CAP SZUMSKI'S AWESOME REALISM
The Future Lies Ahead
At 36, Cap Szumski (pronounced "some-ski") has been
tattooing for nearly 20 years. By age 17- when most other kids around the San
Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles were headed to high school home room- Cap
was already apprenticed to an artist named JR at a shop in Newhall.
"Tattooing is the only thing that interested me," he said. "In
school, the only things I got good grades in were art and shop.
"My mother typed me up a fake birth certificate when I
was sixteen so I could get tattooed," he said. "She didn't realize
that she had opened the door for me to get tattooed whenever I wanted."
JR's shop was "pretty much a street shop," Szumski
said. "It probably wasn't the busiest place, but I learned to do good
traditional tattooing." Szumski came into it the most traditional way,
too- by hanging around on the weekends and doing whatever needed to be done,
including cutting the acetate stencils, until he was invited to step across
the line and start learning. Nothing is free, and in this case it was the
price of a pickup truck. "I had gotten a '60 Chevy truck with a new
motor and transmission," Szumski said. "He told me if I gave him
the truck, he'd teach me. I went for it."
Szumski stayed with JR for about four years, first at the
shop in Newhall and then in the new shop he opened in Lancaster. By that
time, the thrill had worn off. Tattooing in the early '80s wasn't anything
like it is today. "I was getting kind of tired of doing traditional
tattooing," he said "My folks said, 'You know, you should have
another trade besides this thing.' So I did residential electric work for
about six years and tattooed at night." In 1987, Brian Everett asked him
to come work at Route 66 in Albuquerque.
Route 66 had only been open about a year when Szumski
arrived. "I learned a professionalism about tattooing that I never knew
before," Cap said. "Plus, he held up a single needle and a shader
and said, 'This is what you're going to make. Use these from here on out.' At
that time, in that shop, it was all single-needle black and grey work. It
sort of rekindled my fires about wanting to tattoo. All I really knew how to
do was a good traditional tattoo, and at that time period, it seemed like
people were beginning to veer away from it. Even though it's popular again
now, back then the traditional thing was sort of dying out. People were doing
realistic work and bigger things, trying to change the face of what tattooing
was here in the United States at that time. Since I grew up in Los Angeles,
I'd seen a lot of that single-needle black and grey work, but I had no one to
answer those million-dollar questions for me. Brian did that. He was
completely open. Without those questions answered, it's pretty hard to
progress with tattooing in general."
In 1993, Szumski decided that it was time he opened up on his
own. He took a few months to drive around the country with his wife, Bethra,
to decide on a place to live that agreed with them. Atlanta was a town they
intended to drive right through. Instead, they stopped.
Szumski's Timeless Tattoo has been open three years now in
the same Atlanta location. He opened the doors with Keet as his second
tattooer and with Bethra doubling on piercing and tattoo. Since then, DC from
Daytona and Chase from Orlando have joined the crew. Dawn is apprenticing
through the traditional stages, and currently holds down the front room and
greeting duties. They've also added a second piercer, Michelle.
Cap Szumski is very much a traditional tattooer, with pretty
traditional ideas about how people should come up in the business. This is
partly because of the way he was taught himself, and, it would seem, partly
through natural inclination. "The way things are going, a guy works for
someone, apprentices for a year and opens his own shop. It's weird," he
said, "My idea, when I was learning was to learn as much as I possibly
could so that when I did open my own store, I wouldn't have any questions
about how to deal with any situation. I see it a lot; a guy'll come in with a
cover up that didn't work- too bad the guy didn't know how to deal with
Timeless Tattoo was designed to offer the privacy of rooms,
but with enough openings so that when the rhythm picks up, everyone can talk
and joke like they do in a street shop. "There's no pleasure like
working in a busy street shop," Cap said, "If you eliminate the
fun, it'd be like any other job. The way we work it here, everyone is a good
tattooer, and we're all working to progress." Cap himself tries to do
new things all the time: "Just something I've never seen before in
tattoo. A background. Or a layout." For a long time, Cap said, people
asked him for what Jake LaMotta, the old Raging Bull boxer, would call
"Things that begin with A." A portrait. A pin-up. A tiger. (LaMotta
said that in his Bronx youth, he and his pals only stole things that began
with an A: A car. A truckload of smokes. A cashbox.) Now, Cap said, "I'm
trying to do complete scenes. When people want a specific item, I try to talk
them into doing more of a complete vision of that thing, whatever it might
be. It started out as, say, with an angel- I would give it a dark background
to give her more of an angelic soft appearance."
Cap does get whole back jobs, but more often, it's an arm or
a leg. "I don't know why," he said. "That's just how it's
worked out. But with the black and grey, people tend to choose tighter,
Szumski works as many conventions as he can, including the
National and the Tattoo Tour events, and works Sturgis every year. "I
like going to the shows because they're inspirational. If I sit at home for
months at a time, I get tunnel vision. I go to the shows, I see people doing
cool stuff and I come home ready to do cool stuff here."
Cap's first convention was aboard the Queen Mary.
"That's when I realized I didn't know shit," he said. "I was
working in that shop out there and I thought I was the slickest kid on the
street. I walked in there and there was a bunch of good tattooers and I was
just in awe. I went home feeling like I was whipped. I think that was the
first thing that made me think I'd better get on the stick here and start
doing cool stuff. I always wanted to do something that set me apart and made
me unique. Even when I was doing residential electric, I tried to be the best
damn electrician I could."
That drive to excel still burns in Cap Szumski, and maybe
brighter than ever. "I still don't think I've reached my full potential
with it all yet. I try to constantly learn. I don't want to rest on my
laurels, man. I want to keep at it and progress. I've been at it a while, and
it seems like this is what I'm going to do."
Szumski does not do much art outside of the studio. While he
was in New Mexico, he got to know painters like R.K. Sloane and Terry Corbin,
and traded them tattoos for art, in the hopes it would spark him with a
desire to paint. It didn't work. "The only medium that interests me is
the skin," Cap said.