Student Journalism at San Rafael High School

Off the Leash

Off the Leash

Off the Leash

Getting Inked in the Quiet City of San Rafael

In the tattoo world, Spider Murphy’s is a Bay Area institution.

Barely twenty miles from the foggy city of San Francisco, with a population just above sixty-thousand people, San Rafael is home to one of the most well known tattoo shops in the world, Spider Murphy’s. Owner Theo Mindell opens the doors to Spider Murphy’s 6 days a week 12pm to 8pm to expand his, and his employee’s, artistic abilities. 

Spider Murphy’s first opened its doors in 1996. Theo Mindell, a traditional tattoo artist from San Francisco, left his home city to “hide away.” San Rafael is where he chose to go to prioritize his dedication for tattooing he explained in the #9 Issue of Gearhead Magazine. Now, nearly 30 years later, Spider Murphys remains the traditional style tattoo shop of Marin County and has only grown in popularity. 

San Rafael is a fairly small city in the county of Marin. Only twenty-three square miles, filled with greenery and a canal. Many of the local high schools host sporting events, culture festivals and other recreational activities where alums, sponsors, and food venues crowd the stands and parking lots, bringing in smiling faces and new connections to be made. On Sundays and Thursdays, people come from various parts of northern California to participate in the city’s farmer’s market at the monumental Civic Center designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Opening the doors to these attractions, draws diversity from all over Northern California and endless customers for the evergrowing tattoo shop.

The quiet city is often misinterpreted to be an unknown area with little to do, lacking personality and spirit. However, many citizens of San Rafael disagree with the assumptions and explain that San Rafael is home to many well known establishments and sceneries that cannot be seen elsewhere. Not only does San Rafael have a lot to offer within its city lines, but the close vicinity to multiple attractions is unmet by other areas of California. 

Walking into Spider Murphy’s, you are immediately met with the bright LED tattoo gun sign that illuminates the window and reflects off the sidewalk. The corner tattoo shop stands out in the downtown region of San Rafael because of its bright lights, red and black striped overhang, and the faded sign reading “Spider Murphy’s.” Located at an intersection of the two most well-known streets in San Rafael’s downtown area, Fourth Street and Lincoln Avenue, the shop brings in dozens of customers every hour anxiously waiting to get tattooed by the talented artists. 

Upon arrival, you can’t help but take notice of the hundreds of framed designs scattering the walls. I looked behind the stained wood counter to a small room where a young man was getting tattooed on his right shoulder. Other employees of the establishment chatted with the young man about his tattoo and what pushed him into getting it. Observing the artist’s techniques in moments of silence, all the employees were excited for the final result. When they resumed their conversation, my eavesdropping was cut off and I was met with a tall man, with shoulder length hair, and a friendly smile. This was Theo Mindell. 

Initially, Mindell looked faintly close to Kurt Cobain, if Cobain had brown and longer hair rather than the golden blonde he was known for. The friendly smile and warm tone was relaxing. He introduced me to a young woman who was a member of the staff. After talking to Mindell about his establishment briefly, I mentioned my familiarity with his membership in the rock band Orchid. Mindell smiled crookedly after not anticipating the in-depth observing I did at his public social media profiles. After a brief conversation explaining the contents I would be writing about, Mindell excused himself to help a fellow employee. So I took the opportunity to look around the shop. 

The shop is filled wall to wall, corner to corner, in framed “flash” pieces hand drawn and signed by Theo Mindell. His art work displays abstract pieces of traditional art. The floors are a shiny dark brown as if they had just been painted, with a tiger and snake battle image right before the front counter reading “Spider Murphy’s Tattoo.” 

Mindell envisioned his shop in a specific way prior to owning the property. In the Tattoo Life issue #77 from 2004, reporters asked Mindell about his inspiration for his shop. The “old school” layout with the classic non-modern furniture was a key point in Mindell’s shop that many took notice of. The old diner bar stools across the counter, along with a small overhang similar to chinese style roofing, and bright circular lanterns contrast perfectly creating a unique sanctuary for art to be made comfortably. 

Mindell explains to the reporter of Tattoo Life that he recalls seeing a picture of a man standing in a tattoo shop somewhere in Asia, explaining it was “covered in flash… just everywhere.” Mindell recalls looking at that picture and thinking, “That’s it! That’s my shop!” Having not seen the picture, but only reading about the picture Mindell made reference to, I imagine that the shops are nearly identical in design and decoration. Scanning the walls covered in flash artwork, the colors are vibrant, the pictures are abstract and unique, as if you’re personally looking into Mindell’s ideology of what art is. Vibrantly colored images of knives piercing hearts, dragon and flowers as well as female figures with luscious hair and bright makeup, and numerous other traditional pieces clustered around. 

“Flash” refers to pieces of displayed art, typically displayed on shop walls or in an artists’ book, that are ready to be tattooed immediately. Theo Mindell has two volumes of his flash artwork that can be purchased and referenced. All of which are created first hand from his own inspiration. His flash artwork is displayed in numerous shops around the United States and across the world. 

Spider Murphy’s fellow artist, Haley McCann, explained how most people are unaware of the profile Spider Murphy’s has, especially in the traditional tattoo world. 

“This is the tattoo shop for traditional pieces. We have a couple books of traditional flash tattoos [made by Mindell] and you can go to other parts of the world like Spain or whatever and there are shops with [Mindell’s] flash pieces,” McCann explained as she tucked her blonde hair behind her ear, revealing a small tattoo on her cheekbone, adding to the collection of art on her skin covering her arms and chest.  

McCann was born and raised in San Diego and moved to northern California a little over a decade ago. Now living in Richmond, she has taken huge strides in her career as an artist at Spider Murphy’s. Compared to her colleagues, she is still considered new to the tattoo industry. McCann explained she has only been tattooing for 2 years, however being at Spider Murphy’s and alongside Theo Mindell has taught her a lot, not only in the world of tattooing but as a person looking to better their skills. McCann explains her experience with different mentors as she started her journey. She was told numerous times that tattooing is a field that does not need an ego. Coming into the shop “you are there to learn and adapt to your environment. I cannot explain how many times new artists come into the tattooing career and have an ego. Humility is the biggest asset to succeeding in this field.” explained McCann. 

McCann explains her excitement to continue her career at Spider Murphy’s and alongside Theo Mindell. The bright eyed artist smiled ear to ear explaining her excitement for her next traditional tattoo piece she was going to have a coworker put on her stomach. As she went into detail about her idea of a tiger and large snake fighting with vibrant colors and bold outlines, I looked into the shop’s window and recalled the exact image painted on the floor of the establishment. . 

McCann’s visible excitement only grew as she discussed her passion for traditional art work. With the possibilities being endless and the numerous artistic strategies to be mastered, McCann explained that her next goal is to complete a back piece on a customer. Given that McCann is still new to her tattooing career, she is still awaiting the opportunity to tattoo more parts of the human body. As she discussed wanting to accomplish this goal, six young women walked into the tattoo shop with ecstatic expressions and huge smiles, similar to McCann’s as she described her next tattoo. They walked into the shop, giggling and rambling about their awaiting matching tattoos and I could only hope one of those six women aspire to have their tattoo on their back, so McCann can reach her goal.  

The feeling of getting your first tattoo is an exhilarating feeling. As a daughter of a former freelance tattoo artist, I’ve been exposed to the tattoo realm from a young age. Having watched clients get tattooed regularly, I know the excitement of seeing a piece of artwork being permanently imprinted on someone. Seeing the satisfaction from the artist as they analyze their piece top to bottom. As well as seeing the customer struggle to hide their happiness looking at their new piece of body art. 

Alexis Chacon, a 20-year-old in San Rafael, remembers getting his first tattoo as the most surreal moment. Watching the tattoo artist gently stretch his skin to ensure perfect lines, the needle puncturing his skin with jet black ink, and the sound of the gun resembling millions of obnoxiously loud bees. 

“I watched the entire time, I was so excited. I tried my absolute best to remain still because I knew [the artist] would do his best work if I was cooperative.” Chacon looked down at his forearm, pulling back his charcoal gray ProClub hoodie, revealing a black and gray tattoo of Marilyn Monroe and a traditional Chicano man with a fe21550=dora covering his eyes, lined with roses. 

“I need more. I love it so much, I couldn’t be happier. I want so many more tattoos.” His face seemed to only brighten excessively as he discussed his necessity for more permanent art. 

It seems to be a common result for most people with tattoos, the need for more. This healthy addiction is one that many “suffer” from, including myself. Being a daughter of a tattoo artist and surrounded by family members covered head to toe in tattoos, I never doubted that I would acquire a tattoo. While others limit their tattoos for memorable reasons or specific symbols, individuals like myself, Chacon, McCann, and Mindell add to their body’s canvas just for the sake of being art. 

You can find hundreds of photos done by the artists at Spider Murphy’s on the company’s website. The current artists that occupy the chairs at this shop are, of course, Theo Mindell, Haley McCann, Justin Davis, Weston Imhoff, John Geltz and Pavel Brodsky. All of whom haveInstagram accounts that are flooded with followers and posts pulling the viewer into the ink hotspot. All the artists visibly have a strong connection with the traditional styles of tattooing. Thick outlines, minimal realism detail, and vibrant colors with abstract designs filling it. 

These artists have accumulated their knowledge through a great deal of practice and dedication. In Tattoo Life #77, Mindell emphasizes on the point that a career in tattooing is not a hobby you seemed to be decent at. It is something that you practice and are eager to learn about. Like most things in life, dedication will get you far. Looking for any opportunity to enhance your skills and expand your knowledge will make the difference between having a hobby and having a profession. Mindell took it upon himself to become one of the most well known tattoo artists in the industry. Being featured in numerous publications and hundreds of tattoo conventions across the world, Theo Mindell took his life -ong passion for art, and turned it into a profile. 

Now, 30 years later, Spider Murphy’s is still operating six days a week and taking in hundreds of customers consistently. The shop located in the quiet city of San Rafael remains the tattoo hotspot. The red and blue LED sign glistens 24/7, exposing the flash artwork on the interior walls, and the 6 artists ready for every piece wanting to be traced, stenciled, shaded, and inked on a customer’s body. Mindell not only created a sanctuary for traditional art, but an establishment to educate others on the tattoo industry and its ever-changing environment. 

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