Ben Grillo grew up around a lot of people with tattoos, and he was pretty sure he wanted to do some kind of an art-based career ever since he was a little kid. But even if becoming a tattoo artist might seem like an obvious choice in hindsight, it took Grillo a few decades to come to that realization on his own. Rather than beginning his tattooing career right out of high school or even college, Grillo spent most of his 20s working as an electrician before finally taking the leap into tattooing.
“I’d been getting tattooed since I was 16 or 17 — and I’d always been into art — but I didn’t start tattooing until I was 29,” Grillo says. “It was kind of a late start, and some of my friends had been hinting that I should be a tattooer but I didn’t think anything of it. I was like ‘Whatever. Fuck it. I can’t do that shit.’ Then the next time I went in to get tattooed, I started asking a lot of questions about it.”
Of course, seeing as this was all happening back in the early 2000s, Grillo was swiftly shot down by his artist and any other tattooers he’d manage to speak with. That didn’t stop him though, and the 29-year-old artist started drawing more tattoo-based designs in order to build a rough portfolio for himself before ever actually landing a gig tattooing. Once he had the very basics of the art down, Grillo ended up landing his first job in the industry a little over 14 years ago.
Since then, Grillo’s become a well-known commodity in the tattoo world. Both his detailed black and gray as well as bright and bold traditional work are as good as it gets, and transitioning from year to year to keep up with the times has been relatively easy for him. Part of the reason for Grillo’s success is his willingness to stick with his strengths rather than jumping on every trend and bandwagon, but a lot of it has been his ability to adjust with the changes in the business side of things — particularly social media.
“Social media is like a double-edged sword,” Grillo says. “When I first started, people would come in and have a magazine or pick something off the wall or just tell you they had an idea and you would go off of that. Now, people come in with their phones with 10 different screenshots of something and want you to collage some crazy shit together. The type of tattoos has totally changed too. It went from being actual tattoo designs to Pinterest tattoos of stuff that probably shouldn’t even be tattooed.
“The good side of it is that you don’t even really need a website or anything anymore,” Grillo continues. “You can just throw your artwork up on Instagram or Facebook and thousands of people will see it. That’s how I get the majority of my clientele — well that and word of mouth. It also pushes the boundaries because people see what other people are doing around the world every day, and the stuff that people are doing now would’ve blown people’s minds 20 years ago.”
But aside from his social media and business savviness, one of Grillo’s biggest draws for his clients is his ability to do fairly detailed and long-lasting tattoos in very small spaces. Whether it’s a pet portrait on an anklebone or a flower on a finger, the veteran tattooer has been doing tiny tattoos for long enough that he knows what works and what doesn’t — even if some critics are concerned that they won’t hold up over time.
“I’ve been doing them for probably like 10 years, and at first it was kind of intimidating because nobody really knew what they would end up looking like,” Grillo says of his tiny tattoos. “There weren’t too many things like that being done back then, but now I’ve done so many of them that I’m pretty comfortable with it. I can tell based on someone’s skin and the size of their finger if it’s going to work or not, and the design has to be something that’s not totally ridiculous where it’s going to look like shit 10 years from now. It’s kind of a novelty thing where I know it’s not going to last forever and they know it’s not going to last forever, but they want that shock value for now.”
American Tattoo, 125 Hanes Pl., Vista, 760-639-4545, @bengrillo