An Energy Exchange: Universal Rites Tattoo in Ashland
Not that long ago tattoos were a taboo subject only unruly young adults participated in, or at least that was the stereotype. Today, ink knows no demographics.
For Benja Zohara, owner and tattoo artist at Universal Rites Tattoo in Ashland, tattooing was a natural way of life. Growing up in the Bay Area where there was a thriving punk scene, he resolved at a young age that he wanted to be like the punk rockers.
“I started drawing tattoos on myself and friends with markers and of course started getting real tattoos and piercings as soon as I could in high school,” he says.
Despite being heavily influenced by the punk culture, drawing has always been a big part of Zhoara’s life. Encouragement from friends lead him to practicing tattoo art on paper and then people, although becoming a tattoo artist wasn’t something he ever thought he would do.
“After high school I was living in Oakland playing guitar in a band and needed a ‘good day job’ to pay the bills, so I decided to look into this tattooing thing,” he says. “I thought it would be a lot easier to get into and pick up than it was. Especially back then in 1994, there was no real internet or YouTube. There were roughly only a half a dozen tattoo shops in the entire East Bay, and they were pretty rough and salty compared to how tattoo studios are today. I literally got chased out of a tattoo shop or two by scary biker-types simply for asking about where and how I could learn.”
Eventually he came across up and coming tattooists at a shop in Berkeley, who mentored him in tattoo art. “They helped me order quality equipment and taught me a lot about how it worked, taught me how to make needles and gave me a lot of helpful tips,” he says. “I started tattooing my friends out of my apartment in Oakland and would bring them by the tattoo shop to show everybody what I was doing and try to get advice.”
As soon as he realized tattooing couldn’t be a simple “day job” for him, he enrolled in Academy of Art College in San Francisco. “Being able to draw and being ‘an artist’ are two different things, and I felt that I had to have some formal training and improve my skills as an artist if I was going to be charging people money to permanently mark their bodies.”
Zohara describes his style as “crisp and clean” with an emphasis on admiring Art Nouveau style. “However, I think to be a good tattooer you really have to be well-rounded. Clients’ ideas are so varied and in so many styles and from so many cultures and backgrounds. I don’t get to tattoo just whatever I want, it’s all about what the client wants.” His varied portfolio spans abstract pieces to intricate floral and animal designs to tribal tattoos.
Within every tattoo is hours, months, or sometimes years of work. Zohara says the client is the biggest challenge to a tattoo artist as well as the biggest reward. “People have huge expectations and fears about permanently marking their bodies,” he says. “There’s a lot of pressure. I can’t just serve [clients] quickly with a smile or take their money and walk away. It’s incredibly close-up and personal work. There’s a lot of mojo goin’ on and it’s definitely an energy exchange.”
His optimistic outlook on tattooing has lead him to encounters with people from all walks of life. “One day I might be tattooing a local Sheriff and the next day I might be working on a drug-smuggler, and I get to have an intimate, honest encounter with each. No judgement, just ‘What’s it like to be you?’ “
Universal Rites Tattoo has been in Ashland for 10 years this month. Zohara has worked with multiple tattoo artists in his shop and continues to bring in new clients and provide new work for old clients. He’s watched the tattoo industry skyrocket to mainstream culture and seen the public’s opinion change on the taboo subject of tattoos.
He says, “As tattooing continues to grow and evolve, more and more inspiring artists are bringing their unique styles and perspectives to the world of art and tattoos.”
Universal Rites Tattoo
12:30 – 6 pm, Monday – Saturday
611 Siskiyou Blvd #2, Ashland