Kelley Drake

Interview by Lindley Estes
Issue 56 • October 2017 • Fredericksburg

Though illness separated these kindred spirits, this tattoo artist is honoring his friend’s memory by continuing their collaborative efforts—and supporting the ones he left behind.

Kelley Drake deals in the art of lasting impressions, a trait revealed in many aspects of his life. Take, for example, the masterful tattoos he’s been inking at Jack Brown's Tattoo Revival for the past eleven years. In his painting and illustrative work, too, slashes of color and inventive figures pummel their way into the viewer’s consciousness. Most of all in his personal relationships, Drake knows firsthand what it means to make an abiding impact.

His upcoming show Monsters, Aliens & Robots, Oh My #3 is his final collaboration with friend Mike Tschirn. Tschirn, who passed away in July of 2016 from pancreatic cancer, left his own indelible mark on Drake with three tattoos: a buffalo on his chest, a skull on his elbow, and the pattern from one of Drake's daughter's outfits—the first thing of hers he held before adopting her.

But even more permanent was the bond they formed while working at Jack Brown's. They each respected the other’s tattoo designs and eventually began collaborating on artwork outside of the shop. The duo featured their co-created pieces in a series of shows that celebrated the B-movie monster aesthetic. Unfortunately for Drake, due to Tschirn’s untimely passing, “we didn't get to do as many collaborations as I would have liked.” For this upcoming third showing, he had to finish these last remaining pieces on his own.

Monsters, Aliens & Robots, Oh My #3 opens this month at The Sunken Well Tavern. While Tschirn was sick, he was always hopeful he would survive. Drake said part of being there for him was making everything as normal as possible, so they kept planning this show. The featured work includes one completed piece from a previous show, four pieces Tschirn started with Drake, and two paintings Drake created from Tschirn's sketched ideas. “I tried to keep as many of his marks as possible,” Drake said about completing the paintings. “It was a scary experience.”

Drake called Tschirn's style “gritty, punk rock,” with spray paint and rough edges giving a distinct personality to the pieces. Drake brought his own clean-edged style to the work. They passed the canvases back and forth until they were satisfied that they had captured something unique. The subject matter—scary, morose, and creepy, yet ultimately something orphic and humane—was their common ground. Apropos for October, the pieces feature alien figures with reptilian eyes and gnarled teeth.

The nice thing about collaborating, Drake said, is setting aside one’s own natural style to make something new. If left to his own devices in the tattoo shop, the work would be all creepy and in black and grey all the time. But Tschirn, “always laughing, always someone to bounce ideas off of,” brought a lot of color to the canvas.

For Drake and Tschirn, part of working at Jack Brown's was the atmosphere of cross pollination between artists—something that other shops don't necessarily foster. It's a special dynamic that keeps the work exciting, according to Drake. That collaboration continues in yet another way, as Drake is now completing Tschirn's customers' unfinished tattoos. “It's a number of emotions, finishing Mike's tattoos,” he said. “The sadness comes back, but there's a nice feeling, too. I'm connecting with him again through art.”

Their first real contact was online, even though both were local to the Fredericksburg area. A few years before he officially met Tschirn, he received a message from him on MySpace asking for advice on getting his tattoo license. “I was new in the business and afraid to piss off the people that brought me into it and never responded,” Drake said.

But in 2011, Tschirn started coming in to Jack Brown's and took the tattoo station next to Drake. One day, Drake started a full front torso piece and Tschirn's appointment cancelled. He asked if he could jump in and help. “It's the only time I ever tattooed with someone else,” Drake said. “It's kind of like dancing, you have to create a rhythm so you don't mess the other person up—dancing for a few hours straight.”

Drake also admired his friend’s work ethic. Less than a week after he found out his surgery failed and would likely die, Tschirn was back in the shop working on a charity event. “Mike was always laughing, the kind of person you could go to for a hug or a constant flow of ideas back and forth,” Drake said.

Drake and Tschirn joked with each other that they found tattooing as a way to “get paid to draw.” Drake has been an artist his whole life and his family is supportive of his creativity. It was his grandfather, a heavily tattooed Marine, who sparked his interest in tattooing. He kept on with it after dropping out of college as a “way to do art that pays.” Now, that art supports his family. Likewise, Tschirn provided for his wife and children through art. To continue that support, proceeds from the show will fund a college savings account for Tschirn's children, Ami and Ollie.

Drake doesn’t think about the show as closure, rather finishing what Tschirn started. “There isn’t closure in losing someone, you just adapt to the loss. The show is about honoring Mike and finishing a project.”

Monsters, Aliens & Robots, Oh My #3 opens Thursday, October 12 at 6 PM at The Sunken Well Tavern (720 Littlepage Street, Fredericksburg). The show features collaborations between Drake and Tschirn, as well as guest artists Kristin, Ami and Ollie Tschirn; Craig Graziano; Kenny Brown; Chance and Cadence Kenyon; Johan Ulrich; Greg Howell; and Kevin Murphy. Follow Kelley Drake at instagram.com/kelleydrake.

Photography by Aaron Spicer

Become a Whurk superfan!
Sweet bonus photos, only $1 per month
Pledge Now Learn More

More Stuff From Issue 56
More Interview Features
Other Recent Stuff