Illustrated Interview: Tattoo Artist and Former New England Patriot Brian Barthelmes

  • Valley News illustration Shawn Braley. All background illustrations by Brian Barthlemes.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Wilder — Brian Barthelmes is big guy with a big beard and several outsized talents. The 34-year-old Wilder resident was a standout offensive lineman at the University of Virginia and spent a couple of seasons with the New England Patriots before getting out of football and becoming the frontman of the indie-folk-Americana-rock band Tallahassee (you can find their 2011 debut album, Jealous Hands, and their 2016 EP, 32, at bandcamp.com).

These days, he is the proud parent, with his wife, Caitlin, of twins Emerson and Poppie, and is also working as a tattoo artist at Vintage Soul Tattoo in West Lebanon. Barthelmes took time out recently to answer a few questions about his — let’s say nontraditional — career trajectory, his experiences with the Patriots, his band and as a tattoo artist, and how he came to settle in the Upper Valley. (Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.)

Aren’t you afraid that your life will seem like a cliché to some people? Like, oh no, not another professional football player turned musician turned tattoo artist. Are there parallels among the three, or does each activity tap into a completely different part of your personality?

When you write it out like that it does sound absurd. Once, when inquiring about an apprenticeship in tattooing, the tattooer asked, “What, are you trying to have all the coolest jobs in the world?” That was never the intention, but I guess I am attracted to unique, high-pressure occupations.

I tend to apply things learned in each profession to the next, be it muscle memory, how to “practice,” or the ability to focus and stay calm under extreme pressure. I am of the mind that most skills in life have many tangible, translatable qualities that can be carried from one thing to the next if you know what to look for.

Talk about your transition from football to music. What made you decide to leave something as high-profile and lucrative as professional sports? Was there a point at which you had second thoughts about your decision?

I know this may sound weird, but I never really cared much for playing football. I am not a highly competitive person; I don’t love exercise; and I am definitely not motivated by money. I guess I didn’t quite know what else to do with my life, and a lot people thought playing in the NFL was a desirable position to be in, so I did it.

At that point in my life, I was all out of sorts. I knew I didn’t want to be working as a professional athlete, but I felt a bit “crazy” because it was so many other people’s dreams. Truthfully, I would rarely study a playbook. Instead, I spent my meeting time at work drawing weird illustrations and my evenings recording even stranger songs in my apartment. So when I decided to leave football I had no idea what I would “do,” but I knew it wasn’t sports.

Last football question: What was it like playing for Bill Belichick and did you learn anything about life, yourself or the world from him, or from your teammates?

I learned a lot from Bill and the Patriots organization. They are at the top of one of the most successful businesses in America. If you want to study how to work hard and become great at your job, that’s a good place to do so.

During the last preseason I was with the Patriots, I knew I was going to be released. The season before I had been released and picked up a few times as a numbers balancing game for the roster. I had decided to stick it out until I was released, collect a little money, then let Bill know I had no intentions of pursuing work as a footballer.

As expected, I was called in to Bill’s office. I had this bold speech prepared when I sat down, but instead Bill beat me to it saying something to the effect of, “You obviously don’t want to be here. You should figure out where you want to be, and be there.”

I was blown away by his brash, truthful and astute observation. It hit me hard, the truth, and I appreciated it. No fluff or bulls---, just a straightforward evaluation of who I was in that era.

Judging from the videos on YouTube, you and your bandmates in Tallahassee seem to have a pretty good time performing. How did the band come together and what are your hopes for it? Feel free to break some news here about a new album.

The band started a bit by accident. I met Scott (guitarist Scott Thompson) through a mutual friend. He was finishing art school and had very little free time, and I was accustomed to waking up at 5 a.m. As a result, Scott and I ended up meeting at 8 a.m. on Saturdays to play music and drink coffee. It was really just mutual therapy for us. That may have been a better name for a band, “Mutual Therapy.”

But when another friend who played bass (Shawn Carney) was introduced, we were convinced to play a house show. Then, I guess, we just never stopped. We are best friends — that’s my only hope, that we stay that.

I am excited to soon be releasing a record from my side project “Forts/Gainesville” with Matt (Raskopf, Tallahassee’s drummer) called Lobsters & Cannoli, which has been a project in the making for about three years.

When and how did you first get into music, and how have your musical tastes and styles evolved?

I grew up in a small town in Ohio, listening to the “alt rock” station. I was introduced to punk/ska/emo/hardcore music when I was a young teenager by a kid who had moved out to my neck of the woods from the city (Cleveland). Once I heard that kind of music for the first time, it changed my life.

I became a record store-thrift store kid looking for new and old music constantly from that point on. I didn’t start playing instruments really until I was 20. I had always wanted to play in bands, but my life was consumed by “sports.” I had seen someone playing banjo in Virginia. I was so taken by it that I scrounged up what money I had and traded a few belongings at a pawnshop to get my first banjo. I played every night of football preseason, and in between practices that year, and then never stopped learning new instruments and playing music.

What bands are you listening to right now? Do you listen on an iPod, through Spotify, a CD or record player or what?

Cass McCombs, Kevin Morby, Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam, Lambchop, Henry Jamison, Kurt Vile, Deer Tick, Last Good Tooth, the (Windsor-based) Pilgrims. This list could go on forever.

Listening methods are primarily Spotify and a record player.

Obligatory “desert island disk” question: If you could have only five albums, what would they be?

Had to do it didn’t you?! I lose sleep over my answers every time I play this game. All right, fine. Here goes: Jorge Ben Jor, Jorge Ben; The Band, The Band; Townes Van Zandt, Delta Momma Blues; the Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; Lambchop, OH (Ohio). I played the game this time by thinking of all the different moods I may be in alone on an island. I think this covers it. I have already spent more time on this than any other question, and am now arguing with my wife over my current answers!

Chris Bowen, your colleague at Vintage Soul Tattoo, describes your tattoos as “whimsical oddities … in an American traditional style.” How were you introduced to the world of tattooing and from where do you draw your artistic inspiration?

As a kid, I saw tattoos on rock ’n’ roll musicians and pro wrestlers. I used to draw them on myself and other kids with markers. I started getting tattooed as a teenager, but it was getting tattooed by Tim Forbus in Staunton, Va., in the early 2000s that the tradition and experience really started to move in me.

I draw inspiration from early American tattooers such as Amund Dietzel, Bert Grimm, and Owen Jensen all the way to weirdo illustrators like Edward Gorey and R. Crumb. I am constantly looking at the world, often drawing from emotional interactions or odd shapes that I see.

What tattoos have you done for people that stand out to you? Is there one that was the most fun to do, or the most meaningful?

I love to tattoo. My clients can generally gauge how much fun I am having with a tattoo by the amount of dancing and air karate kicks I do. Food characters in transport, illustrated like the early ’90s cartoons, get many kicks from me!

I had a client recently ask me to draw her a skateboarding pizza in this style that we will put on her hip. It will be the clever punch line to the statement “pizza goes right to my hips.” I love when people have fun with their bodies and make the most of this short life.

How about your own tattoos? When did you get your first and how many do you have now? Do you have a favorite? Is there one you maybe regret getting?

I started getting tattooed when I was 18. I probably have 40-50 now, but it’s hard to say. At 6-foot-7, I am a big canvas.

I definitely don’t have any regrets about tattoos. Even if the image isn’t something I would get now, it is still a marker of who I was when I got it. I love all of my tattoos. I am particularly fond of my “Spork” tattoo.

It wasn’t that long ago that getting a tattoo was something limited mostly to working-class males. Today, people from all walks of life sport a variety of tattoos. Does getting a tattoo mean something different today than it did, say, 30 years ago?

That’s a good question that we in the industry talk about frequently. It seems that a tattooed person 30 years ago was seen as more of a “freak,” “weirdo” or “bad guy.” I believe it is often the same “risk” “thrill” and “edge” that drives people to tattoos now. We just happen to be in a more “tattoo friendly” and open culture and era.

Are there circumstances under which you would refuse to give someone a tattoo? Tattoos that you would refuse to do?

I don’t tattoo anyone under 18. I don’t do racist or homophobic tattoos, or images or words that promote bigotry. I don’t tattoo people under the influence of alcohol or other hard drugs. I don’t tattoo pushy, entitled people. I don’t tattoo genitals.

At times it can be difficult to use your discretion on what you will or will not tattoo. I often tell people that I have to live with every tattoo I do, because that’s the truth.

Tattoos often are very personal expressions of people’s ideas or values. Tattoos are permanent. People’s ideas aren’t. Isn’t that a problem?

I actually see this as one of tattoos’ great paradoxes. I celebrate this issue and embrace it.

Too often in our lives we forget who we were, or those parts of us that we once used to be, whether it is because of age, time or change. Without remembering who we were, we lose touch with a part of ourselves that can invoke empathy for others, by helping us remember that we are all beings constantly evolving.

Tattoos that are expressions of old ideas are terrific reminders that people change, you have changed, you will always change, so to speak, so listen first and do not judge others for who they are, because they can and will always become something else. Be humble and don’t forget all the people you have been. If that’s hard for you, tattoos can help.

It seems as though the pace of life in the Upper Valley is slower than a professional athlete or a touring band member might experience. What drew you to the Upper Valley, and what’s your favorite part about living here?

I grew up in a town of 1,500 people, half of them were Amish, so the Upper Valley is a buzzing metropolis by comparison! My wife and I lived in cities for years, but I longed for a slower pace, mountains, and a mail lady who knows all our business. We got that here!

Editor’s note: This is the latest in an occasional series of illustrated interviews. Suggestions for future subjects are welcome at sbraley@vnews.com.