As a young black and gray tattooer, Abe “Reuster” Mendoza has certainly had plenty of artists to admire before and during his young career. The Long Beach native only has to look south from his current location in San Pedro to see industry icons such as Franco Vescovi and Jose Lopez, while to the north are legends like Freddy Negrete and Chuey Quintanar.
But after tattooing for less than a decade, Mendoza is already known as one of the best at what he does.
“Tattooing here is tough,” Mendoza says. “Growing up, I would spend hours looking at the work of a lot of these guys. Everyone from my friend and mentor, (Dolorosa Tattoo Studio’s) Alex Garcia, to guys like Jose Lopez has given me inspiration for myself and to branch out into other styles.”
Although he didn’t get his first tattoo until he was 20-years-old, Mendoza’s initial interest in his current profession came in high school when one of his teachers suggested he do it for a living.
“In high school, girls would come sit next to me, and I would draw on their arms,” Mendoza says. “It was my way of flirting with them, and I’d always had an appreciation for the art of tattooing.”
Drawing on chicks’ arms in high school might not exactly be tattooing, but it was a start along the right path. When Mendoza finally got that first tattoo years later, he noticed that the artist’s drawings were no better than his. While that would eventually become the catalyst to launch Mendoza’s career, he understood tattooing’s unforgiving nature enough to pick the brain of other artists first rather than just buying a machine and going for it.
“I’ve always admired tattooing for being so permanent,” Mendoza says. “You only get one chance when you’re tattooing, so it’s a very delicate art.”
Mendoza tried to find an apprenticeship in his early 20s, but could never find one specific shop to take him in. Instead, he learned from those around him, and his art school background certainly helped as well.
“I was a full-time art student at Long Beach City College before I started tattooing, but I felt like the teachers there weren’t giving me too much guidance,” Mendoza says. “I just wasn’t learning like I wanted to. I even taught a class there once, because my teacher knew that I knew about using stencils from when I used to do some graffiti.”
If he had to do it all over again, Mendoza still believes it would’ve been beneficial for him to find an apprenticeship when he was first beginning. Sure, he’s found his way just fine without it, but apprenticing would’ve allowed him to pick up some extra knowledge early in his career, rather than having to learn it all along the way.
“I think an apprenticeship can be the most important part of getting into tattooing,” Mendoza says. “If I had an apprenticeship, I probably wouldn’t have done all of those crappy tattoos on my cousins and friends. You learn everything from the history of tattooing to the right body placement for tattooing certain areas. If you don’t get an apprenticeship, you might not even learn about proper sanitation, which is very important.”
Above all of the other lessons the 28-year-old has learned over the last handful of years, one stands out from the rest. Tattooing has to be taken seriously.
“You have to take care of yourself,” Mendoza says. “I’d tell (a younger version of) myself to try to party as little as possible, because I was partying a lot. Now, I focus completely on the art. It’s really the love of my life.”
Original Tattoo, 629 S. Gaffey St., San Pedro, 310-872-3673, @reuster