Although he’s still new to the tattooing scene, Shawn Thomas has been around legendary professional tattooers since he was a kid.
“My godmom was with a lot of the old punk bands, so she hung around a lot of tattoo artists like Eric Maaske and Oliver Peck,” Thomas says. “I was hanging around with those guys when I was 10 or 12 years old. She also owned Electric Chair – a piercing shop in Huntington Beach – so I would come over after school and basically apprentice as a body piercer.”
But aside from learning the basics of piercing as a child, Thomas wasn’t that interested in tattooing. Hanging out with legends of the tattoo world inspired him to draw more, but the pre-teen Thomas didn’t look up to the tattooers of old as much as he just wanted to fit in with them.
“At the time, [the older tattoo artists] didn’t influence me at all,” Thomas says. “I drew just so I could get that attention and fit in with the old punk rock crowd, because they were doing all these easy flowers and traditional tattoos, and I felt I could do that at 12 years old. At the same time, I guess they had an extremely huge impact on me as far as my future. If it weren’t for them getting me to the point where I felt like I had to show off all the time, I wouldn’t be at the point where I am today.”
With many people with his artistic skills and access to veteran tattooers might look for a home inside of a tattoo shop, Thomas joined a gang instead. From a very young age, Thomas found a niche among his local gangbanging cohorts in that tagging came naturally to him. What began as a simple way of marking territory quickly became an artistic passion for Thomas, as graffiti helped his eye for the arts improve drastically as a child.
“I’ve always come from an artistic background, and I grew up gangbanging in San Bernardino, so they’d make me go out and do all of the tagging and shit,” Thomas says. “That’s where I developed a fondness for fonts and lettering an such, and then when I got into graffiti art was when I got into colors. I did some dumb shit and went to prison, and then about two months before I got out I started messing around with tattoos.”
Upon getting out of prison, Thomas quickly landed a job as a piercer to make ends meet. It was an easy in given his apprenticeship during his teenage years, and it still allowed the artist to draw during his free time at the shop. Eventually, some of the other tattooers caught on to Thomas’ sketches and wanted to see him tattoo. After putting a traditional flower on his ex-wife a few years ago, Thomas was hired on the spot.
These days, the up-and-coming artist works out of Bleeding Beauty Tattoo in Fullerton, where he prides himself on being able to tackle any style or tattoo that walks in the door. While many artists with a “Jack of All Trades” mentality enjoy the challenge of mixing up styles, Thomas also prefers it because it keeps him entertained.
“I don’t limit myself to anything,” Thomas says. “All respect to the artists who only want to master traditional or only want to master portraits, but I get bored too easily. I go from traditional to script to portraits to realism to stippling. I like to keep my book open, so that way anybody that walks in the shop and says ‘I want this,’ I can do that.”
Beyond preventing boredom by tattooing in just about every style, Thomas is still a big fan of many other types of art. From music to drawing, painting to sculpture, Thomas can appreciate the beauty in most art forms. Of course, that shouldn’t be much of a surprise for someone who started off tagging walls and piercing ears before moving on to inking clients.
“The big difference between graffiti art and tattoo art is that graffiti art can be covered up with just a spray of an aerosol can,” Thomas says. “With skin, it’s permanent, so there’s pretty much zero room for error. At the same time, they both compare because they’re all about hand control and making sure you have straight lines. The different colors and the blends give them both depth, roundness, or whatever look you’re going for. I’ve always just had a passion for art, so I’ve surrounded myself with it, and if you hang out with a duck long enough, you’ll start quacking.”
Bleeding Beauty Tattoo, 217 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, 714-870-8282, @tattoosbshawnthomas