have that tattoo.
TattooFinder.com: Assuming it wasn’t the cooking spray, are you saying that romance drove you to first tattoo yourself?
Ed Lee: Who said it wasn’t the cooking spray?! [Laughing] Although she was my first love, I would say the tattooing itself was a bigger love than the actual name. I was in junior high when I did that and after I tattooed myself, I tattooed my brother Doug’s name on his back.
TattooFinder.com: What influenced you to pursue becoming a tattoo artist?
Ed Lee: I’ve always loved tattoos. Drawing them on myself and friends as a kid was what I enjoyed the most. It wasn’t until I saw the movie Tattoo with Bruce Dern that I knew it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. That is, without the kidnapping, rape and forceful tattooing!
TattooFinder.com: Where did you tattoo at? How long did you work there?
Ed Lee: I started tattooing when I was 16 years old. My second was a sleeve done on myself. I tattooed a friend and he showed it to the local tattooist Baron at Baron Tattooing. He had me come in, gave me his machine, and asked me to tattoo his leg. I free-handed a Phoenix on his calf. He gave me two machines, a bunch of colors, power units, all of that.
TattooFinder.com: Did you go through a traditional apprenticeship?
Ed Lee: That was my apprenticeship! I was told I had a job [after tattooing Baron]. Then I went to the Amazing Skin Odessy in San Francisco, California, until 1987 when Baron and I moved to Wyoming. I worked in Greg Skibo’s Wyoming shop and Baron worked in Skibo’s Ft. Collins, Colorado, shop until 1988 when Baron and I opened Foothills Tattoo in Longmont, Colorado. Then I teamed up with my dawg Mickie Kott in Denver, Colorado.
TattooFinder.com: When did you start drawing flash? Did you enjoy creating it and/or did you feel it needed to be done out of necessity?
Ed Lee: I’ve always drawn flash. I just didn’t realize it was called “flash.” Every drawing I’ve ever done has been for a tattoo. Doesn’t matter if it was something I created when I was growing up or something I’ve recently done. I always enjoyed drawing.
TattooFinder.com: How and when did you start selling your flash?
Ed Lee: I started drawing professional tattoo flash in 1983. I used to draw under the name “Edward Heuton” while I was still in California, but it was more out of the juvenile delinquent type of stuff than what I do now. [Greg] Skibo sold my first convention set in 1990 for me under the name “Edward Lee.” When I got locked up, me and my then-wife (now ex-wife) Rachael started the company Crystal Productions. This was a mail-order flash business to help us generate income. Crystal is my daughter’s name. Lou, Rachael’s brother, would help us out by creating the layouts for magazines to advertise my new sets. He and Rachael did a great job. In 2000 I wanted to go online for sales. I told my mom about the idea and my sister wrote me saying that she could do this web thing for me. Rachael sent my sister all of the artwork we had. After six months there was no progress, and Lou said he could do it. So Lou, Rachael and I teamed up to create Flash2xs.com. I always say everything happens for a reason. Even the bad shit in our lives happens for a reason, and that is to help and benefit us. This seems to be true of my situation too, because Lou and Rachael have done great things with the site.
TattooFinder.com: Control over your artwork and doing business while being in prison has probably been difficult at times. What has your experience been like working with Flash2xs.com, LLC?
Ed Lee: I don’t work with the Internet — I work with Lou and Rachael who have been like a second family to me. I have worked with some other Internet companies and have flash on other sites, as well. I think everybody has their good and their bad. It’s Yin and Yang and it’s a fact of life.
TattooFinder.com: What is it like working with an Internet-based company having never seen the Internet?
Ed Lee: It’s like being blind. I have inmates, as well as cops, who tell me how cool the site is and all that. I’ve never seen what it looks like. I’ve never even held a cell phone, yet at one time, I was told that I had the number one cell phone wall paper design. I was like, “What the f@$k is a wall paper design?”
TattooFinder.com: So much of the business selling your artwork is now online. In part, you must be left with having to trust the business “visions” of others. Do you feel like some of your own ideas get realized in that process?
Ed Lee: I feel like some of my visions got lost in some other people’s visions, but I’ve also learned that other people’s “presentations” of my artwork does work. There is always more than one way to see something, and TattooFinder.com/Flash2xs.com has done great things with my work and their visions.
TattooFinder.com: How has being in prison affected your ability to create art?
Ed Lee: Tattoo paraphernalia includes, but is not limited to, ink, patterns and needles. The patterns part in the D.O.C. (Department of Corrections) Rule Book is punishable by 20 days in the hole - 30 days loss of good time. I’ve probably lost as many sheets of flash as ones I have out there now due to some D.O.C. cop shaking me down and taking my flash, sketches and supplies for being “tattoo paraphernalia.” The pens I would use to line flash or re-line flash were those crappy ones like the Pilot Precision V7. The cops think you can use the ink to tattoo with, so then pens are illegal as well. I used to have to hide my pens and supplies and wait until lock-down to retrieve them all. I had to stay up all night long to draw and once lock-down was over, which was before breakfast, I would have to start the whole hiding process over again. On the positive side, being in prison has actually helped me. If it wasn’t for all this time, I would not have found the drive to grow and learn as much as I have. And I’m still learning.
TattooFinder.com: Where do you get art supplies? What alternatives do you use when you’re unable to get these?
Ed Lee: Anywhere possible. You would not believe how some things are obtained. Nor would I want to state them here for the D.O.C. to read!
TattooFinder.com: There are plenty of people who would love to get tattooed by you and are anxious for your release. When are you expected to be paroled from prison? What are your plans once you are back on the “outside”? Who would you like to work with if you begin tattooing again?
Ed Lee: There are no “ifs.” I will be tattooing my ass off when I finally touch down. Where? I don’t know. I’ve got possible places in Vegas, Colorado, Illinois and California, but I don’t know yet where I will be. Wherever the parole board will let me go to first is where I’m gonna go. I’m up for parole again – my ninth attempt – on May 8 of this year . I only have until November 13, 2009, left on my sentence and then they have to let me go. But so far the parole board has not granted me parole yet.
TattooFinder.com: And there has been talk of you working more closely with TattooFinder in several capacities upon your release? What things would you like to see happen in this area?
Ed Lee: What do you mean? I was told I would be running the whole show! [Laughing] Being in prison, I’m limited to what and how much I can do. But once out, I can produce so much. I think me and TattooFinder could do a lot of things and learn a lot of things from each other.
TattooFinder.com: You have many different styles of tattoo designs that you have created over the years. What is your favorite style to draw and create?
Ed Lee: I enjoy doing every style. I used to hate “traditional” designs. I could not figure out how in the hell these artists I grew up admiring for their artistic skill and paving the way for a new frontier could take a step backwards to draw and tattoo shit from the past. I felt like it was betraying the art. But then I came to appreciate it. You need to know the past to be a part of the future. So I came to enjoy doing the traditional stuff. I really enjoy the more morbid stuff. I feel like there are no rules to doing it.
TattooFinder.com: You’ve clearly had a number of major influences with your artwork including Guy Aitchison, another TattooFinder.com artist. Who else has been influential to you?
Ed Lee: Kinda cool how you gave Guy and 2xs a plug with that question. [Laughing] Guy is a hell of an artist. Lou has told me how Guy is humble and doesn’t like to be referred to as a pioneer. Well, I will give Guy Aitchison a plug too! Guy, you’re one hell of an artist and you deserve all the props you get — you’ve earned it. I would have to say my influences have to roll from then to now – Ed Hardy, Jack Rudy, Eddie Deutsche, Aaron Cain, Aaron Bell, Guy Aitchison, Marcus Pacheco, Paul Booth, Bob Tyrrell...and the list goes on.
TattooFinder.com: What is it like for you knowing that your artwork is now influential for other “up and coming” artists? What advice do you have for them?
Ed Lee: I’m in prison so I don’t know that my art has influenced anyone. But if I have influenced any one of you “up and coming” artists as the questions says ... that’s f@#$%&g cool. That would make me feel good — really good! As to what advice I have to give? Draw, draw and draw some more. Study every art style you possibly can. Never stop trying to learn. Once you feel you finally know it all, you’re dead. Never stop learning.
TattooFinder.com: A lot of your designs can be described as dark, morbid and even blasphemous. How does this reflect your personality?
Ed Lee: It doesn’t define who I am. I was told that a pretty famous tattooist in San Diego said I was a womanizer because of some of my drawings. She based this solely on some drawings! I’m not my drawings. I’m a pervert at times, but my drawings do not define who I am. I do!
TattooFinder.com: But where do all these ideas come from? How do they come to you?
Ed Lee: I sketch a circle or whatever and I see a shape in it and then it just falls together. Sometimes I surprise myself!
TattooFinder.com: Your brother Douglas is also an artist on TattooFinder.com. Does this push you to stay motivated and refine your skills to continue to growing as an artist?
Ed Lee: As a kid, Doug and I used to compete with each other on drawing – trying to out-do each other. It was like that until 1986 when he got locked up in California. Being in prison, I don’t get to see much of his stuff. Any drawing I get in the mail is under suspicion of being a “tattoo pattern.” Most of what I’ve seen is small pictures from catalogs. He’s a very talented guy.
TattooFinder.com: While you’ve created a multitude of tattoo flash that’s in color, you’re most known for your black and gray designs. What do you think makes them popular and stand out from the rest?
Ed Lee: I wish that I knew the answer to that question. It would surely help me, as well as you guys, to know the answer to that question!
TattooFinder.com: Well, do you think it has more to do with your style of the artwork, your ability to create those beautiful soft grays? Or do you think it has more to do with the content - perhaps that the morbid stuff simply looks better in black and gray to people? Perhaps some of both?
Ed Lee: First, thank you for the compliment, but I still don’t know. It could be the content of the designs, it could be the detail and lack of line work such as a traditional tattoo has. I’ve won more black and gray competitions than I have for color flash. But I really don’t know.
TattooFinder.com: You’ve also been referred to as a pioneer of bio-mechanical tattoo designs. What do you find fascinating about this specific tattoo style?
Ed Lee: That there are no limits to it - that the bio and the mechanical parts are limitless. I’m no pioneer though. Guy Aitchison – that’s a bio-mechanical pioneer. Aaron Cain – he is a bio-mechanical pioneer.
TattooFinder.com: Do you have a personal fascination with the organic workings of the human body — the combination of man and machine? So much of this style of artwork might fall into the area of “fantasy” or “science fiction.” Do you feel a sense of freedom letting your mind and creativity run away with these things?
Ed Lee: Organic ... that’s some cool ass shit to work with. I’m limited to reference stuff but we do have some microbiology books in the library. Some of the micro photos of textures you can use for other designs. It’s a really cool experience. I don’t know about the rest of the “flower power” bulls@$t of being one with man and machine thing, but I do know that I feel like I’ve wasted a day if I don’t draw at least one thing. I beat myself up mentally for wasting a day.
TattooFinder.com: Can you share some of the secrets behind creating good bio-mechanical tattoo designs?
Ed Lee: I’ve been working on a book about drawing bio-mechanical designs since 2003. I’m about 120+ pages into it now, but it truly is a never-ending story. It just keeps growing and growing! Hopefully, if anybody really does want to see the book, it will one day come out. Until then, it’s just a helpful tool. I let my friends use it to help them learn as I learn new stuff to put into it.
TattooFinder.com: All artists, even those most well known, use reference of some type. Where do you get your references?
Ed Lee: From wherever we can get it and that is a secret I’m trying to keep from D.O.C. knowing. :)
TattooFinder.com: There’s an obvious difference with “non-commercial” tattoo designs that still do well and the “money-maker” commercial designs that are extremely popular. How do you feel about creating designs that fit into each category?
Ed Lee: I used to tell my friends who create flash to do a five sheet set. Three sheets for money and two to show off your skills! I still feel the same, but I’ve come to appreciate the commercial and non-commercial flash. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You have to appreciate one to be able to do the other.
TattooFinder.com: What can we expect from you in the future?
Ed Lee: A lot more! I’m working on my “homies” theme, as well as a body parts concept book. I’ve already done some hand designs for it. I’m also working on the bio-mechanical book and a book on specific subject matters such as roses, skulls, aliens, dragons and more.
TattooFinder.com: And, finally, what else would you most want people to know about you that we didn’t discuss in this interview?
Ed Lee: That I’m a father of a beautiful girl, as well as now a grandfather. I’ve never been able to be a father but I’ve always wanted to be a father to my Crystal. I’m 41 now and I’ve only just begun!!Check out more of Edward Lee's tattoo designs and read his bio!