If you only take a look at Horichuy’s work, you’d think the South Bay tattoo artist was born, raised, and classically trained in Japan. And that’s exactly how the American-born and Mexican-raised artist wants it.
“When somebody sees my tattoos, I don’t want that person to know that someone who wasn’t Japanese did it,” Chuy says. “If a Japanese dude who knows what’s up sees it, I want him to think a Japanese dude did it. When I first started, I just wanted to learn as much about Japanese culture as I could. I started looking for Japanese Yakuza and samurai movies. I got very into Japanese art. My idea was to learn from the culture to give it the respect it deserves.”
While Chuy isn’t the only non-Asian artist doing top-notch tattoos in the traditionally Japanese style, he understands the importance of keeping his art true to the standards and guidelines of Japanese artists better than many of his peers. After all, American artists have been bastardizing parts of Mexican culture for decades.
“I’ve seen different cultures doing the same Latino flavor tattoos,” Chuy says. “When I see somebody doing Aztec tattoos or whatever, you always can see if that person did their homework. Or if people are making fun of the Virgin Mary or something that we have a lot of respect for, it’s disrespectful to the culture. I try to follow the exact same line for Japanese tattoos.”
But how did a kid growing up in Mexico become a respected Japanese tattooer? Pretty much the same way most American artists got into it in the time before Instagram. Chuy first got introduced to tattoos through his older brother, but it wasn’t until he saw some Japanese ink in old tattoo magazines that he really began to dream of putting his artistic skills to use as a tattooer.
“When I turned 15, my brother was going to give me a tattoo as a present, but before that I was already into drawing,” Chuy says. “When I went back for my second tattoo, I fell in love with it. A couple years after, somebody loaned me a magazine with some articles about Japanese tattooing, and then it was always in my mind. I knew I liked it before I even knew what it was. It was like lightning hit me.”
Coming from a hardworking Mexican family, it wasn’t easy for Chuy to tell his parents that he wanted to tattoo. At the time – roughly 15 years ago – tattooers were looked down on as street rats, scammers, and lazy artists looking to make a quick buck, and that wasn’t how Chuy wanted to be perceived. For over six years, tattooing was a hobby and then a part-time gig on nights and weekends while the artist put in long hours at a sheet metal machine shop to pay the bills for himself and his daughter. Working on a daily basis with heavy and powerful machinery meant to bend solid metal, Chuy knew that a bad day on the job could spell the end of his fingers and his ink-based passion, and he felt more and more accident-prone the longer he tried to balance tattooing with his day job.
“I would tattoo in a friend’s shop on Hollywood Boulevard, and sometimes we would finish at like 4 in the morning,” Chuy says. “Then I’d have to be at work at 5, so I was trying to live these two lives at the same time. One day I was talking to my mom on the phone, and I told her I was so tired, but I made more tattooing for one day sometimes than I did in a week at my job. She said ‘Then why don’t you quit?’ and that was my last day at a regular job.”
With the blessing from his mother, Chuy quit his nine-to-five in order to pursue his dream of tattooing full time. After starting his tattooing career in the “100 percent Latino city” of Huntington Park – where he’d be tattooing Japanese designs on old cholo dudes covered in Chicano black and gray ink – Chuy now tattoos alongside artists like Jiro and Horitaka at one of SoCal’s most established Japanese shops, Gardena’s Onizuka Tattoo. Because of the shop’s reputations and the artists he sees everyday, Chuy’s desire to keep Japanese traditions alive and well with each of his tattoos is even stronger than ever before.
“I’ve known guys like Jiro and Taka for a long time, but ever since I started working here, I’ve felt an even stronger need to pay respect to the traditions,” Chuy says. “I do everything I can to make every single tattoo within tradition. I don’t do funny stuff like dragons with skulls or realistic tattoos when it’s Japanese style. I’d prefer to send it to somebody else than to do it myself.”
Onizuka Tattoo, 1017 1/4 W. 190th St., Gardena, (213) 626-0374. Instagram: @horichuy