It's tough to visit a tattoo shop these days without seeing some art school graduate looking to make tattoos that look like they should hang at LACMA. Sergio Sanchez knows that firsthand. Why? Because he taught a lot of them how to paint.
Sanchez, who currently tattoos alongside world-famous ink slinger Carlos Torres at Timeline Gallery in San Pedro, started tattooing over 20 years ago, but took 15 years off to pursue a career in both creating and teaching fine art. Of course, when he started, he just wanted to ink some of his friends.
"I'd been an artist my whole life, and my friends wanted tattoos, so that motivated me to get one of those mail-order kits and just start practicing on my friends," Sanchez says. "I didn't do good work at the beginning, but I figured it out eventually."
After about a half-decade of tattooing in the '90s, Sanchez felt like he wasn't improving as an artist as much as he wanted to. By the end of the decade, art school was calling his name–first as a student, then as a teacher. A few years ago, the now-39-year-old noticed a change in the classes he was teaching.
"Toward the end of my time teaching, I started noticing more and more tattoo artists in my classes," Sanchez says. "Seeing that gave me the motivation I needed to get back into it."
When Sanchez originally quit tattooing, the industry was a very different place. Growing up in Los Angeles (after moving from Mexico City at the age of three), Sanchez saw all of the classic styles of tattooing in the '90s, from American traditional to fine line black and gray. What he didn't see was the kind of detailed fine art tattoos that overtaken the tattoo scene within the last decade.
"Part of why I gave up tattooing in the late '90s was that I wanted something more artistic," Sanchez says. "Almost no tattooers took classes back then. Now, if you don't take art classes, you'll get left behind."
From Sanchez's perspective, it's not just the tattooers who want to get more artistic. Young artists want to get more involved in tattooing as well, albeit for a different reason.
"There's a lot of crossover for artists when they realize there's some money in tattooing," Sanchez says. "As a fine artist, you have to build a reputation to find investors to pay for your art. It can take 10-15 years and require an investment of thousands of dollars to get started. Tattooing is the opposite. A lot of people are exposed to middle of the road or bad tattoos, so if you do something good, people are impressed. It's a little bit of an easier crowd to stand out in right now."
Although many old school tattooers might argue that there's no money left in tattooing, Sanchez has a valid point. While top-notch painters spend decades trying to make a name for themselves, an amazing tattooer can nowadays become an international star in a matter of months. Speaking of worldwide tattooing stars, Sanchez knows a thing or two about them now that he spends his time working with Torres.
"For someone like me or someone like Carlos (Torres), it takes a lot of work and focus to break into another market," Sanchez says. "I think that's why we really gel with each other. I look up to him in the tattoo world, and I think he sees me as more developed in the art world. It brings us together, but the two markets are still very different."
That difference in markets is mainly based on the public's perception, according to Sanchez. Even though a high-quality tattoo can cost just as much as a painting or sculpture, it's primarily older wealthy folks who invest in art, while plenty of other groups of people will gladly open their wallets for some new ink.
"In my mind, the change (in tattooing's popularity) comes from TV exposing it to the general public," Sanchez says. "TV changed the idea of it among the public. When I started, tattooing was more of an underground trade kind of job. TV and the internet came around and changed that."
How does tattooing compare with doing fine art?
I see tattooing as a medium. It's just different materials. You're using needles and skin instead of acrylic or charcoal. There are only four universal fundamentals: shape, value, edge, and color. Once you understand those, you can take them into any medium. Those are the only four things you can manipulate regardless of medium, whether it's tattooing, painting, photography, or even graphic design.
Why do you think some of the older tattooers look down on the fine art style of tattooing?
I think most of them didn't have interest in art itself. They just don't understand it. The title is "tattoo artist," so you are still an artist. There are very few abstract tattoo artists, so you're still somebody who draws something to represent the idea of an animal or a figure or something. Maybe they focus too much on the aesthetics. If it falls outside of traditional aesthetic of tattooing then you're not doing what they traditionally think of as tattooing. People weren't doing it because the art education and materials weren't there 15 years ago.
And what about those who say fine art tattoos are just the current tattooing fad?
It's not going away. Things have changed, tattoo artists are holding seminars now. That would've been crazy talk to share info for a fee 15 years ago. Tattoos and body modification have been around since the beginning of human history, and it will always be around in some form. The popularity may change, but it will still be there.
What do you think people don't realize about tattooing?
I think tattooed people can come off as scary-looking or intimidating, but really we're just art nerds most of the time. We're good-hearted, hard-working normal people. People also don't realize what's possible for tattoos. We're really pushing the border of fine art and improving on the quality of work that can be put into a tattoo now. I think the tattoo world is a lot more positive and people are a lot more open to sharing information, which is cool because the fine art world has always been that way.
Timeline Gallery, 1117 S Pacific Ave, San Pedro, 310-833-6900, Instagram @sergiosanchezart