Drawn to ink

Max Estes remembers family and friends' skeptical reaction when at a young age he told them he was going to be an artist when he grew up.

"I'm going to get paid to draw every day, you just wait," he told them. "Then I found tattooing. It's so cool."

Now the 19-year-old Ashland High School graduate has his own chair at Southside Tattoo, working alongside owner Steve Fuller and tattoo artist Kay Boak.

Estes started as an intern at Southside Tattoo in 2009 as part of a program at Ashland's Wilderness Charter School. Estes would watch as Fuller and Boak worked on clients.

Fuller offered Estes a spot in his shop upon graduation from tattoo school. The Southside owner had considered starting his own tattoo school to teach Estes, but the paperwork to apply was too overwhelming, he said.

"After his charter school thing he (Estes) made an effort," Fuller recalled. "He would come by all the time and watch us work and showed a lot of interest.

"We needed a shop person, so I told him, 'If you want to be a tattoo artist, you should come work in the shop.' "

Estes' parents had set aside some money for his education. Though it took a little convincing, they agreed to send Estes to Captain Jack's Tattoo School in Portland in January.

It took Estes just six months to finish his training.

In tattoo school he learned the technical aspects of the art, giving himself a tattoo of a spray-paint-can cap on the inside of his right ankle as an assignment.

Estes set up shop at Southside Tattoo on June 26.

"I don't have very many (tattoos) myself, but I have plenty of time," he said. "I'm in no rush. Some people my age are covering up their whole arms and chest, but there will be tattoos you will want to get when you're 30 or 40 and you just want to have room. But people don't really want to hear that when you're tattooing them."

Estes moved with his family from France to Ashland when he was 8 years old. He's been an avid sculptor and painter since childhood.

"I actually was a teacher's aide at SOU (Southern Oregon University) when I was like 10 years old, for the summer classes," said Estes. "I did firings and stuff, and just in the last three years I've really focused on painting."

Estes said he's worked on about 100 to 130 people so far.

"Painting is kind of the same, but it's almost easier for me to do it on skin," said Estes. "Just because I've been watching Steve, I know how he does it, so I can kind of do it myself. But not half as good as he can — he's a master."

Estes credits the time he spent at Fuller's shop taking note of the way Boak and Fuller sketch, the types of materials they use, and how they freehand designs on clients' skin as his most valuable training.

"They use people's muscles to make a design flow better," said Estes. "Also, I have paid a lot of attention to the way they communicate with customers. Like how to be a good communicator and to really listen to what people say, and put it on paper. That's probably one of the biggest skills I have picked up from them."

One of the joys of working as a tattoo artist is the customer's response when a piece is done, he said.

"You can really see how tattoos affect people, because you're doing it to them," said Estes. "Some people get really emotional when you give them something beautiful. It's nice to be on that side of things."

For now, Estes is building up his Ashland clientele and taking a lot of the walk-in customers, since Boak and Fuller are usually booked weeks out in advance.

"He's a good kid and has potential as an artist and is just a good person," said Fuller. "I had a good feeling about him. I liked him from the get-go."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mandy Valencia at 541-776-4486 or by email at avalencia@mailtribune.com.

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