After seeing one of his friends get handfuls of tattoos from local artists, David Hamburg began dreaming about how awesome the life of a tattoo artist must be. The NorCal native had always liked tattoos, but his corporate job at AT&T was paying his bills, and his first foray into tattooing only lasted for about 15 minutes before the friend who bought him a cheap tattoo kit couldn’t handle the pain anymore. Nevertheless, the artist continued to ink his friends out of his house for a couple of years before finally landing his first professional tattooing gig at a shop in Whittier about five years ago.
“From the outside, all you see is an artist drawing on people day in and day out,” Hamburg says. “You see their social media posts — all of their travel — and it all looks glamorous. When you start doing it and surrounding yourself with the great artists in the industry, you see how hard they actually work. For a person who’s been working his ass off trying to better his art, it’s an excessive amount of hard work and learning. It’s super rewarding though.”
These days, Hamburg’s work ethic has brought him to Elizabeth St. Tattoo in Riverside, where he’s become one of the most respected realism artists in the city. But while many shops prefer to lump artists of the same (or similar) styles and genres together, Hamburg believes the key to his shop’s sustained success is the wide range of tattooers that owner Brian Foster has brought together into one big family. After all, why only work on the tricks and techniques of one style when you can learn them all and apply the most useful ones?
“We’ve got nine artists here all doing different things, and we’re all booked out for 3-6 months,” Hamburg says. “We take field trips together. We’ve gone on road trips together. We’ve gone to art museums together. But we’ll also just sit and talk together. We can talk on another level because we have someone doing sacred geometry, someone doing traditional, and just all of these different styles that we can all learn from. If it was a shop full of realism guys like me, I wouldn’t learn some of these ideas or techniques from the other styles, and I think that’s what’s really improved my art. It’s super sick.”
Aside from learning from those in his immediate surroundings, Hamburg believes his style has developed along with the evolution of tattooing. Before he began taking the trade seriously, the artist — like many others in the industry — primarily looked up to the legends of black and gray like Jack Rudy and Bob Tyrrell. Hamburg still sees those guys as influences to this day, but he also realizes just how many other amazing artists are out there and how far the tattoo world has come over the last decade. As he sees it, one of the biggest testaments to tattooing’s evolution is the fact that everyone from doctors to businessmen are willing to travel around the globe just to acquire some new ink from their favorite artists.
“I feel like we’re in such a huge art movement now, it’s not just punk rockers and gangbangers getting these tattoos anymore,” Hamburg says. “It’s almost become an upper-level society thing where people are flying from all over the world to get a piece of work from a specific individual with their personal style.”
But as much as Hamburg was initially looking forward to traveling when he first began tattooing, he’s already put it on the back burner a little bit. With how busy he stays at his home shop, there’s not a whole lot of reason for him to leave the comforts of home and family behind. Sure, spending entire weeks doing nothing but driving and tattooing (with a few hours of sleep in between) was fun once upon a time, but it’s not like Hamburg has any shortage of inspiration in his own neighborhood. With realism legend Nikko Hurtado just up the street in Hesperia and numerous other tattooing bigwigs around SoCal, there’s plenty of motivation for Hamburg to stay on top of his game.
“We’re not only the black and gray capital of the world, but you have so much talent in the area that it’s really a dog-eat-dog world,” Hamburg says. “If you’re not a good artist, chances are you’re not doing well. By all means, you can go somewhere else to do black and gray and be very successful, but there’s so much more talent in this area that it really pushes those who want to succeed. When you go to other places where black and gray is really in demand, it’s really rad to see like 20-30 people in awe of what you’re doing.”
Elizabeth St. Tattoo, 3730 Elizabeth St., Riverside, 951-369-6969, @hamburgink