It wasn't easy for Kurtis Gibson to open Black Umbrella Tattoo and Art Gallery on Main Street in Garden Grove. For that matter, it might've been the most difficult and talked-about opening in OC last year.
"Opening the shop here was very controversial," Gibson says. "In 2013, we started the process to open up on Main Street, but it wasn't zoned for tattooing, so it was a long period just trying to start the process."
Gibson, a Garden Grove native, and his wife, Krystin, began to get involved with the city's politics and the owners of Main Street's other businesses. After being campaigned against by people who felt a tattoo shop would bring crime and adult stores to the struggling area, the Gibsons' request was denied by Garden Grove's former mayor and the City Council in August 2014. After local elections changed the council's membership, the Gibsons were granted permission to open Black Umbrella in December 2014.
"Since we opened, just about everyone has been welcoming," Gibson says. "We wanted to bring a different atmosphere to Main Street. [It] wasn't functioning as a normal street; it was struggling because there wasn't much to do. Now, you go to a restaurant, and [then] you have somewhere to go other than your car. You can walk in here and look at the art. We wanted the gallery up front and the tattoo studio in the back. We want people to come in just to look at the art."
The political struggle to open Black Umbrella helped the artist and his wife–who handles the gallery, finances, social media "and everything else"–realize they want to change not only the financial environment of the one-block street, but also its cultural environment. Gibson's victorious opening allowed him the opportunity to make even more changes in Garden Grove.
"The city made me a commissioner for Parks, Recreation and Art. Because of what we went through to open, I kind of became a leader of the change of the old guard," Gibson says. "I was excited to be recognized by the city staff for that."
His new role covers a wide variety of jobs, from helping to decide which playgrounds get installed in which parks to assisting in determining where funds go for some of the city's special events.
His tattoo style has remained unaffected by his city position. His semi-realistic style is influenced by his love for oil, watercolor and acrylic painting. "I enjoy combining line work and dimension in my work," Gibson says. "I like exploring reality, but also things that aren't in reality. I take some parts from traditional tattooing, while others come from more realism. You can use a lot of the same techniques once you learn a handful of the limits of skin. It's not that tough, but it's always different, and it's always hard. Tattooing is very controlled; you know how you want it to look at the end before you start. My painting isn't controlled like that; I enjoy just seeing where it takes me."
How did you get into tattooing?
I was working at a printing shop when my friend told me I was never going to make it in the professional world, so I should try tattooing. A few months later, I started tattooing myself and my friends from my home. I knew if I wanted to be taken seriously, I needed an apprenticeship, so I went to Goodfellas [Tattoo Studio in Orange] and did a full apprenticeship there. I stayed on as an artist there until 2012. I'd always wanted to make a living with my art; in kindergarten, I told my friend I wanted to be an artist.
What are some of the benefits of now running your own studio?
It's fun being in an environment that I have a stake in. I always welcome artists who have the same vision. I want to really separate this shop from a lot of the street shops out there–not that there's anything wrong with street shops. I just want a different environment here.
How has tattooing changed your life?
It's given me the freedom to express my train of thought artistically. It also completely changed my life when I had my apprenticeship. It really taught me to work hard for something. Now, I can explore other mediums, too, so I paint a lot.
What's your No. 1 focus on a tattoo?
It's always on the client being happy with it. I want to push for quality as much as I can, but I want the client to be happy first. I've seen shops and had clients tell me about experiencing a tattooer who says, "I don't care what you want; you should be honored to get tattooed by me." That's not how it should be. Some of my clients call me "uncle" to their kids; I've been invited to weddings, all of that. I pride myself on my clientele being happy.
How has tattooing evolved since you began?
I think the biggest thing is styles that used to only inhabit certain regions are crossing over, thanks to social media. There has also been a change now that people have this misconception that tattooers make a lot of money. Some people are getting into it for the money, and to each their own, but those aren't the kind of people I'm going to hang out with.
What do you do outside of tattooing?
Well, I have two boys who are 6 and 3, so I spend time with my family. I try to make it to church on Sundays when I wake up early enough, and I try to do yard work, but that doesn't always happen.
Black Umbrella Tattoo and Art Gallery, 12951 Main St., Garden Grove, (714) 638-4644. Follow Gibson on Instagram: @kurtisgibsonart.