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Body of Work

Sean Wyett and the art of tattoo



It turns out that Handsome Dick Manitoba had it right all along: It really is all about cars and girls. It's a determination that he shares with artist Sean Wyett, owner of Black Cat Tattoo in Boise.

"I pretty much like to draw cars and girls," says Wyett. Luckily for him, he's arranged his life so that he can and does draw every day. It may not always be cars and girls, but that is what he's become known for in the tattoo industry.

"He has a real talent for drawing female figures," says Champion Grubbs of Frontline Tattoo in Oceanside, California.

"Yeah, he draws cars and girls," says Boise artist Noble Hardesty. "And he draws them really, really well. Sean is a total perfectionist."

These may seem like simple answers to the complex question of what subject a particular artist has made his own, but to have such a recognized niche in the world of contemporary tattoo art is quite an achievement.

Wyett didn't start off being a tattoo artist, but he has always been an artist. "My dad was an illustrator in the Air Force," says Wyett. "There was always stuff to draw on and with when I was growing up. This was pre-electronics, so you found other things to do with your time. I read comics a lot, and drew the ones that I was intrigued by."

Wyett was born in Michigan and spent his childhood in Hawaii. He moved to Idaho in 1981 and graduated from high school in Mountain Home in 1982. He spent one semester studying art at Boise State in 1984. While there, he met up with "lots of awesome people who were doing interesting and creative things at the time." Wyett and his contemporaries left an indelible mark on the underground culture of Boise.

"Sean Wyett and Pushead and Eric Payne influenced me so much as a kid, it was hard for me not to emulate them," says artist Noble Hardesty. "I was just a little skate rat, and those guys were older. They were leaders by example. With their punk rock fliers and T-shirt designs, they created a total aesthetic."

"I remember Sean had a midnight radio show on the BSU radio station," says Sabra Haney, owner of Need to Bead. "We were in junior high at the time, and me and my friends would always try to stay up and listen to it. He's the only one who played Dead Kennedys, Black Flag; all those bands. He used to do the illustrations for the radio schedule. I remember one that was a skeleton with a blue mohawk skanking through a graveyard," she remembers. "I still have all of those fliers in my mom's attic."

Wyett also had one of his drawings used on the back cover of the Misfit's Legacy of Brutality album. "That was back in the days when you just sent stuff to a band, and they might use it," he recalls. "The coolest thing about that was that I was a fan, and I got to sit and talk with those guys. They let me know that I didn't suck."

In 1985, Wyett moved to San Francisco for 10 years. While there, he worked at Thrasher Magazine with skate-rock art icon Pushead. "Pushead had a huge influence on me believing that you can do cool shit with art," says Wyett. He started working for a music industry promotional company, Winterland. "Working in an art department, you get really fast," he says. "Your drawings get really tight and accurate." Wyett did shirt designs for Ozzy Osbourne, Lita Ford ("Nobody wanted to work on Lita Ford, and I said, 'I'll do it. She used to be a Runaway.'"), Ice Cube and Slayer. "The projects are always changing, which keeps you really sharp," he says. "You have to be able to change gears really quickly, and to be able to deliver what they need, when they need it."

After the birth of their son Cassidy, Wyett and his wife, Geneva, moved back to Boise in 1995. He did some work for Idaho Public Television and started working with Eric Payne at Inkvision Tattoos on evenings and weekends. "Before I left for San Francisco, Eric was learning how to tattoo," says Wyett. "We were all really excited about it and knew he would be really good at it. That has turned out to be true: Eric is one of the most talented people in the Northwest."

"Tattooing afforded me the opportunity to draw pictures every day," he says. He opened Black Cat in December of 2000, and set about building up his clientele and establishing a reputation as a shop that would provide a good quality product for a reasonable price. "What I like about what I do is seeing people buy themselves a piece of artwork," says Wyett.

Tattooing has a very different end result from the graphic design work that Wyett did before. "With the T-shirt designs, you were creating one design that would be on thousands of people. This is one particular drawing that will be on one person."

"I try not to get wrapped up in the tattoo artist/rock star thing," says Wyett. "It's a job, first and foremost, and I want to do a good job. It's not shaman-like or anything: it's more like a barbershop. We have a responsibility as far as cleanliness, and having drawings ready for our clients. They can trust us to make suggestions and help them through what is a pretty big decision."

Wyett is extremely aware of the potential for damage in what he sees as still a precarious profession, despite its explosion in popularity. "It's all about respectability; any little chink in it is going to show," he says. "What the industry needs is people who are really good at it. You must have artistic ability, because you are trying to communicate an idea. You need to be able to do that clearly and concisely, almost economically. You have to convey a certain idea without a lot of clutter around it."

As far as artistic inspiration, Wyett cites Dave Stevens, Pushead and Martin Emond, saying, "It seems to me that if your eyes are still working, you're being influenced." As far as local artists go, Wyett has hopes that the folks at the Visual Arts Collective can bring together a somewhat scattered underground art scene. "I think that being an artist in Boise brings a little bit of insecurity," he says. "There needs to be more support for people who are doing fringe-culture art." He is still involved in the underground music scene, doing graphics for local bands such as El Dopamine and Upinatem. "I'm old now, but I still love it when these kids take it upon themselves to create something," says Wyett. "I'll always support that." In addition, Wyett has a side project doing graphic design work with his company Black Top Design. "That's my cottage industry, or more like my potting-shed industry," he says.

Wyett's ability and experience have led to a reputation that he can draw anything right then, right there. It will be done fast, and it will be done well--especially if it's cars and girls.


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