Lio Faamasino didn't start with a formal apprenticeship in tattooing. He didn't learn in a shop, and he originally bought a machine to ink himself out of his own home. All three of those details would make any veteran laugh someone out of a room, but Faamasino has proven doubters wrong again and again.
"I got my wife's name tattooed on me by her brother when I was 21. From then on, I was addicted," Faamasino says. "I started tattooing four years later because he was taking too long to tattoo me, so I figured I'd start tattooing myself. That didn't work, I couldn't really tattoo myself, but I started messing up my friends."
After tattooing out of his garage for nearly a decade, Faamasino eventually moved down from his hometown of Carson to one of the best Polynesian-style shops in OC, A-Town Tattoo in Garden Grove. While Polynesian tattooing, often confused with "tribal" tattoos, isn't as prevalent in OC as American traditional or black and grey work, the all-black geometrically-complex style often carries strong meaning and stories for those who wear it, particularly those with Polynesian heritage, such as the Samoan Faamasino.
"When I first started tattooing, it wasn't because it was a part of my heritage, but getting my Tatau [traditional Polynesian tattoo] here opened the door for me tattooing at this shop," Faamasino says. "There are a whole lot of people who do Polynesian [tattoos] out of their house. But I think we're the main shop for it in the county."
While Polynesian ink (sometimes tapped in by hand, although Faamasino uses a standard machine) is known for its abilities to convey stories and meaning, it's not the only way the enormous tattooer shares tales through his work. Faamasino may actually be better known for his creative lettering work than his Polynesian tattoos.
"I started by getting into graffiti at 13, and the people I hung out with were older, so they knew about what was cool and then they'd pass it down to me," Faamasino says. "I never really stopped doing my lettering, but I didn't think you could just do lettering all the time as a tattoo artist."
Over time, Faamasino learned he could make a living as a tattooer based around his lettering. For him, it's not just writing some words; developing each letter is truly an art form, one that drew the attention of Sullen Art Collective.
"I design a lot of the writing for Sullen Clothing," Faamasino says. "I started just sending them a bunch of my lettering on Facebook, and eventually, they noticed me. I was in Sullen's art show at Ink-N-Iron this year. It was my second-ever, and I wanted everything to be perfect for that. It was cool, but it's very different from tattooing."
How has your life changed since you began tattooing? Now, if I'm not here, I'm at home. I used to party and drink a lot, but now I'm 40 and I have three kids. Tattooing allows my wife to stay at home with them, which is important because there are some long nights here at the shop. She understands it because her brother is a tattooer.
Have you tattooed your wife's brother yet? I did for the first time not that long ago. He gave me my first tattoo, so we talked about how it wasn't that long ago that I was in his seat and he was in mine. I was pretty nervous on that one, but it turned out really well.
Would you let your kids get tattoos? Absolutely. It would be no problem, but I've set some guidelines for them. I told them they can't get tattoos on their face, and not to get tattooed in very visible spots until they're established in what they want to do. Who knows? Maybe they'll be tattooers. One of them already thinks she is, drawing tattoos on herself and everything.
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What do you think people should know about doing lettering? People think lettering is just lettering. They think it's the same as just writing some words on someone's skin.They don't see the time I put into every letter. I'm always looking for new ways to do letters and words. I don't want any two to be exactly the same.
Do you have a favorite part about either lettering or Polynesian tattooing? My favorite part is when I put together a really smooth lettering piece that just flows perfectly. It's very stressful to draw it on and to come up with the perfect way to do it, but it pays off most of the time.
A-Town Tattoo, 12776 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, 714-534-8784, Instagram @liotattoos