Lance McLain (b. 1952), who owns and operates Dragon Tattoo in Wahiawa, is one of the few remaining tattoo artists from the Sailor Jerry lineage who is still working full-time in the “Old School” or classic American style. McLain grew up in Burbank, California, where his mother worked in an office for Universal Studios. His friends’ parents were Hollywood animators, set builders, electricians, and lighting technicians. “I was brought up in front of a TV set,” says McLain. “They didn’t know it was detrimental for kids back then. I was being programmed early with images of movies going through my head, so that is reflected in my work.” After high school, he joined the Navy, ending up stationed in San Diego in 1972, where he met tattoo artists Don Ed Hardy, Mike Malone, and Zeke Owen and decided he had finally found his calling. Hardy and Owens showed him Sailor Jerry’s flash, and McLain promised himself he would one day meet him. In 1973, when his ship was temporarily docked in Honolulu, McLain took a bus to Chinatown and spent three days talking with Sailor Jerry about tattooing.
Less than a year later, after Sailor Jerry died, his widow sold China Sea Tattoo to Mike Malone, who hired McLain to be his apprentice. Malone showed him the fundamentals, as well as the finer points of tattooing, and shared Sailor Jerry’s trade secrets with him. McLain worked for Malone from 1976 to 1980, until Malone sold him his Waikiki shop, Floating World.
The faces of McLain’s pinup girls are softer and more vulnerable than Sailor Jerry’s. His work is deceptively simple and is distinguished by strong, dark lines, bold, brilliant colors, and solid shapes. He avoids fussy shading, nuances and tones. “There’s a rule in tattooing that if someone can’t perceive what they’re looking at in seven seconds, your tattoo has not been successful, “ says McLain. “It has to be immediate, and it has to be absorbed instantaneously.”
- Gina Caruso, Guest Curator, Honolulu Tattoo, Honolulu Museum of Art