“Rockabilly Ray” Sanchez on Tattoos in Mexico and the Merging of Tattoo Cultures

If you’re looking for the most authentic Mexican tattoos this side of the border, “Rockabilly Ray” Sanchez is the artist you need to go see. With an American traditional style as timeless as the art form itself, Sanchez’s work shines brightest when he can show his Mexico City roots in the subject matter of his tattoos.

“I love all kinds of tattoos,” Sanchez says. “I started doing black and gray with the homies, but later on I started getting more into new school with the colors and stuff. Then I started learning about tradition and where tattoos were coming from, and I started really liking American traditional. At the same time, I’m Mexican and I like doing a lot of the stuff from over there. There’s a lot of culture and a lot of colorful stuff over there, so I mix that stuff with my American traditional.”

More than most artists, Sanchez can appreciate the culture surrounding tattooing and what a big role it plays in daily life for those of us who live in SoCal. After all, when the artist first got interested in tattooing about 25 years ago, he was just hanging out and drawing a little bit of artwork for his amateur tattooing homie. Not long thereafter, Sanchez realized that if he was going to try his hand at tattooing professionally, he would need to move to the States.

“Back in Mexico, there was no way that we could learn [to tattoo],” Sanchez says. “I decided to move to LA to apprentice and all that stuff here. It took a long time and it was kind of hard, but it was good because I got to see a lot of stuff that was professional and not just for fun.”

These days, the Tinta Rebelde tattooer is somewhat amazed by how much easier and more open tattooing is for the newbies. Aside from being able to learn the technique and art of tattooing, Sanchez believes the young artists today will never be able to appreciate just how tough it was to even get your hands on a tattoo machine a couple of decades ago. As someone who’s a firm believer in tradition, Sanchez is glad he got his start long before anyone with an internet connection and a little bit of extra cash could start tattooing.

“When I started tattooing, you needed to be working in a tattoo shop and go through the owner to get needles and supplies and ink from a company,” Sanchez says. “Now, people can get tattoo equipment everywhere on the internet. Back then, we needed to make our own needles and our own ink. It was hard, but in a certain way, I really liked it. It’s more tradition. I appreciate the things I can have right now and have even more respect for the culture because of that.”

Of course, the accessibility of tattooing isn’t the only thing Sanchez has seen change in the last 25 years. When he was first getting his start, the few other artists he knew who wanted to get into tattooing left Mexico to train in Europe, Canada, or other parts of America because there was no way for them to improve their skills in their homeland. Now, many of those same artists have returned to Mexico to spread tattoo culture and knowledge throughout the country’s biggest cities. Sure, there was some appeal for Sanchez to join the masses in returning to the area that raised him, but no one can blame him for staying where he is after spending decades making a name for himself and building up a solid clientele in Los Angeles.

“Back then, there were no people doing tattoos in Mexico,” Sanchez says. “Here in LA, there were always people doing tattoos — even if it was just the homeboys in the pen doing homemade tattoos. When I was in Mexico, two tattoo magazines started going to Mexico, so we started looking at the magazines and seeing a lot of stuff that we didn’t even know you could do with tattoo machines. That was why I decided to move was because here, you can learn to tattoo as a professional. In Mexico, there was no way to learn like that.”

Tinta Rebelde, 133 E. 3rd St., Los Angeles, 213-626-0051, @rockabillyraymerlin

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