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.
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.
After a series of surgeries, they declared the wound a complete spinal injury, meaning he would most likely never walk again. Carina fainted, and doctors discovered that she was newly pregnant.
Lopez was transferred to a rehabilitation unit at La Palma Hospital, and for the next two and a half months, Ofelia and Carina took three-hour bus trips every day to see him. “I would tell them that I didn’t want to be by myself,” Lopez says. “So every day, they would go there and would spend the whole day with me until the hospital was closing.”
“It happened so many years ago,” says Ofelia in Spanish one recent morning, “but, but—” She trails off and wipes her eyes. She and her husband are sitting at a table in Jose’s house; she comes over every day to help him get ready and make him lunch.
Socorro rubs her back. “It’s okay, mija,” he says. “You need to get it out.” Although they lived through the pain of being separated from some of their children for several years at a time and even survived a brutal workplace-machinery accident that severed most of Socorro’s right hand, they seem most visibly hurt by Jose’s accident.
Ofelia takes a breath and wipes her long lashes. “It was so hard,” she says quietly.
“I wasn’t able to talk because I was just very emotional about the whole thing,” Jose says. “I couldn’t accept that I was in a wheelchair. I would just start crying.”
He went home three days before his 16th birthday in January 1994. He would wake up every day still disbelieving that he was confined to the bulky wheelchair costing his dad $40 per month to rent. “I couldn’t get on the bus; I couldn’t do anything. It was so embarrassing,” he says. He stopped going to school. A teacher volunteered to tutor him so he could finish his senior year.
Lopez and Carina’s daughter, Desiree Vanessa, was born in April of that year. Lopez couldn’t find work, and he was only getting $300 per month in welfare. He and his new family were living at his parents’ home, and he knew his dad couldn’t support everyone for much longer. Desperation was setting in.
Lopez remembers the social-services worker who was perplexed by the 16-year-old couple with a baby, the father in a wheelchair. “My wheelchair knocked the chair in the office, and the baby’s carrier fell to the ground, and she rolled halfway out,” he says, laughing now. “We were scared because we thought she was going to take the baby away from us.”
Instead, when the worker, Robin Vann, stopped by his house that night, it was to tell him that she and her husband wanted to buy Lopez a smaller wheelchair so he could move around better. “She didn’t tell me to not be afraid of people, but she bought me a wheelchair,” Lopez says.
The gesture motivated him to pursue a new passion: drawing. Although he’d started doing small, rudimentary gang tattoos on friends with a homemade gun before he was shot, it was his self-taught drawing exercises that began to pull him out of his depression.
“I noticed the Jesus Helguera calendar in my mom’s kitchen, the one in so many kitchens and restaurants, and began to try to copy it exactly, but in black and white and with all the shading. I copied the images over and over and over again,” he says. “That’s when I really started drawing. I would lose myself and draw for 10, 12, 15 hours at a time.”
The teacher who had volunteered to be Lopez’s tutor noticed his interest and took him to a Picasso and Diego Rivera exhibit in LA. “That was important then, to be exposed to that,” he says.
* * *
After eight months, he entered his first drawing contest at Lowrider Arte with the black-and-gray warrior depiction that would captivate Rios years later. He won that year and the following year, prompting the magazine to do a story about him in 1996. He wanted to learn how to transform his drawings into tattoos and realized he would need to get a professional ink gun in order to carry out the work.
Since the so-called tattoo “renaissance” of the late ’70s and ’80s, serious tattoo shops have become like fashion houses, where hungry, would-be artists with talent can learn from the best and emerge from a respected “family.” But getting in the door can be tough.
“When I went to my first shop,” Lopez recalls, “I just wanted to ask a simple question: Is this machine that I want to buy, is it a good one? They told me to go fuck myself.”
Still, he persisted and finally got a break from Frank Sardelli, owner of Sick Dogs Tattoo shop in Westminster. He worked there for a year or so with professional ink guns. “I didn’t like the professional machines at first, but it was really good to learn on them,” he says. “I’m grateful that [Sardelli] gave me that chance.”
After he left Sick Dogs, Lopez started working out of his mom’s house, saved some money, and then got a small apartment with his family. “I spent, like, five years just on my own, tattooing at my apartment,” he says. “I was working, but I wasn’t doing it competitively. I wasn’t like I am now, going to conventions and seeing all these great artists.”
At his very first convention, Inkslingers Ball in 1997, Lopez didn’t have his own booth, and no one knew who he was. The second time he went was with Rios in 1999, and the two spent the day huddled in a corner watching renowned tattoo artist Paul Booth work on his clients. At the end of the day, they said hello to Booth and got an autograph. “He was actually really cool,” Rios says.
The personal style Lopez developed is firmly rooted in the Chicano tradition: a “single needle” (and what eventually became “fine line”) style of tattooing. In its pachuco car-club origins in the 1940s and ’50s, a single needle was wrapped in thread and dipped in India ink. The thin-lined, shaded, black-and-gray tattoos depicting the Virgen, classic low-rider cars of the era and pistol-wielding charras were nothing like the thick, patriotic anchor and sailor icons popular among veterans in the U.S. after World War II.
Jack Rudy and Charlie Cartwright were among the artists in the 1970s who perfected the fine-line element of Chicano tattooing that eventually led to the development of the complicated, realistic, portrait style that has been exported around the world—and that is still evolving.
“They were all portrait masters and are known for that,” Lopez says of Rudy and others such as Mark Mahoney and Freddy Negrete in LA and Brian Everett in Albuquerque. “When you’re doing a portrait of somebody, it’s a family member, a mother, a grandfather. But what we’re doing is the simple Chicano tattoos, which are the charra or the clown girl, and we’re giving it that realistic look. So it’s not so much a portrait, but we’re using the same portrait approach—and we’re adding that to typical tattoos,” he says. “It’s really time-consuming, so you have to be really motivated and dedicated to your work.”
“His stuff is among my favorites, if not my favorite, of the new stuff because it does have a pretty fine line,” says Mahoney.
After a few years, with the money he saved from his in-home tattoo jobs, Lopez opened his first shop in Westminster in 2000 with Rios and a few other friends. “It was our first shop, and we didn’t know how to run it,” Rios says.
Partying soon overtook the professional vibe Lopez wanted to create. Rios moved to Riverside to take a break, while Lopez worried about the image the shop was creating. “I was doing better and beginning to go to some local conventions—and some of the guys were hating,” he says. He eventually sold half the shop, took the Lowrider name with him and opened up the shop he’s in now, located just a few blocks away in Fountain Valley. The old shop, now named Boulevard Tattoo, was sold again and is now under different, unrelated owners. Three other shops operate under the Lowrider Tattoo name: one owned by Lopez’s dad in Orange, another by a friend in Costa Mesa, and a third by tattoo artist “Kraz-K” in Japan.
As Lopez wheels around his tidy tattoo room, methodically laying out gloves, tattoo guns (one needle, seven needles, 15 needles) and tiny ink dishes mixed with varying but precise drops of water to create the countless shades of gray that infuse his work, he pauses to consider the changes he’s faced these past few years. Since he “came out,” Lopez has met tattoo artists he has revered for decades and is seeing his work change after trips to London, France and Italy and discovering the work of other artists.
“I started with the whole gang-tattoos thing, but by traveling to all these other places, I’m being exposed to all these other styles, and it has really, really influenced me,” he says.
* * *
The recognition Lopez received for his work in the past two years, and the traveling that so inspired him, had an unexpected consequence: Last year, during the first real pinnacle of his long journey, he found himself locked in a bout of severe depression that was worse, he says, than the period right after the shooting.
“For the past 14 years, there’s always been something, projects going on, and little by little, I’ve just been climbing and climbing. In the past two years, things started going good for me. . . . But then everything, just the whole reality, just struck me: I’m still in a wheelchair,” he says at his home in Anaheim. “I’m still—how do you say it? I’m still missing so many other things, you know?”
His voice cracks a little as he talks. His six tiny dogs are barking and playing outside. He looks down at his latest drawing—a beautiful pencil etching of a young woman with curled, intricate Dia de los Muertos mask details over her face—sitting at the edge of the giant table in the dining room where he does all of his drawings late at night, after he gets home from the shop.
“I started drinking and picking up other drugs. I’d never been involved with anything like that because I was so busy. I was so happy; everything was going great. I was able to help myself and was able to help other people,” he says.
When the housing bubble burst, Lopez lost one of the two houses he had purchased and came within weeks of losing the one he lives in now (down the street from his parents’). During this time, he was also diagnosed with diabetes.
“He’s always been so strong, but in those moments, the depression came, and it was then that he started doing those things that he shouldn’t do,” says Ofelia.
He tried to stop the drinking and drug use on several occasions, he says, because he knew better. But weekend drinking binges turned to weeknight bouts. “You numb yourself to keep thinking that there’s not a problem,” he says. “But the problem’s always going to be there, you know? You don’t just fight with your demons one day, and then defeat them. You’ve got to face them every day.”
He tried to hide what he was doing from his family, but after several months of pleading from his mom and his wife, he then turned to them for help. “It got to a point where . . . I had to open up to them,” he says. “If I was going to get help, I had to be honest with what I was doing.”
His parents called him every day. Ofelia started coming over in the mornings to help him get ready before going to work, and the two would eat lunch together. “Luckily, my parents were here, across the street, and they were able to help me,” he says of his gradual climb out of depression. “And my wife would stay up with me at night and make sure I was okay.”
He scratches with his pencil on the drawing, pressing firm, round lines into the woman’s hair. “Things are not always what they seem,” he says. “You can have everything in the world, and there’s always something missing with all of us, you know? I mean, in my case, I don’t want any more riches. I don’t want any more nothing. I just wish that I could walk.”
The bold, dark eyes he’s drawn behind the mask stare out at him, radiating a mix of anger, love and defiance.
“But then again, if I were able to walk, I think a lot of things would be different,” Lopez says, “and I might not be where I am today.”
* * *
One recent afternoon at his shop, Lopez is watching unedited clips from the Milan Tattoo Convention this past February. The aisles at the convention are cramped. A crowd is gathered around Lopez’s booth, watching him the way he once watched others. In a sign of the art form’s growing popularity, there are more than 30 annual ink conventions in the U.S. these days, to go along with more than a dozen internationally, from Russia to London. Milan “was 17,000 people a day,” Lopez says, staring up at the TV. Competing with international artists (whose work was unbelievable, he says), he took home four awards for his black-and-gray work: Best of Day, Best of Show, and second and third place for large black-and-gray.
“His style is always changing,” says Manny Navarrete, who is watching with Lopez. Navarrete is a serious “collector” (enthusiasts who invest serious money in having their bodies permanently marked only by the best), of Lopez’s work. His torso, legs and arms are adorned with doe-eyed Helguera-style women, a Marilyn Monroe portrait so real she looks like she might giggle, a portrait of Vicente Hernandez, and dozens of other intricately interwoven images done over several years.
“He’s my walking billboard,” Lopez says of Navarrete; the tattoo on Navarrete’s chest won Lopez the aforementioned second-place prize. The two have gone on dozens of convention trips together, with Manny operating as Lopez’s right-hand man. “I couldn’t do any of these trips without these guys,” Lopez says about Navarrete, Rios, Mark Osuna (another friend and collector) and the others at the shop. He’s now working on a Michelangelo series on one client; the partially completed Renaissance Moses sculpture draped in shadow across Osuna’s arm is an entirely different style from the full-mouthed beauties Lopez drew on Osuna’s leg (which won him the third-place award mentioned above).
“The Chicano style just went to another level,” Osuna says, as he thumbs through a Renaissance sculpture book, one of the many art books the self-taught Lopez has collected. Indeed, for its retrospective on the history of Chicano tattooing, the History Channel made several stops in LA and Orange counties—including Lowrider Tattoo.
Today, Lopez is working on Beto, another collector. He dips the needle in ink, draws a fine, threadlike line on Beto’s arm, wipes and draws again: an eyelash, the tiniest crease in a full lip, the small round beads of a bracelet, a few loose hairs. His brother Gustavo, who has been going to the shop and apprenticing since he was a kid, and two other apprentices, look on. It’s a hypnotic process to watch. With a careful, freehand stroke, he adds dimension to a lip, an eyelid, a fingernail.
Lopez is relaxed and chatty, oscillating between cracking a joke to seconds-long intervals of intense concentration. “He doesn’t just take a drawing and slap it on skin,” says Adam Vu, an art student at Cal State Fullerton who is apprenticing at the shop. “To turn it into a painting on an arm is something else. The thing that separates these guys from other black-and-gray artists is the softness—it’s exactly how you’d want an oil painting to look.”
A running joke at the shop is the ubiquitous question Lopez is inevitably asked by onlookers or aspiring artists who are awestruck by his work. “There were once some guys here from Australia . . . and they kept asking him, ‘What’s your secret? What’s your secret?’” Rios repeats, laughing.
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The only secret in Lopez’s book is hard work, a lot of patience and humility—the things that got him to a stable place where he feels he’s growing as an artist.
“In my case, what made me become so dedicated and spend so much time with it was being in a wheelchair. If I wasn’t in a wheelchair, I probably would not be as patient,” he says. “Other people start to mimic tattoos, and by mimicking, you get better. Someone influenced me, and I’m going to influence someone else. If there was no one else better than us, we would never better ourselves.”
For more images of Lopez and his work, click here.