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Meet Jo Atwood

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jo Atwood.

Every artist has a unique story. Can you briefly walk us through yours?
I grew up in the South Bay (South San Diego and Chula Vista), graduated from Chula Vista High as part of the School for the Creative and Performing Arts program (SCPA), and got my bachelor’s degree in Art from UC Berkeley. After graduating in 1995, I moved to New York City, where I lived for seven years (including through 9/11) and eventually secured a tattoo apprenticeship in Greenpoint, Brooklyn at Lady Luck Tattoo. After beginning my career at Lady Luck, I moved on to Third Eye Tattoo in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where I met my future Canadian ex-husband. I got married in 2002 and moved to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where I built a steady clientele and became known for elegant color work (like flowers) as well as portraits at Urge 2 Tattoo; and I also managed the shop. After eleven years, which included having a child and getting divorced, I returned to my hometown of San Diego with my kid to reconnect with family and friends and build a clientele doing what I love.

When I came back to SD in 2013 (20 years after I moved away), I worked at Flesh Skin Grafix (FSG) Tattoo in Imperial Beach for Mike Martin, and in 2015 started working at Fip Buchanan’s Avalon Tattoo 2 in North Park, where I am today. I had known Fip and the Avalon crew for many years prior, as I used to tattoo family and friends from high school there when I came home to visit. I work with a great group of people in an awesome, well-regarded shop; with a growing clientele that I really enjoy. It feels so good to be home again, tattooing in a great shop and raising my kid here.

Please tell us about your art.
My background is in fine arts, doing mostly figurative and representational work. In college the art program was multi-disciplinary; I did figure drawing with live models, printmaking, ceramic sculpture, mixed media sculpture, painting, and even performance art. Drawing is my first love, and I was never very comfortable using technology to create art (such as graphic design or web design), so tattooing was a natural fit for me. I could work with my hands to create art, employ different styles into the work, and get to meet all kinds of people from all walks of life. I also love that I can dress however I want, and of course have as many tattoos as I want. It’s been the perfect union of making a living as an artist and not having to be too much of a “grownup.”

Nowadays it seems like there are more tattooers who specialize in one style; but when I apprenticed back in 1999 I was trained to be able to competently tattoo in any style- which meant I needed to be as proficient in executing Celtic knot work as I was in doing American Traditional or tribal, or whatever else the client wanted. After tattooing for 18 years, I definitely have certain styles or subject matter that resonate more than others, like flowers, portraits, and other elegant imagery- but I do take pride in being able to demonstrate versatility and to skillfully realize the client’s vision. I actually enjoy not being associated with only one style, as it keeps things interesting for me and I never get bored.

Aside from being able to make a living as an artist, another important aspect to tattooing for me is the relationship I have with my clients- whether they become my “regulars” or I only tattoo them once. It’s important to me to create an environment where the person being tattooed feels comfortable- both physically and otherwise. It’s intimidating for many people to even enter a tattoo shop, let alone start the process of getting a tattoo. I believe that being a good tattooer is more than just being a competent artist. I would never want to get tattooed by someone who makes me feel uncomfortable, or who is cold or rude. I never think I’m “too good” to do any tattoo, and I actually love being to first person to tattoo someone because I know that in my hands they will be treated with respect and kindness, and that will set the tone for any future work they may get. I hear lots of stories from people who’ve had bad experiences getting tattooed: they were intimidated by the artist and didn’t feel comfortable asking for changes, so ended up with a tattoo they didn’t like; or were just in immense pain and were not shown any compassion by the artist. I think this is likely due to the artist seeing the client as just one of many they’ve had over time, instead of realizing that for every client getting a tattoo is a very singular experience. To me the “customer service” aspect of tattooing is as important as execution of the tattoo.

Another thing that is important to me is respecting the client’s vision. Some artists will ignore a client’s wishes in favor of something they would *rather* do instead of work with the client to achieve what they want. If someone wants something that I don’t think is aesthetically pleasing, I try to work with them to make it so, while adhering to the important elements for them. Ultimately I feel it is my job to realize their wishes, whether I create a custom piece or reproduce something they love that they want on their body as a tattoo. If I wanted to just do my own art with autonomy, I would have become a fine artist working on doing gallery shows, and not a tattooer who works with other people’s ideas to create lasting work.

Choosing a creative or artistic path comes with many financial challenges. Any advice for those struggling to focus on their artwork due to financial concerns?
It’s important to budget your money and plan ahead. As a tattooer, I’m considered an “independent contractor” so I don’t get a paycheck and don’t have income tax deducted. We must put money aside when we can to save for taxes, keep track of all business spending (save your receipts!), and be prepared for slow times. We don’t get paid to show up, we only get paid when we do a tattoo, and that fee is split with the shop. We have to work hard when there’s work to be had, so that when there’s a slow time, or we’re having a bad week with lots of cancellations or no-shows, we know we can still pay our bills and support ourselves.

I have a savings account in addition to my checking, as well as an IRA for retirement. I also make sure I take care of my body, since I need it to do my work. I wear reading glasses to draw and tattoo, I get massages and acupuncture when my back, neck, wrist, and shoulders have pain; and I try to exercise to keep my body strong and limber. I avoid activities that could compromise my ability to tattoo if I’m injured; so no roller derby, snowboarding, or extreme sports of any kind!

Marketing is also important, especially in this age of social media. Posting new content, business cards, merchandising, and networking at tattoo conventions are all important to get my name out and continue to build my clientele.

How or where can people see your work? How can people support your work?
Most of my work is on people, so it’s generally walking around somewhere in North America… or in photo portfolios at the shop. As for ways to see my work online, I have a (in need of updating) website: /

My most up-to-date work can be seen on Instagram: @joatwood
Or my Facebook business page: Jo Ann Atwood Tattooer

I sometimes have prints of work I do for the occasional art show for sale, but the best way to support my work is to get tattooed by me, and find out why they call me “Angel Hands”

Contact Info:

  • Address: Avalon Tattoo 2
    3039 Adams Avenue
    San Diego, CA 92116
  • Website: / /
  • Phone: (619)280-1957
  • Email:
  • Instagram: @joatwood
  • Facebook: Jo Ann Atwood Tattooer
  • Twitter: @AngelHandsTat2

Getting in touch: SDVoyager is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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