JJ Sawyer may seem like your typical Chicano tatooer from San Diego if you just look at him, but think again. Sure, the owner of Players Club Tattoo Parlor started tattooing in high school with his brothers in San Diego, but his family relocated to Madrid before Sawyer could graduate. And then there's that last name–Sawyer? Not exactly popular with raza, amiright?
"I did my first tattoo on my brother when I was 15, he was 11," Sawyer says. "My dad had tattoos, but my mom was a Christian schoolteacher, so it was always like 'Hide them from mom!'"
Upon finishing high school in Spain, Sawyer decided to make a tattooing pilgrimage throughout Europe, spending the second half of the '90s and beginning of the new millennium jetting back and forth between SoCal and countries such as Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and the U.K. to hone his ink skills.
"I was just out there figuring things out and having a good time," Sawyer says. "When my brothers were still in high school, they would come out to visit me and they didn't want to go back. One time, my mom came out to get them and said she wasn't leaving until they left with her."
These days, things seemed to have worked out for the Sawyer brothers, as JJ's two biological siblings and the close friend his family "adopted" through tattooing all run their own shops as well, in Hawaii, Amsterdam, and Toronto. The California-based portion of the Sawyer tattooing family opened the Huntington Beach location in 2010 after spending four years working at Good Time Charlie's in Anaheim.
Why Huntington, besides the obvious reasons like HB being Tattoo Central in OC? Sawyer has always enjoyed the ocean (duh), and HB seemed like the perfect midpoint between the sketchiness of Long Beach and pretentiousness of Newport Beach.
"I didn't want to do San Diego because I know too many people, and I didn't want to be tattooing for 18-packs of beer," Sawyer says. "Huntington Beach is a great place to tattoo. It's all about tattoos, surfing, skating, fighters–everyone's into tattoos. I love it."
Before setting roots in HB, Sawyer made sure to pay his dues to the tattoo world. The father of two's plan was simple: wait at least a decade to open up his own shop and learn from as many of the planet's top tattooers in the meantime.
"I've been to all the coolest spots in the world and worked for as many cool people as I could," Sawyer says. "I put the hood stuff behind me pretty early on, and I just want to learn from as many legends as I can."
Over the last two decades, Sawyer has evolved from a young black-and-gray "Southern Cali-style" ink slinger to an accomplished tattoo artist in just about all styles. He's been tattooed by the iconic Horiyoshi III in Japan, learned about Polynesian ink from Si'i Liufau (owner of Garden Grove's A-Town Tattoo and one of OC's premier Polynesian tattooers), and picked the brains of the area's American Traditional legends like Rick Walters. He even drove a lowrider up to the Bay Area just to hear a lecture from Don Ed Hardy. Ultimately, he's learned that tattooing really comes down to one thing: pleasing the customers.
"I think the most important thing is that the customer is happy and the end result is good," Sawyer says. "Getting that big smile and them thanking you is the best part. I would prefer if it's something I like to tattoo, but if it's something that I really don't want to do, there are guys here who can do just about anything."
You and your brothers started tattooing so young, are your kids into tattooing?
When we were little, the church our mom took us to had a tattoo shop next to it. During church classes, I would take off and tell them I had to go to the bathroom when really I'd sneak off to look inside the shop and listen to the buzzing of the machines. My kids like to come hang out at the shop, but they don't have to do anything like that.
How is it having brothers that you can constantly compare yourself to as an artist?
Well, my brother Danny lives on the other side of the world, so I only see him about once a year. He does a lot of traditional and tribal tattoos at his shop in Amsterdam. Chris, I see a lot more, and he does great Japanese work in Hawaii. He does bodysuits and he's really into the culture, he married a Japanese woman. He loves all that stuff. I'm posted up here in Southern Cali, and I do a lot of the black and gray stuff, so there's still some friendly competition but we don't do the same styles. It was always the same thing growing up. Football, skating, we used to play poker, boxing matches, wrestling, it was a brotherhood like that.
What's your favorite part about tattooing?
I love the tradition of it all. Whether it's color or black and gray, tribal, Japanese, traditional, everything's about tradition. I also love to be able to travel and make money and meet so many cool people. That's a very big part of it. It's probably the most difficult form of art in the world because you're working on another person's body, and it's there forever. My biggest worry is that I run out of space, I wish I had like eight arms because I have so many cool sleeve ideas. Sure,, it hurts to get tattooed, but it's like the sacrifice you make to the tattoo gods. Especially if you work and make money doing it.
This is a big shop, how do you manage to run everything?
Well, we've got seven stations set up, but one is a double so we have eight guys tattooing. It's managed by Justin Hendrick, and he does a great job. We're open from noon until midnight, so we run two shifts, a morning shift and a night shift. It keeps the crew nice and fresh to do a six-hour shift instead of being here all day and night, but we don't believe in wasting time. If you're here at the shop, you're keeping busy doing something. Either you're tattooing, painting, promoting things on social media. If you're on your phone, it better be to promote something and not to make a booty call. Once you're a part of the Players Club family, people know these guys are good, so I always encourage them to travel.
How was tattooing while traveling through Europe different than tattooing in America?
There are so many different cultures in Europe. Going from one country to another is like going from San Diego to Los Angeles to San Francisco. It was a wonderful experience. We were always welcomed with open arms and people always treated us well. It's funny, because people helped us out because we were from out here. They'd hear we were from Cali and they'd be like "Oh these guys are from Cali, they must be good!" Out here, it's the opposite. People hear you tattooed in Europe and they think "Oh these guys tattooed in Europe, they must be good!" After you start tattooing, you should definitely put some time in on the road. Go see if you can tattoo somewhere you don't speak the language. I like to say that life starts at the end of your comfort zone.
Players Club Tattoo Parlor, 18822 Beach Blvd, Huntington Beach, 714-968-0658, Instagram: @jjplayersclubtattoo