“I am a successful hood kid,” says Big Gus, the head honcho of Garden Grove’s Collective Ink Gallery, and the recipient of over 400 tattooing awards from around the globe.
As a little niño moving around the cheapest parts of LA – wherever his single mother could afford – Gus always brought his art with him. He started painting and drawing as soon as he was old enough to hold the tools, and began his career as a tattooer by the time he was a teenager.
From the first time Gus tattooed one of his homies, he knew it was what he wanted to do for a living. But while there are hundreds of neighborhood tattooers who think they’re the next big things, Gus actually had the artistic skills and drive to transition from his garage into a shop. Unfortunately, the professional tattoo shop life wasn’t exactly what Gus was looking for.
“I reached a point in my career where I was doing a bunch of Cherry Creek flash – 12 or 13 fucking butterflies, 50 tribals per day, just street style walk-in tattoos,” Gus says. “I didn’t want to die as that guy who was known for doing Cherry Creek, and it opened my eyes that I needed to do the tattoos that I always wanted to do.”
With some professional experience under his belt, Gus went back to his neighborhood roots. But this time, the tattoos coming out of Gus’ LA garage were the type of designs he wanted to do – and they were getting recognition from some of the local stars. Legends like Jack Rudy took notice of Gus’ work at conventions, and his reputation and award collection rapidly grew around the world.
While Gus ascended to international tattooing stardom, he met Ryan Smith of the Sullen Art Collective at one of the early Musink festivals. With Sullen looking to expand their roster of artists and Gus in need of a signature design to become his worldwide calling card, the duo decided to team up on one of the most iconic designs in modern tattooing.
“I had this one particular image that I always wanted to create, so I told Ryan my idea and he had me come to the Sullen warehouse to draw it,” Gus says. “I wanted to do a sexy girl in Day of the Dead makeup with angel wings. I drew the girl and had Ryan draw the wings since it’s a collaboration, and it proved to be the most iconic fucking shirt for the company. It became a worldwide design that people all over the world tattoo on themselves.”
Not long after Gus’ Sullen design took off, the artist was given another opportunity to make a name and face for himself far beyond the average tattooer.
Initially, Spike TV offered Gus a spot on the first season of Ink Master. It seemed like an easy win for the veteran, but after auditioning and waiting for a callback, network executives informed Gus they’d decided to offer the Ink Master slot to someone else. But everything worked out in the end, as Gus was offered a starring role on Spike’s newer Tattoo Nightmares show in 2012 and immediately won over viewers’ hearts with both his tattooing skills and sense of humor.
Although many artists love to hate on the tattooing TV shows – particularly ones like Ink Master that focus more on the drama between artists than the tattoos themselves – Gus believes Tattoo Nightmares showed a positive side of tattooing. Rather than displaying mediocre tattoos with soap opera-like drama, Tattoo Nightmares brought the complex art of cover-up tattoos into living rooms all over the world.
“The good thing about the TV was that we were able to expose good tattooing in a positive way,” Gus says. “The drama was left up to the clients and not the tattoo artists, so it was nice that we were able to do a show based on what tattooing should be like. The tattoo community responded to it really well, and it was all genuine. Me, Tommy (Helm) and Jasmine (Rodriguez) all get along really well, like it wasn’t just a show. Jasmine was even in my wedding.”
But over the last year, Gus has taken on a new project. He’s finally opened Collective Ink Gallery – complete with a full lineup of Sullen-approved tattooers – and it only cost about three times as much and took several months longer than originally planned. As the perfectionist he is, Gus had to make sure that every little detail was exactly what he wanted, from the black-and-white color scheme to the collection of tattooers to the metal skeleton sculptures that greet you (and hold Sullen merchandise) in the lobby.
“It took a year to get finished and a lot of work from a lot of people to get done, but everything was made by Sullen artists here,” Gus says. “It was a nightmare, and it was crazy, but it was worth it. I’m glad it took so long because I finally have the look I wanted, and I can run the shop and be in charge of hiring and everything.
Collective Ink Gallery, 6072 Chapman Ave, (714) 893-3800. Instagram: @biggusink