Lily Hansen | Interviews

Tattoo Artist Elisheba Israel on Decision-Making in a Permanent Craft

In this limited series, Design Observer features conversations with creatives from the inventive, implacable, cultural melting pot that is Nashville, Tennessee. In her new book Word of Mouth: More Conversations, author Lily Hansen takes conversation with others from chore to professional vocation, and as author and oral historian Studs Terkel put it, talks with creative people “about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.”

We selected four such conversations—with illustrator Rebecca Green, tattoo artist Elisheba Israel, apparel and shoe designer Phillip Nappi, and photographer Jeremy Cowart—to enlighten us as to what they do, why, and how they found their creative voice within that unique fabric that is the Music City.

Tattoo artist Elisheba Israel’s philosophy is “to let your business grow, you sometimes have to let go.” Israel is the face and founder of One Drop Ink, Nashville’s first African American owned and operated tattoo shop. The artist has never aspired for normalcy, and every detail of her north Nashville space reflects this resistance against mainstream culture. After graduating with a degree in computer arts, the self-proclaimed comic and video-game geek became interested in tattoos—even though her own body was a blank canvas. When the Memphis-born artist began apprenticing in Nashville, she saw a niche that needed to be filled: tattoos for darker skin, which the industry tended to neglect. One Drop Ink is a place where even the most diverse communities can flow together. No matter who walks through her door, Israel assures the artwork and hospitality will be top-notch.

How did you carve out your niche as the tattoo artist who specializes in darker skin?

The north Nashville community craved a neighborhood tattoo shop and artist whose expertise was people of color. Blacks have historically been disenfranchised, which is why I feel it’s so important for us to be represented both within and outside our community. Yet, while my niche is dark skin, half of my clients are white.

Image courtesy Elisha Israel.

To what do you attribute your success?

I would say standing my ground and providing excellent customer service have been my secret. I’ve received backlash for promoting the fact that One Drop Ink is black-owned and operated. But that is the truth. My desire is to support a service that isn’t widely offered. Trust me, I like everybody, and I like money. [Laughs.]

What do you think is so appealing about One Drop Ink?

I’m not an asshole, but I will give you an honest opinion if something is or isn’t going to work. Also, I take into account how my clients act, think, and are. Anyone can give a tat, but, when you book me, I am here to put fine art on you. I’ve seen some really bad tattoos—mostly from illegal parties. [Laughs.]
I’m not an asshole, but I will give you an honest opinion if something is or isn’t going to work.

What do you love most about tattooing?

You can walk around with fine art on your arm forever. Working on skin has made me a better artist because you can’t hide your mistakes. The permanence of the craft adds a healthy spark of fear.

Image courtesy Elisha Israel.

What’s the biggest challenge of owning your own business?

Making financial choices that will result in sustainability over time. I am a big believer in cutting costs, doing more with less, and investing every dime I have versus taking out loans. I’ve also had to learn the hard way that I cannot spread myself too thin. When you do too much, certain parts inevitably suffer.
Learning to take risks is one of the best things I’ve ever done.

What inspires you creatively?
Hands-down, my 12-year-daughter, Kasumi. I want her to know that she doesn’t have to walk the conventional path. Learning to take risks is one of the best things I’ve ever done. You never know what’s going to happen. All you can do is recognize when you’re on the right path.

This interview has been edited for length. Read the full interview in Word of Mouth: More Conversations.

Read the previous interview in this series with Illustrator Rebecca Green.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Illustration

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