By Vanessa Wolf
Rachel Helmich of the Maui Tattoo Company started tattooing in 2001, when her then-boyfriend – now husband – approached her and asked if she wanted to learn.
“I’d graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and had enrolled in an engineering program.” Helmich explained. “We’d gotten to the part where we were making models, and I was bored stiff. I thought about Craig’s offer for a couple days, and ultimately told him ‘yes’. Then I went and withdrew from the engineering program.”
With her art background, Helmich is a natural, and the fit suits her.
“I’m in love with my career,” she says. “It’s my life. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I don’t get to paint and everything like I used to, so tattooing is my creative outlet.”
Formerly based in Pittsburgh, the Helmiches moved to Maui in 2002 and the rest is history…sort of.
Originally hired by Samantha Fairchild at Alley Cat Tattoo in Wailuku (now closed), the couple later opened their own business in March of 2003. The Maui Tattoo Company is located in Kihei Kalama Village on South Kihei Road. Fairchild now tattoos there with them, and all three have their own unique approach. Helmich mused that a little bit of both her husband and Fairchild’s style comes out in her own work.
When asked how Maui has influenced her as an artist, the answer is at first practical. “Turtles and plumerias: they are the most-requested tattoos.” After a little more thought she adds, “People respond to their elements; what’s around them. When we were in Pennsylvania, most of the tattoos had to do with hunting, American flags, and the Pittsburgh Steelers.”
Now it’s more about whales, spirituality, and nature. “There are more colors and the whole experience is more relaxed. I don’t stress out like I used to.”
Still, Helmich aspires to satisfy despite the fact that tattoos are one of the – if not the – most personal and emotional art forms available.
“One thing people don’t realize is artwork is work. We put in a lot of effort that people don’t see. I have to delve into something to prepare a piece. If someone says they want a tiger, that doesn’t mean I necessarily know what’s in their head. I have to research on the subject.”
But aren’t there clients who come in with clear ideas?
Helmich laughs, “Sometimes people come in with a horrible sketch that looks like my three year old did it. Other times, they have a whole thick file folder of ideas. That’s almost worse.”
The reality is that the tattoo artist/client relationship is one of trust. “If you’re too restrictive, it’s not going to turn out well,” Helmich explains. “There’s a certain way things should flow on the body. The person who chose me – flawed human and all – needs to trust me.”
Helmich is not just an artist in her preparation, but with respect to how the tattoo itself compliments a person. “Often times, I convince people to change where the tattoo is going. I won’t put a rectangle on a hip or do something that is going to cut someone off. Tattoos are decoration; they should flow with the line of the bone or muscle.”
She must be doing something right: almost everyone in her family and many of her friends have been tattooed by her. “I’ve done my sister’s entire back. Sometimes I come up with an idea and call my family or friends and tell them it needs to go on them.” She laughs, “I’m sleeving my mom right now: she’s almost 60!”
What can someone expect when going to Helmich for a tattoo?
“You have to have patience. I don’t just want to make the tattoo look good, but I want it to look good on your body. It doesn’t matter if I personally like what you want to get, I’ll do my best at it no matter what.”
When asked what she might be doing today if she hadn’t become a tattoo artist, Helmich reflects back on her days in Pittsburgh. “Probably some kind of engineer. I thought it would be stable and have good insurance.”
Lucky for Maui and the tourists who discover her, Helmich decided to live a little more dangerously.
Are you a local artist – singer, storyteller, hula dancer, fashion designer, lei maker, taiko drummer, chef, tiki carver or cartoonist – with an interesting story to tell? Know of a great band, artist, author, filmmaker, or event coming to town? Have an idea for a fun or thought-provoking story? Get in touch: we want to hear from you! Vanessa(@mauinow.com)