Vehicles, paper, cloth, skin or even the side of a building can all serve as an artist’s canvas. At first mention of Juan Gonzalez’s use of leather as his preferred canvas to display his art, images of Oak leafs, cowboys and horses might first come to mind. What Juan has done different is taken the art of tooling and mated it with tattoo style artwork. Juan explains why he chose leather tooling rather than being another struggling artist. “I’ve done tattoo work, but there are a 100, if not more, great tattoo artists. If you want a good tattoo you have a lot of choices. Airbrushers? Sure I like to airbrush, but again there are so many guys you have to catch up to. Tooling is like carving a tattoo into leather and it hurts less, but instead of just drawing it with ink, you have to cut it. Leather work leaves me in my own, where they have to catch up to me.”
When mastering the art of tooling, it’s typically a lifelong journey and Juan picked up the trait quickly from spending countless consecutive hours practicing and learning on his own―rather than studying what was already out there. “The majority of people tooling do traditional work and that’s what you see. They think of oak leaves and such. If someone asked me how to do that, I probably wouldn’t know how to do it as nice as someone else that has been doing that style for years. My style is a little bit of everything. I was influenced by the Chicano artwork growing up. I can look at a picture and say, this would look good on leather and I also grew up building car models. Everything you see on a model had to be painted and perfect it. I just took the same mentality into leather,” explained Juan.
Juan is quick to point out that not all the designs are his original artwork. Rather than come up with new pieces, he prefers to collaborate with his customers to come up with a unique design. “I hope people don’t think I’m trying to steal their artwork. I’m only trying to showcase their work in a new way. I get a lot of my art out of books for patterns. There are times that I have my own ideas when I see things, but a lot of times I rely on what people are into. Give me an idea of what you like, then let me put everything together.”
While motorcycle seats, dog collars and belts are currently paying the bills, Juan doesn’t envision stopping there. Like his work, he sees the world through a different set of eyes. “If someone comes to me with a crazy idea, I say let’s do it. If someone wanted to do custom furniture, I’d do it. I think tooling on leather car panels would also be a great idea. This gives me the chance to show the detail that I put into everything and you get more of the 3-D effect. That’s the biggest difference.”