Thea Fear didn't grow up poor, didn't grow up a chola, or have any type of rough life that the popular imagination likes to associate with the tattoo life. Her dad was a police officer and her mom had a master's degree in business.
"My parents were strict, and they told me they didn't want me to do art for a living," Fear says. "I went to [Arizona State University] for journalism, but I dropped out and moved to San Francisco."
Following her departure from the desert, Fear began waiting tables at her aunt's restaurant. One of her customers offered to teach her to tattoo (an art form she'd always be interested in), but that only lasted a session before he flaked out on her. The young artist was struggling while living on her own in the Bay Area and was eager to learn more about tattooing, so she turned to one of the people who had most strongly opposed her desire to tattoo.
"I told my dad for my 19th birthday that I wanted to tattoo, so he finally bought me a kit," Fear says. "I tattooed myself and a couple other guinea pigs. I even got another apprenticeship, but that one didn't last, either."
With her parents going through a divorce, Fear's father's decision to finally support her passion in life after years of opposing his daughter's desire to be an artist meant the world to the tattooer. It also added to the passion and dedication Fear has for tattooing.
"It just really taught me how to work hard for something you want, even though it may seem like it's taking forever and so many people are telling you it's a waste of time and a bad idea," Fear says. "I feel like that is entirely what my character has been made from."
Even in the late 2000s, Fear had trouble finding other female tattooers in the Bay Area. She began going around from shop to shop desperately looking for an apprenticeship, but there were none available to her. With nowhere to go in San Francisco, Fear moved back to Phoenix to continue her tattooing journey in her hometown.
"I felt like there was only so high of a level that I could reach out there," Fear says. "It's not as mainstream there. You just don't see as many people with a lot of tattoos."
After two years of tattooing at shops in Phoenix, Fear moved to OC, where she landed a job at Garden Grove's Saints and Sinners Tattoo. There, she worked alongside some of the area's best young tattooers (like Chelsea Jane) while also constantly being able to see the work of some of the area's most legendary artists.
Over the next four years, Fear developed a style and clientele all her own. Eventually, she decided the street shop life wasn't for her, which brought Fear to her recent decision to open up a private studio in Stanton.
"I loved working at a shop where everybody gets along like family, but sometimes I felt like an employee, and that wasn't what I wanted," Fear says. "A lot of street shops are based on money. I'll do whatever someone wants me to do, but it gets repetitive to just do infinity signs all day."
Running your own studio is a daunting task for a young tattooer, and it's one that Fear embraces. She enjoys the responsibility of handling everything to do with the studio, and it allows her to tattoo entirely on her terms. Of course, there's still one negative to all the privacy.
"I like the challenge of working on my own, but I do miss working with other artists," Fear says. "I mainly get to meet people at conventions now. It's cool because I have friends in all areas of the world now, and it's also cool to see everyone working together as a community instead of everyone trying to make a living on their own."
Aside from meeting artists at conventions she may never have otherwise known, Fear also enjoys the wide range of people who come into her studio to get work from her. Seeing as her work ranges from traditional to black and gray to more illustrative pieces, many of Fear's clients aren't necessarily folks you'd expect to get heavily tattooed.
"It's not just gangbangers and bikers anymore," Fear says. "I tattoo lawyers, doctors, business owners, all different people I never would've met. People should be able to do whatever they want to their body. I get to hear their stories, and it opens my eyes to their lives."
As for her own story, Fear doesn't mind lacking the hardcore prison time and street cred that some of her peers boast about. She's too busy making a living by following her passion to really worry about them.
"I grew up lucky," Fear says. "My parents could provide me with everything I needed, and they also gave me the work ethic to do this. The end result is a person who is doing what they love to do."