A Stray Bullet Set Anaheim's Jose Lopez On a Path Toward Becoming a Sought-After Tattoo Artist

Body of Work
A stray bullet set Anaheim’s Jose Lopez on a path toward becoming one of OC’s most sought-after tattoo artists

Anthony Rios was in jail when the slightly tattered photocopy of a drawing from Lowrider Arte magazine landed in his hands. It was a meticulous depiction of famed Mexican painter Jesus Helguera’s Cuauhtémoc image in what seemed like hundreds of shades of gray.

“I’d never seen anything like it,” Rios says.

Russ Roca
Pre-ink: Lopez begins every original art piece at home
Russ Roca
Pre-ink: Lopez begins every original art piece at home

The drawing was signed “Jose Lopez.” Rios had heard that the guy, known as “Boxer,” not only drew on paper, but that he also did tattoos. Rios folded up the image and promised himself he’d find Lopez after he completed his stint in jail for drug-related charges.

It took a while—Lopez didn’t have a shop, or work at one, and he only took appointments by word of mouth.

“It took five long months. . . . I figured he’d be some gangster in a baggy T-shirt and baggy pants,” says Rios. Through a friend of someone who knew the man who had sold Lopez his first tattoo gun, Rios was taken to Lopez’s apartment in late 1999. “He was this little guy in a wheelchair,” Rios says. “He’d changed. He didn’t look like ‘Boxer’ from Underhill. . . . He was really polite; he stuttered. He was just there, in this tiny studio apartment, working on people.”

Whether it was the wheelchair, the need to work and make money to help support his young wife and daughter, or his own strict, self-imposed discipline, Lopez wasn’t interacting much with the outside world—or even the tattoo scene—in those days. (The day Rios met him, he drove Lopez to the famed Inkslinger’s Ball convention in Hollywood. It was Lopez’s second time.) Usually, he worked late into the night, copying Helguera’s most complicated paintings with his pencils, and by day, working on simpler, popular cholo tattoos on his clients, always with the goal of someday being able to translate the glorious, multidimensional Helguera images, as well as his own Helguera-inspired drawings, to skin in black and gray.

As he talks, Rios is tidying up Lopez’s three-year-old Lowrider Tattoo shop in Fountain Valley, which Rios now manages. Today, years after their first encounter, the two work in rooms next to each other (with Rios handling the simpler tattoos), along with a handful of artists selected by Lopez. The shop’s walls are covered with the dozens of awards Lopez’s work has earned him in the past two years at tattoo conventions around the globe. After years of laboring in relative obscurity, Lopez has been something of a surprise hit in a tattoo world that has become a vast and increasingly global and cross-cultural art movement. Business is good these days, but even the good times have not been without their struggles.

“It’s been 17 years, you know,” says Lopez. He’s eager, talkative and seems just as polite as the person Rios met nine years ago. “I’ve been working at this for a long time, but I didn’t go to conventions or anything until recently. I was just here, doing my thing.”

*     *     *

It’s Oct. 31, 1993, and 15-year-old Lopez is lying on the street in Anaheim. A stray bullet hit him after a fight he was not involved in had broken out at a Halloween party. Born in Mexico, he has been here four years and is just beginning to feel comfortable with his English. His friends scream at him to get up and move; they’re anxious that the car that delivered the stream of bullets will be back.

Lopez—young, handsome, with small, dark eyes—presses his hands into the pavement and begins to push himself up. He crumples to the ground. His legs aren’t responding. After he was shot in the spine, his legs had buckled and he’d fallen to the ground; he doesn’t know this yet, but he’s also broken his ribs. His friends are calling; he tries again but can’t get up. The car comes back. More shots. Lopez covers his head because he can’t move.

After the car leaves, his friends run out to get him. They’re angry and don’t understand why he didn’t get up. As they reach under him, lifting him to make their way to the front lawn of the house, Lopez feels a slight pull, a muffled rip, in his back.

They lay him down and start asking him questions. His girlfriend, Carina, is there.

Lopez still can’t get up, but he’s alert. He tries to move his legs and tries to explain how impossible this suddenly is. As he talks, he begins to choke. Blood spills out of his mouth. He is taken away in an ambulance. They’re poking him and asking him questions. Can he feel that in his upper back? Yes. His legs? No. A bullet is lodged in his back.

Lopez’s brother Gustavo was only 5 at the time, but he remembers his mom’s face changing suddenly with a mix of fear and wide-eyed alertness—the usual signal to her six kids that something was wrong. Ofelia Lopez sat up on the couch, looked around and said something. A few minutes later, the phone rang. Soon, in a panic, both she and Gustavo and Jose’s father, Socorro, are gone. Jose was in critical condition at UCI Medical Center; doctors weren’t sure if he was going to make it.

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