In this interview, we wanted to find out what a tattoo artist wanted to know about another tattoo artist, so we had “Espi” and his cousin Carlos Espinoza sit down with Nikko Hurtado and his wife, Joanne, to pick Nikko’s brain about his work and his way of tattooing. Espi’s experience in tattooing has given him so much throughout the years, and one of the most valuable things is meeting great people like Nikko. Espi first met Nikko at the Expo Tautaje in Mexico, and he couldn’t figure out what had impacted him more… his art or his insight.
With a great passion for tattooing and the mentality of “Try to be the best artist that you can because that will take you the furthest,” it’s unquestionable why Nikko’s imagery is so captivating. He manipulates colors to show emotion and adjusts contrast to draw you in. His art is more surreal than a color copy. He’s armed with no gimmicks or secrets, just knowledge and dedication. Nikko went full circle, from being a collector of Lowrider Arte to now being in it. So here goes the completion of that circle. To check out more of Espi’s work visit his website at www.espimausoleum.com.
Espi: How did you start off and where were your beginnings?
Nikko: I used to draw a lot, and just like any other kid watch cartoons. I remember that I used to draw Bart Simpson for all of the girls in class just to get them to like me. This was the beginning for me. When I moved up to the High Desert in California, I took a drawing class in junior high. I really liked it; it taught me a lot of things like drawing upside down and using the right side of the brain. So I just kept drawing from there. When I reached high school, I continued to take art classes and also started taking classes in Pasadena. My friend and I would drive down to the Pasadena Art Center every Saturday for these side-school classes. That was the beginning of just drawing in general.
Espi: Let’s talk about some of your history.
Nikko: I was born in the San Fernando Valley in 1981, and the first the experience I had as far as tattoo wise was through my grandfather and my uncles. They had home-made tattoos done with needle and thread. As far as art, no one in my family drew so they didn’t know where I got it from. As a kid, I was super inspired by comic books, especially Marvel comics, because that’s what taught me how to draw. I used to copy what I would see in it. I owe a lot to comics. Right after that, Lowrider Arte rides in at about the age of 12 or 13.
I used to draw a lot of cars. My art history isn’t really crazy, I just drew at home and had fun. In high school, I learned the most from this one teacher; his name was Mr. Samuels. I never finished my projects in school but I learned a lot. He was a great teacher. He taught me what to look for, proportion and perspective. I remember that real well. Then in the Art College of Pasadena, I took graphic design one semester, illustration, a video class, and drawing. At the time, I kind of took it for granted. I wish I could have embraced it more because I could have learned more. The experience itself was really great and I still learned a lot.
Espi: For someone who’s trying to learn color theory, as far as manipulating colors, what would you recommend to them?
Nikko: I recommend colored pencils. You know, it’s not frustrating if you work with them a long time. The key to that is you can’t put too much color down, you kind of have to build it. Put a little by little and see what colors make together, and also buying a color wheel will help in this as well. Color wheels will teach you a lot as far I know.
Espi: What were some of your earliest experiences in tattooing as far as what styles you started with?
Nikko: The first tattoo that I did was a little tribal piece, but my first as an artist being paid was a small little scorpion in color with all of these little numbers like dates on it. I was excited for it. I remember I was like, “Yeah, I’m gonna get paid for this.”
Espi: How did the transition into the tattoo world go?
Nikko: Well, after not finishing high school, I didn’t do anything for a while. I ended up working construction for two years without ever picking up a pencil. Then one day my friend opened up a shop and asked me to go learn how to tattoo with him. I always thought that I’d do something with art but never did. Then it got really slow in construction around winter time. I went to the shop and he said, “Hey, you should come work for me!” I told him, “Yeah, I’ll be here tomorrow.” So the next day, I walked in and the rest is history.
Espi: How old were you when all of this started?
Nikko: I was about 21, 22.
Espi: What styles did you first start getting into?
Nikko: The first thing I started with was really a little bit of everything, tribal, Japanese, black and gray. Oh man, black and gray was so hard for me. At least with color you could make it solid even if it was wrong, but with black and gray, trying to get dark tones was horrible; it was hard.
Espi: At what point did your direction turn into color portraits? What happened?
Nikko: Well, I started doing black and gray. But I used to draw realistic things; that was my favorite, to draw realistic when I was younger. I had this with these flesh-tone pinups, but then this one guy asked me to do this Bela Lugosi portrait that was almost like a pinup face, but it was a painting which was much easier to understand than like a real photo. And that was the first, I’d say, color portrait that I did, but not from a realistic photo. Then I had the opportunity to do a piece that I wanted to enter into the first Pomona Convention. We were supposed to do either Batman or Humphrey Bogart, which was what the guy wanted. So we ended going with Batman and he wanted it in black and gray. At the last minute, the guy says, “How would you feel about doing it in color?” So we did it color and that’s kind of what got me started on the whole color portraits, which was that Batman piece because it was straight from the photograph.
Espi: What are some of your favorite subject matters to tattoo?
Nikko: My favorite stuff is movie stuff. The pictures are so killer; that stuff is perfect. I’d say the most the important, though, are family member portraits. I try my best on those because I know that they mean a lot. I’ve been enjoying those a lot lately.
Espi: Now as far as mediums, what has helped you experiment the most?
Nikko: Well, during the course of tattooing, I didn’t draw as much as far as rendered drawings. I used to draw for custom pieces and you know only get it so far. I practiced with colored pencils a little bit because my friend had taught me, and working through that I learned a lot. Working with those, I learned that you could blend colors like you can tattoos with the ink. But recently, what’s been happening the most is oil painting. That has really taught me a lot because that’s really similar to tattooing, the way I work, at least.
Espi: Any advice for young artists just starting out?
Nikko: Just have fun with it and keep doing it. Be inspired and stay humble.
Espi: Your overwhelming success is keeping you pretty busy with the tattoo expos and traveling all over the world. Where can the readers get a hold of you to make an appointment?
Nikko: The best way to reach me is to hit me up online at: www.myspace.com/nikkotattsu, www.nikkohurtado.com, or www.ignitiontattoo.com.