“I used a wall tack and some pen ink and made initials on my hand,” said the 26-year-old Cheyenne River Sioux. Little did the young Fiddler know that a little pain would be his gain, and he would one day be a professional tattoo artist and owner of the newly opened Phuzion Storm Tattoos in Rapid City, South Dakota, named after a son he lost three years ago. “It’s a way to keep his name going,” shared the father of three.
Fiddler has always been an artist at heart. “I was known in the community for my artwork first,” and he said he never charged for it. “I just gave it to people, like my elders: Eagles, buffalos, teepees, whatever they wanted, I would draw it for them.”
Nowadays, Fiddler inks real deals for his artwork at the only Native-owned tattoo shop in town. He said every tattoo he creates is an original. “They are my own designs, and no two are ever the same.”
Fiddler comes from a big family — eight siblings in all — and his late mother encouraged him to create Native art. “She told me that is how I would make a name for myself,” said Fiddler, who has added tribal designs to his tattoo offerings on this advice from his mother.
Indian Country Today spoke to Fiddler about his new business and passion for creating body art:
What motivated you to open Phuzion Storm Tattoos?
My friends and relatives didn’t like how they were treated in other shops. People throw politics around in this industry, and lose sight of the originality of it. I wanted to be the little guy who reaches out to the people and lets them know that there is still custom work out there; and I’m not just taking something off the wall and copying it. I want people to know that tattoos have spirit in them, and I am doing my best to try to instill that spirit into their tattoos. I can’t thank Creator enough for blessing me with my family and my shop. It’s truly a blessing to do what I want and love.
What kind of tattoo designs do you create?
I am best known for my Native American feather work — you see each and every line of that feather and every one of those plumes. But I do all types of designs: new-school art with lots of color, Polynesian, Koi fish, traditional, sailboats, roses, flowers, tribal work, realism, lettering, quotes from movies and songs … I have my hand in a little bit of everything.
Have you always been an artist?
I’ve been a tattoo artist for about seven years, but I have been drawing since I was about eight years old. Artwork has always been in our family. My brothers all drew. My brother Zig was a renowned tattoo artist around here. He was 17 when he died in a car accident. He fell asleep at the wheel coming back from a pow wow. Zig is the one who told me that I had talent. I lived in my brother’s shadow and the community kind of expected me to draw, and I lived up to that.
Tell us about the first first tattoo you created
The first tattoo I created with my professional equipment was on my brother Lyle. His tattoo was lettering from a song: “There’s always beauty in the breakdown.” His tattoo is all the way across his arm, from the elbow to the wrist, on the underside. I had never done fancy lettering before in my life, and to this day, it looks like crap. He is the one who helped me establish the confidence I have today.
What do you charge?
Most tattoo shops charge by the hour. I charge a flat price to help the people out, even though it could take up to 10 hours to do one tattoo. Sometimes people can’t afford the tattoo, so I give them a reasonable price without degrading the work. I’ve charged as low as $50, and as much as $600. Tattoos are a luxury, not a need. But at the same time, they are a want.
Is it hard to see your customers in pain?
I use a numbing spray, but realistically, a lot of people come to me for the pain because it is therapeutic. I have a lot of friends call me and say that they are going through a lot of stuff and need a tattoo session today. It takes their mind away from what they are going through in life. Takes their stress away.
Where do you find your creative inspiration?
Sun dancing is an inspiration to my artwork because it influences me through my dreams. My Native American name given through ceremony is Wacipe Ehanble, “dreamer of the stars.” I believe that name was gifted to me through this way of life to show my people that dreams are possible no matter who you are, or how hard you have had it in life.
I am also inspired by my family, my people, my beliefs, the ceremonies and taking pride in being Lakota.
Lynn Armitage is a contributing business writer and an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.