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Interview With Karly Cleary-Austin From Best Ink

Today I had the opportunity to interview a good friend of mine Karly. Karly is married to Steve, the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) black belt dude that I interviewed in the previous inspirational story post. Just like Steve, she also has a sweet ass job. She is a professional tattoo artist currently working at Davidian Tattoo in Hatboro, PA.

I’ve been tattooed by Karly about 5 or 6 times (you start to lose count after you’ve been tattooed a bunch of times), and I also train BJJ under Steve. I have talked to each one of them several times about how cool it would be if they opened a combined business that was both a tattoo shop and a BJJ school. It sounds like a pretty damn good idea to me. Although something just seems a little unsanitary about sweaty people beating each other up and tattoo needles all being in the same place together…I dunno, I’d still go there though :).

Anyway, so Karly is another living example of someone who has made a life and career for themselves based around what they are passionate about. Karly’s passion is drawing. Drawing is something that most people would consider to be just a hobby. I’m sure that’s the way that Karly used to view it too long before she was actually earning a living from it. Rather, it was most likely just simply something that she enjoyed doing.

Just like Jiu-jitsu, or playing music, or dancing, or whatever it is that people may be interested in as a side-hobby…Drawing is yet another one of those things that just doesn’t really seem to have much lucrative potential. Rather, drawing is one of those things that people enjoy doing in their spare time for fun. It’s one of those things that people do when they finally get some free time to themselves, and they just want to chill out and do something that they are actually inspired and driven to do. It’s something that people do that’s primarily driven by passion. “Working” and “running errands” are just some of those necessary evils in life that we all have to do. “Drawing”, on the other hand, is one of those things that fits into the “fun stuff” category. Few people make a living from the “fun stuff”.  Then again, few people ever even attempt to pursue their own passions in the first place.

Well Karly is one of those people who did take a shot at chasing her dream job, and now she is a professional tattoo artist. Some people may have differing opinions as to what it means to be considered a “professional”, but in my own personal opinion someone who is well-respected and successfully earning a living in their trade would be considered to be a professional. She is both of those things. In addition to that, she is also one of the tattoo artists featured in the 2013 – 2014 season of the show “Best Ink”.

I consider her story to be a prime example of the message that I am attempting to convey on this website, so with that said here is the interview:

Brian: So how did you get into doing tattoos?

Karly: Well, I was going to school as a fine art major. I knew that I wanted to do something in the field of art, but after a few semesters I began seeing that some of the other people that had the same major as me were graduating only to find themselves working at various non-art jobs just so they could pay their loans back. Therefore, I wasn’t sure if I was even going to continue pursuing the art major anymore. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do with my life, and I was seriously considering switching my major. However, a friend of mine approached me and asked if I had any interest in tattooing. I thought about it a lot, but it wasn’t until about 2 years after that when I actually decided to go for it. During that 2 years, I still was uncertain about exactly what I was going to do with my life. I was already a mother, and I was working 4 jobs at the time. It was an extremely hectic life to say the least. I was really just looking for some stability. It took me 2 years to decide to actually give tattooing a shot, and that is when I approached John Tripodi  from the Inkwell with my portfolio asking if I could apprentice under him.

Brian: Very cool. So considering you had no actual background in tattooing, what exactly was in your portfolio?

Karly: Exactly…I had no tattooing experience whatsoever, but from my schooling I was classically trained in art. It was basically just my student portfolio of some basic classic art pieces, some drawings of nude models, a few fully rendered pics, etc. Despite the fact that I had no tattoo experience, I guess he just saw talent and therefore decided to teach me.

Brian: Awesome! Okay, so I know a lot of people get into the tattoo business by just “doing it”. They buy a tattoo gun online, and they just start tattooing their friends. Some of these people end up getting really good too. However, there are more and more tattoo shops opening up all the time, and therefore lots more competition. Do you think that it’s necessary, that in order to reach the professional levels, that one must be classically trained in art?

Karly: Well there’s certainly some people that do have exceptional natural talent, and they become top-tier tattoo artists without ever receiving any classical training. However, for the most part you really need to be a legitimately trained artist if you want to remain competitive with all of the other great tattoo artists out there.  There are also a lot of people that are just looking for low-cost tattoos too, but in order to compete with the best of the best, classical training is pretty much required.

Brian: So did you fall in love with tattooing immediately once you started doing it?

Karly: During my apprenticeship, I was required to do lots of research about the art of tattooing. I learned how it used to be done “back in the day”. I had to study all of the greats and what they did. Through all of this research, I ended up gaining a great respect for the art. I always loved drawing, but in the beginning I was really just tattooing as a means to make some extra money. I was only until fairly recently that I came to terms with the fact that this is now my “career”. 

Brian: I see. So how many years total have you been tattooing now?

Karly: About 3 years ago I finally realized that I was now doing this for a living, and it was a very surreal realization. It was about 8 years ago that I first started my apprenticeship.

Brian: How long were you an apprentice for? And is there usually a set amount of time that someone needs to be an apprentice before tattooing on their own?

Karly: Well, 2 years is considered to be the “appropriate” amount of time for a typical apprentice. Of course that can vary on a person-by-person basis. I actually had my first customer after 7 months into my apprenticeship. Of course in the beginning I had to do several free tattoos for people who were willing to let me tattoo them. It was about 2 months after that when I started charging people to do work on them, and I was doing it for minimal prices. At that point I still wouldn’t do any tattoos that were larger than the palm of my hand.

Brian: So were you nervous the first time you tattooed an actual person?

Karly: Hell ya! Haha, I actually threw up during my second tattoo session. My second session was on my boss…I was tattooing the guy who taught me how to tattoo; you can imagine how nerve wracking that was! I actually had to cancel the session and go home because I was so nervous. On my way home, I had to pull the car over so I could throw up on the side of the road!

Brian: Haha. Wow! Ya I can imagine how crazy that must have been. I remember shaking so badly the first time I ever stepped foot on stage. I thought I was going to pass out. Anyway, so you obviously kept doing it despite your initial nerves. Now did you just slowly begin to build up your reputation over time?

Karly: Well one of the main points that my boss would always point out to me was that I needed to learn to go out and market myself and learn to network. It was recommended that I go out to conventions and social gathering in order to start meeting others in the industry. However being a single mom, it was very difficult to find the time to get out. Plus I’m kind of introverted by nature.

Brian: Ya I know what you mean regarding the difficulty of networking, especially when it’s not in your nature to always be extremely outgoing. I’m the exact same way, and it’s the same thing in the music industry.

Karly: Exactly.  So therefore I just always went to work and gave it my 100% effort. I treated every single tattoo that I did with the highest regards. Every single person that I tattoo is essentially a walking advertisement for me. I always took my work very seriously, and I always did my absolute best. Plus, I also didn’t want to come across sounding like a used car salesmen by constantly trying to “sell myself”. I just focused on providing the best possible work that I could do!

Brian: That’s really cool. And that’s pretty much how things always seem to go when people decide to pursue their passions as a living. This response is pretty much the same thing that Steve told me when I interviewed him. You just do your best work, every single day. You do your best to make your customers happy.

Brian: Okay so how did this whole Best Ink thing happen?

Karly: Well it’s funny I was actually on their website, and I saw a little link that I could click on to apply for the show. I clicked on it and realized that it was actually a very short application. If it was any longer, I honestly wouldn’t have even filled it out. You know…it’s like one of those “Win $10,000 dollars just by filling out this survey” type things. I really never thought that anything would come of it, but because it was such a short application I filled it out. I never even told any of my friends that I applied for it because I was too embarrassed about it haha. However 7 months later, I ended up receiving an email from them asking to interview me. I didn’t even believe it at first, but it was true. The interview process was a long and grueling one!

Brian: Wow that is pretty crazy! So how long was their process of selection?

Karly: There really was a lot to do…After the initial email interview, I had to do several follow-up interviews. I had to make videos of me working and send them in. After all that was said and done, they flew me out to LA for more interviews, a psychological evaluation, a 700-question personality test, an IQ test, a background check, a fully-completed drawing, a photo shoot, etc. It was just so much stuff! After all of that, there was still a week of waiting to find out if I was selected or not. On top of everything, I wasn’t allowed to say anything to anyone about the show. I basically had to disappear off the face of the earth for about 2 whole months with no explanation!

Brian: Haha, wow that’s pretty crazy! That’s really awesome that you made it on the show though. Congratulations!

Karly: Thanks!

Brian: Okay, so how long per day would you say that you spend on tattooing including drawings, consultations, etc.?

Karly: I’m tattooing every day from 10 am – 7 pm. Once I come home, I spend time with the kids until they go to bed at about 10, 10:30. After that, I’m usually up until 2 am drawing. I’d say it’s a solid 12 hours per day. It’s pretty much non-stop.

Brian: Wow that’s some long hours, but now for the big question – Do you love what you do?

Karly: Well there are always certain occupational hazards that come with a job like this. The long hours are a bit draining, and I would love to be able to spend more time with my family. However, if I want to succeed in this business then I have to constantly stay on top of things. There’s lots of competition out there, and there are plenty of people who are looking to be doing what I’m doing. As I said, my ultimate goal was to be able to sit and draw all day, and that’s pretty much what I do. I just never thought that it would be on peoples’ skin :). It’s a very honorable thing to have people love your artwork so much that they actually seek you out so you can put it on them for the rest of their lives!

Brian: That’s really great to hear. That’s exactly the type of response I was expecting. There’s a lot of time and work involved, but in pursuing something that you are passionate about, that can sometimes happen. This is very similar to Steve’s story too.

Karly: Haha, ya it’s funny. After the kids go to bed, and I’m drawing, Steve is always in the other room watching Jiu-Jitsu videos on YouTube. It’s been like that for years now. It’s just what we do :).

Brian: Awesome. Well thanks a lot for taking the time to do this interview with me. It’s always cool to hear a story of someone who took a non-traditional route and ended up with a rewarding career!

Karly: No problem, and thank you!


And there you have it. It’s always cool to hear what goes on in the mind of people that actually go for what they really want to do for a living, and what is actually involved in succeeding. It seems like a hell of a lot of work. However, she said that she spends roughly 12 hours per day “working”, with 9 of those hours actually tattooing people and the other 3 hours drawing at home. Surely some days are busier than others for her, but the point is that she essentially works a full-time schedule just as any other full-time worker would. Many people spend countless hours doing things that they have absolutely no interest in, whereas she Karly spends her days drawing. If 8 – 12 hours a day is to be allotted towards working anyway, why not use the time wisely and work towards something that interests you?

Just something to think about.

P.S. – Here are a few of the tattoos that she has done for me:

Punk Rock Alien Tattoo


crossroads tattoo


Hot devil chick playing the piano tattoo


Hot devil chick playing the piano tattoo

Thanks for reading!

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