Photo: Michelle Emerson
Driving around Salt Lake, it’s easy to see that we have a healthy tattoo community. A copious number of shops have infested the landscape, and it can be difficult to sort out quality from the tremendous quantity. Heart of Gold Tattoo has that quality in spades. Owner Jon McAffee, a 10-year veteran of the Salt Lake tattoo terrain, has worked in shops like Apparition Ink and Oni, and recently entered a new stage of his career last September when he opened Heart of Gold Tattoo.
McAffee initially planned to simply manage a second Salt Lake location for a San Francisco tattoo company, Cicatrix, but when the out-of-state proprietors found the distance between sites too taxing, McAffee felt it was time he take on the mantle of owner. McAffee’s confidence in his associates made the transition from artist to owner a seamless one. The lineup at Heart of Gold includes McAffee’s fellow bearded tattooer Andrew King, (often mistaken as his brother) whom he has known since his days at Apparition; Ryan Campbell, a very talented artist who has recently returned from Phoenix and Austin Huffman, who’s relatively new in his career, but is turning out awesome work. “I’ve surrounded myself with professionals, so I don’t have to worry about them,” says McAffee. “They make it easy for me to trust that the tattoos going out the door are up to my standard.”
McAffee intends to build a shop on a reputation of good tattoos and an un-intimidating atmosphere—where the only heated words you’ll ever hear would be a dispute about a horror movie or comic book. “I want people to be relaxed and have a good time here because what we do hurts,” says McAffee. “I want clients to walk away with a good experience, and if it’s someone’s first time, you have to ease them into it. People shouldn’t be intimidated or be afraid to walk into a tattoo shop. I want to do away with that by being friendly with everyone.”
As a kid, McAffee envisioned a career in movie special effects, working for George Lucas at ILM. It was McAffee’s passion for art coupled with a love for science fiction that drew him to fantasy artists like Roger Dean, Michael Whelan, Drew Struzan and Keith Parkinson. He eventually discovered the darker, gorier works of H.R Giger, who is most famous for the concept art on the movie Alien. McAffee’s initial goal was to simply be as good as the artists that had inspired him. “When I first started buying tattoo magazines in the early ‘90s, there were so many artists out there that were mimicking Giger’s style on skin,” says McAffee.
McAffee is now an immensely versatile tattoo artist and has mastered everything from realism to traditional tattoos. It was his passion for sci-fi and fantasy art that pushed him to develop the necessary skills to be successful. “I was really into Aaron Cain and Guy Aitchison, says McAffee. “When I first started, I was all about the realism these guys had achieved, even though I was very new and had no hope of achieving that at the time, I fell in love with it.”
McAffee started hanging around shops in 1998. His good friend Greg Christensen got a job at Quicksand Tattoo and McAffee eventually found himself working the counter, which led to his apprenticeship with Bonnie Seeley. Ten years in, McAffee’s still pushing the boundaries of his skills and motivating himself to put the best possible work out there every time.
“Not only do I want to do good work for myself, so I can show it off to my peers, but I want more clients, so you have to improve and get better or you won’t make it,” says McAffee.
McAffee feels that every tattoo is the calling card he leaves to let everyone know the caliber of work that comes out of his shop.
“Ten years from now, when I’ve been tattooing 20 years, I’ll still be learning stuff and improving,” says McAffee. “That’s how I push myself. I want to put the best tattoos on people as I possibly can because that’s how I survive.”
McAffee’s straightforward approach to his craft leaves no room for ego. Circumventing the label of “artist,” his approach is being a skilled professional first, making clean lines and solid colors. Though it would be easy for him to tout his accomplishments, he takes a step back and calls it for what it really is. “Say someone wants a Raiders logo, you can put that on skin and be technically proficient, but you may not be able to draw something from scratch out of your head,” says McAffee. “I think that there are a lot of tattooers that may just be good craftsmen. I have absolutely no deep spiritual drive in my soul to be artistic. I don’t consider myself an ‘art-eest.’ I’m not Jackson Pollock or Van Gogh. I consider myself closer to an illustrator. I can draw and create things and I can generate a technically proficient tattoo, but I’m not a tortured soul who needs to create to live, that’s all bullshit.”
McAffee has enjoyed a thriving, successful career, but if you ask him for the highlights, it’s how he met his wife, Molly, that comes to mind first. “She wanted to get tattooed by me and I would never have her drawing ready,” says McAffee. “So to make up for it, I’d take her out to lunch or dinner. I can’t remember how many times I did that. I’ve been able to meet so many awesome people and learn from them, make friends with a lot of great tattooers. I’m lucky to be able to do what I do.”
McAffee has no misconception about what he does. He doesn’t want to be a rock star tattoo artist. He’s a husband and a dad who is happy to be making a living doing something he loves.
Head up to his shop, Heart of Gold, at 853 E. 400 S. in Salt Lake, or check ‘em out at heartofgoldtattoo.com, and realize that the light saber replicas on the wall and the words “Jedi” and “Sith” tattooed across the owner’s knuckles are an invite to talk Star Wars and have a good time while you’re in the chair.