Catching up with the now-legendary tattoo artist on his come-up and creative process.


Photographer Kenneth Cappello sits down with one of LA's most bold-faced ink masters to talk personal style, the era of Instagram entitlement and the first tattoo he ever gave.

I’m going to change my name to Brooklyn Beckham and come up in here and get a tattoo. 

Yo, sometimes that’s how it happens. 

People have an appointment at two, they get tattooed at four. It’s probably for Drake or somebody. Madonna is going to walk in. 

So you grew up in LA, right? Which part of town? 

I was born in North Hollywood. After second grade, I moved to the Agoura Hills area. When I turned 18, I moved straight out of the ’burbs and came back. 

I snuck out of New York. I didn’t tell anyone I was moving and I really got a lot of shit for it, because up until then, it was like this East versus West Coast thing. 

And I started coming here for work for weeks at a time. And then I was like, ‘Wait, what the fuck am I doing in New York?’ I snuck out here in 2008 and I got ridiculed: ‘You can’t do this, you’re going to fuck up your career, blah, blah, blah,’ whatever. 

You grew up in a transplant city, and it’s actually becoming a hub for the arts and culture. Did you think that was ever going to happen, or was it something you thought about? 

I always thought that LA was a super special place. If you looked at LA from an East Coast perspective, you just saw LA as very laid-back. 

LA was more fake, right? 

You would grow up on Saved by the Bell. You saw surfers, palm trees, 90210. No one really had style. There were still things going on—we were skating every day, going downtown, the courthouse, all these places. Melrose even back then was super dope—punk rockers everywhere, all the cool little shops. 

I travel the world, as you do, and everyone’s like, ‘Where would you live besides LA?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t think anywhere, to be honest with you.’ New York is great if you’re fucking rich. 

Every kid that grew up in LA wanted to go to New York to get that experience of an extra level of culture or independence and art, but I don’t think they need to do that anymore. 

Now that it’s cool to be here, there’s more space here. I mean, it’s easy, it’s not the cheapest, but you’re going to get this much more compared to New York. 

A lot of artists are making their headquarters here. A lot of designers are emerging from here. LA is very central globally. It’s a 10-hour flight to Tokyo. It’s a 10-hour flight to Europe, 14 hours to Australia. 

In the last five years, people have integrated in different cities more often. There are more events—men’s fashion week is now just as big as women’s fashion week. There are art fairs twenty-five times a year in different places. Music festivals and all these things start serving as travel activations, and LA is one of the main ones. The world is getting so much smaller and kids are traveling so much younger. 


You’re an artist and you’re also a tattoo artist from how I see it. Was it your interest in art, a drawing or what have you, that led to tattooing, or did you think, ‘I want to be a tattoo artist’? How did it happen? 

I was definitely into design, music and art. I wouldn’t necessarily say being a tattoo artist was the main goal, but I was a fan of it. I got my first real, professional tattoo when I was 14 and I never stopped getting tattoos. I was working as a manager at a skate shop. A lot of the mom-and-pop skate shops were being obliterated by big stores like Zumiez and Active, so we wanted to switch gears into other parts of things that we liked. Skaters have always been at the forefront of fashion trends. 

It’s really obvious now that skateboarding has been on the forefront—I mean, everyone looks like a fucking skater. 

Style was always very important. So we opened a shop—it was the first high-end denim store in LA It was right when all those emo-rock dudes were wearing girl 7 [For All Mankind] jeans. I was getting tattooed by Mark Mahoney a lot, and then I had this little brand that I was doing with a friend. It was the complete opposite of back then. But you really had no market. 


Yeah. It was t-shirts and sweatshirts. It wasn’t super skate, but it was just fun. It was fun to create your own thing. And back then you needed investors and showrooms to have any buyers come buy your shit. I had to stop doing it because I couldn’t afford to do that. 

At the time you were getting tattooed by Mark. 

I was getting tattooed by Mark. I pondered, ‘What am I going to do?’ I was in my early twenties and he had an apprentice that was leaving and I was that kid that hung out at the shop a lot. I was very eager and artistic when I was around them. So he asked me if I wanted to apprentice and learn to tattoo and I said yeah. It was a weird time. I wasn’t going to college. 

What was your education at that point? 

Nothing really. Finished high school, dropped out of community college. 

A lot of my close group of friends were super into the arts, and they were going to CalArts. We used to just walk in a class with them.

Knowledge was something you really had to seek. So back then, you had to be really hungry to have it because it wasn’t accessible. Now you can Google anything, YouTube anything. I felt like I had a decent head on my shoulders creatively where I knew I could do something.  

Knowledge was something you really had to seek. So back then, you had to be really hungry to have it because it wasn’t accessible. Now you can Google anything, YouTube anything. I felt like I had a decent head on my shoulders creatively where I knew I could do something. 

You’re apprenticing the shop and you’re the punching bag, right? How many years did someone say, like, ‘Yo, you’re doing this’? 

It was about three years before doing a tattoo. There was a time where I was like, ‘Shit, I don’t think I’m ever going to tattoo these guys.’ Part of it is they wear you down enough to where you want to quit, and then you cross through that wall, and then it started as you’re an apprentice and you can do tattoos maybe once a week and beyond [just on] friends. Then it kind of grew and grew. 

Do you remember when they told you, 'You’re going to tattoo today'? 

Yeah, I totally remember. It was a huge day. It was on Saint Patrick’s Day. It was a shamrock. 

When you did it, were you like, ‘I’m going to do this’? 

When you’re helping them for three years, you break down the machines, you’re watching people tattoo every day, you’re saturated and marinated in that. Obviously you have some sort of artistic skill, and then you think you know what you’re doing, and then you do it for the first time and you’re like, ‘Fuck, I was way off.’ Tattooers are still pretty guarded as well. They don’t want to give all their secrets, so you have to figure stuff out for yourself. But everyone at Shamrock was always good; they wanted you to succeed because you’re representing them. 

So you apprenticed under Mark Mahoney—what was it like coming from under a dude with that name? He’s not only a tattoo artist, he’s an icon. He’s just a cool motherfucker. 

You can’t be cooler than that guy. It wasn’t a cool that you can emulate. This dude is himself since day one. There’s no faking it. So that’s what you have to do. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, he dresses cool, I got to dress like that.’ 

If Mark Mahoney wasn’t your mentor, is your life different today? 

Yeah, for sure. I think Mark helped me figure out who I was as an artist in that realm and as a man. I started when I was a kid, too. I came in as a young kid, barely paying rent, to having a wife and kids. So it was a weird transition from growing from a young adult to a man. 

When someone is introducing you, do you want to be introduced as a tattoo artist or an artist? 

That’s so funny ’cause that’s my biggest, weird question to myself. Sometimes I don’t want to be [introduced as a tattoo artist], because it has such a negative connotation. ‘Oh, tattoo artist. That novelty guy. You tattoo some famous people. That’s what got you in the room’ kind of thing. And that’s not what I want to be, and I don’t promote that on my Instagram. It may seem like I do, but I really don’t. I’m never arm in arm with celebs and I don’t want them to speak for what my work is. I don’t want them to validate it. 

You are a dude who tattoos a lot of celebrities and your brand has gotten very big, very fast. And it doesn’t discount your work, but just how it happened. You live in Hollywood. There are a lot of celebrities. 

The misconception is: You tattoo a lot of celebrities, and it made your work—they make it grow, make your work good. But the reality is, it was backwards. It was the work that started getting really noticeable and big, and that’s what attracted them or got them to view. A big part was working at Shamrock. Mark was the OG celebrity tattoo artist. You are bred into this system of the network. It was there already. 

And you’re a moving target, in my eyes, for other tattoo artists because of the perception of becoming very successful, very fast. You hang out with celebs, you’re at fashion shows. 

The funny thing is that a lot of these dudes, it’s either they know me, they don’t like me, ‘Oh, well, he was like an OG in that realm and then he sold out.’ Then there are other guys that are like, ‘Oh, this guy’s just this surface. He’s not a real tattoo artist.’ Nine times out of 10, I probably just put in more work than that fucker could do. I’m doing what the fuck I want to. I own my own business, and it’s crazy because tattooers are like the biggest pirates. You’re nomadic, you fucking get yours when you can. The second someone does, everyone gets pissed. That’s just how it is. 


I didn’t know that you were making t-shirts before tattooing. Fashion is such a big component with you these days. Every time I look on Instagram , I’m like, ‘This motherfucker.’ Every show with every fancy designer. But you are actually interested in making clothes and you worked at a high-end boutique. When did you realize you’re not just a tattoo artist, but an artist, too? 

It’s a mixture of things. It’s maturing and creating your own brand. I didn’t do it purposely; something just happened. Then you have a responsibility to yourself and to the people that are viewing your brand in that sense. For me, there is tattoo art and then there is an artist. It’s two separate things. Tattoo is a craft that you learn—it’s also a client service—and then there was art on my own end that I like to create and put out in the universe. Nowadays you can marry those things. Sitting at fashion shows in Paris like, ‘What is this dude even doing here?’ You represent a brand in this lifestyle or culture, whether or not your work is in it. But the reality is all our work is intertwined. 

How has your style evolved? Not your tattoo style, but your personal style. 

I think through accessibility. There are realms I’m allowed to dabble in more and have access to. For the most part, though, it’s still kind of the same. These LVC rigid Levi’s I’ve been wearing since I was a kid. There’s just things I never leave. I’m not going to admit that I’m not trendy at times, but the important things are on the inside, it’s never to keep up. It’s not a status quo. It’s more of just, do I like this? I like it. And if it’s something that a million other people like, fuck, sorry, I probably won’t keep it for long, but, you know, it’s just one of those things. 

Things are way different now. I don’t even know how to judge now, but I know how I felt when I heard certain things. This is before subcultures weren’t blown out and no one had access to it. Now everyone’s got access to what’s cool. 

Instagram’s kind of a mirage. Right? 

When you see a bunch of people in pictures on your phone entitled to certain things, you feel entitled to those things as well. 

I feel kids these days think paying dues is for suckers because they have the same exact outcome that we have. Now you can copy a product and then sell it on Instagram. You don’t need investors, you don’t need a marketing guy. You don’t need advertising. You can curate your own audience. 

What was the post that got a lot of fucking activity? When I met you, you had like 2,000 followers. Who was the person that made you say, ‘Oh shit’? 

I made it on reddit and I didn’t even know what reddit was. My younger brother called me saying, ‘Bro, you’re on the front page of reddit.’ No one’s seen that shit before. There was no one on Instagram with it. That was huge because it drove so much traffic to my Instagram. It’s not anything new, but it wasn’t something that people saw before. Now you look at Instagram, and it is literally its own style now. 


I don’t love the word “legacy.” What’s the goal? What makes it all worth it? Where do you want to be when the smoke settles? 

Coming from two immigrant parents and living in a one-bedroom apartment, it was so ingrained that I had to go to school. I dropped out and I was like, ‘That’s my only option.’ Arts were not encouraged. Now, to come full circle and be a parent of two kids, it’s still a struggle. I think there’s this misconception that if you’re successful or succeeding that you’re über-wealthy or something. I’m still hustling. There’s no retirement for us. The more we give out to benefit us, we have to spread it out for everyone. 

What do you want to be known as? One of the most famous tattoo artists in the world? 

I just want to set a good example for kids—that creativity and art is a very important thing in the world. 

When your sons introduce you, what would they say versus what you hope they’d say? 

I still don’t know. I just want them to know that they can do whatever, but I think you should have a driving force to not just be really successful in the sense of wealth, but in confidence and owning what you want to do. Don’t fake it. If you want to be the best at something, really try to be the best at it. Be honest with yourself and other people. It’s okay to be rejected. It’s okay to fail. 

For me personally, I want to be successful. I want my family to be comfortable. I want to have the freedom to do what I want. If it means I can just paint, draw or design shit and not have to go to an office, that’s my dream. 

I want to be able to start doing things that aren’t so selfish. I don’t know exactly what it is yet, but I do like how you mentioned sharing. I want people to remember me as being inspiring or doing the right thing, because we all make mistakes as egotistical artists. 

Do you have any particular goal in the next five or 10 years? 

I want all my creative entrepreneurial projects to succeed. There’s a lot of stuff in the works, and the foundations I want to set, where I can tattoo for fun and I don’t have to tattoo to survive. I want to bring that aspect back to it. When I was younger, that was the fun—tattooing just to survive. It’s a super-fun, punk-rock idea. But as I get older, [it’s about] making sure my kids are comfortable and not hungry, and I don’t want to worry about paying bills. So I want to be able to set these things in motion and build on that and be successfully creative forever until I die. 

Tattooing would be a second thought? 

I just want to make sure, though, that it’s not hinged on making or breaking it. I’ve been such a craftsman with my hands my whole life and I’m only used to my hands doing the work. I want to start implementing more of my mind to make my career healthier. Make money when your eyes are closed kind of thing. [Laughs

I’ve been trying to figure out how to make money when I’m sleeping. [Laughs] You good at business? 

No, I’m an artist, man. That’s the other thing—I want to secure a good team around me to help me get there. 

I think you’re on the right path. 

Photography by Taylor Rainbolt

In conversation with Kenneth Cappello