To someone who spends forty hours a week sitting and watching Austin’s Sixth Street crowds revel night after night, the street’s constant chaos becomes its own sort of routine. The tattoo artists at Sacrament Tattoo, between Neches and Red River streets, aren’t just familiar with the ebb and flow of any given Saturday night. Their business relies on it, too.
Wedged between a cantina and a pastry store, Sacrament is the former storefront of Affinity Tattoo. Redone with a coat of black paint last November, it’s been passed down from tattoo artist to tattoo artist since 1975, starting with Diamond Glenn’s River City Tattoo. Earlier this year, it fell into the hands of co-owners Barry Barthelemy and Chris “Drts” Aragon.
The pair started tattooing together on Sixth Street five years ago, in the same building. With almost forty years of experience between them, they’ve lived through the conversion of the art of tattooing from countercultural staple to a common topic on Pinterest boards. They came up when it was the apprentice’s job to solder their own needles, and know when to expect foot traffic and when to sit on the stoop outside and people-watch to pass the time.
When they’re inside the shop, behind the wall separating their workstations from the waiting area, their first line of defense is store manager Dalton Webster, who negotiates prices and gets all the liability paperwork signed before letting anyone through. Webster had fresh stitches on the top of his right hand when we first met. I figured it was from a fight; actually, he had just removed a sub-dermal piercing. But that isn’t to say he doesn’t get into tiffs from time to time. Barthelemy affectionately calls Webster the “buffer” between the tattoo artists and any passersby who may wander in after a little too much to drink.
Most customers walk in off the street without scheduling an appointment, Webster says. Then it’s his job to gauge how serious they are about getting tattooed, or whether they’re just there to check prices, use the bathroom, or fix their hair in the mirror. All customers must sign a consent form, which goes to the Texas Health Department and ensures that Sacrament isn’t sued. But it also acts as a deterrent for those whose minds aren’t made up. Webster says he can often tell how serious someone is about getting a tattoo based on how they approach him. “If I ask them what they have in mind and they actually have an idea, typically then it’s easy to tell ‘cause it’s clear they’ve thought about it beforehand.” Of the dozens of people who walk in, a fraction end up going through with it. Says Webster: “‘We’ll be back’ is a nice way of saying they’re not coming back.”
If they end up agreeing on the price and providing their ID, customers are paired with the next available tattoo artist. Other than Barthelemy and Aragon, Sacrament has three resident artists on staff: Bobby Joe Ortiz, a Meadow native with long, dark hair nearly down to his waist; Jacob Barthelemy, 22, Barry’s son and apprentice for three years, who sports a beard and small tattoos at the corner of each eye; and David Campos, from Odessa, who goes by Elmo and draws colorful “cholo-crossovers” of iconic TV show and video game characters.
Depending on the night, more than two hundred people might enter the shop looking for tattoos, and almost every design is made on the fly to the customer’s specifications. Say someone wants a tattoo of a bird: there’s a bookcase full of reference books to ensure the anatomy is correct, but the design itself is drawn and printed in the back with the help of a table light and a thermal fax machine, which prints with surgical ink and goes directly on the skin. Smaller, more minimal tattoos resembling doodles or penciled sketches—things like arrows, bouquets of flowers, infinity signs, or an outline of Texas—are particularly trendy in the shop at the moment.
Every artist comes from a certain tradition and enjoys working in a specific style, but tattooing, of course, requires collaboration between them and their customers.“You’re not dealing with an opinionless canvas,” Barthelemy says. After all, it’s permanent.