On the other side of Camp Pendleton and some rich little suburbs, Guru Tattoo sits right in the heart of San Diego’s Pacific Beach. Up a flight of stairs and tucked away in a corner, Adam Hathorn can generally be found cracking jokes and inking clients with a style unlike anyone else’s.
Hathorn’s illustrative style is more similar to old skateboard graphics and Mad Magazine cartoons than it is any standard type of tattoo. Bright colors, bold lines, and ridiculous details make designs like Virgin Mary Minnie Mouse, Frankenstein Notorious B.I.G., and greaser sloths pop off of clients’ skin. Although some say his work is just a unique take on neo-traditional tattooing, Hathorn believes it’s more about where his artistic interest came from.
“I got into art through cartoons, skateboarding, graffiti, and magazines like Mad and Cracked and whatnot,” Hathorn says. “I’m not a huge fan of the neo-traditional tagline or the ‘new school’ one or any subcategories just because I think they sound corny. I draw silly shit, and I try to apply them traditionally as I can. I’m sure a lot of traditionalists may not agree.”
Although Hathorn’s tattoos look so different from most of what’s out there, the humorous ink slinger believes that many artists share the same roots as him. The only difference is “they grew up and are actual adults these days,” while Hathorn sticks to what made him fall in love with art in the first place.
“It seems like tons of tattooers were graffiti writers at some point,” Hathorn says. “If not that, they were into the rest of that shit for sure. Skateboarding and all of that goes pretty hand-in-hand with tattooing.”
But while those were his original interests and remain his inspirations, Hathorn is quick to mention that he “was never a huge graffiti guy.” As a guy who jokes that he got into tattoos to look tougher (“and it didn’t work”), tattooing provides an outlet for Hathorn where he doesn’t have to worry about getting arrested or injured on a regular basis.
“I got busted a couple times and then called it a wrap in the early 2000s,” Hathorn says. “I occasionally paint something with a friend here or there. The skate thing, I think I can pick out of a lot of tattooers across the board of styles. I think we all skated. I was never that good at that either, but I really loved doing it.”
Hathorn’s decision to stick with tattooing is paying off. With a steady clientele from all over the country and rappers from Action Bronson to Killer Mike of Run the Jewels sporting his work (Killer Mike has even worn Hathorn’s shirts on television), Hathorn’s come a long way from being an illustration student at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. Unlike some of today’s tattooers who go to art school with the intention of tattooing, Hathorn became interested in the trade and began his apprenticeship while still in school.
“I think any education is a positive thing, and I think a lot of tattooers out there could use it,” Hathorn says of his art school background. “Now, would I suggest it for an aspiring tattooer? It’s not mandatory by any means. I’m sure a majority of the greatest tattooers don’t have a degree, and you certainly don’t need one to be a tattooer.”
Hathorn knows you can’t learn everything in school, though. He has plenty of advice for young artists (although he’s saving the best tidbits “for an apprentice [he’ll] never have”). Aside from providing great customer service (“Treat your customers like they’re paying your rent, because they are”) and taking care of your body (“Stretch more, that always helps”), Hathorn believes that staying humble and constantly wanting to improve is the key to being a successful tattoo artist.
“Humility will always be your best friend in this game,” Hathorn says. “Always be open to learn from people, because the second you stop is the second the world forgets about you. A plateau is a high plane by definition, but it can be career suicide in most artistic fields, especially tattooing.”
As for those who don’t favor humility and want to get into tattooing because they thought it looked cool after seeing it on TV or want to make a lot of money (which rarely, if ever, happens), Hathorn has advice for them as well.
“Just because you can draw doesn’t mean that you can tattoo,” Hathorn says. “That’s like saying ‘I used to ride a bicycle, so I should be able to fly that jet, no problem.’ Unless you are willing to cash in your ego, forget what you know and put your nose to the grindstone for years without any pats on the back or money, don’t bother. We don’t need you or want you anywhere near tattooing. We already have more untalented egomaniacs than we will ever need.”
Guru Tattoo, 1122 Garnet Ave., San Diego, 858-270-1070, @honkeykonger