Inside a tattoo studio

Tattoo studios offer welcoming spaces to create artistic stories on the skin. Astoria’s Keepsake Tattoo is one example.

Story by ANDREW TONRY

Photo by Alex Pajunas Aaron Toledo, the owner of Astoria's Keepsake Tattoo Studio, conducts a touch-up session on a Celtic cross design created by John Decker, of Astoria. Toledo has worked as a tattoo artist for 10 years and has done three of Decker's six tattoos.

Photo by Alex Pajunas
Aaron Toledo, the owner of Astoria’s Keepsake Tattoo Studio, conducts a touch-up session on a Celtic cross design created by John Decker, of Astoria. Toledo has worked as a tattoo artist for 10 years and has done three of Decker’s six tattoos.

Aaron Toledo got his first tattoo at 16.

“It was in the basement of this head shop in downtown Kansas City, (Mo.), called Zowies,” he remembers. “There was this older guy with long hair, metal lookin’ dude, and he gave it to me.”

The tattoo, a cloud bearing the numeral “9,” has since smeared. But it began a journey that would change not only the skin on Toledo’s lower back, but his life at large.

Something that has also changed in the 16 years since is the nature of tattoos and tattooing itself. Both the business and the implications have altered dramatically, from seedy parlors to boutique-like studios, from social outcasts and outlaw bikers to policeman and lawyers. These changes, as far as Toledo, owner of Astoria’s Keepsake Tattoo, is concerned, are decidedly for the best.

Photo by Andrew Tonry Colored for tattoo inks line a shelf at Keepsake Tatto in Astoria.

Photo by Andrew Tonry
Colored for tattoo inks line a shelf at Keepsake Tatto in Astoria.

“I was pretty stoked about getting tattooed,” Toledo remembers after first going under the gun. He soon went back for another – this time, above board. “The first legal tattoo I got was probably my favorite,” he says. “I got this beautiful mermaid on my forearm. It pretty much spiraled from there.”

But Toledo had yet to realize that giving tattoos – rather than just getting them – was an option.

“I got out of high school and worked a bunch of (crummy) jobs and was trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life,” he says. “I was super unhappy and thought: maybe I should go back to school; maybe I should do this; maybe I should do that.” Unsure, he found solace in art.

“I was always an illustrator,” he says. “I liked to draw. I was always the quiet kid with the sketch book. Never really thought it would go anywhere, or I would do anything with it. It was just something I liked doing.” A friend helped connect the dots.

“I was shooting the (bull) over some beers with a buddy of mine one night after work,” Toledo remembers. “I said, ‘man, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m not stoked. I’m not making the money. I feel trapped. I can’t do what I love.’”

His friend wondered: “Well, what do you love?”

“I said: ‘I don’t know man; I’ve always drawn.’”

His friend replied: “Aaron, all of our friends are tattoo artists, dude! Why don’t you start tattooing?”

Inside Toledo’s head, a light switch flipped on. Soon after, he ordered a tattoo gun and began experimenting on himself. “The tops of my thighs are just riddled in scratch,” he chuckles. “It’s kind of like a sketchbook, really.”

Then a friend asked for a tattoo. For Toledo, it became a critical lesson.

“He was thinking he wants to get his hands tattooed,” Toledo remembers. “And for some reason I’m like totally OK with it. I had never tattooed anybody else before but thought it was a great idea to just go give my good friend a hand tattoo. That was stupid.”

“It wasn’t necessarily a dumb idea,” Toledo continues. “The concept for the tattoo was fine. But it was my first tattoo on somebody else, and I was inexperienced and naive and not professionally trained.”

Toledo worried about the impact he could potentially leave. “Tattooing hands could easily prevent somebody from a longtime career,” he says. “It changes the way people interact with or view you socially. It was stupid for me to just do that.” The experience shook him up.

“That was the tattoo, really, where I was like: I need to stop,” he says. “I’m changing lives forever with these marks, and I have a responsibility to the people I’m tattooing to have some discretion, basically. I felt guilty about that tattoo for a long time.

“It was a good lesson,” he says. “It was a good lesson.”

Photo by Andrew Tonry Aaron Toledo uses a tattoo machine to create a bird tattoo on a client, Mikaela Swanson, at Keepsake Tattoo in Astoria.

Photo by Andrew Tonry
Aaron Toledo uses a tattoo machine to create a bird tattoo on a client, Mikaela Swanson, at Keepsake Tattoo in Astoria.

Seeking not only professional training, but to leave Kansas City, Mo., Toledo moved to Oregon. Portland looked interesting, but more importantly, Oregon’s tattoo licensing regimen is one of the strictest in the nation. As such, an Oregon license is easily transferable to other states, though not the other way around.

In 2002, Toledo arrived in Portland and began his training at Captain Jacks Tattoo School, which requires a minimum of 360 hours of work, 210 of “theoretical” study and 150 of “practical” application – or, about 50 tattoos.

“You have to get to know your tools just like you get to know a good pen or a paintbrush,” Toledo explains. “You break it in, you know its little quirks. You shape it in the way it sort of brushes or rolls along the paper.”

Just as important – or perhaps even more so – one must learn about skin.

“Everybody’s skin is completely different,” Toledo says. “But the skin on your feet is totally different than the skin on your chest. Or even from one limb; the skin on the top of your arm is different than the skin on your underarm. The skin that gets more exposure – on the top of your arm – gets much more calloused; it’s much harder to tattoo. The skin on the inside of the arm is a lot softer, a lot stretchier. It’s kind of strange how you can go a couple inches and it changes almost completely.”

And of course, one must have a steady hand, artistic sensibility and illustrating talent.

After completing his training and passing the state exam, Toledo realized that life in Portland was relatively similar that of Kansas City, and he wasn’t looking for traditional city life.

In 2004 he moved to Astoria where, at the time, there weren’t any tattoo shops – or at least any that were above board. So Toledo began commuting to Seaside, working a handful of years at Lucky Dog Tattoo.

And while he enjoyed both the work and Astoria, commuting eventually took its toll.

“I just decided that I didn’t want to be in Seaside anymore,” he says. “If I was going to be on the coast, I wanted to be in Astoria.” Still, the problem existed: There was no place to work.

“I was like, (screw) it,” Toledo says. “I’m going to open a shop.”

Photo by Andrew Tonry Keepsake Tattoo in Astoria offers tattoos and piercing in its studio location on 11th Street.

Photo by Andrew Tonry
Keepsake Tattoo in Astoria offers tattoos and piercing in its studio location on 11th Street.

In 2008 Toledo found a space on 8th Street, on the outskirts of downtown Astoria, with the help of Chris Lee, a tattoo artist he met while in Portland. Together, the two began a remodel. Besides constructing the shop, Toledo took on leveraging himself and building a business – things that were heretofore foreign.

“I had zero business experience,” Toledo says, stressing the “zero.” “My last completed grade of school was eighth. I had nothing, just a little bit of common sense – and I try to do my job well.” Keepsake’s success, he felt, was anything but assured.

“It was one of those things where I opened the doors with a shoestring budget,” he says. “We could’ve either been closed by the end of the month or we would go month-to-month for a little while.” Despite the gamble, he knew what he wanted to create.

“My vision,” Toledo says, “was really just to provide an industry standard studio – something that would’ve been acceptable anywhere

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in Oregon, not just by the coast’s standards.”

“At the time I was trying to do something better than what was existing in Astoria in the past,” Toledo continues. “I knew that I didn’t want to be open super late because I didn’t want to be tattooing wasted people all the time because that’s never good for business.”

“I didn’t want to take people into a dark hole and tattoo them,” he adds. “I was like: ‘if you want to get tattooed come into a nice, bright studio in the daytime when you’re sober and I’ll give you an awesome tattoo. Let’s not do it in your garage after a case of Ranier (beer).’”

Toledo’s inklings were correct: Astoria was indeed ready to support a studio that was both state certified and operated with class and conscience. Within a few months, Keepsake began to grow.

Photo by Andrew Tonry Keepsake Tattoo owner and tattoo artist Aaron Toledo preps Mikaela Swanson's hip in preparation for a tattoo of a bird.

Photo by Andrew Tonry
Keepsake Tattoo owner and tattoo artist Aaron Toledo preps Mikaela Swanson’s hip in preparation for a tattoo of a bird.

As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats. In the case of Keepsake, there were two tides.

One was Astoria’s growth as a cultural center. With the addition of new restaurants, hotels and galleries, an artisan tattoo shop fit right in.

In 2012, Keepsake moved to its current location on 11th Street, right in the thick of things. Toledo envisioned a big, bright, clean, open and welcoming space.

“I wanted to put the shop front and center so people could see what was going on inside,” he says. “I didn’t want to have that dark, sort of back alley, sort of hidden, secret studio. I wanted to put it on stage so people could understand it and participate and see what was going on.” Again, his sense paid dividends.

“Now that we’re in this space, we get a lot more foot traffic,” Toledo says. “A lot more walk-ins and a lot more shoppers are checking us out.”

The second rising tide beneath Keepsake has been the explosion of tattoo culture at large. Particularly in the last decade, displaying tattoos has become much more culturally acceptable. The stigmas have been largely wiped away.

Part of the shift, Toledo says, is simply a product of time – that as more and more people got tattooed, familiarity and understanding reached a tipping point.

More important, he believes, has been the artistic growth within the industry.

“I think the general public noticed the shift that it wasn’t these sort of burly men tattooing who were good with machines,” Toledo says, “but that there were these delicate-handed artists who were really able to render lots of different styles and stories in the skin.”

“The quality of the studios and the artwork, the bar has been raised so high,” Toldeo continues, “that when somebody like a high-profile lawyer or a doctor wants to get a tattoo, they can walk into a studio that looks like an upscale salon.”

As such, many tattoo shops now eschew being referred to as a “parlor.”

“It’s ‘studio’ now,” Toledo says. “Because it doesn’t smell like shame and Ranier (beer).”

Toledo excuses himself to meet with a client. After going over the proper paperwork, he shows her his designs, which she loves. He preps the table, the inks, and draws the image – a bird – on her hip.

With the tools in hand, he asks her if she’s ready. She says yes.

“Here we go,” he says. “One… Two… Three…”