Death metal. Tortured demons. Heaving tubes. These are the kinds of things tattoo artist Brayton Furlong lives for. Growing up, Furlong had a knack for not only skillfully riding the bounty of surf in and around Santa Cruz’s East Side, but for art as well. Before long, Furlong had established himself as a reputable fine artist, specializing in glass blowing; travelling around the country displaying his wares and building a name for himself with his unique glass sculptures. Nowadays, Furlong has switched from glass to the needle, committing himself to the life of a tattoo artist. Almost one year ago, Furlong accomplished his lifelong dream and opened his very own tattoo shop, Heavy Water Tattoo, on East Cliff Drive, a stone’s throw from the rippable waves of 26th avenue. I recently caught up with the focused young man to get the lowdown on his craft.
How were you introduced to art?
The furthest back I remember was my second grade teacher at Live Oak Elementary, Bonnie Thurston. I know it sounds funny but she would give me these huge pieces of expensive art paper to practice on. I remember doing a Van Gough piece using pastels. She must have seen something in me so she set up a meeting with my parents back then– she thought they should push me to pursue art.
You were a glass artist before tattoo, can you compare the two?
Yes I have been a glass artist going on 14 years now. I would say that the biggest parallel between tattooing and glassblowing is that they are both relatively underground art-forms and are pretty challenging mediums to work with. Being artistic is not enough, you have to have good hand eye coordination as well.
How did you hone your artistic abilities early on?
I studied with a handful of respected glass artists early on- Loren Stump, Paul Stankard, Henry Halem, Gary Beechum. I went to Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina for several workshops. Then I started working professionally, selling my production work to over 60 accounts nationwide at its peak. Those were primarily craft galleries and gift-shops. Eventually I grew tired of production work and started making fine art sculpture, and that’s when my career really took off. I was able to start showing my work in high level Glass Galleries or (Sofa) Galleries. My work was also featured in several magazines. But to me, one of the biggest achievements was probably the first artist in residence in flameworked glass at Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle. That was a huge honor!
When did you get into tattoo work? Anyone help you? How was the learning curve and what motivated you to keep practicing?
I got my first tattoo when I was 16 then a year later when I was 17 a friend of mine who was older and had done some prison time taught me to make a walkman motor, guitar string machine. Then I made a few machines myself and tattooed my leg with them. It was punk rock, I didn’t know anything about tattooing and didn’t care. Just wanted to tattoo myself whether it turned out good or bad or if got an infection– I didn’t care. I tattooed myself off and on since then but it wasn’t until years later that I got serious about tattooing.
I became more serious about tattooing when I had injured my knee surfing. I was out of the water for a couple years. I started tattooing myself a ton and that’s when I started wanting to pursue it professionally so I started seeking out an apprenticeship.
I got my first job tattooing as a full time artist in Morgan Hill at Inked Tattoo. I commuted every day and had to hustle being from Santa Cruz– no one knew me out there. I had to go out canvasing the malls and outlets handing out cards and trying to build some clientele, but it worked, and I became very busy at that shop. We also were doing conventions all the time. It was a great thing for my career and I am very grateful to Gus and Faith ( the owners) for that opportunity.
Describe what you were doing tattoo wise before you opened your shop?
I worked in a few different shops over a handful of years- it was really hard to find the right fit, and I worked in shops over the hill 3 times. Commuting and working over the hill was what I had to do to get my experience. I just wanted to be working in shops- not at home- so that’s what I did. I sacrificed a lot for many years and it was challenging to make it work. Many times I felt like it just wasn’t happening. But I was persistent and determined and just kept working on my skills and kept putting myself out there.
When did you decide to open your own shop? Tell me how all of that came together
Pretty much since I started tattooing seriously I had been thinking about it. I knew eventually I would. I had even been scouting locations for several years. I was keeping a close eye on a particular location and one day it was vacant, so I jumped on it. I had already told myself when that day came that I would jump on it. It had been 10 years since it was last vacant. I was working at the Black Pearl during that time and those guys were cool and it had been going well there but this was something I had already decided on long before. So I thanked Mike for having me there and he was cool about it! He understood that was the ultimate goal to have your own shop. There was no hard feelings and I still wish them the best over there!
Explain the name “Heavy Water” and what it means to you and your tattoo work-
I remember when I was younger watching a Josh Pomer Ruffo section and he was talking about Santa Cruz surfers being core getting up at 5am to surf 50 degree water. That always stuck with me. Our cold water here has a heavy feel to it. Especially when it’s super cold and the waves are big. Hence the name Heavy Water. But I’m also a big metal head so it has multiple meanings to me. I also just liked the sound of it. Nothing to0 flashy or anything– just a solid name that had meaning behind it.
How business been so far? Any really memorable pieces? What made them special?
My glass career gave me an education in small business, photography and art, so I brought what I learned from that into my tattoo career. I would not have been able to progress as rapidly without doing glass first.
Business has been great! I am very grateful for every client that walks in my door. I tattoo just about every day and some days I do several. My favorite pieces are usually the big realistic ones that I’ve been doing. I don’t have a favorite but usually the newest one I’m working on is my favorite as I try to make each piece better than the last one I did.
Describe your tattoo style/influences
I have always been blown away by realistic and surrealistic tattoos—that’s what gets me the most excited. Nothing compares to it in my mind. That style also comes to me the most naturally, so that’s what I’m focusing on the most. However, I enjoy doing different styles and like to be well rounded. It also makes my days interesting to do a few different styles of tattoos in one day. I have many influences but a few of my favorite tattoo artists are Paul Booth, Bob Tyrrell and Carlos Torres.
How nice is it to be working so close to a killer area for surfing?
Having grown up surfing First peak every day along with Santa Moe’s and Windnsea and all these waves around here I feel lucky to be able to have my shop so close. It enables me the ability to take surf breaks between appointments which keeps me sane! It’s important for me to enjoy my days, and not be a slave to my job. That’s why people become artists right?! I figure I’ll work till I die, and I’ll spend most of those days alive working so I better love what I do. Or else I would be miserable. Money is nice but it’s not everything. Being happy and fulfilled is way more important to me than a bunch of zeros at the end of my paycheck.
Plans for the future?
My plan for now is to just keep my head down and to keep doing what I’ve been doing, because that’s what has been working for me so far! I also want to keep pushing myself as an artist and to never stop learning. The learning never stops I will always be a student.