Business

Art is skin deep for local entrepreneur

Paco Rollins, center, and his cohorts at Sea Change Tattoo Parlor, (from left) Casey Buxton, Laura Rollins and James Clapperton, will welcome visitors to their shop’s new location, which opens Friday.  - Tom Hughes
Paco Rollins, center, and his cohorts at Sea Change Tattoo Parlor, (from left) Casey Buxton, Laura Rollins and James Clapperton, will welcome visitors to their shop’s new location, which opens Friday.
— image credit: Tom Hughes

Islander Paco Rollins is, quite literally, out to make his mark on Vashon.

For several years, Rollins has shuttled back and forth between several different workplaces on Vashon, carving a niche for himself as a sought-after tattoo artist and crafter of a line of tattoo machines that have won a nationwide clientele. Lately, he has added another highly visible business to his repertoire, creating hand-painted wooden signs for businesses.

Now, he’s found a way to put all these vocations under one roof, in a storefront shop located in the same plaza as Vashon Island Bicycles. Inside, the shop has freshly painted metallic gold and burnt-orange walls, and is filled with vintage light fixtures, vinyl furniture, kitsch paintings, taxidermy and other retro ephemera Rollins has collected over the years. But most importantly, the space is large enough to house all of his enterprises.

The shop, which will have a grand opening party during the First Friday Gallery Cruise on Friday night, will also be easy for islanders to find. Rollins’ own colorful signs will be perched atop the awning of the shop, heralding both the move of his Sea Change Tattoo Parlor — formerly located in the Old Fuller Store at Center — and his newest venture, the Super Deluxe Sign Shop.

“It’s going to be contagious,” he said of the sign business. “It’s going to grow and grow.”

Indeed, Rollins’ meticulously painted signs have already begun to adorn island businesses, including Kronos, Heron’s Nest, Zombiez, Fulton Family Medicine and ZuZu’s Ice Cream.

“The town of Vashon has so much character, hand-painted signs fit right in,” he said.

Rollins noted that Vashon has a tradition of hand-painted signs, and said he has long admired the work of islander Les Johnson, who painted many distinctive signs on Vashon during his lifetime, including the original signs for The Little House and the now-defunct Vashon Malt Shop. Rollins is also planning to pitch his services to businesses in Seattle and Tacoma, he said.

And of course, Rollins also plans to stay busy with his other two ventures — tattooing clients and building tattoo machines.

For Rollins, 40, tattoos and the various businesses that accompany them have long been a way of life.

He is a compact man with slicked-back white hair and wide sideburns, and his intense, blue-eyed gaze and quick smile are equally disarming. And of course, tattoos of his own put an exclamation mark on his personal style — on his arms alone, from his shirt sleeves down, there are snakes, skulls, a tiger, a racing flag and many other designs rendered in fine line and traditional styles.

Tattooing, he said, became his profession almost by default.

“For some reason in my life, I just couldn’t stay away from it,” he said. “It saved my life and gave me direction.”

Rollins had what many people would consider a tough childhood, spending a good portion of his youth on the streets of towns in his native northern California. His last full year of school was in the sixth grade — the rest of his education, he said, came in fits and starts until he passed a California high school diploma equivalency test when he was 15.

An inquisitive and driven person, he also picked up practical skills along the way, becoming a skilled carpenter, handyman and mechanic by the time he reached his 20s.

In 1993, soon after arriving in Seattle, he graduated from the welding program of the Lake Union Technical College.

“I’ve done everything,” he said. “I’ve had so many jobs in one year it would blow your mind.”

But tattoos came before all that.

“I got my first tattoo when I was 13, from a friend’s father who had just escaped from prison,” he said, adding that he went on to become very good friends with the man.

Rollins moved to Vashon with his wife and young son in 2006, after working in Seattle for more than 10 years at Lucky Devil South Tattoo Parlor with legendary tattooer Ernie Gosnell. During that time, he also launched Paco Rollins Machines, creating a line of affordable and yet meticulously crafted tools for other tattoo artists — an enterprise that quickly gained traction.

In 2009, Rollins opened Sea Change Tattoo on Vashon.

From the start, he said, islanders have supported his business, even during the crippling recession — patronage he repeatedly said he was grateful for.

“We’ve been busy since we opened our doors,” he said, adding that about one-third of his tattoo business comes from the mainland. His business now includes four people — another tattooer, Casey Buxton, joined him in 2009, serving a traditional apprenticeship before taking on his own clients. Islander James Clapperton helps build and manage production of the tattoo machines, and Rollins’ wife Laura manages the businesses.

Sea Change Tattoo Parlor is appropriately named — in recent years, not only Rollins, but many other tattooers have seen their business grow as body art has become more prevalent, especially among young people.

The Pew Research Center recently reported that 38 percent of “millennials” — people in the 18 to 29 age bracket — who responded to a recent study reported having at least one tattoo. The survey also found that 32 percent of the generation prior to millennials, gen-Xers, were also tattooed. The percentage of those with body art dropped significantly, to 15 percent, for baby boomers who were surveyed.

But even with the increasing popularity of tattoos, Rollins maintains an old-fashioned approach to his work, deflecting the question of how well-known he is for his artistry. Instead, he described his skills in a much more down-to-earth way.

“We’re practiced and competent,” he said. “The goal is give a person a tattoo they’ll be proud of for the rest of their life.”

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