London Reese has only been tattooing seriously for about 8 years, but he already sounds like a wise old man when talking about his beginnings.
“I got into tattooing through knowing that I wanted to be covered in tattoos pretty young,” Reese says. “I listened to a lot of punk rock and metal, and I did a lot of skating in my day. All of the guys I looked up to and admired and idolized had lots of tattoos, so I kind of knew I wanted to look like that.”
Even as a child, the Yorba Linda native had already found his creative streak through playing music, drawing, painting, and discovering new techniques on a skateboard. By the end of his high school days in Corona, many of Reese’s friends were encouraging him to begin tattooing.
“In high school and even junior high, people would ask me to tattoo because I was always drawing tattoo designs,” Reese says. “At lunch or during snacks, I’d draw tattoos on other kids with markers. I kind of became known as the tattoo guy."
Instead of moving into tattooing as a career, Reese chose to go to college while casually doing a few tattoos as a hobby. Unlike every other form of art the young tattooer had tried, tattooing didn’t come naturally to him at first. After briefly tattooing some friends, Reese put away his machines to continue his education and had all but given up on tattooing for a living.
“I really got mad at [tattooing], and I resented that I wasn’t good at it,” Reese says. “After a couple years of college, I had this itch to do it again, because I hated that it got the best of me.”
With the newfound motivation to tackle the one art form that had eluded him, Reese realized he would need to learn the right way to tattoo at a reputable shop if he was going to make another run at it as a career. The combination of the education he’d received in college and the experience of tattooing at a real shop – and learning the right way the second time around – put Reese in a position to excel very early on in his tattooing career.
These days, Reese is one of the many top-notch ink-slingers working out of Vatican Studio in Lake Forest, and his artistic style translates on everything from somewhat illustrative color work to more realistic black and gray pieces. As with anyone who grew up admiring tattoos more than a decade ago, he only got to see the very early examples of the pieces he now does when he was first becoming interested.
“When I was younger, all I had were the tattoo magazines,” Reese says. “It was the early 2000s, and I was always drawn to that kind of new school illustrative stuff that was just coming out. It was so highly rendered, it was like if traditional tattooing is old school animation, this was kind of Pixar animation.”
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Before he began tattooing, Reese was already drawing more modern animation, and that carried over into his tattooing. From Alice in Wonderland to The Nightmare Before Christmas, Harry Potter to anime, Reese’s work shines the most when he has the artistic freedom of working with an illustration.
Sure, his portraits and realism are on point as well, but that’s a lot easier to come by than someone who can take a modern animated movie and truly make the design their own. For Reese, it’s all how he pays the rent these days – particularly since he went the opposite direction from the career path his parents had taken and laid out for him.
“I was always taught to go to college, get a degree, and get a nine-to-five job because it’s stable,” Reese says. “With tattooing and any art-based career, it’s not always easy to find job security. If you reach a level of cultural success, people think you’ve got it good. But if tattooing is your only income, you don’t have benefits from a company, and you don’t get money if you don’t go in to work. The work you put in is what you get out of it.”
Vatican Studios, 22622 Lambert St., Suite 306, Lake Forest, @londonreese