If you’ve spent time in enough different tattoo shops around the southwest, odds are you’ve run into someone who knows Rich Martinez. It’s not that Martinez has been around longer than every other tattoo artist or that he’s worked at a lot of shops, the network the 40-year-old tattooer has grown is primarily due to his decade-plus spent apprenticing one respectable tattooer after another.
While other artists are busy trying to up their likes and followers on Instagram, Martinez is focused on taking young passionate talent and turning it into a solid skill set that the pupil will be able to use for years to come. It’s not just a matter of giving back for the experienced black and gray artist, but it’s also how he stays on top of his own game.
“After tattooing for a few years, I started to realize how grateful I was and that I needed to give back,” Martinez says. “The first person I apprenticed was [well-known Las Vegas artist] James Strickland right after he graduated high school. After him, there were quite a few more. I always felt like if somebody wanted to do this for a living and needed some direction, I’d help them anyway that I can. Even though I’m teaching them, I’m re-teaching myself the things that I learned years ago. That keeps me hungry and fresh. Those same artists who I apprenticed are the ones who now I’ll ask for advice, and they keep me in the loop.”
A big part of the reason for Martinez’s passion for apprenticing stems from his early interest in tattooing and those who were there to help him. At only 13 or 14 years old, Martinez found himself captivated by a small airbrushing and tattoo shop set up inside of a swap meet in Pico Rivera. Just under a decade later, Martinez was married with kids and learning the bare essentials of tattooing from the artists at that same shop while he was working construction as a day job while tattooing out of his home on the side.
“I started getting tattooed there at least once a year on my birthday when I turned 18,” Martinez says. “I would just talk to them about tattooing, and they took me under their wing in a way. They wouldn’t let me work at the shop, but they told me which machines and tubes to buy. I’d show them my work and they’d laugh at me, but then they’d steer me in the right direction.”
As his skills developed over time, Martinez eventually reached the point where he felt comfortable tattooing in a shop. But his tenure as a shop artist was short-lived, as he took over as the head honcho of Ghosttown Tattoo – the exact same shop he’d seen as a teenager – when the then-owner decided to move to Las Vegas.
Martinez ran every aspect of Ghosttown Tattoo for 12 years until the owner of the building stopped making payments on the real estate and everyone got evicted. While many shop owners and artists would panic upon suddenly losing the business they’d called home for over a decade, Martinez remained calm. He knew he had the skills and clientele to tattoo anywhere, so this was simply an opportunity for a fresh start – preferably one without the stress and hassle of running a busy shop.
Rather than opening a private studio – or even staying in the same area – Martinez took his talents to the renowned Skanvas Tattoo a few years ago. With the shop’s recent move to Cypress, Martinez is eager to continue crafting his skill among OC’s best. But while the veteran artist is as knowledgeable about the legends and icons of today’s tattooing scene as anyone, he also knows that spending too much time looking at the work of others can take the creativity out of your own.
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“The social media that we tend to look at constantly plays a big part of the way a lot of artists view the industry,” Martinez says. “After you’ve been tattooing for 5 or 10 or 15 years, you begin to lose yourself within the industry and social media because you’re constantly viewing everybody’s artwork and trying to compete with everybody. It’s hard to separate yourself and have your own style when you’re looking at so much repetition out there. When you stop competing is when you start to have fun and have your own style.”
Ultimately, Martinez isn’t looking to win competitions or gain the international fame of a TV show. Being a veteran tattooer in a shop full of younger artists means he’s able to come and go as he pleases and doesn’t have to tattoo anyone other than his own clients. It’s those clients who allow for Martinez to support his family, and the artist is perfectly content to service his clients and head back home to spend time with his loved ones. After all, his kids are growing up so quickly that he’s even tattooed a few of them.
“My dad always taught me to take care of your family first and get up and go to work to everyday – that’s what makes you a man,” Martinez says. “You’ve got to take care of your clients and customers along with your family. That’s a big part of it for me.”
Skanvas Tattoo, 4143 Ball Rd., Cypress, 714-236-5956, @_richmartinez