Cole Strem of Ace of Hearts Tattoo on Children's Books, Apprenticeships, and Classy Tattooin'

San Pedro's classiest tattooer.
San Pedro's classiest tattooer.
Josh Chesler

Being a rock star didn't work out for Cole Strem. When it became obvious that a career in music wasn't working out for him, Strem didn't know exactly what he wanted to do.

"My band broke up and I didn't want a real job," Strem says. "My wife bought me a shitty tattoo kit from eBay, and I couldn't even get the machine to run at first."

Strem, who's originally from Milwaukee but made his decision to begin tattooing in North Hollywood, knew he had to find an apprenticeship if he was going to go about tattooing the right way. After spending a few years just drawing and practicing as much as he could while seeking out someone to apprentice under, Strem finally caught a break when a "dude he met" finished his apprenticeship. The young tattooer mopped floors and did grunt work for as long as necessary before learning to tattoo. It's a level of dedication Strem believes some prospective tattooers lack.

"There are a lot of people coming into it that I think have been handed things their whole lives," Strem says. "People leave their apprenticeships because they aren't tattooing a week after they start mopping the floors. People have asked to be my apprentice, but I don't think I'm ready to apprentice anyone. I'm still learning myself."

Ultimately, Strem's advice to a new apprentice is simple: If you don't want it enough, you're not going to get through it.

"I'd just tell them not to give up," Strem says. "You have to be driven and want it. You have to be OK with criticism and people telling you not to do things. Buckle in, shut up, and do what you're told."

Strem's apprenticeship was over six years ago. For the last three years, he's tattooed out of Ace of Hearts Tattoo in San Pedro. He's definitely a part of the "new school" of ink slingers, but the Long Beach resident certainly knows about the area's tattoo history.

"It's amazing working next to Long Beach," Strem says. "I love it. I live for it. There aren't many shops in Long Beach, and you would think there's more like there are in Hollywood. In Hollywood, you can throw a stone and hit five shops. I think there should be less places in Long Beach because it is so powerful where it is. You should know that those places have stood the test of time."

Since he began tattooing, Strem's already seen some major differences in the industry. While he'd like to believe tattoos will improve in both styles and skill levels, some aspects of tattooing aren't necessarily improving.

"It goes in waves," Strem says. "Watercolor tattoos didn't work out the last time they were popular, but people still think they'll work out now. The TV shows educate people on what a good tattoo is, but they're too focused on the drama and they can be misleading. I hear people say 'Kat Von D can do a portrait in 10 minutes,' and I tell them 'No, that's the power of editing.'

Although he's been tattooing for well over a half-decade, it's only in the last two years that the "fancy classy traditional" tattooer has found one of his other callings.

"I've been illustrating a children's book, because Dr. Seuss is my favorite illustrator," Strem says. "Hopefully I'll shop it around soon for it to come out in 2016."

A couple years ago, one of Strem's friends wrote a story for the tattooer and his wife as their wedding present. Following Strem's tearful response to the piece, his wordsmith pal confessed that what he really wanted to write was a children's book, and there was only one person who he wanted to illustrate it.

"It'll have human elements, but no actual humans," Strem says. "I can't do what I do for tattooing. It's exciting. I can't wait for it to come out."

Ace of Hearts Tattoo, 639 W. Channel St. #C, San Pedro, 310-684-1400, Instagram @colestremtattooer

Follow Josh on Twitter: @jcchesler. Follow OC Weekly on Twitter @ocweekly or on Facebook!

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