A tattoo artist in his tattoo shop wearing his own Death Moth tattoo design on a t-shirt.

The Tattoo Series: Meet Billy Harrigan

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What Is the Tattoo Series?

This highly caffeinated collaboration shows our undying love of tattoos and the culture that surrounds them. Nine supremely talented tattoo artists from across the country share their flashes of genius—all inspired by coffee. The art-inspired merch directly supported the local artists who designed them. 

Tattoo artist, Billy Harrigan stenciling a tattoo on a man's head.

Meet the Artist: Billy Harrigan

Hailing from our very own stomping grounds of Saratoga Springs, New York, Billy shares his flashes of genius with us—always fueled by strong coffee. His Death Wish Coffee tattoo design features a magical moth with coffee plant wings and a skull within the body. This Death Moth mug and tee design is perfect for flying above the haters or emerging from your highly caffeinated chrysalis.

Tattoo artist, Billy Harrigan smiling in his tattoo shop wearing a Death Moth tattoo design on a t-shirt.

Unfiltered Q&A With Billy Harrigan

1. Are you a coffee drinker? If so, what’s your favorite roast, and how do you take your coffee?

I am indeed. I dig a dark roast, and black is the only way. 

2. Do you have a favorite coffee shop in your town?

I live around the corner from a small, family-owned cafe called the Kaffee House in Saratoga. They're the best and always remember my order. 

3. What inspired you to become a tattoo artist? Did you always know it was your calling?

I've always been drawing and painting. My dad and his mom were both painters, so it runs in the family. I was always encouraged to pursue art on any level by my mom, sister and friends. Making a career out of it was necessary because I'd never make it in the standard job market, nor would my boss be cool with me drawing on everything. 

4. What was your initial exposure to the tattoo world, and when did you first add your own piece of ink to your skin?

I spent my high-school years going to shows in the Albany punk/metal scene and found myself surrounded by tattoo-covered cretins. Not to mention my interest in all things graffiti/street art. Tagging humans seemed like a neat idea. As for my own tattoos, I got my first piece down the front of my shin when I was 20(?), and that was almost it. That shit hurt! 

5. When did you know that you wanted to be a tattoo artist? How did you get started in the industry?

It was probably while I was on a delivery job for the furniture company I used to work for. After a day of pissed-off customers and carrying dressers up multiple flights of stairs, my co-worker and best friend had a buddy (his tattoo artist) who worked for one of the local shops that was held in very high regard. That's how I met Mr. Matt Mrowka and crew, and I bugged ‘em enough to finally let me into the shop. 

6. How long have you been tattooing?

Way too long and not nearly long enough.

7. How would you describe your tattoo style and how you got to it?

I came up in a shop of some of the best black and grey artists this side of the Rockies at the time. Needless to say, I'd have a hard time making ends meet being the 4th or 5th guy in line, waiting for black and grey tattoos to trickle down. So new school color it was! A second wave of tattoo art with a heavy influence from street art was becoming super popular, and it fit with the weird characters I'd draw on my own. With guidance and being inspired by some of the other guys in the shop (especially Glenn Underwood), I forged ahead, making lots of brightly colored, googly-eyed monsters. 

8. What was your inspiration behind this design in particular?

I like blending things that seem impossible to bring together. Tattooing most of the time is building a visual vocabulary with someone after only speaking with them for a few minutes. Trying to put Idea A with Idea B and having it make a cool and satisfying image isn't always easy, and I pride myself on being able to work in more abstract forms and turn common imagery on its head. The death's head moth is heavily used in tattoos and was a great way to get the DW skull in there, and coffee plant wings seemed like a no-brainer.  

A tattoo artist with a sleeve of tattoos holding a Death Wish Coffee mug with his tattoo design on the front.

9. Has your style changed over the years?

I started out very much influenced by graffiti characters and new school tattoo artists—basically, cute things you'd never want sitting on your lap. Now I try to bring my tattooing closer to the way I paint, which is a bit abstract and messy. Think Ralph Steadman and Francis Bacon had a weird baby that's seen too many horror, sci-fi flicks and comic book covers (like if watercolor tattoos were done with glow sticks, gore and viscera).  

10. Can you tell us about your own tattoos?

The left half of my work is black and grey, and the right is in color.

11. How many tattoos do you have?

I have more than a few, but not as many as you'd think. 

12. What inspires your work?

I’m inspired by what my clients bring me, first and foremost. It’s a weird gig where you're basically given the hard part of a design, the actual soul for the piece, the idea behind it and then told to “go nuts.” It's much more difficult and insular and scary to sit in front of a bright, white canvas with no idea what to do. So, I like the ideas clients come to me with...most of the time. 

13. What does the process behind your tattoos entail?

Sometimes I start with a sketch on paper—like a thumbnail that then gets transferred to my iPad and more fleshed out. I try not to fully render tattoo drawings because then you're just copying what's on the screen to the skin. There's nothing wrong with that—it can just get boring and tedious at times. I like leaving color decisions up to the day of and being able to adjust to skin tone and all that on the fly. I freehand tattoos pretty often as well.

14. What do you like to tattoo, and what would you like to do more of?

I'm a huge film nerd, so anything to do with the movies is fun. I like hiding Easter eggs in designs for the super fans out there, but if you have no idea what it's in reference to, it's just a cool piece. All things horror/spooky and weird are forever welcome in my station. 

15. What does a typical day at the shop look like for you?

I used to do multiple appointments a day, and I just ended up buried and stressed out trying to fight the clock all day. So it's coffee, meeting with the client, setting up, tattooing, cleaning up, giving the client a high-five, going home and drawing. I try to do one tattoo a day and just give that person and design my full attention.

16. What do you like to do outside of the shop?

My fiance is also an artist, so our place is always in a state of creation and new projects. I love painting and just drawing in general. If I wasn't a tattoo artist, I'd still be drawing almost every day without a doubt. Outside of graphic art, it's all about making music, going on adventures with my lady and kicking it with the doggo. RESCUE A PITBULL!

17. What’s your biggest pet peeve? Personally and in the shop.

My biggest pet peeve is people that chew with their mouths open. If you come into the shop slapping your gums together while eating your pre-tattoo Big Mac, you will be asked to leave and never to return, charges will be pressed and you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. 

18. What’s the strangest tattoo you’ve ever done?

A bowl of General Tso’s chicken. 

19. What is your favorite thing about being a tattoo artist?

I like having the freedom to run my business the way I see fit. Social media has put a bit of a chokehold on how we both are seen and promote our work, which is both wonderful and unbelievably frustrating at the same time. It can feel a bit like a leash and very stifling. That aside, it's wonderful to know that I can go just about anywhere and at least make a couple of bucks in a pinch doing something that's wholly me. I can also use grown-up words and not get written up. 

20. What is the tattoo scene like in your area?

Explosive” is the word that comes to mind. Having been in the Capital Region of New York my entire career, I've been able to see it explode with talent, sheer number of artists and subsequently, shops and clientele. I'm sure it's similar to other places, but I feel like I can speak to this area as being wildly talented. When I started out, the number of “good shops” could be counted on one hand. Usually that wasn’t because the entire roster of tattooers was great, but because one dude was carrying the place. Now there are tons of spots you can go to where there are niche artists absolutely killing what they do right next to another artist that is doing the same thing their own way. The number of female artists is not only growing rapidly, but now the number of all-female shops or woman-owned shops is blowing up. The lack of drama and support within the scene seems to be somewhat unique to this area too. I’m proud as hell to have come from where I did and to still be a part of a super rad group—and now to not be the new guy and watch the young bloods starting out with way more talent in one finger than I do in all my 22 digits. 

21. What moment in your career are you the most proud of? 

I'm most proud of the first line I successfully put into the skin of a grapefruit without burying the needle to the tube. 

Related: The Tattoo Series