JD Crowe Returns to Co-Host the Richmond Tattoo Festival

August 13, 2023

The tattoo industry has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis over the past few decades, evolving from its underground and countercultural roots in the 80s to becoming a mainstream art form and phenomenon in the present day. The inked designs that were once associated with rebellion have found a place of acceptance and appreciation. We sat down with visionary tattoo artist JD Crowe. He’s been at the center of much of this growth and change including being part of the first Richmond Tattoo Festivals and revolutionizing the flash art tattoo industry to talk about this metamorphosis and what you can expect at this year’s Richmond Tattoo Festival

How did you get involved with launching and growing the Richmond Tattoo & Arts Festival?

Back in the 80s, actually, even in back into the 70s, there were only one or two conventions a year. The first one was done by Tattoo Life Magazine and that was in 1988. I wasn’t partnered with them, but I did some of the artwork and I did the T-shirt. They were calling it quits so in 1989, there was one convention which would have been “Nationals” which was basically a closed door convention. You had to be a member of their club so I paired up with Crazy Ace Daniels who was in Richmond and a great friend of mine. We discussed taking it over and the torch was passed. We didn’t go back in 1990 or 1991 but eventually I contacted Billy Eason and since then it’s been a continuous show. 

Why do you think it’s so important to create a space like this for artists to gather?

Back then there was no other way of transferring information. We didn’t have social media like Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, cell phones and at that time so it became a major event in a tattooers schedule. In 1993, I did one in San Diego and opened the door to more than 10,000 people. There was so much traffic the California Highway Patrol was directing it on the Interstate. It was just that time where people shared information, seeing what was new and this went on until probably the mid to late ‘90s when the convention scene started to get saturated. 

richmond tattoo festival

What do you think has caused the Richmond Tattoo & Arts Festival to continue to grow after all these years? 

This goes back into the ‘80s, I believe, that Richmond is one of the most tattooed cities in the country. There has and will always be an interest in my opinion.

Are there any aspects to today’s festival that have stayed the same, or do you think it’s completely different? 

There’s a couple of things. One is Richmond, VA. and two, minus the few years it was interrupted it’s always been in the same place. Nate Drew and CJ Starkey took it over after Billy for two years and moved it to the Convention Center downtown and it flopped. It didn’t work like it does at this hotel. I think those are the two consistent things other than great tattoo artists wanting to be there. Becomes a bit exclusive being in a smaller venue. This place is restricted by size so you can really pick and choose. It’s made it inclusive to the cream of the crop talent wise.

Who was the big name at the ‘89 convention and what were the major trends in tattooing during that year? 

Times were so different, you had Ed Hardy, Mike Malone, Chuck Eldridge, and Lyle Tuttle was there. There were plenty of people up at top, but you could name the names on two hands back then, the draw came from those big names. I remember Zeke Owen, Good Time Charlie, Jack Rudy. I’m not sure if Paul Booth was there, I think he had just started, but anyway, it was all the biggest names in the industry at the time even Paul Rogers was there. In fact, it was at the convention that he did his last tattoo.

Are there any historical elements that attendees should keep an eye out for or understand when they attend?  

It’s unfortunate that attrition has taken away a lot of those big names that were there in the 80s. But I was able to get as many as those names as I could such as Good Time Charlie, Jack Rudy, Brian Everett, and Scott Sterling. The people that I put on my invite list are really just old school traditional guys so what you’re going to get is a different feel. You’re going to get that old school 80s convention vibe.

JD Crowe Jesse Smith Richmond Tattoo FestivalHow does it feel to be returning this year as a Co-Host of Jesse?

It’s turned out to be a lot more work than I thought but I’m glad to help and and I’m sure it’s going to change the course of this convention for years to come.

Are there any artists this year attending this year that excite you the most?

There’s a few of these new guys that I invited that are young, but really solid old school. They’re carrying on the traditions. They can tell you how to wrap a coil, how to mix pigments, how to solder needle bars, which is the kind of stuff that’s been lost for the past two decades and it’s just good to see that kind of young up and coming tattooer still wanting to keep those values. 

Where can festival goers find you this year?

I’ll be there the whole time and I have a booth I’ll be set up with. I do a couple of shows a year, but it’s rare. I’ve always, for moons, done the Richmond show. I mean, way back into the Billy Eason era. 

Crowe’s journey into the world of tattooing began in the early 80s, a time when the industry was a tightly-knit community thriving on the outskirts of mainstream culture and actually illegal in a few parts of Virginia. Today, his name resonates not only with the infamous colored flash tattoos but also with the resilience of an artist who dared to challenge conventions and carve a lasting niche.

What was it like leading the charge on legalizing tattooing in Virginia Beach? 

It was monumental in the sense that they certainly didn’t want it. I hit two cities at the same time; Virginia Beach and Chesapeake where I filed lawsuits. It took well over a year or year and a half. Both cities took me to the Supreme Court of Virginia and it was an epic battle yet successful and I did it by myself. There’s 70 tattoo shops now that are enjoying the fruits of my labor. It was worth it because it did that area justice. 

What gave you the inspiration to start OTB (Original Tattoo Brand)? 

The Canon color copier. When that thing came out, a little light bulb went off. At the time, in 1987 into ‘88 there was no color in the tattoo flash industry, it was all just black paint, black wash, and shading. Say you got 20 sheets from Mike Malone, it might take you two or three months to get them on the wall because you had to paint them and this was industry and worldwide. When that copier came out I knew it was going to revolutionize tattooing.  

Why do you think no one had thought to utilize color in flash art prior? 

It was just too expensive. It was around but if you got a color, it was hand painted. They were originals. There was actually one other attempt by Cliff Raven. Cliff had done a set of flash and maybe five years earlier, but when he finished the color sheet, he had to take them somewhere. There were no scanners, you had to photograph it and then go get Kodak color copies made. So his set of 10 flash sheets were like $400 or $500. I believe at the time Cliff told me he was paying $20 a sheet. It was just not cost productive. Now you’re getting a a sheet printed for $0.67 so I went after it. The copy machines back then were 170k which made it a gamble, but it paid off. 

JD Crowe official tattoo brand flash booksDid you ever imagine OTB would become what it is today?

Definitely not. I launched it in Richmond at the 1988 show, that was the first launch of Official Tattoo Brand flash to the tattoo industry and public. I sold out every show I did for the next 12 years. Whatever I brought that was new was gone. I’m not saying that was the inspiration, but it sure did help in wanting to do the 1989 convention, because the ‘88 was such a success for me personally. Things stayed strong until 2003 or 2004, when computers were in in tattoo shops and things like Google Images was releasing. Then I knew that success would come to an end, but I’m working on other projects these days.

What sort of projects are you working on today? Is there anything new we can share with your fans and festival goers? 

I’m putting together another book. Lynne Yowell, who worked with me and passed away recently worked with me for almost 20 years and it was with her that I started Official Tattoo Brand. If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t have even continued with it. She kept the flame lit for all those years and so I’m doing a couple of tribute books for her. The Official Tattoo Brand book was actually written and dedicated to her. There was another guy that worked for me and was a really important guy to the business named Kevin Brady. While he was working with me he did a bunch of artwork and it got lost. It’s been lost for 30 years but I just discovered all of it, so I’ve been putting that together and will come out with another book. Besides that, still traveling the country and doing book tours. I’ve got plenty to do!

Make sure to visit JD Crowe at this year’s Richmond Tattoo & Arts Festival. Explore our full list of artists.

Follow JD Crowe on Instagram here!


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