When your older brother is one of the most well-respected tattoo artists in the region, there are going to be some pretty high expectations for you if you choose to ink for a living.
Gustavo Lopezknows exactly how lofty those expectations can be, but the younger brother of Jose Lopez says that he couldn't see himself doing anything else. Of course, it probably doesn't hurt that he started hanging around tattoo shops with his brother at the age of 12.
"I got into it really young," Lopez says. "My brother was very strict though, he'd make sure I did my homework first, and then I'd be allowed to sweep the floors and help clean the shop."
Before he even got into Garden Grove High School, Lopez had already spent enough time around a tattoo shop to learn to pierce and to make his own tattooing needles. As a freshman, he got a quarter-sleeve from his brother, which he says helped him fit in socially with his older football-playing friends.
"You always saw seniors with tattoos, so that was kind of my way in to be cool with my friends," Lopez says. "By the time I was 16 or 17, I started tattooing my friends who were on the football team."
Upon graduating from Garden Grove High School in 2006, Lopez had the option of going to college or learning to tattoo under his brother. He chose the latter, but his brother made sure that he started slow, with basic small tattoos.
"My brother always used to say 'If you can't perfect a small tattoo, what makes you think you can do a bigger one?' That always stuck with me," Lopez says. "I had some big shoes to fill to work with my brother, so that always motivated me."
Lopez, 27, recalls that during his early years of tattooing, he and his brother would go from shop to shop looking for a place to work. Lopez believes that being turned down by so many shops early in his career led his brother to want to open his own shop, and caused Lopez to look at tattooing in a different manner.
"It taught me that you have to be passionate about tattooing. There are shops everywhere now, and there are so many kids who want to be tattoo artists," Lopez says. "I think back to getting kicked out at all of those shops, and I think that's why we take on so many apprentices who are passionate about what they do."
These days, Lopez runs Orange's branch of Lowrider Tattoo Studios, while his brother handles his business out of the shops in Fountain Valley and London. Much like his brother, Lopez is known for his realistic black and gray tattoos, but their style of tattooing isn't the only thing the two brothers have in common.
"I'm always working to get better, and I'm always learning. I'm motivated to be as good as my brother and build up the clients like he has," Lopez says. "But if you ask my brother, he'll tell you how he could've done some of the tattoos so much better, and we'll all be like 'Are you kidding?' He tattoos at such a high level, but we both just have really high expectations, and we're motivated to keep learning."
What's one tattooing memory that you'll never forget?
The first time I tattooed in London, I didn't really know where my life was heading, and this guy came in to get a tattoo. He spent all of his money, his college money and everything, to get there and get tattooed. He ended up crashing with us for two days, because he didn't have anywhere else to go. Another time when we went to Spain, these people took us in to their homes and fed us and just made us feel like family, so then when we tattooed them, we told them their money was no good and we did it for free. It's nice that even when you feel like you're alone here, there are still people in other countries who you know you can count on.
Would you change any of the tattoos that you did on your friends early on?
I would, but I wouldn't. I've already fixed some of those tattoos for free on my buddies. I think back to then, and my work sucked, but that's also where I started. Any time you start doing anything, you're going to fail, but it eventually makes you who you are. Some of my friends won't let me fix their tattoos because they think if I get famous or something, they want to have one of the first tattoos I ever did.
What's the key to a really good black and grey realism tattoo?
It's really the detail and the depth of the tattoo, and just making sure you have clean lines. The stencil has to be perfect, that's the main key to the piece. If you do the stencil the right way, then when you transfer it to the skin, it'll look good. If you can't perfect the stencil, you're already going to be moving and changing the tattoo a lot when you start tattooing. Drawing regularly is a benefit too, it helps with ideas and keeps your mind open, so you can be constantly learning.
How does your brother motivate you?
It's crazy to me, because there are these people all around the world who want to get tattooed by us. We're just some guys from California, and I remember when we couldn't get jobs tattooing out here. Now, he's really shown that with the time and dedication, you can go from just tattooing friends and family to having celebrities on a waiting list for you. I really push myself to reach that goal, and I'm trying to do it just by word of mouth and acting the way that I am. It's just about pushing yourself to always get better.
What would be your advice to someone thinking about getting a tattoo?
Really think about it and sleep on it. Make sure it's what you want, because it's going to change your life.