Artist Highlight: Sam Rusk

Artist Highlight: Sam Rusk

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"I think most of tattooing is considered the best part"

From epic mythical creatures to Dungeons & Dragons designs, comic book characters and a tonne of awesome fantasy art, tattooer Sam Rusk (she/they) from California is an artist you’ll want to check out.

Sam Rusk artwork

Artwork by Sam Rusk

We recently caught up with Sam (@samurai_rusk) to find out how they got started and discover more about the inspiration behind the ink.

How did you get into tattooing?

I grew up in California. I’ve lived in the Bay Area since I was fairly young and grew up there. As a kid I was always into fantasy and art. I loved fantasy novels and movies. And of course drawing all the time. I think the two went hand in hand.

I was always interested in tattoos, even as a kid. My kindergarten class picture pose had to be changed so I could cover up the temporary dragon tattoo I had on my arm (I don’t think my teacher was too pleased).

I started working at El Toro Body Shop (@eltorobodyshop) in Morgan Hill after I hounded my mentor Marty Maaske in 2008. I worked there for a year or so before I started tattooing. I probably had the best apprenticeship possible. I was truly so lucky to have a calm, patient guide into the tattoo world and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Critical Role tattoo by Sam Rusk

Tattoo by Sam Rusk

What are the best parts of being a tattoo artist?

I think most of tattooing is considered the best part. I can’t think of another career that would give me the freedom, the fun and the opportunity that tattooing does. I love getting to draw designs that I’m passionate about and having people be stoked to have it on their person forever.

… And the challenges?

You know, I see things that people complain about but all the little irritations of any sort of customer service industry really are just trivial in the long run. Really the only complaint I think worth mentioning would be the daily strain on the hands and back. I have to be better at stretching.

What’s the tattoo industry like in your part of the world?

California, and the Bay Area in itself, is a pretty great area for tattooing. You don’t have to drive too far to find a great shop, full of talented artists, and any sort of style you could be looking for.

I continue to work at El Toro Body Shop in Morgan Hill, CA. It’s been owned and run by the co-owners Marty and Melissa Maaske. I really couldn’t ask for a better tattoo environment. As far as a smaller shop, we stay pretty busy but definitely have a chill vibe. I feel like the shop has been a little South Bay staple in its 21 years of operation.

Sam Rusk tattoo
Sam Rusk tattoo

Tattoos by Sam Rusk

What influences your art?

I’m definitely influenced a lot by fantasy and Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) in my tattoos and art. During the quarantine shut down I got to make a lot of commissioned art for people’s D&D campaigns and characters and that really inspired me to make more of my own art in that realm.

Sam Rusk art

Artwork by Sam Rusk

I think finding a community of people who are just as nerdy as I am about fantasy and nerdy art and tattoos was really a catalyst for me focusing on it more and really finding my space in the community.

I do a ton of Critical Role tattoos and designs and being encouraged by not only the fans but some of the people who work on the show has really pushed it to another level. It has definitely been inspiring and rewarding.

Sam Rusk Critical Role tattoo

Critical Role tattoo by Sam Rusk

You play Dungeons & Dragons?

I definitely play D&D, haha. Funnily enough, a client introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons. I was tattooing a little D20 on her and she was asking if I had ever played or watched Critical Role (a streaming show where a group of voice actors play D&D).

It peaked my interest and got me into watching and eventually playing TTRPGs (tabletop roleplaying games). And a couple years later that client became a great friend and we play D&D every week.

The best part about this game if you’ve never played, is that it’s basically a collaborative story. Your group all has their characters that they’re playing and you are just all building a story and adventure. We laugh, we cry, and we do the dumbest things while playing a game together. There’s really nothing else like it.

Do you have a favourite D&D character?

I’ve played as a few characters but my most recent character that I’ve been playing a lot of is Sylvyn Silverfoot. She’s a gnome Paladin whose sworn her service to the Matron of Ravens.

She’s a sarcastic, emo, 3-foot tall adventurer who rides around on a direwolf. Our party is trying to save the world against the rise of Asmodeus and his fellow betrayer gods. We recently barely escaped an attack from a red dragon while aboard a sky ship.

"It's a time when you and your friends can go slay some monsters"

If you’ve never played D&D or table top role-playing games before, I highly recommend giving it a shot. It’s just a time where you and your friends can forget about any stresses of the week and just escape into something truly fantastical and go slay some monsters.

How do you spend time when you’re not working?

Critical Role and Dimension 20 are just a couple of really amazing D&D and table top game shows that I watch regularly. They’re pretty perfect for the artists lifestyle because it’s mostly dialogue and I can just tune in while I’m drawing - they even have a podcast version.

But I definitely love to read too. Lord of the Rings is a favorite series, as well as a lot of Brandon Sanderson, Samantha Shannon, Patrick Rothfuss, and Philip Pullman.

Balrog tattoo by Sam Rusk

Lord of the Rings Balrog tattoo by Sam Rusk

A final word? Plans for the future?

Thanks for your interest in my work! I really appreciate it. As far as the future, I’ll probably just keep on making nerdy art and tattoos. I couldn’t be happier with making more tattoos and meeting more cool people.

Want more?

For more great tattoo artists, aftercare advice and industry insight, check out the Stories & Ink Journal.