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Saturday, July 20, 2024

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Arts + CultureArtA kickass tattoo artist honors her Mescalero Apache roots

A kickass tattoo artist honors her Mescalero Apache roots

'It's in my blood,' says 24th Street Studio's Renette Hammer, who felt destined to open up shop in SF.

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The many callings in Renette Hammer’s artistic life led her to open a tattoo shop in the Bay Area. 

The owner of 24th Street Studio in San Francisco’s Mission District, Hammer’s destiny as a tattooer was written when she was a little girl in Colorado getting in trouble for drawing on her body. From behind her lemonade stand, she’d sell fake tattoos she got at the dollar store. She got her first tattoo at 15, in a tattoo shop, to demonstrate how wild west the tattoo industry could be in years past.

Thirteen years ago, when she wanted to become a tattoo artist, she endured what she describes as an apprenticeship under a Hells Angel knuckle breaker-type mentor, which wasn’t by the books by any stretch, but was somewhat standard in corners of the tattoo world. 

Her mentor was a “piece of shit” she tells 48 Hills, the kind that owed money around town. So when some guy came around to collect, she offered to give him a tattoo to hold him off the debt collecting. She hadn’t done tattoos or even practiced really. It was just talking on the fly to diffuse the situation, but the guy sat down, so she improvised with a coil machine and no rubber bands. The tattoo? The letters ‘FTW.’ 

Hammer is resourceful after growing up and living on Mescalero Apache reservation in New Mexico. Despite tattooing having a less than stellar reputation at times, thanks to people like her former mentor, she tapped into something greater to pursue her tattoo dreams. 

Renette Hammer outside her 24th Street Studio. Photo by D.A Mission

“That’s how I was able to convince my family for the support, that Apaches used tattoos for medicine, ink medicine,” says Hammer. “I was like, you have to let me, it’s in my blood, it’s in my fucking blood.’”

Hammer hit the road, driving a school bus around the country, and tattooing onlookers drawn in by fellow traveling performer Enigma, who did suspension, sword swallowing, fire performances, and other sideshow-style attractions. Even though she’s a visual artist, she cites poets as her main artistic inspiration. In Colorado, she grew up around the same train tracks where counterculture icon Ken Kesey would do “hoodrat shit,” the kind she was getting up to living the life of a traveling tattooer.

The Beat Poets having a strong Bay Area base, and the origins of contemporary tattooing being in San Francisco with Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy, Hammer had a sense “here is home” when she decided to choose San Francisco over LA. “It was destined,” she says.  

When it came to building her tattoo life in San Francisco, she realized there are no free cards handed out here. She took a job learning from “not the best person” but to his credit, he did teach her the do’s and don’ts of running a legit tattoo business, paying taxes and all. The traveling tattoo life in the rearview, she pushed herself to learn every new “asset and facet” of tattooing should possible could. 

“When I first started, there was a lot of people, especially men, who told me, you’re never going to do portraits, going to do this, you’re never going to be good at it, this, that,” she says. “I just tucked my head and tried to learn things even I didn’t think I would do.”

Hammer declares after such intense dedication to her craft, that she has no particular style. Tattooing is about freedom and boxes aren’t for her. She says, “I’m sorry” about it and doesn’t mean it at all. She rattles off all the work she’ll do: microportraits, traditional, fine line, single needle, neo-traditional, color work, extreme color theory, color realism, fantasy realism. “I’ll do it all. I don’t care,” she says, and she means it when she says it. 

So in spring 2021, while the tattoo world was uncertain due to COVID, the years she spent plotting to have her own shop, despite never knowing when or where or how, hit their moment of truth. She had lived around the corner from 24th St. and would eyeball this corner location at Treat and think, whoever runs their business from that location would be “the luckiest person alive.” She had a clientele base. She knew the tattoo business. She had to bet big on herself. 

“I was like, you know, time to roll the dice,” she says. “I grew up in a casino.”

A roll of the dice…. Photo by D.A. Mission
Chilling at 24th Street Studio. Photo by D.A. Mission

The games she enjoys, blackjack and roulette, are far more straightforward than San Francisco zoning restrictions though. The street was not zoned for a tattoo shop. She had “phenomenal” neighborhood support from living in the Mission and knowing everyone, so she had 30 businesses sign a letter of support, saying, “’we want this woman, we want this female Native woman to open a business in the Mission. We want her.’” 

Still, it was so difficult, it needed to be offset by some luck. Someone outside the planning department sent a legal form rounding out the support. That gave her extra ammunition in the fight. When she finally got a realtor to show her the space, she started handing over cash as if an affirmation, “this is mine now.” In the time since, 24th St. Studio has become a neighborhood staple with art pop-ups featuring local vendors, Fuck Amerikkka 3rd of July flash tattoos, and San Francsico staples such as 420 and 415 day sales. Repping the Mission has been Hammer’s ethos from inception.  

“It’s a huge reason why I named the shop 24th St. I had so many opportunities to name the shop something creative, something after me, whatever blah blah blah, but why?” Hammer asks. “The Mission is the Mission, it’s 24th street, there’s no reason to be like look at me. It’s for the people, not for me.”

Tattooing, especially in San Francisco, can be territorial because of an old-timer idea there’s only so many available clients seeking tattoos. That attitude extends to artists protecting their position, their livelihood. 

“There’s still that mentality that’s underrooted within things, which honestly is a subculture and a culture I value so much because without that mentality, the Mission wouldn’t be the Mission, do you know what I’m saying?” Hammer explains. “We wouldn’t have flags on the side of the street and see lowriders down the road if we didn’t have that bogarting, stay off my block mentality. It’s also Native mentality, if you ask me too. It’s a hella Native mentality, so I fuck with it.”

Photo by D.A. Mission.

Ultimately, Hammer describes her interest in tattooing as a flow movement, where people from all walks of life come together and, through art, connect for the time it takes to blast a design into permanence, and feel better about themselves in the process. 24th St. Studio and the artists in residence (in addition to touring artists) available to tattoo enthusiasts are Hammer’s offer of tattoo medicine to the city. It’s a dream come true for the kind of artist that never sleeps. 

“I can’t even pinch myself to wake up yet,” says Hammer. “I don’t give myself the credit because I have so much more to accomplish. Is that the artist way or just the lil’ Rez life girl way? You know what I mean. I’m not going back to a shack. No, thank you.”

The experience of building herself from the ground up as an artist and then doing the same with her tattoo shop has given her a California dreamin’ vision of the city, her updated stanza of beat poetics to recite. 

“San Francisco is hard, but if you tuck down, and just believe in yourself, manifest, it’ll happen,” Hammer concludes. “It’ll work for you.”

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