Cut from the culturally rich but isolated cloth of the San Fernando Valley, Tattoo Tony now sits on the brink of completing his second decade as a professional tattooist; a legacy that he never once thought would be possible. “I never dreamed that I’d become an artist,” Tony says, via cell phone en route to his private Burbank studio. That might sound hard to believe, but when you consider that he came up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it’s a reasonable conclusion. After all, art didn’t thrive back then, especially tattooing, which was still growing out of its street roots, destined one day to become fodder for high art critique and mainstream reality television. In fact, Tony spins tales of how nerdy art and drawing was considered among his peers while he was a child, forcing him to concentrate on sports and activities more befitting the status quo of kids his age. Through it all, he never stopped drawing, and kept his passion to himself, only to unveil it to the delight of his unsuspecting friends and parents. “When I was a kid, Shakey’s Pizza used to sell these glasses with little cartoon characters on them and I can remember drawing them,” Tony says with an audible grin. The practice paid off, thanks to an epiphany Tony had as a teenager. “I wouldn’t say that I found tattooing, it’s more like tattooing found me. I had a friend give me a name tattoo when I was 17, and he charged me $85 bucks, which was fine, but it made me realize that he had made that money in ten minutes! I wasn’t trying to get rich quick; I just realized at that point that if you worked hard you could earn some type of living off of it.”
While he now had a dream, breaking into the industry was the hard part. “I started tattooing in 1992, and it was really different back then,” he says. “The tattoo world was a really close-knit family, if you weren’t already a part of the successful artists’ circle, they wouldn’t let you in. Trying to get an apprenticeship to learn was almost impossible; people either wanted thousands of dollars from you are they just didn’t want you to learn, period.” Drawing inspiration from desire and the Chicano art-fueled history of the SFV, Tony bounced around from shop to shop, learning anything he could. “Everything to me was self taught,” Tony explains. “I cut my teeth on the black and gray style, since there wasn’t much color tattooing around when I was a kid.” Citing influences from three of the masters; Jack Rudy, Mark Mahoney, and Brian Everett, Tony credits them with not only being great at tattooing, but admires their reverence for tattoo and art culture itself. “Nowadays you got reality shows with tattoo artists driving around in Bentleys and people think that tattooing is an easy way to make money,” he laments. “The reality shows are a double edged sword, for people like me that have been in this industry for years, I think it levels the playing field a little bit to let the public know that people have been doing this for a long time.
It’s helped the mainstream to recognize that tattoo artists are no different from fine artists, or painters, in terms of realizing that if you would pay thousands of dollars for a painting by a certain artist, then why would you not do the same for a quality tattoo? On the flipside, there are some artists that aren’t as talented or haven’t paid their dues and they’re making thousands of dollars on TV. It makes people think that anybody can tattoo and that you can jump into it and make tons of money.”
Tony is not averse to new artists’ success, however, crediting some of the culture’s younger talents like Nikko Hurtado, Carlos Torres, and Franco Vescovi for pushing the boundaries of the art from. “Those guys really influenced me to step my game up, and there are even artists now that have art school degrees and formalized studies under their belt, which I think is cool and really helps the culture.”
Now that he’s perched at the peak of 20 years in tattooing, he has no plans of slowing down and offers this message for those artists who are just starting out; prepare for your future. “When you start tattooing, you don’t realize what it takes for longevity. You find yourself 10-20 years in realizing, ‘I don’t have a health insurance plan. I don’t have a retirement account.’ You learn the hard way that an apprenticeship doesn’t mean a business apprenticeship,” he says. “I could book a $500-$1000 tattoo on a Monday and have the rest of my clients cancel that week and I’m making the same money as the kid working at McDonald’s! If I break my hand or have an injury, I’m done. It’s nerve racking sometimes, but at the end of the day, I’m grateful for this profession; I’ve met really amazing people, I’ve traveled the world, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Check Tattoo Tony out on www.tattoo-tony.com and on Facebook at TattooTonyLA and Twitter @tattootonyla