When Long Beach's Port City Tattoo wanted to open a second location in Costa Mesa in 2014, they expected all of the regular problems that go along with expanding a business. For a while, it looked like Port City would have an additional problem, the landlord at their ideal new location wasn't too keen on having a tattoo in his shopping center.
"The only reason we got this place is because the landlord's wife said tattooing was cool," says Eric Jones, who runs Port City's Costa Mesa shop. "He took a chance on us, but it only happened because the awareness is there. The TV shows and everything, they make it less threatening."
Since opening last August, Port City has quickly established itself as a high-quality option for those looking for ink in Costa Mesa. It helps that they have Jones at the helm, who's been working on his craft for nearly two decades.
Of course, everyone starts somewhere, and Jones was introduced to tattooing when he was still in high school and his older friends started getting tattooed. Shortly after high school, Jones began apprenticing in Santa Ana in 1997, although he began drawing his own tattoo designs before he even started his apprenticeship.
"I spent a year bringing in tattoo designs I'd drawn based on tattoo magazines. There weren't tattoo websites or social media or anything back then, so I'd pick the ones I liked out of magazines and draw based on that," Jones says. "I've always been drawn to classic American traditional, but I can tattoo other styles. As a tattooer, you have to do all of the styles. You can't turn away tattoos, you just have to be like a plumber."
For Jones, that hard-working mentality and respect for the trade means he's always focused on doing the best tattoos he can, regardless of content. At the same time, Jones knows that the meaning of a tattoo may be the most important thing for each piece he inks.
"The symbolism for the individual carrying the tattoo – what it means to them – can be the most important thing about it," Jones says. "I'm not worried about what the customer is portraying with a tattoo as long as it's not offensive, I'm just doing my best to make it look like the customer wants it to. How am I supposed to know why a customer wants a certain tattoo?"
Regardless of what a client wants to get or what it means to them, Jones believes everyone should get a tattoo at least once.
"Everyone should experience a tattoo at least once. It gets rid of the illusion that life is this super sacred, serious thing," Jones says. "It's like, you can't enjoy your car without a dent in it, because you're always worried about keeping it perfect. Or do you really even have any drinking stories if you don't have at least one about throwing up?"
How has the tattooing industry changed since you started tattooing?
I don't know that there's too much "Wizard of Oz" magic left in tattooing. A lot of people have been working really hard for a decade or more on the craft, but now they can learn the same amount in a year. It seems like someone compromised on the integrity of the craft to make a quick dollar by making online videos to teach people how to tattoo. There used to be a magic to tattoos. Now, that's getting lost.
Do you think the TV shows had something to do with that?
Yeah, probably. Initially, I thought the TV shows and everything had a negative impact. But there's a definite boom in the industry as a result of people growing comfortable with tattoos. Tattooing can be a full-blown artistic career these days. There's no 1970s stigma on tattoos anymore. I can see both sides of the fence about the TV shows. Like I said, somewhere, the chain was broken and the magic of tattooing was kind of compromised, but it's also helped the industry grow. Some of my greatest heroes are taking the opportunity to be on the shows, so they like them. I'm just one tattooer, it's all way bigger than I am.
What would be your advice to a new tattooer?
Well, tattooing is an industry that allows a lot of freedom. You have the freedom of traveling, the freedom to make your own schedule, it's kind of an independent contractor mentality. The best way to do it is to put the time in and do the craft right. Also, don't be an asshole. The generation before us was going to Japan and Europe to learn all of these things that we already know. Clients will grow to trust your style, and it reassures you that you're on the right path. The general public doesn't know the ins and outs of a good tattoo. They know the basics, but not the details.
How does running a shop differ from tattooing at someone else's shop?
When you run the shop, you have a handcuff around your wrist. You can't just get up and leave. It's tough because you're so used to doing it your way, you really have to humble yourself to let people be how they are. That, and you're constantly worrying about shit you didn't used to worry about. Every shop is different. The shop I worked at in New York was completely different than this. I try to keep it a fun and good environment. Everyone is happy. They don't bring much bullshit for the most part. Almost everyone here has been doing this a long time, so there's not much drama.
How was tattooing in New York different than tattooing in OC?
Working at the shop in Long Island (Da Vinci Tattoo), it was owned by this old school New York Italian guy who was just mean and aggressive. I'd previously been working in Santa Ana, and it showed me a completely different aspect of tattooing. Everyone there worked so hard, and your work was never good enough. It makes you closer to work in an environment like that, in some ways. Those guys are still family, if I called them right now, they'd still pick up the phone. That really anchored my love for tattooing. We went through some stuff that you'd never get away with now at that shop. It was always like "Am I going to get hit or tasered or have a knife pointed at me today?" That shit happened there.
Port City Tattoo can be reached by phone at (714) 708-2120 or on Instagram and can be found at 1145 Baker St. in Costa Mesa.