In 12 years of getting tattooed in this town, my go-to artist, the standout talent Brian Hemming, has moved his workbench twice. The first time, my heart sank after calling his old shop and learning that he’d left; I had made the mistake once before of having someone else ink me, and after Hemming fixed the mess that hack made, I decided to stay faithful to him forever after. Luckily I later found him at a shop in Allston and proceeded to have Hemming sporadically tattoo me in the years that followed.
So it felt rather odd to be under another artist’s needle in his presence recently, almost like cheating on your partner with them right there in the room. It was all good, though, since the tattooer in question was Erik Rieth, one of the owners of the legendary Seventh Son Tattoo in San Francisco, who recently recruited an all-star squad, including Hemming, to open his new shop Ghost in the Machine Tattoo in Brighton.
Naturally, I needled Rieth with questions while I was in surgery.
Where were you before moving to Boston?
I was in San Francisco at a shop called Seventh Son Tattoo in the South Market neighborhood for eight years. My wife and I are both from the East Coast originally, so California wasn’t going to be forever. Even when I was opening that shop, I knew that at some point I was going to be leaving. We both wanted to wind up in New England for various reasons, and so here we are.
What year did you start?
June of 1992 … The proper way to start tattooing is to serve an apprenticeship. I did not. I was what we call a scratcher. I started out of my mom’s garage in New Jersey. Not proud, but then I worked out of my apartment in Philadelphia for a while when I was going to school out there. Mostly on close friends and family, so I get to see the shit I did on them on a regular basis. I’ve tried to correct mistakes over the years, but mostly it’s like putting lipstick on a pig. So basically I started the wrong way, but I jumped at a chance to work at a professional shop as soon as I could. Literally the day after I graduated from college I went full time, and I’ve been tattooing ever since.
Where is tattoo culture at this juncture?
To be honest with you, there’s too many tattooers. There’s a lot of us. But it’s a double-edged sword right now because there is a ton of talent coming in too. Younger people who just started doing tattoos and are amazing after just a couple of years, and that should always be welcome to the betterment of the art. The bar keeps getting raised, but there is definitely a lot more interest now than there has been.
Were you ever a show tattooer?
No. [He holds up a decal of his making that reads “Resist the Corporate Hijacking of Tattoo Culture.”] I made these stickers as a direct response to that kind of inquiry. I’m not sponsored by Mountain Dew either. We can talk about the TV shows, but there’s really no point. They make me embarrassed to be a tattooer.
Was your plan to move here from San Francisco and open a shop as soon as possible?
When I first moved out [of San Francisco], I was completely burnt out being a shop owner. I was over it. We were busy, there were eight of us, with pretty much everyone tattooing all day. It was a successful shop. But when the time came to leave, it was time.
I traveled between shops for a while, just kind of working out of my pelican case … At first, it was liberating—I went from an entire shop to a little case. But after a little while, I wanted to go back to being a shop owner. Being a tattooer for this long, it ended up being the next step …
It was a challenge in a lot of different ways. I really didn’t know too many people here, I didn’t know too many tattooers, I wasn’t connected professionally. I think that I got lucky early on: I worked at a few really good shops, I met really good people.
What was the vision for this shop?
I only wanted to hire the best. There is no one who is here just to fill a seat. In a business like this it takes time. There are a lot of tattoo shops—if you’re going for the long game, most of your business over time is going to come from word of mouth. So you just have to do consistently good work.
This is the culmination of 25 years of me tattooing—of me as an artist, as a businessperson. I want it to feel like it’s home, and I wanted it to feel as much like home for the guys who I hired. I want to put out quality tattoos. I want it to be, and I think we are well on our way to being, one of the best shops in Boston.
Ghost in the Machine Tattoo is located at 571a Washington St. in Brighton. More info at ghostinthemachinetattoo.com