Derek Jennings, aka @thetattooedwrist, is a fellow collector of loud and obnoxious chronographs from the 70s. I’m guessing that’s why we get along so well. Derek is also a talented tattoo artist showing off many of his original designs through his business Instagram handle, @derekthebeard. In this episode of TickTalk, I discuss funky vintage watches, barn finds, and the tall tales of a bawdy tattoo artist.
RWG: I would imagine being a tattoo artist is one of the weirdest professions out there. How did you get into it as a career?
DJ: I think a lot of stories are pretty much the same for tattooers. I was always doing art growing up. My father was a draftsman, so he would bring home huge reams of printer paper from dot matrix printers to draw on. I did a lot of art through school, but mostly in high school. Tattooing wasn’t really on my radar at the time since I lived in a small town with maybe one tattoo shop. I don’t have a lot of stories that most tattooers have - like an uncle with some outlaw tattoos, or a grandfather with an anchor on his forearm - that pushed me into the field.
I moved to central Florida to attend college and ended up meeting a tattooer. Through some finagling, I weaseled my way into an apprenticeship. After about a year and a half, I was officially a baby tattooer...hah! 10 years later, I’ve learned a lot - ups, downs, and sideways - but it’s an amazing career that I love!
RWG: Wait, you tattoo babies? We’ll leave those tales for another day. For now, what’s the strangest tattoo request you’ve gotten? Are there any requests you’ve flat out refused?
DJ: After 10 years, I’ve generally stopped looking at tattoos as being strange. Although a lot of the trendiest tattoos do seem very strange to me. Why would you get an anchor tattooed with writing that says, “I refuse to sink,” when all an anchor does is sink? I do a lot of traditional-style tattoos, so the same question could be asked about why a barista would get a lighthouse with a clipper ship. Beats me. Everyone likes different things, I just try and make the tattoo look nice, whether I find it strange or not!
As far as refusing tattoos, I won’t do hate symbols and such, obviously. I’m very leery of tattooing super visible spots (hands, necks, throats, heads) on people who are younger or on clients that aren’t already heavily tattooed. Those types of tattoos still have a negative stigma and can totally impact employment and how the world looks at you in general.
RWG: So just to clarify, you’re saying Charles Manson’s swastika forehead tattoo was NOT a wise life decision? Hmmm....who would’ve thunk? Back to the issue at hand, if you could tattoo any watch onto your body, what would it be?
DJ: I actually have a pocket watch and snake tattooed on the back of my forearm. It’s broken though and only tells the time correctly twice a day.
RWG: That’s awesome! A pocket watch sounds pretty classic. Personally, I'm thinking about getting a tattoo of a Daniel Wellington watch on my right buttock, but my wife thinks I might regret it. So, what type of complications on a watch do you find useful while working? Is there a specific watch you reach for over and over again when heading out to work? Why?
DJ: I don’t really wear a watch when I tattoo. I keep A&D Ointment on the back of my left glove to dip with my right pointer finger to lubricate the tattoo. I’m worried it would get on the watch or I’d end up spilling pigment on it. Too risky. But, if I was going to wear anything, it’d definitely be a chronograph for marking jobs from start to finish. Time is money!
RWG: I would think A&D Ointment would probably help lubricate some sticky chrono pushers. I should give that a try. You’ve unearthed some real gems at flea markets and thrift stores in Florida. What’s been your best find? Any advice for newbies on the vintage watch hunt?
DJ: I normally hit up as many shops and flea markets as I can. With Covid, it’s been a little scarce, but I’m still looking!
I have had a couple pretty good finds. I scored a great Elgin panda chronograph (that was missing one pusher) in a bag of junk quartz watches for $5 at a dusty old jewelry shop in Pennsylvania. I sent it off to Andy at @ultra_vintage_watches and it came back great!
At a local antique shop, I found a working Accutron deep sea, with the hands from a RARE Bulova diver (you know the one, the hands are pretty close to the Titus Calypsomatic). And on that watch was an Ed White speedy bracelet. I think I paid $150?
Another $5 find was a big steel Aqualung quartz diver at a flea market. It was rough and didn’t work, but again Andy got it looking great and sourced a new movement for it.
I also got a vintage 80’s Heuer diver for $1 because the guy at the booth said it was just a Heuer...if it would have been a Tag it would have been worth REAL money. The watch was in great shape! I couldn’t get the money out of my pocket fast enough!
As far as advice, if you pass a place, definitely stop by. You have to make it a habit. Just because there’s not something there your 1st, 2nd, 50th time...there could be on your 51st time! Also, be friendly and talk to people. Ask, “Hey, do you have any old watches? Working or broken? I’m a watch dork, I like them all!”
When it comes to flea markets, it’s a weird thing. Half of the struggle - besides getting dumb lucky - is making friends with what I like to call the “old guard” of watch people. You almost have to prove yourself to them before they’ll let you into the good pile. They were around when vintage watches weren’t super-hot like they are today. A lot of these old watch guys know EVERYONE because the watch community is actually very small. Show them some respect, and normally you’ll get it back.
RWG: Some solid nugs of wisdom, my friend! You and I share a passion for bold and funky chronos. Tell us about the top three in your collection and why you love ‘em.
DJ: Damn! Top 3?!? That’s gonna be hard because my whole collection is pretty much funky chronos. As of late, I’ve been sweating Wittnauer watches pretty hard. I’ve always seen them, especially the 246T (Scuba Roulette), and only kind of dug them. But they’re watches you really have to put on your wrist. I picked one up and it honestly didn’t leave my wrist for 2 weeks. I wore it to the Miami show, and dealers pushed dudes wearing mint 5513s and Pateks out of the way to talk to me about it. It was pretty crazy.
I have a pretty nice Le Jour 3 register on a beads of rice bracelet I really enjoy wearing. It’s a very slick piece and the perfect size. I have the 2 register with the broad arrow hands too, but I think I dig the different color sub dial hands on the Tricompax model.
Side note, I scored that broad arrow from a guy on Facebook for $100. He paid $10 at an antique shop. I bought it and told him not to clean anything, and he said ok. He told me later that the only thing he touched was the crud in the bezel. He took the wrist crust out of the triangle...and it was the lume!
Last would probably be a toss-up between the Longines 8224-1 Chrono and maybe that pale blue Zenith El Primero a788 that was a 1972 sales award winner in Chicago. They’re both super cool, but totally different. Hard to say!
RWG: That Longines is definitely my favorite of the bunch, and for the record that was five watches when I asked for your top three....you’re fired. What’s your grail watch? Why? And which part of your body would you sacrifice for it?
DJ: I’m not sure I have one GRAIL, but there are a couple I really like. I’ve really wanted a Zenith A3818 “Covergirl“ for a while, but they just sell for insane sums of money. I’d love a nice matte Rolex 5513, but again, they go for so much! I enjoy the 5513 because it’s an actual tool Rolex, not one that dudes walk around with bezel guards on. And maybe one of those Universal Genève big eye chronos, but again, damn they’re big money!
RWG: Yeah, with all those crazy chronos in your collection, I could see a classic Submariner being a nice subdued change-up once in a while. You’re a big fan of Wittnaur watches. I know because you keep trying to poach my panda dial professional diver. What is it about Wittnaur that draws you in?
DJ: Lemme get that panda!! Stop being such a tease!
Honestly, I’m not sure. I’ve always dug them, but just never pulled the trigger. Once I did it was over! I’m into the look of a lot of the late 60’s-70’s Longines, so it makes sense I’d be into the Wittnauers as well. I think it’s just their overall quality, look, and feel. They’re subtle where they need to be, and yet always have something unique and funky to make them stand out.
Also, I feel like I’m doing a bad job of convincing you to let go of that panda! Wittnauers are awful watches, let me help you out by taking that one off your hands!
RWG: Sorry, Derek, you’re gonna have to try harder than that. You’ll have to pull that Witty Panda off of my cold dead wrist... Moving along. What, in your esteemed opinion, is the most overrated watch brand?
DJ: Esteemed?! I’m just a white trash tattooer from middle Florida! Haha.
That’s hard to say. Invicta is too low a hanging fruit to trash on, even though they did make some cool vintage stuff.
It’s difficult, because this is all totally opinion. Personally, I have NO clue why anyone would spend 8k on an 80’s gold Patek with an ugly bracelet and no sweep. I mean, I understand it’s arguably the best watchmaker in the world. I just see zero appeal to those watches. Seems like they’re just buying an oval that says Patek. Then again, I wear weird 70’s chronos with pink sweep hands and checkered bezels. I guess there’s an ass for every seat! I say buy what makes you happy. Life is short!
RWG: Did you just call me an ass? That’s what I get for having a self-described yokel from middle Florida do an interview I guess. Most of your collection seems to be vintage; are there any modern watches or brands that appeal to you?
DJ: Most of my stuff is vintage but I do have a couple modern pieces. I have an Omega 2264.50 that’s my, “If I come to my senses and get out of this insane hobby” watch. It’s great looking, tells solid time, and is a quartz. I also have a couple beater Swatch watches for doing outside stuff in.
I’m drawn to vintage-looking modern pieces because I get the appeal – you get the look without the hustle of vintage. But to me, if I’m spending the money, I’d rather have the real deal. Really, I should just throw everything in the river and get a G-shock! Haha.
RWG: I happen to agree with you in regards to the heritage/homage pieces, they’re fun but will only leave you longing for the real deal. Let’s talk Instagram. You have not one but two accounts - @derekthebeard for tattooing and @thetattooedwrist for your watch obsession. Have you found Insta to be a good platform for your ventures? What do you love about it and what drives you crazy?
DJ: Yeah, I have my business page for artwork, weird antiques I collect, and daily stuff. I also have my watch page since I figure my tattoo clients could care less.
I think having a business page is a necessary evil in today’s world. I sometimes wish I didn’t need it, but social media is the best way to keep up with clients and establish new ones. I have a dream of just living in the woods - without Instagram - and tattooing two days a week. I'm holding on to that one!
Now, my watch page on Instagram is pure fun. I log in, drool over some watches, chat some shit with buddies and keep it simple!
RWG: Last and most important question – what would a RETROWATCHGUY tattoo look like???
DJ: I think something like this!!!
Nailed it!!! That’s fantastic. You even incorporated a lil’ faux-patina. I guess I’ll forgo the Daniel Wellington on the right butt cheek and have you ink this one instead. This has been a fun one, man. If you readers out there don’t already follow Derek, go check out his Insta feed! He takes fantastic pics of some of the wildest vintage chronographs out there, and it’s always cool to see what new flea market finds he turns up on @thetattooedwrist.