At the age of 23, Tony Nguyen is just getting started in his tattoo career. His three years in the business puts him in the greenest ranks of OC’s tattooers, yet the young artist at Dead Crow Tattoo and Piercing in Fountain Valley already has quite the local reputation.
Although he does plenty of illustrative and borderline traditional-style work, Nguyen’s focus is really on the delicate art of realism. Whether it’s in black-and-gray or color, Nguyen enjoys the challenge of nailing the intricacies of an old photograph or exactly how the light hits a famous portrait. It’s a style that many young artists shy away from – as one imperfection can ruin an entire tattoo – but it’s the style that Nguyen has always been artistically drawn to.
“I like doing organic realistic stuff, and I like drawing a lot from life in general,” Nguyen says. “I feel like there’s just more to look at and your eyes move around a little bit more than in just a standard image. Even when I was younger, I’d be trying to draw from family photos, and it’s amazing when you can see artists who can capture the depth in somebody’s face and stuff like that."
While Nguyen has always had interest in art, it didn’t look like it was always what was in his future. After high school, the OC native briefly considered a political science degree before realizing that taking a job in a tattoo shop just felt right.
“When I was 17, I went through foster care, so I sat down and tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” Nguyen says. “I tried going to school, but it just wasn’t for me. My mom came here from Vietnam, so she wanted [her children] to go to school and do something with our lives.”
Although college didn’t provide Nguyen with everything that he was looking for, he continued to draw throughout his schooling before eventually landing an apprenticeship at Dead Crow Tattoo. In the few years since, the OC native has felt himself learning and growing a little bit with each and every tattoo, although there’s one overall message he’d like to go back and give to his younger self.
“I’d tell myself to put my head down and work more than anything,” “If you stop working, you’re not going to get to where you want to be in anything. If you want to be successful in tattooing or anything in general, you have to sacrifice time and relationships with people and stuff like that.”
Nguyen is just a young buck compared to many prominent members of OC’s tattooing scene. While he’s still developing his own style and clientele, Nguyen recognizes that he’s lucky to be able to be in an area with some of the best in the world.
“There are so many guys around here who I look up to,” Nguyen says. “What they do inspires me to be better. I never want to compete against anyone like that, but I want to be the best I can be. Seeing what they’re doing and how they’re doing it is inspiring, and I think tattooing is a little more stable now where there is a future in tattooing versus before when I was younger and you didn’t really see that.”
Nguyen might not be on the level of some of his heroes just yet – as guys like Carlos Torres and Steve Soto mastered their crafts while Nguyen was still mastering the art of tying his own shoes – but the young artist is already on a level that points to a future as the master of organic realism in OC. Humility is one of the few skills you can’t teach in the tattoo business, but Nguyen seems to have a handle on that part as well.
“I’m just excited to be growing as part of the culture,” Nguyen says. “I don’t think I’m anything compared to what some of these guys have put into it.”
Dead Crow Tattoo and Piercing, 17431 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 965-0888. Instagram: @tonynguyentattoos