Signal Hill Tattoo's Chris Winn on Apprenticing at Bert Grimm's and Tattooing's Evolution

From Bert Grimm's to Signal Hill, Chris Winn has covered a lot of tattooing ground (and still works a few miles from where he started).EXPAND
From Bert Grimm's to Signal Hill, Chris Winn has covered a lot of tattooing ground (and still works a few miles from where he started).
Josh Chesler

Chris Winn has a better tattooing pedigree than your favorite tattooer. He apprenticed under Rick Walters at a shop named Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo, and his lineage before that includes legends like Phil Sims, Bob Shaw, and Bert Grimm himself. As far as American traditional tattooing goes, it’s tough to beat that family tree.

But the list of Winn’s mentors doesn’t end there.

After doing his formal apprenticeship at Bert Grimm’s, Winn headed from Long Beach to Twentynine Palms to begin his career at Realistic Tattoo. The shop was owned by another legendary tattoo artist, Catfish Carl, who taught Winn about the more detailed black and gray styles of tattooing. Learning the two styles at the beginning of his career gave Winn the type of well-rounded foundation few tattooers will ever develop. Over the last 23 years, he’s built upon that knowledge and created a unique blend of the two styles, applying detail and precision to traditional tattoos that few artists can match.

“I love traditional tattoos,” Winn says. “ I love traditional (American) traditional, traditional Japanese, traditional Mexican – like Cholo kinds of things – fine line black and gray traditional.”

While other tattooers are content to focus on one style or just teach themselves to be mediocre in a wide variety of styles, Winn is set on learning from the best in every genre that interests him. Even for the often forgotten art of lettering, the Signal Hill-based tattooer recently went up to LA to learn from some of the best lettering specialists in the world.

As known and knowledgeable as he is now, Winn didn’t always want to tattoo. His first love was music (he currently plays in a band appropriately called Winn the Band), and he had a job working construction that paid for his passion. When an injury caused his dismissal from his career wearing hardhats and the ensuing lawsuit paid for him to train in anything he wanted to, he went with tattooing in 1993.

“When I started, you would walk down the aisle in the grocery store as a tattooer and little old ladies would turn around and go down a different aisle,” Winn says. “Now, they all grab your arms and go ‘Oh, that’s beautiful!’ Wives were only getting tattooed in places where only their husband could see it.”

That’s not to say Winn dislikes where tattooing has gone over the last two decades. He believes the level of skill and art in tattooing is at an all-time high and that the growth and changes that were taking place when he first started are just being expedited these days. But at the same time, Winn still feels extremely grateful for the little anchor tattooed just above his thumb on the back of his hand. It’s the mark every tattooer left Bert Grimm’s with, and it’s the sign of someone who’s put in his time and learned to tattoo the right way.

“When they see this tattoo, they know you’re an O.G.,” Winn says. “I can go into tattoo shops anywhere in the world and work because they know I’m a part of the Bert Grimm’s family.”

And Winn takes full advantage over the travel benefits of tattooing. Whether an NFL player wants to fly him to Miami or a model is bringing him out to Denver for a few days, Winn makes house calls for his clientele whenever necessary. Two decades into his career, Winn’s got tattooing friends all over the world. He knows there’ll be a spot open for him regardless of if he’s making the short drive down to San Diego or flying across the Pacific Ocean to Japan.

As much fun as traveling the globe might sound, any traveling artist will tell you that seeing the world through a tattoo machine isn’t quite as grand and glorious as you’d think. Winn enjoys every minute of it, but that’s because inking people isn’t just his job, it’s what he lives for. From the minute the young artist stepped foot inside Bert Grimm’s, he knew it wasn’t just a career he was getting into.

“Tattooing isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle,” Winn says. “When you see me, you know I’m a tattooer. If you go to my crib, you know a tattooer lives there. You have to commit to the full lifestyle.”

Signal Hill Tattoo, 2105 E 27th St, Signal Hill, (562) 595-9700, @chriswinntattoos


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