Tattooing Icon Carlos Torres Talks the Art of Tattoos and San Pedro's Tattoo Scene

Carlos Torres is one of the world's finest black and gray tattooers.EXPAND
Carlos Torres is one of the world's finest black and gray tattooers.
Courtesy of Carlos Torres

Carlos Torres is changing the way people look at black and gray tattooing one tattoo at a time.

His studio-like shop in San Pedro, Timeline Gallery, is now a destination for fans and elite artists of the colorless style alike. The oil paintings on the walls are a far cry from the flash of other shops, and you won’t find anyone doing average tribal or basic traditional tattoos within.

Torres has taken the artwork involved in tattooing to a new level. Rather than basing his designs off of tattoos or references that another artist created, the tattooer makes sure that each piece he creates is unique. From hiring models and setting up a photo shoot to crafting a painting and/or tattoo from the photos he took, every step of the process is exclusive to Torres.

“I started off just doing it with painting, but as I got more into it, I started doing my own photography too because I kept seeing everyone using the same references for tattoos,” Torres says. “Part of me thought I had to change it up and be different, and I like the idea of my clients having completely custom pieces – especially when I’m doing big back pieces – so it’s worth the trouble of getting the model, costume, photo shoot, and setting it all up for that tattoo. That’s theirs forever, and it makes it that much more special.”

Although it would likely cost some tattooers quite a bit of time and money, Torres would like to see his methods spread. For the Long Beach resident, it simply means focusing his time and effort on bigger pieces (like entire backs and sleeves) from clients who appreciate his work rather than taking walk-ins or doing entirely custom pieces at a collector’s request.

Of course, Torres’ dedication to the art and the striking realism that results from his process helped him to stand out across the globe. He’s been pegged as one of the artists who have changed the tattooing world recently, and he now spends many of his weekends flying to other states and countries to lead seminars and attend conventions. But as far as the artist is concerned, he has to keep his nose to the grindstone just to keep up with the rest of today’s tattooers.

“It’s just such a good friendly competition,” Torres says. “I hate to say it, but you can’t even rest. You have to keep on working and working hard. I spend my day off trying to come up with new art anyway, so now it’s just kind of embedded in me. There are so many good artists, and they’re getting better and better every day.”

But while thousands of incredible tattoo artists dot the globe, Torres also has some of the strongest local competition in the world. Long Beach has always been a hub for tattooing – with San Pedro not far behind it – and there are certainly plenty of great shops and artists there now. While the modern guys get more than enough love on Instagram and through the rest of the internet, it’s the older generations Torres wishes people knew more about.

“I think the bummer is that too many younger people won’t know the history of Long Beach tattooing and San Pedro,” Torres says. “It’d be nice to get it a little more out there. I’ve been talking with [Outer Limits Tattoo owner and tattooing legend] Kari Barba and she’s been telling me how she wants to start pumping up the history of it a little bit.”

With the South Bay’s history of tattooing alongside the numerous shops that cover it now, it seems like there will always be new artists pushing tattoos to new levels. Even if the popularity wanes a bit from where the reality shows got it, Torres knows that the next great tattooer is out there somewhere.

“I just want to see people advance and keep advancing,” Torres says. “I know some people are starting to get into the computer programs and building their own art in there, but I just want to see the art keep advancing. I have a lot of free space to get tattooed because I know there’s some kid in kindergarten right now who’s going to change the tattoo world, and I want to get tattooed by him when I’m like 60.”

Timeline Gallery, 1117 S Pacific Ave, San Pedro, 310-833-6900, @carlostorresart

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