By RAY QUIROGA
South Padre Parade
“Little” George Knowles vividly recalls how, as a teen, he’d scurry over to Harpoon Barry Welch’s tattoo shop, then located on E. Maxan and Garcia in Port Isabel, and nag the tattoo artist for an opportunity to learn from an area icon.
“There was no chance he was going to give me the opportunity to tattoo anyone,” Knowles recalled with a chuckle. But his boldness and persistence paid off in a big way when he earned a spot among the crew as a custodian and all around shop helper.
“Bob invited my parents to a barbeque at the shop and we all sat around, they had a few beers and barbeque to see what we were all about and he asked them if they were okay with me working at the shop and the rest is history,” Knowles recalls.
Knowles’ biggest claim to fame then was arguably his work on the mural that adorned the shop’s outside wall. That was circa 1984. Since then, Knowles’ path as an artist and tattooist has taken him throughout the state and beyond, working in studios from El Paso to Austin and everywhere in between.
But it was in Austin where he’d find his future studio partner in Sheldon “The Bird” Swaney, a one-time California-based artist who complemented Knowles’ own traditionalist style of tattooing.
Having their fill of the Texas Hill Country and noting that the Laguna Madre area market for tattooing was ripe for the taking, the duo, joined by a third artist, Ray Garcia, and Knowles’ wife, Maricela who’s the studio manager, opened shop on Queen Isabella Blvd. near the Causeway in Port Isabel going on four years ago. The team has never looked back. These days, Sawney’s teenage daughter, Ramona, has even joined the crew as a studio assistant, making the venture a true family affair.
“One of his (Swaney’s) mottos when we first met was, ‘Family First,’ and I really admired that about him. That’s one of the things that attracted me to him as a friend first and foremost rather than anything to do with business. I felt comfortable working with him because he was family oriented.”
Knowles, a self-described, “ol’ schooler” and a grandfather, says that the younger Swaney helps keep him on his toes and brings new blood into the studio.
“He’s showed an old dog some new tricks,” Knowles proclaimed, specifying that he’s not only learned new techniques from Swaney, but has been introduced to state-of-the-art tattooing equipment such as the rechargeable battery-powered tattoo machines, which these days look more akin to an extra-fat packing marker than a traditional machine.
“This new stuff is plug and play; we’re wireless now. You don’t even have to hook up to the wall anymore.”
Knowles says that industry advancements, spurred on by the exploding popularity in tattooing during the past 20-25 years, have made the art form more accessible, safer, more accurate and less intimidating. But at the heart of their work is still skill and creativity that drew them to the art form at a young age. Knowles, whose parents are artists in their own rights, and whose work is on display in the studio on shop’s walls and even in the woodwork, says more than inherent talent, a tattoo artist’s skills are refined through experience.
Knowles went out to say that he specializes in cover-ups and describes his style as Traditional Americana but that he and the other artists in the shop field everything from cultural art, modern and of course, given the area, coastal art.
“I can’t really say that we do a majority of this or that. I mean I made a traditional shrimp boat the other day to commemorate my friend’s grandfather who passed, and then I made a peyote flower after that. It varies every day,” Knowles said. “It’s everything under the sun, so you have to be pretty well versed.”
The Pirates Well Tattoo Studio is located at 412-A/B E. Queen Isabella Blvd. in Port Isabel. They can be reached at (956) 772-7013.