Not every great tattoo artist takes a direct path to the top of the industry. For San Clemente Tattoo owner "Brother Greg" Rancourt, the journey to becoming one of OC's most sought-after traditional American tattoo artists included a career as a plumber, painting houses, and a bit of jail time.
"About 10 years after I got my first tattoo, I got tattooed by a friend to cover up the tattoos I got in jail," Rancourt says. "I started the wrong way, and I taught myself to tattoo about 20 or 21 years ago."
According to Rancourt, someone he had tattooed went into a shop and the artists asked who did the tattoo. Although he hadn't worked in a tattoo shop at the time, the artists were so impressed by the ink that Rancourt was hired to work with them as soon as someone else was fired.
"I was always the drawer kid in school, I had a passion for it," Rancourt says. "I got started in tattooing later than most guys. I started in my early 30s. I was a journeyman plumber before that, so I gave tattooing a shot and it worked out. After a while, I realized it might be possible to make a living doing it."
Of course, while his fans and customers are able to tell the difference between pieces he does and other artists' work, Rancourt isn't sure exactly what it is that sets his apart. He just knows that it took a long time to get there.
"Everyone else knows which tattoos are mine, but to me, they look like everyone else's," Rancourt says. "My style has changed a lot over the years and, eventually, you get a style all your own."
These days, Rancourt's work is so well-known that when he goes to tattoo conventions, he doesn't even necessarily have to tattoo the whole time. Some of his most famous work comes in other mediums.
"I do these conventions , and I sell a lot of paintings at them," Rancourt says. "My sketchbooks really got my name out there. Most sketchbooks just have a few designs on each page, but I shrunk everything down so there are hundreds of pieces in mine. A lot of people know my pieces better from my sketchbooks than from tattoos."
What was the biggest turning point for you in tattooing? After I did some studying, I realized how good tattoos should be. I started taking tattoos a lot more seriously. After 1994, I started collecting tattoos. I went to certain artists for certain things. I would fly up to San Francisco and pay for a hotel just to get tattooed by the people up there.
What would you tell someone who isn't sure if they want to get a tattoo? Normally, don't get one unless you're absolutely sure. Also, don't just get one from someone because they were on TV. A lot of people will go into a shop and get tattooed by someone just because they were on TV, but their tattoos aren't even that good. I was born in Hollywood, I don't get the whole star-struck thing.
How's tattooing at your own shop? I've always been blessed with many things in my life, but tattooing tops everything. It's been the biggest blessing in my life, and it's just been incredible. As far as owning the shop, I've known everyone here 14-21 years, except for Chris (De Armas), but I've known him for a while too. My job is to make sure everybody is happy. I try to be a different kind of boss because I worked for "The Man" for so many years. I'm more like a friend than a boss, but there's a fine line. We've been open for three-and-a-half years now, and it's been the same guys the whole time. The shop almost runs itself.
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What's your favorite part about tattooing? From tattooing, I've been able to take some long vacations and travel the world to places I otherwise couldn't have gone. I've met people with the same passion as mine, and getting paid to do a hobby that you love, that doesn't happen to too many people. I was blessed with little natural ability, and I'd been working hard and studying the trade for a long time before I was given the ability to do this for a living.
What would be your advice to a tattoo artist just starting out in their career? A long time ago, I would've told them not to get into tattooing. There's no 401(k), no retirement, find something better. Now, I'd just tell them to get a professional apprenticeship with the best tattooer they can find. You want to learn from the best guy no matter what it takes.