While most tattooer work their entire career just to get known for one style, Pacific Beach’s Kyle Walker has managed to narrow it down even further. He’s not known as “the traditional guy” or “the realism guy”: he’s the “the shark guy.”
Yes, Walker does plenty of tattoos with other subject matter, and his sharks and other work all tend to lean toward the American traditional category, but it’s the ocean’s most ferocious predator that’s really helped the 17-year veteran make a name for himself lately.
“Since I was a little kid, I’ve been obsessed with sharks,” Walker says. “In first grade, I did my first science project on sharks, and I wanted to be a marine biologist. I did a couple of different shark sleeves and shark tattoos, and then the whole social media thing came along. It just got out because people were paying attention to what I was doing, and it blew up.”
But as Walker’s notoriety for his predatory fish has grown, the Even Keel Tattoo owner has turned his passion into a movement. While the rest of the country sits on their couches and watches aquatic animals get eaten for seven days, Walker capitalizes on the ever-popular “Shark Week” by knocking out as many shark tattoos as he can and donating some of the proceeds to help save everyone’s favorite razor-toothed sea critter.
“My buddy did this one-week shark special, and I just made it bigger and better and came up with more designs,” Walker says. “It was a huge success the first time I did it, and then we did like 106 shark tattoos in like three days two years ago. This year, I took a bigger approach and wanted to make it a charitable event. We found this organization called Shark Allies, and we raised $1000 for them to help with shark finning prevention and awareness.”
Long before he had news crews showing up at his shop and a sketchbook full of shark designs to tattoo, Walker was just a kid who wanted to learn a forbidden art form. Tattooing wasn’t legalized in the artist’s home state of Massachusetts until 2001. Nonetheless, a young Walker knew he wanted to get into the industry after seeing some ink through skateboarding and at local punk and hardcore shows, and he wanted to go about it the right way.
“I had a scholarship to go to art school in Boston, but I opted out to move to Salt Lake City because I knew it had a thriving tattoo scene,” Walker says. “I just kind of took that risk, and that’s what I did. I started my apprenticeship in 1998 or 1999, and the rest is history.”
After developing his skills in Utah, Walker was offered a job in helping one of his then-colleagues open up a new shop in San Diego, one of the biggest tattoo communities in the world and a place with way more sharks than Salt Lake City. “I’d never even visited San Diego,” Walker says. “I pretty much voluntarily repo’d my car. I packed my shit, and I came out here.”
Over the last decade, Walker’s established himself as one of the premier tattooers in an incredibly saturated market. He briefly owned the shop he’d moved to San Diego to help open, but decided ownership wasn’t for him at the time. After several more years of working for other owners and running shops that weren’t his, the long-time artist finally decided to take on the additional responsibility of building a tattoo studio from the ground up when he opened up Even Keel Tattoo late last year.
“I’ve taken pride in the shops that I’ve worked in, but it’s a little different when it’s yours,” Walker says. “It’s your baby, and you’ve poured every ounce of your energy into it. There literally isn’t a square inch of this place that I didn’t have a hand in building. When you build it up yourself and open up that door in the morning, it’s a completely different feeling than when you’re doing it for somebody else.”
Even Keel Tattoo, 4672 Cass St., San Diego, (858) 581-9195. Instagram: @kylewalkertattoo