A pair of middle-aged women cheerfully stroll up to the cement tables outside Huntington Beach's Tattoo Gallery.
"Do you think this piercing is too big for me?" one of them asks the heavily tattooed man sitting at the table nearest the door.
"No, I think it looks perfect," Hector "Hek" Valdez responds. "Why would it be too big?"
The woman brushes her blond hair back and shifts her weight from one foot to the other. "Well," she answers nervously, "just someone my age . . ."
Hek smiles and fixes his sunglasses on the bridge of his nose. "How old would that be? 23? 24?"
Earlier that afternoon, the two women had been in Tattoo Gallery asking Hek about getting some ink done. The consultation didn't end in a tattoo, but the blonde's decision to get her nostril pierced instead wasn't about to make Hek any less pleasant to them.
Back in the present, the early-summer sunshine was getting to be a little too much, so Hek sheds his denim jacket. "Where were we again?" he asks his interviewer. "Oh, right: why I moved to Huntington."
Hek grew up in Chino, but he decided to move to Huntington Beach about 22 years ago when his friend wanted to surf more. Though Hek says he probably would've been open to moving anywhere at that time, he still believes he couldn't have made a better choice.
"It changed my life," he says. "It's crazy to think where my life would be if I didn't move. I got a few tattoos back in the day, but I didn't think it was really a thing until I moved here and got absorbed in the culture."
Hek has been in the industry for a decade and a half, becoming known for styles across the board. But he made a stir in Orange County last year when he decided to run for Huntington Beach City Council.
"It started out as something funny, but in 2014, the run was on," Hek says. "As I see it, if there's something you're not down with, you can either sit and make a stink about it, or you can do something about it."
After seeing other campaign posters, Hek decided to make some as a joke. Soon, people began telling him to legitimately run for office because of his friendly demeanor and care for the city.
"I ran as a concerned citizen, not as a Democrat or a Republican, just someone who gives a fuck," Hek says. "By no stretch did I have answers to some of the problems, but I had opinions, and I wanted what I thought was best for the city."
Although he didn't win, Hek received about 10,000 votes. In the wake of his campaign, Hek was appointed to the Huntington Beach Homeless Task Force.
"I really just love Huntington Beach," Hek says. "I love everything about it. I love coming to work here, I love being here."
How would you describe your "style" of tattooing? I wouldn't say that I have a style. I just love to tattoo. I love to do anything but portraits. I love that there are all these different subgenres now. In about 1997, 1998, people were putting chrome on everything. That's just what we did; you really don't see that anymore.
What are some of your favorite things about tattooing? There are so many cool people in tattooing -- that's really what I love about tattooing. You get to meet and work with so many cool people. That, and I can pretty much come and go as I please here at Tattoo Gallery. It's such a relaxed environment.
When did you realize you wanted to tattoo? Growing up, I had no desire to tattoo. I wanted to be an architect, but I wasn't really a school person, and no counselor ever told me I could be a tattooer. When I moved to Huntington, I started hanging out at the tattoo shop down the street [HB Tattoo]. I started tattooing there and stayed there for 10 years before moving [to Tattoo Gallery]. I've been here for five years, and it really feels like home.
How has tattooing changed since you started? Things are a lot more accessible than they were before. It's all at your fingertips. Early on, I was making my own needles, about 200 at a time, and inhaling those chemicals because that's what we had to do. Now, you can have a package at your door with the click of a button. Tattooers had to collect books and magazines to see what other artists were doing, but now it's all at your fingertips. It's changed so much in the matter of 10 years, and I think it's going to keep changing at a rapid rate.
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What would be your advice to a new tattooer? Just keep your head down and work. Stay at it, and stay humble. Some of the showboating is a little off-putting. Don't act as if you've been tattooing for 40 years when you've only been doing it for four -- be humble about it.
Is there anything you think most people don't know about tattooing despite how popular it is these days? People don't see the process with a tattoo. Unless it's a small tattoo, people don't understand it. They think they're going to walk out with a full sleeve three hours later, but there's really a lot of time and homework that goes into it. Just because you work at a shop doesn't mean you're a good tattooer. Make sure you go to a good tattooer. There's no reason to get a bad tattoo, with the Internet and Yelp reviews and everything. A kid came in to me with a big piece on his throat that he got from some guy on Craigslist because the guy would do it for $40. He wanted help covering it up, but I knew it wasn't going to work out, so I just had to tell him, "Sorry, homie, I can't help you."