Although she’s now been tattooing for about 25 years, Tiffany Garcia’s introduction into the world of ink wasn’t exactly glamorous. As a teenager, she and a friend went to get the type of little tattoos college kids got in the ‘90s, and after the initial experience the artist realized that she wanted more than just a little heart or a dolphin.
“I started to think about it and realized maybe I could get something really cool or something I liked,” Garcia says. “I couldn’t figure out where to find a design because this was back in the ‘90s with no internet, so knowing that I had my own artistic skill, I figured I’d draw something myself.”
Unfortunately, information was a whole lot scarcer back then, so rather than checking portfolios or researching artists, Garcia just went to Melrose Avenue, and found an artist who was available. The tattooer was so impressed by the 19-year-old’s work that he offered to teach her to tattoo in exchange for other drawings — but his own skill was so underwhelming that he butchered Garcia’s handmade design.
“I was watching him ruin it, and I was so disappointed that I started thinking about how I wished I did know how to tattoo so I could fix it,” Garcia says. “Because of that bad tattoo, he set me on the path to educate myself and learn more about tattooing. Eventually, I sought out a formal apprenticeship and began this life-changing career.”
At the time, Garcia was in her third year of college and studying to be a forensic anthropologist. But after setting out to fix her own tattoo and getting laughed out of a biker shop or two for asking about apprenticeships, the young artist stumbled upon a shop full of cholos and homeboys with an open station. Although many of them snickered at the thought of a hyna tattooing, they made Garcia test her skill with a tattoo on the spot — aptly reading “Trust No Bitch.”
The Chicano shop was left so impressed that they offered Garcia a paid position on the spot — citing “You earn while you learn” when asked about an apprenticeship — and she had her first job in the tattoo industry. But it didn’t take long for the intelligent young woman to realize she might need a change of scenery to further her career.
“I just didn’t feel like I was learning enough, and I thought I might be learning bad habits,” Garcia says. “I tend to be pretty booksmart — while other kids have athletic trophies, I had academic trophies, art awards, dorky stuff like that — so I buried myself in books and information about tattooing. I knew I needed a real apprenticeship under a reputable artist.”
Garcia asked one of her favorite tattoo artists, the legendary Kari Barba, about an apprenticeship and was initially turned down. A few months later, Barba decided she was ready to take on an apprentice once again, and Garcia jumped at the chance. Although initially believing the homeboys at her old shop might be upset with her for jumping ship, they all saw the value in learning under an icon like Barba and didn’t give her a hard time for leaving.
Now, Garcia is ready to open up her own shop. But rather than opening in Fullerton, Long Beach, Orange, or one of the other local cities with handfuls of tattoo shops, Garcia wanted to go somewhere no tattoo shop has been before and open Black Raven Tattoo in Torrance. As someone who’s been tattooing in the area since the ‘90s, it was the only place the entrepreneur could find where she wouldn’t feel like she was stealing clients from her friends.
“Being that I’ve tattooed for so long and have so many friends in the industry that have opened their own shops, one of my concerns was opening in a city where I’d become the competition of someone I consider my friend,” Garcia says. “It would’ve been so much easier to open up in one of those cities, but I wanted to see if there was a city that didn’t have any tattooing.”
Much to Garcia’s dismay, Torrance didn’t want a tattoo shop and they were willing to fight her in court over it. The tattooer called up a lawyer experienced in tattoo shop discrimination and ultimately had a federal judge rule in her favor that she could open her shop despite the city throwing every possible deterrent at her. From intentionally unfair zoning maps and outdated lists about the “bad side” of tattoo shops to unannounced price hikes and inspectors contradicting themselves, Garcia won’t say the the City of Torrance has intentionally harassed her about opening Black Raven, but she certainly doesn’t feel she’s been treated unfairly.
“I just want to be treated like anyone else,” Garcia says. “I want it to be fair, just like if I was opening a hair salon or nail salon. I don’t know why I had to be separated.”
Although Garcia says the city is still jerking her around as she puts the finishing touches on her gothic-themed shop, it’s close enough that she’s expecting to open any day. Aside from the obvious financial security and retirement plan of not having to tattoo in order to make money, Garcia opened Black Raven to be a place where artists from all backgrounds and walks of life can come together and feel comfortable under one roof.
“Throughout the years, I’ve always admired bits of what my friends’ shops were doing, but there have always been parts of it that I haven’t liked,” Garcia says. “I wanted to create my own space where I could feel completely comfortable, but also be accommodating to other artists so they feel comfortable. No one’s hit the nail on the head for every single artist, but I want to have a shop that’s welcoming and comfortable for all different kinds of people.”
Black Raven Tattoo, 1313 Sartori Ave., Torrance, 310-800-1313, @coffinqueen