An Interview with Uncle Pauly

Uncle Pauly is a natural born shit talker, who’s ability to call it as it is—coupled with his extensive tattoo knowledge, of course—qualifies him to be a perfect judge for our convention. He’s a renowned tattoo artist in his own regards, and spends a lot of his time traveling the country giving 3D realistic nipple tattoos for women who’ve received mastectomies. Here Pauly explains what he’s looking for when he’s critiquing your tattoos. 

Judging artistic value is inherently subjective. You hate to tell someone that their tattoo sucks, but let’s face it—a lot of tattoos suck. Not everybody likes the same style of art, and that’s why there’s an educated panel of professional tattooers there to discuss it. We’re not always on the same page; there can be a lot of dissension. But we take it pretty seriously, cause the people who are up there take it pretty seriously too. Do we all agree that even if we don’t like the subject matter, it’s a good tattoo by merit? The main factors probably are:

Technical Application

The first thing I look at is the basic foundation, the structure. How does it look? 

If the foundation is created with black outlines, then they need to be done well. Are the lines smooth, straight, and crisp? Sometimes line weight is used to create perspective. Is it effective? If you’re gonna tattoo a crooked line, you better make sure that it looks like it’s done on purpose. Otherwise it fucking sucks. 

A lot of the tattoos we see have no lines, and they can be particularly challenging. In those cases, the foundation is often shading. Black ink helps define components and provides necessary separations in tattoos, and when applied correctly, helps create contrast and depth. But if there’s no black in it, the darker shades need to provide enough contrast to separate the elements and make it read well. Is the shading smooth and effective? Is it done well?

When it comes to large scale work—like a whole upper arm or something like that—there should be some flow and structural design integrity. Is it put together well? In other words, is it readable? You don’t want to have to be two-feet away from the tattoo to tell what’s going on. I think you should be able to get the general gist from a distance, that it should look good, and when you get close, it should still look like it was done pretty well. Some tattoos look good from a distance and when you get close, they look like shit. It depends what the artist’s style and approach is. To me, if a tattoo looks like shit, it looks like shit. It’s pretty fucking cut and dried. 

So yeah, technical applications refers to the use of shading, lines, and/or color to create a readable design that will conceivably have a long period of quality for that person. Is it going to withstand the test of time? Does it look good?

Artistic Quality

The second thing is, how is it drawn? How does the artwork look? It can be lettering that’s unfucking believable, and that’s just as important as an image that’s unbelievable too. But what is it?

You know what I’m talking about—you look at something, and it sucks cause it sucks. The fucking lines don’t connect, or they’re wiggly and shitty, it doesn’t make sense, or it’s just done wrong. There’s no wrong or right, but let’s face it, there really is a wrong and right. It’s not a stylistic thing. Anybody on the street can look at a tattoo and go, “Hehe, ah, that’s pretty bad.” We’re not talking subject matter, we’re talking bad design. 

If you do a shitty drawing, it’s going to be a shitty tattoo. How could it not suck? It’s just like a blueprint; if your blueprint sucks, your house might suck, unless you’re one of those guys who can just throw a house or a tattoo together and it’s amazing. Not everyone can do that, so if you can’t, it’s important to have a good plan.

If a person brings you a drawing their kid made, that’s fine. I have two of those, some little dogs that my kids drew. But sometimes it’s not a kids drawing; sometimes the person just can’t draw, and you see those tattoos on people all the time. Why do that shit? If you can’t draw, tattoo flash and get better.

Ultimately we’re talking about the artistic aspect of it as opposed to the craft. There’s structure and technique, and then there’s a level of finesse. They’re all kind of the same, and they’re all different. You can draw similarities from one technique to the next, but I think what separates people is their level of finesse.

Design in Placement

Design is how you assemble the elements of a tattoo. You might have a tattoo with four things in it, and they may have all been drawn well, but if you really want to nail it, you need to assemble them on the body in a way that flows, looks good, and is readable. 

Sometimes people want their tattoos placed in funky positions—that’s their fucking problem, right? You can make suggestions like, “Hey, you know that’s kind of fucking stupid, but I’ll do whatever you want,” you know what I mean? But it really still should look good. I think tattoos should be placed on a certain position of their body that shows the tattooer had the foresight to guide their clients to a place that fits.

If someone’s doing a full back piece, from the nape of your neck to the back of your knees, I like it better when they take into account—at least to a certain degree—how it’s laying on your body. The flat part of your back is one thing, but the way somebody’s ass is shaped and looks… you can’t really throw just anything on there. It has to be placed on the body correctly or drawn to fit a certain part of the body. And that goes for anything. If you get a snake sleeve and the head ends up in a stupid place, that’s poor planning. 

So that’s what I mean by design and placement. It varies from tattoo to tattoo. Some people fuckin’ nail it, every time, and a lot of times it’s because they’ve done a lot of legwork on that tattoo. They’ve done a lot of planning, they’re not just winging it. It’s tough, it’s really tough, but that’s just the way it is.

Do they love it?

I always look at the person who got the tattoo and ask myself, “Do they love it?” They’re probably not going to be in the contest if they don’t, and it might not be the best fucking tattoo, but if you have two shitty tattoos and one person is really happy, they’re probably gonna be the winner. 

Their attitude towards their tattoo reflects their relationship with their tattooer, and I think that’s important. You kind of hope that their tattooer’s pretty fucking cool. They spent all this time together working on it, and they made this person really stoked. In a way, that’s what we tattoo for—we’re doing it for the person. We’re allowed to do it for ourselves too of course; it’s our job, we can be super happy and everything, immediate gratification, blah blah. But someone is going to be wearing that tattoo for the rest of their life, and when they look in the mirror, you don’t want the first thing they think to be, ‘Wow, that tattooer was a douche.’ If they really look like they love it, in the back of my mind I think that they like their tattooer, and that’s paramount.

We’re tattooers, which is a craft. If you’re a good artist, it can certainly make your craft more attractive to other people who want to get tattoos, you know? But clients have so many more choices now, and you can’t afford to be an asshole, even if you’re really talented. If you’re a shit-head to your clients, fuck you. Get over yourself.

So that’s really it: the technical aspect, the artistic aspect, the design and placement, and making people happy. I think that’s it. Oh, and not being a shit-head. At least that’s my opinion.  

Uncle Pauly will be selling a book of flash called “Obey The Unwritten Law,” which you’ll only be able to buy from him in person. If you’re interested to know more about his work as a tattoo specialist in the nipple world, go to