Living Art Gallery Tattoo Lounge's Monte Livingston on How Tattooing Compares to Painting

One of South County's premier fine art tattooers.
One of South County's premier fine art tattooers.
Courtesy of Monte Livingston

The walls of Monte Livingston's Living Art Gallery Tattoo Lounge are decorated not with tattoo flash, but fine art and paintings. The tranquil waiting area is sectioned off from the drawing/painting/tattooing area by a set of large glass doors; the whole thing looks like a more appropriate place for paint brushes than tattoo needles. That's just how Livingston wants it, and exactly why he's hosting a an art show there this Saturday.

"It's not just going to be a tattoo art show," Livingston says. "There are going to be a lot of really beautiful pieces here. There'll be food and music. It'll be a full show and a very entertaining event. We've done shows here before, but this will be different. Everyone has their own style."

It makes sense for Living Art Gallery to have an art show, because its owner is more of a fine artist himself. The San Clemente native started tattooing after being inspired by a San Clemente High School art teacher to pursue the types of art that truly inspired him.

"I was originally a painter, but a teacher told me I should focus on the art that excited me when I was 15 years old," Livingston says. "At 15, everything I was using was handmade. Now you can go down the street and buy everything you need to tattoo. The school didn't know about it, but that art teacher let me tattoo a client in his classroom for a senior project."

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From there, Livingston was almost entirely self-taught. He never had a formal apprenticeship, instead tattooing out of a studio he'd set up at his grandparents' house and watching other artists' hand movements and techniques. He didn't even work under anyone else at another shop before opening up Living Art Gallery in 2011. While that type of intro to the tattoo world might be frowned upon by veterans of the industry, Livingston is part of the new breed of ink peddlers, the type who learns their fundamentals through art schools rather than dirty tattoo shops.

"It gets me so excited to see more people really pushing the boundaries of art in tattoos, it gives me the chills," Livingston says. "When it first came about and I started seeing it, I knew it could be done even better. It moved so fast that now it's exciting to see artists pull off what you didn't even think was possible in a tattoo."

Because of his background in art rather than tattooing, the 29-year-old is pretty accustomed to fielding questions about whether or not his style of tattoo will hold up a few years down the line, given its bold coloring and the fact that it often lacks of a traditional black outline. But Livingston believes the principles of art hold true regardless of the medium.

"The new ink stays in the skin really well, so the need for a big black outline isn't there as much if you have some really good contrast in the piece," Livingston says. "The contrast becomes the outline. The concepts are the same in painting and tattooing, but the difference is in the application. In painting, you use bigger brushes for bigger spaces and then get smaller for the finer details, which is the exact same as tattooing. The movement of the hand is totally different though, and I really like working on surfaces that aren't flat."

Livingston took a break from tattooing and painting for a living to spend some time as a lifeguard and various other jobs, but he's always kept both art forms as a part of his life and never plans to stop either. These days, he enjoys alternating between the two whenever he can, as they both build off one another and fill different areas of his life.

"Sometimes, I paint for hours and hours, but then I get excited to see people again instead of being in a studio by myself," Livingston says. "The bummer about tattooing is that you never get to see it again. You have the photos you took, but you may never see the actual tattoo again. I don't sell any of my original paintings anymore because I just like to see them. That's the bad thing about tattoos is you don't get to see them day to day."

Living Art Gallery Tattoo Lounge, 3107 S El Camino Real, San Clemente, 949-292-9669. Instagram: @monte_livingston

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