Arts & Culture » Culture

50 Shades of Black and Gray

Born Weird Tattoo specializes in a niche body art tradition


After being open for only a year, Born Weird Tattoo Studio won Best of Boise in 2019—perhaps that's because the shop is doing things a little bit differently. In an industry where it can be more lucrative to offer an array of stylistic options, Born Weird Tattoo and Piercing Studio on 1713 S. Broadway Ave. specializes in professional black-and-gray fine line and portrait work, and more recently, cover-ups.

The American history of black-and-gray tattoos is far from professional. Originally referred to as "jailhouse" tattoos, black-and-gray style was born out of Chicano culture in East Los Angeles and American prison culture in the 1970s, when inmates tattooed each other using ash for ink, and in many cases used guitar strings as needles. Then, as today, tattooing in prison is illegal, but that didn't stop incarcerated artists. Most tattoos represented life outside of prison or featured Latino references, and the prisoners would tattoo in secret.

The ability to create dimensional and realistic artwork while using minimal supplies created a style that eventually pushed out into the streets. Subtle shading techniques used in black and gray can create a gradation of depth in the artwork. Today, artists use a single needle and only black ink diluted by distilled water or white ink. Now, black-and-gray tattoo work has become a mainstay in the industry and Born Weird Tattoo fills that niche in Boise.

Born Weird Owner Kendall Vader opened the shop in November 2018. In a recent interview with the Boise Weekly, Vader gave a tour of the studio and talked about the quest to open his own shop and find the perfect location.

"It was a little frustrating at first," he said, but he finally chose a building close to home. He has lived in the same neighborhood as his shop for over 21 years. "I kinda saw it with new eyes, no one had really been in this location since the '70s," he said. "It's crazy that the building was sitting right in front of me the whole time." And so, Born Weird was born.

For some tattoo aficionados, the name Born Weird might ring a bell. It was inspired by a book of flash artwork—rough-and-ready tattoo designs that give customers inspiration—by famous tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy, which featured a drawing of a devil and a caption that read "Born Weird." Vader bounced ideas for a name for his tattoo shop off friends, but nothing stuck quite like Born Weird, and he let the strange ethos pervade the rest of the shop, decorating it with macabre sculptures and taxidermy.

Vader began his career in the business as counter help at Ink Vision 20 years ago, later going to San Francisco to learn piercing before making his way into tattooing back to Boise. Beginning at 6th Street Tattoo, Vader then moved to Nobody's Hero for a year, helped build its new location, and ended up back at Ink Vision where he tattooed for a decade.

He now specializes in black-and-gray fine-line and portraits after moving to the medium about six years into his career. For Vader, the draw of black-and-gray work comes from his interest in three-dimensional art. He also sculpts, which he said has been informed by his work as a tattoo artist.

"There are nuanced shades in black and gray and I think it translates dimension better," he said, adding, "I thought, why don't I just do the things I'm good at? people said I wouldn't make enough money. But if you tell someone [who likes your work] 'no,' they figure out a way for you to say 'yes.'"

For Vader, that means more of the work he's most drawn to, "and the more I did, the busier I got," he said.

The shop has welcomed two other artists, Jordan Allred and Mike Wiensz, and a piercer John Ackerman. As Born Weird becomes busier, the shop has tried "to balance the two ends of waiting for a tattoo and needing a tattoo," said Vader.

Allred joined the shop in January 2019, and has been tattooing for more than eight years. Also a black-and-gray specialist, she does detailed miniature and large portraits, fine line and floral work.

Wiensz recently moved into the shop from Ink Vision Tattoo, and Vader is his former apprentice. A 17-year veteran of the trade, he specializes in cover-up work, and is consequently the lone artist at Born Weird who uses color.

"I do the ones the rest of 'em are scared to do, or can't do,'" he said. Ackerman has been piercing since 2007, and he knows a lot about his craft. In a state where anyone can buy a kit and give it a go, Ackerman, "knows a plethora of information about piercing," he said.

All four artists at Born Weird are seasoned professionals that bring plenty of their own specialized skills into one location. Additionally, because Vader and Allred fill a niche roll and provide a custom level of service, their schedules are currently full. However, if you follow the artists on social media their schedules do open from time to time.

To deal with the influx of appointments, Wienszs decided to seek a solution. Although his schedule is also busy, he decided to open up afternoons to walk-ins. Ensuring that Born Weird is catering to all of its clientele, and by doing that, it is helping Boise to get a little weird, too.