Words by Christian Mott
Billy Jordan is a visual artist from Mobile who has pursued a lifestyle and made a name for himself in a generally unexplored, yet anciently ubiquitous medium: tattoo. He began working for Tom at Tattoo Zone, the oldest licensed professional shop in Mobile County, and also worked at Royal Street in Downtown Mobile when it first opened. Throughout his thirteen-or-so years of putting beautiful permanent art on skin, he’s worked in a variety of places both in and out of the South, including shops in Pensacola, Las Vegas, Wisconsin and New York City.
Billy currently tattoos at The Bell Rose in Fairhope, Alabama. He goes by the alias Red Tide.
How did you get your start in tattooing?
I always wanted to do something with art, I just didn’t know what. Every job I ever had, I thought, “This is not real—most people who work here are miserable.” But they just think that’s the way it’s supposed to go, you know? One day, a friend of mine who used to get tattoos, he said, “You should come to the tattoo shop with me . . . I think you’d be good at tattooing, since you draw all the time.” And
I didn’t have any tattoos at the time. It never crossed my mind. The only image of tattoo that stands out in my mind, from my childhood and my whole life, is my uncle had some Navy tattoos on his forearms— like a hula girl from the 40s, from the war. They were cool to me, but it never ever once sparked that I wanted a tattoo. So I went to the shop with him one day, took some artwork in there. I met the guy who owned the place, Tom, and he looked through some stuff. And I was like, “Are you guys . . . hiring?” Like, I didn’t know! You know?
Looking back on it, you always had to put yourself in I was growing up and drawing different things from cars to animals.
I wasn’t just drawing dragons or just angels or just certain things. I think that’s one of the good things. Some people can only do very straight-forward traditional tattoos, and they do them well. But some tattooers don’t have any kind of artistic background. Someone wants them to draw a dagger, they’ll draw the most simple, straight-forward, traditional dagger that they’ve seen time and time again, but I can draw you very different ones.
That position from when you didn’t know anything about tattooing, for when people come in—you have to understand that these people don’t know what’s going on. I did read this thing that Tim Hendricks wrote that said, “You don’t find tattooing, tattooing finds you.” That’s, oh, that’s stuck, because that’s the way I felt. I was just floating around . . . and all of a sudden I felt like tattooing was pulling me towards it. It all just worked out.
What inspires you?
Art in general, honestly. That ability to be creative, and get that out . . . I’m able to put it in such a medium that it’s something sacred. It’s so personal to someone. I think it’s awesome. I like to paint and draw and do other mediums, but to be able to tattoo someone is so completely different you can’t wrap your head around something like that until you’re actually in it, and you’ve experienced it.
I’m inspired by everything that I see. Literally everything I see, I see it completely different from the way the next person sees it. Most people, it’s just a chair. It’s just a piece of art. It’s just this, or it’s just that. I’m looking at it like, whoa, that’s really cool . . . Anything handmade is inspiring. Everything breaks down into some sort of art form, whether it’s furniture-making or sculpting or music—everything is an art. Someone had to come up with that idea.
What sets you apart from other tattoo artists?
I feel like I’m pretty well-rounded when it comes to tattooing . . .
For the most part, if I need to draw something a specific way, I can do it. Just from being versatile.
Why the South?
That’s one of the hardest questions to answer. It’s a love-hate relationship . . . Art in general just isn’t appreciated as much here. People don’t realize how much goes into any type of art. Especially tattooing— it’s coming around nowadays more-so, but people just don’t understand that type of art. The South is always going to be Home . . . I want to be able to travel more, but this is a good home base. I have roots here. I’m comfortable here.
What does the art of tattooing mean to you?
The freedom to be able to do exactly what I want to do . . . I’m given so much freedom in every aspect. I don’t have to wake up at 6 AM or wear a suit and tie to work or act like a different person when I get there because I’m not sure how my co-workers are gonna judge me.
It’s that sense of freedom and expression that I always wanted when I was younger but didn’t know exactly how to get it—and now I have that. Sometimes, thinking about work, I realize how much tattooing has actually given me . . . I could literally pack a bag and stay on the road for the next 3 or 4 years if I wanted to. Friends I’ve made around the world, tattooing, I have places in Germany I could go work. I have friends in Australia . . . I owe everything to tattooing, I feel.
What gets you excited about custom tattoo ideas?
When people have done their homework, they’ve seen my tattoos, and they know how I tattoo. “I like your style,” basically. So that’s the best thing to do, especially when you’re looking to get a tattoo, is you need to find a style that you like, and a person who does that style . . . But when someone comes at me and they just have an idea like, “Not really sure exactly how I want it, but I want a Japanese tiger,