I first met someone with “sleeves” in 2001. He was a fellow law school student, and we were chatting on a balcony.
“Nice shirt,” I said, not knowing I was describing his tattoos. Once I realized it was body art, I was astonished. “Didn’t that hurt?” I asked.
“I guess so,” he said, “but it wasn’t all that bad.” To this day, I’m skeptical.
Robert DelSol Williamson runs Flagship Tattoo in Palm Desert. He is described by a neighboring merchant as “a real artist.”
Along with his wife, Amanda Marr, Williamson has been running Flagship Tattoo for four years, taking it over when the former owner decided to move on. The name Flagship came from the original founder’s father.
“I wanted to change the name,” says Williamson, “but left it because it was a known name in this location.”
Williamson got his first tattoo at age 17 along with his best friend, also named Robert.
“It’s kind of a funny story,” he recalls. “The age of consent was 16 at that time, so we walked into a shop holding hands and said we had just met on the Internet and knew we were in love. We wanted to get each other’s names. We drew up each other’s tattoos—mine a cactus with a sombrero as the “O” in the name, on my left ankle, and his as a wiener dog peeing into a Santa Claus hat with the pee spelling out ‘Robert’ on his shin. It hurt—no tattoo exactly feels good. We were young.”
Williamson, 30, was born in Tucson, Ariz., and raised in Silver City, N.M. He graduated with a master’s degree in art from Western New Mexico University, after attending the University of Arizona and San Diego State.
“I was always obsessed with drawing,” he says. “When I was young, I used to draw the flags of all the different countries in the world.”
Williamson is the youngest of five children. “I was raised by my mom, a hospice nurse and a real survivor. She taught me how to make the best out of life, because it’s over quicker than you expect.”
He describes his dad as “cool,” although they were estranged and had little contact until about two years ago. “I learned from my dad that actions affect people,” he says.
Marr, also 30, the eldest of two, was raised in the Palm Springs area. Her dad was a plumber, and her mom was involved in the horse industry and made sculptures. Marr and Williamson met in a photography class at College of the Desert, where she is working to complete an associate’s degree.
“I took a photography class at COD,” says Williamson, “mainly so I could use the darkroom. I love taking pictures. After we met,” he laughs, “I started really going to class.” Marr runs the administrative side of the business.
Williamson began his tattoo career while still in school, working “here and there on impulse. Then, one day, I decided I wanted more and got involved in the industry. I started asking lots of questions. The experienced tattoo artist I was working with found out I was studying art, and after I finished school, I served an apprenticeship for two years with him.”
Williamson has never done ink on Marr. “She has two tattoos that she gave herself, one on each leg. I won’t do a tattoo on her. What if we didn’t stay together,” he laughs, “and I knew she was walking around with pictures I had done? Or worse, it’s too easy to criticize my own work, and I’d have to be looking at it every day. Besides, she’s more artistic than I am. She has a geometric pink tattoo on one thigh, and she’s very into Japanese culture, so she has a ginkgo leaf on the other.”
When a client comes in for a tattoo, Williamson makes a drawing based on what the customer describes. “I work on the picture with them, and then draw something up to make a pattern. I have a Thermofax machine that puts out the pattern on paper. Then I put it on the customer and press it on so the lines transfer to their skin when I remove the pattern. It takes about 30 minutes to do a small tattoo. There are times when someone has to come back because of how long it will take. If they change their mind, they’re stuck with half a tattoo.”
Williamson, who has family connections to Norway, has recently established residency there, and his goal is to open a shop in Europe.
“I wanted to pick a place in Europe that would allow me to open a shop, perhaps in Belgium or Germany, and Norway was a good choice to establish residency,” Williamson said. “Amanda would have preferred Japan, but everything there is super-structured, and the lifestyle is so different. We plan to keep both locations going once we’re established in Europe.”
Williamson’s current passion is photography. “I take pictures of things I find attractive to the eye,” he says, “mostly people. I also do site-specific installation art that’s meant to change the feel of a space for a period of time.”
What’s the most challenging tattoo Williamson has ever done?
“I did a koi (fish) sleeve,” he says. “Doing Japanese tattoos involves lots of structural rules, so it’s difficult to get it right.
“Maybe the one I’m most proud of is the one on my neck, with the founding year of the Socialist Workers Party that I wanted to memorialize. I once thought about changing the name of the shop to something like The Red Star, but,” he laughs, “Amanda said it might not be right for Palm Desert. She was right, of course.
“I think the most difficult one I’ve done is the magical Japanese Daruma doll (a magic symbol of revival and never giving up, which is believed to bring good luck) on my leg. It’s so intricate.”
I always thought I wanted a tattoo, perhaps a small heart on my hip. I’m still skeptical, but if I ever decide to cross that off my bucket list, I’ll definitely seek out Robert DelSol Williamson. After all, as his neighbor says, he’s a true artist.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.