Today we’re “Talking Shop” with Dallas, Texas based tattoo artist Mark C. Merchant, owner of Higher Truth Tattoo. With a name like that, we gotta wonder was he destined to become a merchant of marks placed on the skin? Just like Usain Bolt, the fastest man alive, maybe it was meant to be. Or was it more of a calling in life, something he found and followed with his heart?
Mark tells us a bit about his journey where he’d found family, good fortune, validation and an ongoing pursuit of higher truth in everything. From his first tattoo at age 18, to working at biker-owned tattoo shops in the 90s, to owning his shop today, Mark is adamant that he’s not the star of the show. The spotlight today should be on the client and humanity. Not him as an artist. Not the shops. He says,
“My story isn’t really about me; it’s about our connectivity with everybody else. A tattoo is about two people connecting, and that’s why the shops never have mattered to me, they don’t matter today, they never have–it’s about the client. They’re the ones that allow me the chance to make art in the first place. Tattooing is about the client’s journey. I just got to document it a little bit.”
One thing’s for sure we’re all on a similar journey in our careers, finding ourselves, finding our truth and connecting with people all along the way. Thank you Mark for sharing your story and wisdom with us! Read on below…
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Following your heart
When asked why he decided to become a tattoo artist, Mark says without hesitation that he was following his heart. We hear this phrase so often in life, but what does it mean? When we talk about our work and our choices in life, about family and friends, how does one’s heart really guide a person?
Mark explains that following your heart is about your gut. Something visceral we feel deep down inside. Other people might say it’s a “calling” or intuition, but there can sometimes be these pivotal moments where you just know, ‘hey, this is the beginning of something I’m going to dedicate a big chunk of my life to.’
For him, this moment was when he got his very first tattoo. He was 18 years old, and something just clicked.
“I felt something, you know, a calling when I got my first tattoo and I thought, ohhh I need to be doing that. I could do that! It’s a confidence thing. I didn’t think I could be the best tattooer ever, I don’t think it was ego. No, I just thought man I could do that, I’m drawn to that.”
Mark explains ever since then he’s been as enthusiastic about collecting tattoos as doing them. As the saying goes, you don’t trust a skinny chef.
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Finding your calling
As you sit there reading this article, can you remember your own day similar to Mark’s? That day you just KNEW? Maybe you’re a tattoo artist, or a barber or a banker or you work at an art gallery. Or perhaps you work at Subway, and you’re working your way up to something. Or maybe you’re one of those people who found their calling accidentally. You got an opportunity, then some experience and the next thing you know 10 years have flown fly by.
But for some people, the “calling” in life comes unmistakably, and when it does there’s no going back.
“I had a calling and my heart went: This is my path. This is my role in life, my duty.”
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Creating a family
Starting out in 1994, Mark worked as a tattoo artist at a few local shops in Dallas. He experienced a shop filled with cigarette smoke and motorcycle parts, then another shop clean and classy. Finally after three years Mark realized he needed to find a new shop where he could learn more. So he stepped up and went over to his third shop, this one was where the owner had “the essence” of tattooing.
“The shop owner was a local hero, he was 20 years in, biker guy, full of stories, the lifestyle. He was tattooing from probably 12 years old, but at least 20 years professional. He was the real deal around Dallas just having been there and done it and is a real tattooer. He eats it, sleeps it and breathes tattooing,” says Mark.
The new shop was one he looks back on as his favourite. He explained it gave him a sense that he was a part of something, and was a place he could earn his respect amongst the tattoo world.
“Everything I ever did in life was to try to create a family. That shop was a dysfunctional family, but it was a family. I could say I was working with so-and-so and I actually mattered. I could say damn I was actually a part of something. Looking back, it was frustrating, but I am authentic at that point, and I’m legitimate, and I’m validated. Like wow, I’m a real tattooer.”
As you read this, are you doing a bit of self-reflection on your own friends and associates? What “families” do you belong to, and why do they mean so much to you?
Looking up to the “masters”
While that third tattoo shop helped Mark tremendously, he explains there was a natural shelf-life to working there, and he noticed most artists would only stay for around 4-5 years. Mark quit in 2001 to continue his pursuit to find himself and hone his craft. He went rogue to apprentice in Japan and find what he calls another ‘master’.
“I’m always looking up to these masters that I need to go through to feel validated and authenticated,” says Mark.
“But on my mother’s deathbed, she said that person was ME. That I don’t have to keep looking for these masters. I even argued that at the last minute, I could have said something nice… I was always looking for the right male figure, whether it was in tattooing or whatever else.”
“Today I’m here at 45 years of age I can say I passed a lot of the tests. I’m opening up I got to be a husband, a father… I think I finally made it. My mom said I was there, but I still think it took me a good 7-8 years past her saying it to finally feel it. I don’t have to look for masters anymore to go work under. It took me many, many years to get comfortable in the tattoo community.”
After speaking with Mark and thinking about his mother’s dying words, are you reflecting on your own motivations and paths in life? Who do you look up to in your career?
The big realization
His mother’s dying words of wisdom didn’t truly sink in for Mark until about 7 or 8 years later. It was a day in Bellingham, Washington and he was being run out of town by an angry biker-guy. On the long drive back to Texas, Mark realized this was his final test.
“What my mother said finally dawned on me when I was driving from Bellingham back to Dallas, having my shit out of his shop within minutes. I never once sweat while I lived there. I’m from Texas; I think I sweat twice, once climbing a mountain on a bicycle and then packing my shit out of this guy’s biker tattoo parlor. What happened: I wasn’t a man of my word to him. I had committed to something then I went back on my word. Life threw me a curve, and I had to go back on my decision. I think that’s human, but in his house-rules, it wasn’t acceptable, and I was asked to get the hell out of there,”
“I think on that drive back at 40 years old, that was my final test to realize that I don’t need these poor-communicating biker gang dudes to make me feel authentic or validated or to feel like I’m a tattoo artist. I think getting run out of town – finally what my mom said makes sense. I AM that guy. I don’t need to hang around scoundrels; I didn’t need to have that any longer. I’m finally free to go and be myself, and I paid my dues and put in my entire life, and hopefully, I’m capturing the essence of the tattoo when I work as well.”
As we spoke with Mark, a few questions came to mind. Who gives you validation? Why do you need it? What would happen if suddenly all of it disappeared? What pushed you to go out on our own?
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Finding the higher truth
What exactly does Mark mean by “higher truth”? If you ask us, this is a pretty killer name for a business– but what’s the story behind it? We asked Mark and got into an in-depth discussion about intentions, the meaning behind everything, motives and even energy.
“I haven’t obtained a higher truth, but I try to find the highest truth behind whatever is at hand. People place things or scenarios; I think that there is always something behind it.”
We were still scratching our heads a bit so Mark gave a few examples. There’s this word in ancient sanskrit, ‘Māyā’ which means “matter that which is not” and is comparable to ‘illusion’ or ‘illusory’. His personal theory is that matter and things are temporary but energy cannot be created or destroyed.
“If things are temporary, they’re an illusion. That’s how I see it. I say that because, if it’s true that the energy cannot be created or destroyed, the energy might be the only reality. So the body–this material stuff–the matter comes and goes. We say ‘rest in peace’ because somebody went somewhere else. Well, who were they really? What is the higher truth, what is really going on?” says Mark.
“It seems to me like matter is not permanent, but it seems like the energy is. That’s some of my truth. So the ‘higher truth’ is what’s really going on behind the scenes. I think it boils down to my inquisitive nature. I don’t have it all figured out, but I like to learn and explore, and I always think what’s really going on what is the higher truth in whatever it is. That’s a world of things. Anything.”
When it comes to his business, “Higher Truth” is something that is all about his clients. He says when they come into his shop, he might not know why they came together, and the client might not even end up getting a tattoo, but they came together for a reason.
The higher truth is about them, the clients. Mark believes the clients are more important than the tattooer. He’s just the guy in the middle. This is something Mark wove into his business, and his motto is, “Your journey, your story, your truth.” As an artist, he’s NOT the centre of it, he says “I am only as good as the people around me”. It is about the clients and connecting with people.
Thank you Mark for sharing your story and sparking some great thoughts on careers, following our passions, and the pursuit of Higher Truth.
Click here to book a tattoo appointment online with Mark @ his shop Higher Truth in Dallas, Texas.