I feel like my path through art has really equipped me for this.
Rita Leon Tattoo Artist, Electric Chair Tattoo
Throughout school, throughout my life, I was always all about drawing and painting. There’s that old-school mentality that you’re not going to make money at art. I thought that I would do mortuary science so I ended up at Cypress [College]. Then first semester, I was like, “No, I don’t want to do it,” even though I had been set on that for a really long time, since I was a kid. I was like, “How am I going to make money out of art?” I’ve always liked tattooing and I had a few already; I had an acquaintance from high school and I asked her, “Hey, how do I go about becoming an apprentice?” I asked her if I could be her apprentice, and she hadn’t been tattooing long, she started tattooing out of high school so maybe already four or five years. She let me know, “No, I’m not taking apprentices, but go to Electric Chair.” I went there and I took my portfolio and the guy who used to own it, Rick, he went through it and he was like, “Well, you’re already halfway there, you already know how to draw.” Which kind of surprised me a bit, like… there’s people who go into this that don’t know how to draw?
Average apprenticeships last between a year and a half and two years. It just depends on how much time you put into it. Apprenticeships really bring you down to, like… you know when you’re a child and you feel like you don’t do anything right? That’s how it was! It brought me down to that space where I was like, “Oh man, I’m really messing up.” But it holds you accountable because you’re your own business. I think that’s what apprenticeships – at least in tattooing – instill in people. You have to be there in all your free time, you have to clean, keep the place spotless, and take care of the place. I feel like all the hardships that you go through in your apprenticeship is a base that holds you up. I’ve been through a lot already; this is my stepping stone to everything else.
There’s only so much you can learn from watching, especially in tattooing, so I started tattooing oranges on my own. I remember one day there was nobody at the shop and it was just me tattooing oranges and playing Bob Ross in the background. And there’s this product called Pound of Flesh. It sounds really creepy. It’s like fake arms and fake feet and you can tattoo on them. I got one for my birthday last year and I tattooed it and it did teach me a lot, so then I took a volunteer. One of my close friends was like, “I want to be the first one.” I tattooed a little Lowrider logo on his calf. And that was just the beginning. I kept progressing and progressing and I have a friend and she’s got so many of my practice tattoos on her! And I just love her for it.
Eventually I thought I should tattoo myself, so I did, on my leg. You know in Willy Wonka when he’s sending away Mrs. Gloop, and he’s like, “Nil desperandum”? I tattooed that on myself. I’ve seen the movie so many times! That taught me a lot about how deep you go and how far you pull out your needle and stuff like that.
Once I started tattooing last October, I started to get a grip on how this is how you’re supposed to shade, this is how you’re supposed to line. In art, I paint background to foreground and then I do lines because the lines are what tighten the design for me. In tattooing, you have to do the lines first. If you don’t do the lines – you have a stencil and you lay it down; all the wiping you do, wipes the stencil away. You don’t want to wipe it away and end up with, “Oh man, what do I do now?” So you start line, forward.
I didn’t understand it until I started doing it. I started having to look at the sizes of the needles and the configuration. You’d use a faster speed for a liner and the needle would stick out farther from the tube. The needle configurations for liners are round, like a round brush. Shading or colorpacking needles are flat. The number at the beginning indicates how many needles are in the configuration. And then a mag or a liner, round liner or round shader: that indicates how far apart they are. A round shader, they’re a lot farther apart. A five liner, those are quite small. A three liner is really small. Also, there are different kinds of machines. There’s the coil machine that’s really loud, and then there’s a rotary machine that’s more silent. Also there’s the long bayonette looking ones, which are the standard ones. Coil is a more classic one. Rotary is a little more new-school. A lot of them take a cartridge and you just plug it in and that’s your needle. The needle is like a nib, so you dip it in the ink cap, and the needle holds the ink in there. The needle is going up and down, perforating the skin, depositing the ink as you’re pulling it. It’s just making holes.
It’s just perforating the surface, obviously; if you go too deep, that’s when you get a blow-out. When you blow out, the line is extra fuzzy. Usually you want it to be at a small angle so you can see what you’re doing. You have to stretch the skin to keep it taut as you line. It’s different for every person because every person has different elasticity and it’s different for every part of the body, because your stomach has more elasticity, your legs are a little bit more taut; it depends on the person’s skin. You also use a little bit of ointment as well. Your skin has little valleys, so if you put ink on it, it’ll expand because it’s travelling through those valleys so you put a little bit of ointment over it. We have specific ointment; they used to just use – and some people still use – Vaseline.
Just like in any medium, color tends to fade faster than black. And different colors fade faster than other colors, it just depends which brand. Some colors are powdery, like yellow. When you’re tattooing with black, it’s a little easier to wipe away but the more powdery, like yellow and white, the visibility goes away and you have to wipe off to see what you’re doing. I’ve heard blue fades a little faster. White ink gets metabolized by your skin; it fades and it gets mixed in with your own melanin. It’s just how your skin metabolizes the color. It depends on how well it was laid in, how well the artist packed it in. Only time will tell!
I’ve messed up. I had this guy, and every time I would lift my needle, his arm was moving, like he couldn’t just sit still! I should have known from how his other tattoos looked, because they were bad. This guy would twitch, move on purpose, and the TV was behind him so he kept looking, but it moved his whole body. He was the worst! I definitely messed that one up, but it was partly his fault. I was doing this tattoo on this girl; it was a midriff tattoo right above her hipbone. Stomach skin is really stretchy and I would stretch and stretch and stretch and there was no end in sight to stretching! I was like, “Man, how am I going to get this taut?” I was really struggling and the lines were looking very bad to me as I was going. Then I’d let go and it looked a little better, but I pulled it together with the shading. Generally with most tattooers, there’s one free touch-up. You come back and fix whatever was messed up or whatever didn’t sit in. It’s common because tattoos will fade, and it depends on how the person took care of it, too. If your clients aren’t taking care of their tattoos or they went into the pool the next day after they got it. When a tattoo is healing, you want to leave the scab or the risen skin on there as long as it wants to stay there. The way you shower, the way you wash it, the way you treat it, you have to keep it out of the sun… there’s a lot of factors. A lot of the work is done in the chair tattooing, but then a lot of the work is done healing it.
With any tattoo, if I have enough creative say or if I feel technically that I can do it, in the end it’s about being accountable enough to know yourself and know whether you can say yes or no to a design. Like our shop owner, he doesn’t do script. Script is kind of a big thing in tattooing. Some people are like, “Oh, it’s easy, it’s just a name.” It’s easy if you want something standard but if it’s full-on script, it has to be perfect and it has to be a good design and it has to be balanced. There’s design elements to a good script tattoo. No typos! No regrets there! So with my shop owner, there are two people in our shop who can do script, and he’ll hand it to them. You just hand it off to whoever you think would be more capable of doing it.
Tattooing can be very illustrative. A lot of people go into it not knowing how to draw or don’t have any formal training in drawing. People from all kinds of walks of life can end up doing it. It’s also very male-dominated. It’s easy to feel out of place at times.
Flash is very big in the tattoo world. It’s the way that people make money off of their designs – I have a few flash sheets. Let’s say if I make a design, and I don’t mind if other people tattoo it or I make it so other people could tattoo it, I would make a book. A flash book would cost anywhere from $60 to hundreds of dollars. That’s how it started in the Victorian times: they made it so that people who couldn’t draw, could tattoo.
There are some female artists that I really admire – Debbie Jones, Katie Collins, really good tattooers. They release books, everybody releases books, and people buy it. You can self-publish or you can get somebody to print it for you and sell it for you. Kingpin is a really big provider of tattoo supplies – Kingpin sells them, you can find them on Amazon, you can buy them from the artists. Some artists have their own online shop, which is what’s so great about Instagram and online commerce. You can buy designs from anybody you want. You can market the art aspect of your tattoo designs: Quyen Dinh, she’s an illustrator, she’s not a tattooer, but she’s really good at those designs, so she does tattoo stuff. I’m sure you’ve seen them around, it’s called Parlor Prints. So you can sell tattoo design as art, or as flash. But you still made money off your own design, so it’s like you’re getting paid for that tattoo or getting paid at least for the design aspect of it.
Right now, we’re in this golden age of tattooing… 20 years ago, you couldn’t get such a clean, nice design. A good tattooer will have a firm grasp on a lot of different techniques. The stylized old-school, that’s traditional tattooing. And then there’s neo-traditional which syncs elements from design and illustration, but then also they draw from the motifs of traditional tattoos. A traditional tattoo will typically have one line weight to two, max. And it will have colors that are really restricted: green, yellow, red, and I think blue is in there. There’s different elements and motifs — girl heads, eagles, panthers — that neo-traditional plays with. Line work and color packing is traditional; there’s different line weights in neo-traditional, you can use any colors. There’s gray work, black work… a lot of different styles. Black work could be any kind of style: there’s Brutal, which is a lot more expressionist than anything, it’s just like, black. Or it could be something that just looks like a stroke. Elon Musk’s girlfriend, Grimes, she has this tattoo that looks like a big huge brush stroke on her leg. Black work could be a traditional tattoo with more bold contrast; there’s a lot of contrast in black work. But the point of black work is to just use black ink.
I’m going to go back to Cal State Long Beach in January. I don’t know how I’m going to manage it with having a full time job tattooing, but I’m going to do it! I want to get my bachelor’s in drawing and painting. The art world is also kind of niche-y so I feel like going to school is part of starting a network. I don’t feel like my art is where I want it to be, but I don’t think it’ll ever be that way! I feel like I’m on a journey. I feel like my path through art has really equipped me for this. As long as I’m making art, that’s where I want to be.