John Caleb on the Family-Friendly Business of Tattooing
Caleb is known for his lettering work, but he enjoys doing all styles of tattoos (even tribal armbands).
Courtesy of John Caleb
"I knew from the beginning that I wanted to own my own shop so I could listen to the music I want to listen to and treat people how I want to treat them," says John Caleb, who owns Orange's Chapter X Tattoo with his dad.
Minutes later, Fall Out Boy began playing over the speaker next to Caleb's station. It's not that there's anything wrong with Fall Out Boy (or the other 2000s-era pop-punk playing on Caleb's portable music station), it's just ain't the type of music usually associated with a tattoo shop
Under Caleb's watch, Chapter X certainly isn't your normal tattoo shop. It doesn't look all that different, with all styles of tattoo art and flash lining the two-story walls and a few flags hanging from the ceiling, but it's a lot more family-oriented than other shops might be, particularly with Caleb's 5 year-old son (his other son is 6 months old) running around upstairs.
"We won't do vulgar tattoos, like naked ladies or upside-down crosses," the 31-year-old says. "I think in this industry, I don't fit the mold. I don't drink or smoke or party. I'm a family man, I go to church. I don't want a shop full of guys who are always drinking and partying on the job."
Although he won't do profane tattoos, Caleb is willing to do just about anything else.
"Tattooing is a service business, so the people we tattoo allow us to feed our family," Caleb says. "There's a lot of garbage out there. Tattooers still want to treat people like crap. I'm not a hothead, if someone wants a tribal armband, I'll give them a tribal armband. If they ask for my advice, I'll tell them, but I like to do all styles."
Like any experienced tattooer, Caleb is best known for a specific style of tattoo. His clean lettering can be seen across OC, but the script expert wasn't always a master of his style.
"When I started doing lettering, I had actually forgotten how to write cursive," Caleb says. "I sat down with my little cousin when he was learning to write cursive. I couldn't remember how to do a capital 'G' or which direction the letters leaned. He kind of taught me how to do it again, and it was just really cool."
For most people, tattoos wouldn't seem like a family affair. For Caleb, ink has always been a part of his family.
"My parents have a ton of tattoos, so they were always a common thing in the house when I was growing up," Caleb says. "Early on, I remember seeing my dad come home with bandages covering fresh tattoos, and I'd have to stay up super late so he could show me what was under those bandages."
After going to high school in Garden Grove, Caleb tried his hand at college before realizing it wasn't for him. With his uncles already established tattooers, Caleb took to his home to begin honing his skills while working as a paint mixer at Home Depot to pay the bills..
"I started in my garage, but I knew if I wanted to be taken seriously, I needed to learn to tattoo at a shop," Caleb says. "I went to a shop (Goodfellas Tattoo in Orange) to apprentice and work for free for a while, and now I just passed six years of tattooing professionally."
While many tattooers work for decades before taking over their own shop, Caleb found an opening less than five years into his career when he heard of a shop on the market in December 2013.
"I had a family friend who worked here, and he said the owner was looking to sell," Caleb says. "My dad and I bought the shop. He does all the back-end work, all the financial stuff and everything. I just moved down here about a year ago, so now I just live around the corner basically."
Caleb's appearance may be intimidating to some, but he wants his shop to have a welcoming and friendly atmosphere.
Courtesy of John Caleb
What's something that makes lettering different from other types of tattooing? It's all a challenge of an artist's linework. If you don't have clean, crispy linework, it's out in the open for people to see it. You can't hide it in shading or in the colors. A lot of people have been tattooing for decades, and they can do a really awesome black and gray portrait or a big eagle on someone's chest, but they can't write a name. Even as an apprentice, I was writing names for people who had been tattooing for a long time.
How has tattooing changed for you since you started? Well, I have a lot more gray hair now than I did before. It's tough to balance tattooing with my life outside of tattooing. I have two boys and a wife, so I have to balance being a tattooer, a dad, a husband, an artist, all of that. As a shop, it's all based on Yelp reviews now, so if you don't have good Yelp reviews, no one is coming in. Even the TV shows, they give us more attention, but that attention isn't always wanted.
Speaking of the TV shows, what's one thing you wish people knew about tattooing? I think people are just too afraid to leave the tattoo in the tattooer's hands. They're so quick to get tattooed by the guy down the street, but if you do research and find the guy who fits what you want, then let them do the tattoo.
Would you have any advice to another young tattooer opening their own shop? Be open for change, you never know what's going to happen. Also, always give yourself some time away from the shop to keep yourself grounded. I started working six days a week during my apprenticeship, and I got used to it, so I still work six days a week. I still make sure to give myself time away from the shop though.
Do you do other kinds of art outside of tattooing? I watercolor a lot. I used to paint like everyday. I just have piles of original paintings all over the place. I have a hard time getting rid of them because when I leave this earth, I want to leave my sons something. I want them to be overwhelmed by them, to have like 1000 to 2000 paintings. I'm also working with Travis Barker and Famous Stars and Straps on a shirt that just came out. That's pretty cool because I've been following his brand for years. I still have the first shirt they made, and now I'm going to have my own shirt from them.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss OC Weekly's biggest stories. Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts