Zeke Owen: Master Tattoo Artist

“…a tough survivor in an outlaw business based on art.” — Tattoo Life “Tattoo Life” hails Zeke as one of the forerunners of early Japanese Style tattooing in America, along with Sailor Jerry Collins and Ed Hardy: “His influence on…

Zeke Owen: Master Tattoo Artist



“…a tough survivor in an outlaw business based on art.” — Tattoo Life

“Tattoo Life” hails Zeke as one of the forerunners of early Japanese Style tattooing in America, along with Sailor Jerry Collins and Ed Hardy: “His influence on the tattoo community is immeasurable. The stories about him are endless. Back in the day, he was what tattooing was all about: being a tough survivor in an outlaw business based on art.”

Michael and Zeke Owen met around 1969. Zeke had opened The Trade Winds Tattoo Parlor in Seattle on First Ave, south of the Pike Place Market near Skid Row. It was a seedy but exciting neighborhood filled with sailor’s bars, peep shows, flop houses, poolrooms, penny arcades, longshoremen’s taverns and greasy spoons. It had the usual collection of street characters, hustlers, dock-workers, laborers, hookers and sailors-on-leave which came with the setting. Many of them already had tattoos or were thinking of getting one, or even, a second one.

Michael was a young independent film maker in search of a subject and Zeke was a great subject. He was tall, handsome, and talkative. They hit it off right away and Michael started filming Zeke whenever he could at the his shop in Seattle and later in Vancouver, BC. Street-wise, intelligent and observant, Zeke was a great storyteller and best of all, he was a great tattooist…. happy to share his many exciting tales and his considerable knowledge of the tattoo business and its history.

He started working during the 1950s, just in time to apprentice with some of the legendary tattooists who were then plying their trade on the west coast, primarily on “The Pike” in Long Beach, San Diego. Ernie Sutton, Bert Grim, Bob Shaw, and Tahiti Felix, to name a few of the greats that were there at that time. They worked in the style now called American Traditional, using “Flash”. (Drawings of tattoo designs hung on the walls of tattoo parlors to give customers ideas for their tattoo.)

Later Zeke worked with Sailor Jerry in Hawaii, along with Ed Hardy and Mike Malone who were also eager to study with the man widely regarded to be the most accomplished and innovative Western tattoo artist. Both Zeke and Hardy were keen to learn the Japanese style of tattooing which Sailor Jerry was pioneering using western tattoo machines and techniques. This was new stuff in its day! It combined the figurative symbols used in the American Traditional style with the interwoven design work of Japanese tattooing that fit over much of the body. They became the earliest group of tattooers who bridged the old school and the new, creating the first wave of a hybrid international style which was just then starting to become popular and is so accepted and appreciated today.

Michael captured Zeke working during this period. The Vietnam War was still a source of sailors and soldiers seeking traditional tattoos but there were big changes happening. The type of customer was changing. More women were getting work done and a growing number of tattoo enthusiasts who wanted custom work or “large work” done in the manner of Japanese pictorial tattooing, often involving “sleeve” and “body suit” work. Zeke had studied with many of the early masters, developed his skills and polished his own style. He was eager and happy to embrace these innovations. It made his art and the world of tattooing he loved all the more interesting.

Michael never managed to finish his film. Back in those days, long before the arrival of video, shooting and developing film was an expensive and time consuming proposition. He ran out of money and had to turn to commercial film work to make a living. It lingered for years “in the can” but finally in memory of him, Mike Hardy and I have resurrected it in its surviving “work print” form . With the addition of music and some historical photographs, we are very pleased to present it today, trying our best to keep it true to Michael’s intentions; a portrait of Zeke Owen, Master Tattoo Artist circa 1969-1973.

Karen Houghton

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