For Steve Carballo, tattooing was just the next step in his artistic journey. The 27-year-old who’s better known as the Los Angeles River has already been tattooing for a decade, but that came after a solid five years of graffiti and at least a handful more drawing. These days, the local artist still spreads his work across several different mediums, but — like many of his graffiti heroes — tattooing has become one of his main sources of income and artistic expression.
“I always looked up to all these famous graffiti people, and they were always such big influences on me,” Carballo says. “A lot of them started going into tattooing, and I’d see them in forums and magazines because it was before Facebook or Instagram or anything like that. They were making money out of it and getting kind of big, so I figured this was my outlet. I could turn from spray paint to tattooing and actually make money out of it instead of spending money and getting in trouble.”
Although Carballo’s interest in tattooing as a career may have come from his idols, his initial start came from the kids he was hanging out with while growing up in the San Fernando Valley. As a bunch of high schoolers with nothing to do other than skateboard, graffiti, and otherwise get into trouble, Carballo and his friends became interested in tattoos at a very young age. From there, it was only a matter of time before the lifelong artist tried his hand at it.
“Growing up, everybody was into graffiti, tattoos, punk rock, hip-hop and skateboarding, so when we were turning 15 or 16, everyone in the neighborhood wanted tattoos already,” Carballo says. “I got my first tattoo when I was 15 in the back of some nasty apartment building, and I was just looking for anyone to tattoo me. Everyone was looking for who would tattoo them, so since I was the best person at drawing in the neighborhood, my friends just asked me if I would tattoo them.”
A $50 eBay purchase later, Carballo had his first tattoo machine and plenty of friends to serve as guinea pig clients. After learning the basics in his parents’ kitchen, Carballo developed a penchant for classic black and gray tattoos. It’s a style he still occasionally does from time to time, but most people go to the Los Angeles River Tattoo Company for his unique minimalistic blackwork designs. Sometimes for as low as $100, fans can take home one of Carballo’s timeless designs — often featuring some of his favorite subject matter.
“Where the tattoo industry is at this moment, you have to have something special or unique to your artwork where you can see a tattoo, spot it from 10 feet away and know so-and-so did that one,” Carballo says. “I feel like that’s what’s really important in the industry these days. When you see a regular traditional piece or a regular black and gray piece, anybody could’ve done it at any standard street shop. What really makes you stand out as an individual is having pieces that show a specific content specific to that tattooer.”
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But while many other tattooers develop their personal styles from their local mentors, Carballo’s work comes with more of a global influence. After all, he’s only been back in Southern California for a few months, and the recent years spent in places like Norway, Sweden, Indonesia, and Japan have certainly left a mark on him as a person and as an artist.
“I’ve been full-time travel tattooing all over the world for the last six years,” Carballo says. “I barely just moved back to the States in February, so I definitely derived my style from the influences of where I’ve been traveling. My style is more European influenced. There are a lot more tattooers similar to me in places like London and Stockholm because those are places that I’ve lived that influenced how I draw and design.”
The Los Angeles River Tattoo Company, @thelosangelesriver