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Nate Burrow: Making His Mark

Tattoo shops are loud. It’s a mix of chatter, music blasting over speakers and maybe two to three—sometimes even four—tattoo machines going on all at once. When the tattoo artists have to communicate with each other, that just ups the volume even higher; shouting over all the activity is the only way to be heard. 

And yet, tattoo shops are also, in their own sense, calming. There’s a laser-beam focus shared between artist and client—the artist focusing on his work, the client focusing on the pain. 

Anyone with a tattoo knows the immense satisfaction when the session is over and they walk away with a permanent piece of body art. Nate Burrow knows this, as both his arms, back and chest are heavily tattooed. But as a tattoo artist, he said he finds just as much satisfaction in being on the giving end of tattooing.

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Air Force veteran and School of Illustration student Nate Burrow. Photo courtesy of Nate Burrow.

“I’ve had a couple times where people are overwhelmed and were brought to tears,” he said at Five & Dime Tattoo near Lake Merritt in Oakland. “That gives me chills. There’s no better feeling that that, than giving someone that sense of peace.” 

Presently, Burrow is a full-time tattoo artist but also a student at the Academy of Art University’s School of Illustration, though he’s taken the fall semester off to dedicate himself to Five & Dime. He’s been tattooing for around six years, but only started tattooing in formal shops in 2014 after he was honorably discharged from the Air Force. Burrow served for “five years, two months and six days” and calls his military service “the best decision I ever made in my life.”

“I got to experience so much culture and so much of the world,” he reminisced. He was stationed in Germany for a bulk of his term and did a tour in Afghanistan. Burrow said he’s been all over Europe, the Middle East (including Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) and Japan: “Without the military, I wouldn’t have experienced any of that. It makes you mature too when you see more, it makes you understand cultures and how other people are and how they feel.”

Burrow’s the first to admit—and denounce—the way he got into tattooing as “not the right way.” To formally earn their spot in a shop, tattoo artists have to build a portfolio impressive enough to garner an apprenticeship, preferably with a reputable parlor. A résumé of exclusively tattooing soldiers for two years in the Air Force didn’t quite cut it when he first returned to the Bay Area. He landed in a less-than-ideal tattoo shop but worked his way from the bottom to Five & Dime, where he’s been since 2015. 

“Tattooing as an art, what you get is what you give. You work hard and take your trade serious, you can do well, but it also depends on your heart,” he explained. “Being in the military, I understood honor and dedication and tradition and loyalty to something. When you’re going to do something, you do it with your whole heart or what’s the point of doing it in the first place?”

It’s this dedication that pushed Burrow to enroll at the Academy. As a veteran, his GI Bill benefits allowed him to go back to school even as he was working full-time. Burrow said he loves watercolor painting: “There’s a peace to it, it teaches patience,” and though his motivation was to be a well-rounded artist, he said many of the principles and techniques he’s learning in his illustration classes can be applied to tattooing. He even took the Academy’s tattoo classes (ILL 177: Drawing for Tattoo and Skin Art, taught by illustration alum and Moth & Dagger tattoo studio owner Mario Delgado) and learned how to apply drawing foundations to body art.

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(L-R) Examples of Nate Burrow’s tattoo work. Photos courtesy of Nate Burrow.

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“You have to learn how to build an image that moves and you can use those skills in any style, no matter if it’s black and gray, traditional, realism, geometric, whatever,” he said. “When it comes to doing this type of work, I’m all about progression—it’s not a race.” 

From his time in the military to his work as a tattoo artist, Burrow’s life is committed to providing service. Every year, Burrow likes to do something special in honor of Veterans Day. A couple years ago, he tells me, he organized a raffle where people can purchase up to five tickets at a recommended $20 donation and the winner would get a free $150 tattoo. He then donated the proceeds to the Wounded Warrior Project, his “little way of giving back to a community that’s given me so much.” 

Until it’s time for him to get back to school—Burrow is aiming for a Spring 2018 return—he’ll continue to progress with his tattooing, making his mark on every person that comes by to sit on his table day-by-day. 

“Tattooing is something rewarding, it’s like this feeling of accomplishment,” he said as he looks up from his client’s leg. He’s tattooing a broken skateboard with a Japanese hammerhead shark and waves, topped off with a lotus flower near the board’s back right wheel. “When it’s healed and its buttery crisp, that’s where it really counts. It’s always going to look great when it leaves the shop, but when it heals, that’s the real question. That’s what separates the real tattooers.”