"I don't really try to look like a tough guy," Steve Schultz says as he struggles to keep a straight face while posing next to his tiki statue in the corner of Costa Mesa Tattoo's waiting area.
The truth is, Schultz doesn't have to look like a "tough guy," because he's been tattooing for about 20 years now, and there are plenty of less-experienced tattooers to carry the macho mantle. Although he might be best known for some of his Japanese-style work, Schultz enjoys doing tattoos of all styles, and has grown fonder of varying his styles as he's aged.
When Schultz was working on graduating from art school (where he received a scholarship) with dreams of being a sculptor, he thought tattoos were stupid. He'd always been artistic, and commercializing his art seemed the only way to make a living doing it, but tattooing never seemed like a viable option.
"My friends were all getting tattooed in high school, but I always thought they looked stupid because I never saw any good ones," Schultz says. "I did a peace sign on a friend when I was 16, but it kind of came out egg-shaped and all stupid looking. I didn't think tattooing was an art form."
It wasn't until his roommate during art school came home with some early reverse tribal work from legendary tattooer Leo Zulueta that Schultz realized how artistic tattooing could be. Although he wasn't initially sold on tattooing for a living, Schultz began appreciating the art more, which led to him tattooing as a hobby.
"After seeing my roommate's, I wanted to get tattooed and I think I started to fall in love with tattoos," Schultz says. "My friend bought me a kit, and I started tattooing my friends out of my home. I still wanted to be a sculptor, but one day I got a phone call to work in a shop in Newport Beach."
It didn't take long for Schultz to work his way up the tattooing totem pole in Newport Beach, and before long, he had helped to open Balboa Tattoo and a second shop in Costa Mesa due to Newport's threats to close its local tattoo shops.
After a disagreement caused Schultz to part ways with the other owner, the two split up their shops, leaving Schultz to run the Costa Mesa location. That's not to say Schultz didn't learn much in his time working under someone else though. When Costa Mesa Tattoo opened in 1997, the tattooer had already picked up quite a few valuable lessons.
"I was kind of lazy before I got into tattooing," Schultz says. "The owner, she'd make me stay there in the shop when I wanted to leave early. It taught me discipline in the industry. It was hard, but I can appreciate that now. I go against that myself as an owner, it's just not who I am. If my guys want to leave early, they can leave early."
What are some of the differences between owning a shop and just tattooing at one?
It's a huge difference. When I was just tattooing, I had to do tattoos that I didn't agree with. I had a minor come in whose parents had signed for, and I don't tattoo minors, but it was tattoo or get fired. Now, I can choose what I want to do. I never tattoo anyone under 18. I don't care who comes in or whose parents sign for them, if they're not 18, I won't tattoo them. I had a police officer come in to try to get me to tattoo his daughter, but I wouldn't do it. Aside from that, owning the shop has really been the best thing for me. I have three daughters, and I never have to miss a thing. Before, I'd miss parent-teacher nights and all that sometimes. Now I can go to everything.
How has tattooing changed since you got into it 20 years ago?
A lot of people in art 20 years ago never even thought about tattooing. Now, kids want to be tattooers from the time they're little. The whole medium has changed. When I started, if you could put a drop shadow on something to make it pop off the skin a little bit, people were amazed. Now, stuff is so amazing that no one is even amazed by anything anymore. I look through tattoo magazines and they're all amazing. I see some new tattoo artist that I'd never heard of before every day on Instagram
What's something that most people don't realize about tattooing?
A lot of people don't realize how much goes into each piece. For a decent size piece, I might spend 8-10 hours drawing and redrawing and changing a piece. They think we just whip it out really fast, but we don't. People think it's like one of the TV shows, like "Give me five minutes to draw it up, and I'll be right back." It's not like that.
How do you feel about the mainstream popularity of tattooing?
It's very weird. Some of my biggest clientele these days might be police officers, firemen and school teachers. I'm doing forearm pieces on kindergarten teachers, and that's just weird to me. I was at my daughter's cheer competition and I was looking around and there were tattoos everywhere. I used to wear long sleeves whenever I'd take my kids to school, but now it's not even different anymore. It's still weird when parents and teachers are using terms they learned from TV shows. I'll have a teacher come up to me and be like "Oh, I see you've got some skin breaks in that sleeve."
Do you think tattooing's popularity has changed how you feel about it?
I don't know. I still love it. If I don't tattoo or I go on vacation for four or five days, I can't wait to get back to it. Even the TV shows, I hate them sometimes, but I can't stop watching them. I still look at my Instagram and read tattoo magazines everyday. I still can't get enough of it.
Costa Mesa Tattoo, 788 W 19th St, Costa Mesa, (949) 548-9465, Instagram: @costamesatattoo