We were in a hotel room high above Times Square in Manhattan. The lights, the hustle and the Naked Cowboy were shut out by a window shade because despite being in one of the most ostentatious places in existence, the real show was in the room. Jose Lopez, the master, was at work. Jose Lopez was in New York City for a few days during a world tour of tattooing and was currently pouring a pocketwatch into a young, affluent man who was nice enough to let us come watch the awesomeness of Lopez’s hand. It was mesmerising, the art and his touch was brilliant but then it hit us: Lopez, who was shot in SoCal during its turbulent days and is a second wave O.G. of black and grey tattoos, travels the globe, stays in swanky digs and tattoos in a prison-inspired art style on the international elite of diverse cultures. How far Southern California Chicano art has come is a testament to his journey. Lopez is one of the most prominent ambassadors of tattooing to the world, and he is ideal for that role as his art is stunning and his conversation is warm but enthralling.
WORDS BY ROCKY RAKOVIC PORTRAIT BY WILLIE T
INKED: Do you mind if we talk while you tattoo?
JOSE LOPEZ: Nah. I was shy for a long time; I wouldn’t speak when I was in high school. I was too afraid to speak because I used to have a stuttering problem – I still kind of do. One day I just said, “Fuck this. Why am I embarrassed? If someone has a problem with the way I speak that’s their problem. It’s not going to be my problem.” And now you can’t shut me up. And I like to talk when I’m tattooing, it’s actually one of the reasons why I love tattooing.
INKED: Talking to your clients?
JOSE LOPEZ: It’s really the personal connection with people. Through tattooing I’ve been blessed to meet and make so many friendships with people – that’s part of tattooing. We’re doing huge projects so you get to know people and they share things with you. They tell you about their lives and a lot of times we end up having a lot of things in common. Tattooing brings people together. When somebody thinks that they’re going through [unique] problems you go, “Whoa, wait a minute, I have the same fucking problem.’
INKED: Do you feel like a therapist sometimes?
JOSE LOPEZ: Yeah, but I think it works both ways. You are listening to somebody and they are listening to you. It’s very therapeutic to be able to tattoo and share things. It’s like the perfect setting for somebody to, I don’t know, talk about whatever’s going on in their life. You refer to people as ‘clients,’ but I don’t like saying that because 90% of the people you tattoo end up becoming our friends.
INKED: That’s a wonderful part of the tattoo community.
JOSE LOPEZ: A friend of mine was complaining about what he was paying for the tattoo and all the pain that he was going through and I told him ‘I’m sitting with you for more than 10 hours and we’re just talking like buddies.’ He was like ‘Yeah, I like that.’ Then I said, ‘I don’t even do that with my wife! If I sit down with her for an hour we want to kill each other.’ To be able to spend time with somebody is a really cool experience
and at the end we’re both rewarded with a really nice piece of art.
INKED: And sometimes the actual piece of art is a memorial tattoo that helps bring closure.
JOSE LOPEZ: Two days ago a guy came in from Toronto and he was really a happy guy. So we started talking and he started explaining to me what he wanted to get and why he wanted it. And it was very tragic. While on vacation with his pregnant wife somebody hit her. He lost both his baby and his wife. We had a two-day session so we got to really know each other, just by talking about our experiences. I had a really bad experience myself so I could relate.
Tattooing is what brings it all together.
INKED: Do you mind sharing your bad personal experience with us?
JOSE LOPEZ: Yeah. I got shot when I was 15 years old. It was just a random shooting, just a Halloween shooting. Back in the early ‘90s there was a lot of violence and there was a lot of shooting so if you didn’t get shot you weren’t cool enough. I just happened to be one of the cool ones. I was shot at a Halloween party, it was very unfortunate and, I guess, very tragic but it also changed the whole course of my life. Because of that we’re sitting here now. It’s a tragedy but with everything that happens there’s always a brighter side as well. For me, I’ve been very blessed. Ever since I got shot I want to say my life got better in a weird kind of way. I was exposed to tattooing and I think tattooing is one of the main factors why everything got better for me after that. Tattooing, meeting different people, being able to travel all over the place – it’s a big privilege. It’s something that I don’t take for granted. I’m very grateful for it. I see it growing more and more and it makes me think what’s going to happen next year and the year after that and where this is going take us.
INKED: Recently you’ve been everywhere recently – London, Hong Kong, the Middle East. How does it make you feel that a lowbrow, Chicano tattoo style from East LA has spread so vastly?
JOSE LOPEZ: There’s some people that are negative and say, ‘Why should this person get that? They don’t know anything about this culture.’ But who cares? I’m flattered that people like something that has to do with our culture. It’s really nice when you see people having an interest about something that you grew up with. The first [outside the US] that were really into the style were the Japanese. Back in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s he would hear stories about [Mr.] Cartoon travelling to Japan and we thought it was silly. But it was happening, Cartoon, was out there letting the culture be known. He was putting it down. Now we’re doing that in different places. If somebody told me that I was going to travel the world and tattoo people with this type of imagery I would have never believed it.
INKED: And in-turn, through travel you get exposed to other cultures’ art?
JOSE LOPEZ: Exactly. Before we just tattooed in our city, so basically the only things we were tattooing were the things we were exposed to. Now so much material has been opened up to me. People are doing some amazing stuff on skin that I never would’ve thought would look good as a tattoo. Other than seeing different styles of tattooing, travel has allowed me to see my reference material in person. Back in the day I had to use art books to draw angels, but now I’ve been to the places in Europe that have those angel statues. Not only have I been able to see it with my own eyes, but I got to take pictures from different angles so I have my own reference material for tattoos.
INKED: What do you think the future is for tattooing on a whole?
JOSE LOPEZ: Judging from the quality and how fast all these artists are growing, it’s not going to stop, it’s just going to get bigger and bigger. One thing that I see changing is that tattoo artists creating tattooing products. Artists’ states of mind are changing. They’re becoming more aware and more business-oriented so everybody wants to not just tattoo but to create their own little companies. Since everybody has different ideas,
a lot of different products are being developed. It’s making the industry grow and making people’s tattoo experiences more pleasant. So I see tattooing growing tremendously.
You grew up in a tough place, were your early tattoo experiences with hardened people?
JOSE LOPEZ: I started tattooing when I was 15 years old. I saw a guy who had just gotten out of prison doing a tattoo and it was very interesting to me, I wanted to try it. I thought that the best way for me to start learning more about it was to get a tattoo. Then to learn more I went to a shop and I was turned away.
INKED: Didn’t you sell flash back-in-the-day?
JOSE LOPEZ: Yeah, at the beginning I wasn’t even known for tattoos. I started doing tattoo flash and tried to get into conventions. Ink Slingers Ball was one of the shows that people from all over the place came to. When I tried to get into that show they would just laugh at me like “Bro, you got to get on a waiting list to get into this show.” But then 9/11 happened and a lot of artists weren’t flying. I guess the promoters went to that waiting list and called me and they told me – they didn’t even ask me, they told me – telling me would I like to attend the show. “Look, you want to come to the show, you bring us the money.” That was the first actual convention that I went to. After that I tried to go back and they told me, “No, you can’t come back, it was just that one time.”
INKED: What’s next for you?
JOSE LOPEZ: I like working but I would like to work less. Back home there are a few close friends who just started to realise that we can’t tattoo forever. I tattoo a lot, tattooing is my life, but I need to realise that I’m not always going to be able to do it. Sometimes when something happens to you and you’re not able to tattoo – your back goes out, you get sick, you break your hand – is when you realise how easy it can go away. It makes you think more and more like a businessperson. The fact that the industry is growing just creates more opportunity to stay involved in other ways. I think we need to all come up with better ways to make the whole tattoo experience a lot easier and comfortable for both you and the artist. So maybe developing some products in the future is something that definitely I would like to do. I’m in the business of tattooing and we’re tattooing day-in-day-out. Who better to know what works for us than the artists and us as artists?