If you went by the black "TATTOO" sign and opaque windows, you would think that Orange's Illuminati Tattoo Lounge was just another random OC street shop. Upon walking in the door, you'd notice just how wrong you were.
For one thing, Nightmare Before Christmas might be playing on the TV screens and speakers, rather than hip-hop, metal, classic rock, or whatever other sounds you might usually hear in a tattoo shop. Also, unlike your average shop, there really are no weak links or styles at Illuminati, which is just how head honcho Rafa Barragan likes it.
"When people ask what my style of tattooing is, I tell them I do 'good' tattoos" Barragan says. "I got into tattooing for the fun of it, so I like to do everything from traditional to watercolor to black and gray realism."
Creating the best ink possible isn't Barragan's only focus in the tattoo world. While the Santiago High School product may look like plenty of less-concerned tattooers who grew up in Garden Grove, he's also a strong advocate for sterilization and general cleanliness in shops, particularly since he got his start tattooing out of his home.
"There are a lot more 'kitchen magicians' now than there used to be," Barragan says. "Most of them aren't clean and don't know what they're getting into. They don't know how to sterilize the area that they're tattooing out of, or even things like bagging machines and breaking down your station each time. When I was working out of my house, I had a private studio that I just used for tattooing, but you can make anywhere sterile. You just have to know what you're doing."
Of course, it makes sense that Barragan would know a thing or two about sterilization, considering that he worked in a hospital (albeit in billing) before beginning his tattoo career. Barragan was already tangentially involved in the tattoo scene while working his previous job, as he would design tattoos for his friends while on hold with insurance companies.
Back then, Barragan would express his creativity primarily through drawing, whether it was elaborate "prison-style" work with a ballpoint pen or just a quick sketch in his notebook. That kind of artistic talent was exactly what brought Barragan to slinging ink in the first place.
"I was designing tattoos at 19 or 20, but people started coming to me and saying they wanted me to do the tattoos because they didn't turn out as good as the design," Barragan says. "At first, I would go on the road and travel to my clients' houses. It's always been word of mouth for me, I've never really worked at a street shop and relied on walk-ins."
Barragan continued to work at the hospital for a few years after he began tattooing, but when his friend found an opening for an artist while working at Ratt A Tatt Tatt (now Fullerton Tattoo), it was apparent where Barragan's artistic calling would lead him. Eleven years later, the 31-year-old tattooer is widely regarded as one of Orange's finest artists, even if he doesn't get to do a ton of the stuff he'd like to experiment with next.
"I enjoy doing realistic tattoos – black and gray or color – and I really like biomechanical," Barragan says. "I come from a Mexican background, so there aren't too many people getting biomechanical tattoos, it's just not something you see much. There are so many different styles of biomechanical, from organo-mech to alien stuff. That's what I want to get more into."
If you were to give sterilization tips to tattooers who are just starting off in their house, what would you tell them?
When I was starting out, I researched cross-contamination and bloodborne pathogens and everything like that. Everything has to be thrown away and disposable to prevent cross-contamination. Just because you can tattoo anywhere doesn't mean you should, you want it to be as sterilized as possible.
As someone who doesn't really have a style, what do you think of people who "specialize" in one specific style?
I think it gives people a sense of belonging, but to me it would get mundane and boring to do the same style all the time. You can only push certain styles so far, and you don't even know how well some of them will hold up. The money will always be there because people will go to someone who specializes in something for that specific type of tattoo, but I honestly think it's kind of lazy.
You said you prefer realistic tattoos, so how has realism tattooing changed since you started?
Color realism is lightyears ahead of where it was 10 years ago. If you look at color realism tattoos from back then, they look like they're just starting out. Everything from the ink to the machines to the technique to how you put on stencils has changed so much.
How has the life of a tattooer changed since it's become so much more popular recently?
There's good and bad to all that popularity. Being a tattooer now is more like a trade. It's something that people really aspire to be. Of course, there's the benefit to tattooing over artwork because you can't sell artwork as fast as you can tattoo. But you have to be a businessman, you can't just go in and start tattooing.
Who are some of the other tattooers you hang out with?
I'm a family man these days. I don't associate with a lot of other tattooers. I tattoo, then I go home and relax with my family.
Illuminati Tattoo Lounge, 436 N. Tustin St., Orange, 714-338-9217, Instagram @tattoosbyrafa_33