Phil Holt's iconic Tampa tattoo shop Red Letter One finds a new home

click to enlarge Red Letter One owner and artist Phillip Holt (L) and the author. - Kevin Gallagher
Kevin Gallagher
Red Letter One owner and artist Phillip Holt (L) and the author.
Tattoo culture has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. Historically those colorful scars represented a badge of honor to display misadventures abroad or loyalty to a cause more personal and permanent than a legal document.

But now we see tattoo-adorned arms and legs on every Instagram influencer, Netflix star, and YouTube rapper on the internet. Even professionals are capitalizing on the sudden acceptability of ink work as the new Gen-X cure for a midlife crisis has shifted from golf lessons to a set of sleeves.

It is debatable that this oversaturation of tattoo work has diluted the spiritual connection to the art. When tattoos have become so commonplace, how could they possibly still hold the same merit to the living canvas they are attached to? But, artists like Philip Holt, owner, and operator at the iconic Tampa tattoo shop, Red Letter One, remain dedicated to keeping the integrity of this medium at the forefront.

I recently finished my tattoo sleeve from Holt, and my experience was nothing short of extraordinary. From the moment you walk in the door, it's apparent that this place is different. Previously located in a posh South Tampa community on Platt Street just east of S Boulevard, the shop was as clean and approachable as the many high-end boutiques in Hyde Park's shopping district less than a mile away.
click to enlarge Red Letter One - Kevin Gallagher
Kevin Gallagher
Red Letter One
After a brief wait in the lobby adorned with tattoo sample posters and various paintings, Holt walked out from his private space for our first consultation. It was a masterclass on client relations.

Any salesperson will tell you that providing the best possible service or goods to a potential client requires knowledge of two critical concepts; what the customer wants vs. what the customer needs.

Because of this gap, there can be a great deal of discovery during the initial engagements. "Sometimes people walk in off the street with zero understanding of the tattooing process, and I get to tell them that the beautiful idea they thought up might not work out that well." Holt told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. "Normally, we can find common ground, but sometimes we don't. I've pissed off quite a few people, but I won't accept a project if I know it will turn out like garbage."

"I've pissed off quite a few people, but I won't accept a project if I know it will turn out like garbage."

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During my consultation, we already had a general idea of the composition. I learned a long time ago to let an artist be an artist with endeavors like these, so I gave Holt a free run to do what he wanted. I only had two requests. I wanted traditional Japanese art and a samurai theme.

Traditional Japanese was his specialty, so the news excited Holt, but he was concerned about my lack of connection. "This is your tattoo, man." he cautioned while explaining that I should care more about the process of creating it.

He gave me a few historical samurai figures to read up on and explained to me some of the histories of the culture. We talked about the samurai tattooing images of great fallen warriors on their bodies or painting them on their shields for protection during battle, and, after a few email exchanges, we landed on an idea: Shoki, The Demon Queller.

It was a part of the process that I didn't expect but ultimately shaped it. Holt made me a part of the project and connected me spiritually to that culture. My tattoo became not just a dope accessory but a permanent reminder I am stronger than my demons.

Building that skill set took time, and Holt has more than paid his dues along the way to feel confident enough to steer those discussions. He started tattooing in 1995 and has worked worldwide in several well-known studios until he finally set up shop in Ybor City in 2005.

"I was traveling all over the world to tattoo back then, Switzerland, Osaka, London, Italy, all over the states, too. But, I had a house and a family in Tampa, so I needed a private studio here, too." Holt recounted when asked about coming back home to Florida.

That small, second-floor storefront was the beginning of Red Letter One's 16 years of service at two prime locations in Tampa and the beginning of Philip Holt, the business owner. He now had a team of artists working under his roof and business partners.
Location Details

Red Letter One Tattoo

2511 W Swann Ave., Tampa Tampa

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But, after COVID, the grind of running a large operation became difficult, so Holt decided to part ways with his partner and open Red Letter One as a solo venture in Hyde Park. "I'm excited only to have to worry about tattooing now. It's a welcome break," he said about the new studio located at 2511 W Swann Ave.

He seemed eager to get back to working too. "Covid took away tattooing from me for too long. We closed the Cedar location pretty soon after reopening, and everything was on hold while I located a new building. I'm looking forward to catching up with everyone looking to finish their work and excited to start some new projects, too," Holt explained.

When asked about his favorite new clients, he acknowledged that he prefers doing large pieces but understands that's not how it always works.

"Very seldom does a client walk in the door as a blank canvas to ask for a bodysuit. It happens, but they must be a special person. Most people come in covered in mistakes. They start smaller projects and continue starting new projects as they complete the last one," Holt said. I'll tattoo anyone if I feel like it's a fit, but I love to create a complete work of art with larger pieces."

Holt is a master of his craft that guided me through a journey that was every bit as challenging as it was gratifying. His understanding of what it takes to sit through the torture of 30-plus hours in a tattoo chair, usually spread out over years, made the experience of getting my sleeve done the spiritual quest of its design. Holt and I are connected forever because of it, and though I was unaware initially, he knew all along. Because, after close to 30 years in the business, he seamlessly does it daily.
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