INTERVIEWS

In this new series of short interviews, Stef picks the brain of some of the most influential tattooers in the world. Artists that are unanimously considered significant for their experience, ethics, vision and skills.

The goal is to amplify those voices that matter in the industry to inspire by example.

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Freddy Corbin

Q: You lived through some of the most iconic times of the San Francisco’s area, close to very significant characters of American tattooing. Greg Irons, Ed Hardy, Henry Goldfield, Lyle Tuttle, Dan Higgs, Eddy Deutsche… What made those times special and what did those people bring to tattooing?

A: “Definitely the people made it special. It was a truly magical time in San Francisco, filled with some of the most influential personalities in the tattoo world: Ed Hardy, Greg Irons(which passed by the time I came in, O started tattooing in 1987 and Greg died in 1984), Henry Goldfield, Bill Salmon….
Tattoo Time was probably the most progressive/relevant book on the market, with a take on tattooing never seen before. I think what was so special about that time was that it was like a family. Perhaps slightly dysfunctional, but still a family. Everyone knew each other, it was a small city, and word and the work got around.
Dan[Higgs] started tattooing a few years before myself. He came out from Baltimore to work at Erno Tattoo which is where I started. Eddy Deutsche moved up to San Francisco a couple of years later when we opened up Tattoo City.
We all knew each other, that created a bond and a scene hard to reproduce, something unique born off a special place and special relationships. It truly was a magical time.
Ed Hardy had kind of blown off the doors of tattooing because of his art school experience and realizing that tattooing didn’t have to stay in the boundaries of what existing tattoo designs were.
So, we’re at a point of it being state of the art for that time, and it wasn’t even 1990 yet. The first wave of tattoo renaissance was just beginning.”

 

Q: What has been the most valuable learning moment throughout your career?

A: “Well, that would be a very hard one to nail down because there have been all kinds of learning moments. Moments of illumination and moments of extreme failure that you hopefully learn from.
I would say my answer is probably when I realized how much I didn’t know. Not only that but the fact that I could also learn from people I considered less experienced than me.
Meaning, most of the tattooers around me were way better than I was so there was lots to learn there. But I could also learn something from anybody I worked with, even if they were just starting, even if they weren’t very experienced, I could learn what not to do, how not to shade something what needle grouping not to use in a certain situation.
In a nutshell this is a vast vast frade that is very complex in all its aspects. I will never know it all but I can try to understand every layer of it at the best of my capabilities. Whether being related to customer service, tattooing technique, choosing the best course of action in any given circumstances, etc.”

 

Q: What are you most grateful for looking back and what is your sweetest memory?

A: “There are so many I’ll pick one or two. One huge one for me was getting a call from Ed Hardy in 1990 asking me to come work with Bill Salmon over at Realistic.
Those were the days of answering machines and it was like 9 in the morning. I heard that it was Ed Hardy over the speaker and I dove out of bed across my girlfriend into the phone to grab it. That was one of the greatest days ever.
Getting the keys to Temple Tattoo was another of those moments that left a wonderfully sweet mark in my life.”

 

Q: What’s the most important and treasured aspect of tattooing for Freddy Corbin? The self expression, the contact with people, the craftsmanship, the tribe, the freedom…

A: “For me it’s probably the belonging, the tribe. The freedom which I’ve been gifted with. I can’t imagine what I would be doing if I wasn’t tattooing. It has given me an incredible family across different countries.
I just love the act of tattooing. Meeting the person, figuring out what they want to get, doing it for them, experiencing how stoked they are, wrapping it up and doing it all over again.
I’m not somebody who focuses on large work. I’m not really a bodysuit guy. I much prefer the dynamic of tattooing in the shop’s setting where people are coming in and out asking questions etc. I’m more of a drawer than a mechanic.
As much as I respect it and admire it I’m not one to build machines, O just did that once with the fellow that taught me. I would much rather do art, draw or paint than build stuff. That’s just me probably because I don’t know how to do it LOL”

 

Q: What does the style that you specialize in have that resonates with you? What characteristics and qualities does it carry and what makes it special in your eyes? 

A: “Well, as much as I believe that it’s very important to be a well-rounded Tattooer, to be able to satisfy every request that walks through the door, I’ve always be drawn towards Black&Grey. Especially California Chicano prison style, as well as black Polynesian South Pacific tribal style.
They just look really organic and natural to the body. I once met a Samoan guy that had a Samoan Pea’ mixed with homemade tattoos of a lady has an old English.
I grew up in the Italian community where the cultural borders often blurred into those of the Latino communities around. The Catholic artworks belonging to these communities’ visual heritage carried an emotional strength which always strongly resonated with me.
My favourite is a guy that has got a big old Jesus on his chest with some spiderwebs and some old English text next to it, maybe a Guadalupe on the arm and a girl’s name on his neck. I just think it’s the coolest look ever.
I really appreciate the large scale pieces that somebody like Filip Leu for instance realizes. It’s just a little bit out of my wheelhouse so I try and stay in my lane and just do what I can do well.

 

Q: What inspires you, outside of specialized books and artworks, and how does your creative process develop? How does an idea get into your head and where do you take it from there? 

A: “That’s a tough one. Simply I would say everything around me. Ilike to draw inspiration from my surroundings, and everything/everyone I get in contact with.
That can take the shape of a beautiful architectural design in a church or a temple, the inspiring impressions that comes along with traveling, the cultural crossover in the hood or an incredible tattoo I come across.
Something that has always been a bit of a conundrum for me is that I typically can be kind of lazy, but l’m never short of inspiration. I’ve got ideas for days. The task is finding the time to get them on paper or skin.”

 

Q: As somebody that has been in the game at top levels for a long time, you saw changes and cycles substituting each other over the years. What valuable aspect do you think in this new phase of tattooing, with a strong influence from social medias, we are at risk of losing and which one should be absolutely preserved? 

A: “The INTEGRITY. On both ends. We can look at people’s work around the world, screenshot it ,throw it into an iPad, copy it and make a stencil, while we use the other tattoo for reference. It seems that it’s making people better tattooers which I guess is a good thing?? (laugh)
The other end of that extreme, is due to its popularity and the TV shows that followed. People that would never have anything to do with tattooing and definitely do not have its best interest at heart are getting involved and to me that’s one of the scariest things ever.
Whether it’s trying to invent something that will sell, come up with some angle to make money. I saw a video of what looked like a sweatshop in China that had about 80 people learning how to tattoo and not one of them fucking had a tattoo, not one. That to me is absolutely blasphemous!
That’s why I always come back to INTENTION and INTEGRITY. I believe your intention, your why, for getting into tattooing is one of the most important parts.
If your intention is to get into tattooing out of sheer love and because you love to make a living doing it, then great! If your intention is to make money, that being your only reason to get involved, then please stay the fuck away from me and my shop. There’s nothing I can do to stop that obviously, I just can’t support it.
My fear is that Tattooing will eventually lose its magic because it’s been so watered down by main stream influences. Made safe to be on TV, it all comes back to money in the end.
I don’t have anything against money, money is just a tool, it makes life a lot easier, you get to travel etc. The pivoting point is when money becomes the main and only goal. Regardless, I would be tattooing even if you couldn’t make a dime at it! Probably not as much as I do now but I would still be doing it because I love it, it makes me happy and makes other people happy. My fear is that we’ll lose the magic and the connection to True Tattooing and its anticonformist, connective, expressive spirit.”

 

Q: Where would you like your tattooing and tattooing in general to go in the future?

A: “Well, I would love my tattooing to get better. Personally I need to work more on human figures, and to try some of the new equipment. I love my Bluetooth foot pedal lol
I am a creature of habit and still I think old dogs can learn new tricks. I try to stay in my lane, I do want to get better, but l’m 33 yrs in. My goal is to tattoo 50 yrs solid. We’ll see after that.
Where I would like it to go… that could be a whole chapter, It’s why I did this article. The intentions you have to retain our integrity as a trade, are my desires and intentions as well. It’s like we could compare tattooing to so many other things that have changed drastically, especially over the last decade via social media and technology. I hope it doesn’t become too clean, too sanitary, sterile. Pun intended.
One of the beautiful things about tattooing for me. No matter who’s doing it, HOPEFULLY there aren’t too many squares involved and it can keep its edge and its crusty film of mystery on the walls. I never want tattooing to be mainstream. It seems that right up around the corner at the rate we’re going.”

 

Q: A few of your favorite tattoo artists that you admire and why

A: “Always, Good Time Charlie, Ed Hardy, Chris Garver, Eddy Deutsche, Ben Grillo, Alex Binnie, Dan Higgs, Tim Hendricks, Luke Atkinson, Chris conn.
Some newer, Salty Walt, Rose hardy, Robert ryan, Justin Oliver, Juan Teyer, Jondix.. But most of all, at the very top, FILIP LEU. He’s, in my opinion, the best for so many reasons.
He’s incredibly kind. No ego.
He had started so many styles, brought so many things to the tattoo table.
My role models would be Charlie Cartwright or Filip. The reason I love these tattooers is because they do beyond beautiful tattoos, and they are trail blazing bad asses.”

Juan Puente

Q: California in the 90’s was a Mecca for tattooing, a place of global influence which produced a number of artists that shaped a whole generation. You belong to that group and over your long career you crossed path and built lifetime friendships with some of the most significant tattooers of that time: Corey Miller, Eddie Deutsche, Freddy Corbin, Jeff Rassier… What made those times unique and how this people made a difference?

A: “One of the things that made it unique was that we knew who each other was. The tattoo artist population was low and growing rapidly and magazines were one of the most viable ways to see other people’s work, alongside top notch publications by Ed Hardy and Chris Wroblewski. There you could see then modern and old school tattoo imagery. With the names above and many others, I was blessed to have learned from and worked with.”

 

Q: Not many people had set foot in legendary establishments like u did. Places like Fat George’s, Tattoo Land, 222, Shamrock, Spotlight, Hanky Panky’s are part of the history of this trade. Please name 3 shops that left the most significant mark on you, as an artist and as a man, and why

A: “I will add a few to those you already mentioned. Classic tattoo in Fullerton Ca was the first shop I worked at. The owner Charlie Moore and Eric Maaske, of whom I became friend, gave me the opportunity and while being hard on me I learned at a perfect pace. Exactly what I needed to be open minded in the learning process. Later, while working at Fip Buchanan and Patty Kelley’s Avalon Tattoo, the busiest shop in my history, I went to Amsterdam to work with Hanky Panky in the red light district. There I got to work with an amazing crew, tight as any crew could be, in a small space where coexisting was mandatory, not an option. Being my first time in europe I got to experience the multicultural environment of the shop. Craziest thing: the shop helper spoke over seven languages!
Last but definitely not least there was 222 in san francisco. This shop is the one that brought me most into the public eye.
Avalon as a shop attended the grand opening, which was Eddie Deutsche, Scott Sylvia, Jeff Rassier and Gary Kosmala. It was beyond a powerhouse of a shop and, as i always considered San Francisco a mecca of tattooing, this was one of the highest temples. Being asked to be a part was one of the biggest blessings in my career.”

 

Q: You come from an era where tattooing was different, perhaps under certain aspects more genuine. You had to respectfully earn your knowledge and contact with people wasn’t filtered through the lenses of social medias. Which values in your opinion are we at risk of losing that should instead be prioritized and cultivated?

A: “One of the reasons I believe social media is a success is how it evolves with our own wants, needs, insecurities and emotions, all with the click of a button. But also its not just social media, it’s the information highway at our fingertips and evolving government intervention that circumvent almost all traditional learning. My story has been told a few times and all I can say is that i listened, processed information and was always at the right place at the right time. When you say “values”, everyone has a different interpretation. As long as I don’t change my values, I am automatically prioritizing and cultivating what I believe in. One doesn’t have to agree but if my past is my example, I am winning and learning everyday.”

 

Q: Tattooer, machine builder, photographer… you excelled in the different disciplines you challenged yourself with. What is the mindset and process that enables you to succeed in the chosen task you apply yourself to? Do you have any habits you find beneficial?

A: “A habit that has proven most useful is surrounding your self with like minded people. If I want a machine to run a certain way I will make it and use it to see if can get the desired results. I will see how others run their machines and do the same. It’s all research, trial and error.
If i want a tattoo to look a certain way I will do one, look at how I could have made it better and adjust on the next one, been doing this for almost 30 years. Photos have been made easier in the age of digital. I remember getting films developed only to have 6 good photos out of 36. Then you have to divide them between those for you portfolio and those you would send to a magazine, which you might possibly see in 3-6 months. Now to reach your audience it takes a click of a button.
Best habit? Never stop…”

 

Q: Please name a few artists you deeply respect today and the qualities they embody

A: “This is not the complete list nor in order. Scott Sylvia, Jeff Rassier, Horisakura, Mike Rubendall, Yoni Zilber, Chris Garver, Jack Rudy, Bob Roberts, Ed Hardy, Filip Leu, Luke Atkinson, Fip Buchanan, Mike Wilson, Bryan Burk, Freddy Corbin, The list goes on and on.”

 

Q: Looking back, what are you most grateful for and what is your sweetest memory?

A: “I am most grateful for my family, my friends and tattooing. Without them, I’d be just a shell.”

 

Q: If you could go back with the knowledge you have now and give an advice to 18yrs old Juan Puente, what would that be?

A: “Start tattooing right now.
I will guide you through the path, let you make some mistakes because you have to. Cherish those moments because they are magical but will not stay that way.
Blaze that trail…”

Jojo Ackermann

Q: You’ve been tattooing for a long time, alongside some of the very best, with an upbringing that belongs to a different era of tattooing. Would you please go through the first part of your career highlighting the most significant times and why they’re special?

A: “Well, first off I feel very fortunate to get in through the avenue of being in the right place at the right time. Mike Pike was leaving his father JR Groves’ shop and let me tag along to help. Little did I know I was going to not only learn the trade, but by helping him open the new shop , I was learning the business from the ground up.
I feel those times were special for a few reasons, one of them being that I learned tattooing from a survival standpoint. Of course I wanted to be an artist and all that but we had to make money to survive, so I wasn’t living in my car. I was out of the house and on my own, so I had to survive.
The journeymen era of tattooing was alive and well, but little did I know it was on its way out. I’m happy that I made my own needles and pigments and that I also know my way around my tattoo machines because of the way we worked back then. I am also happy to not make needles anymore though hahaha.”

 

Q: What has been the most valuable learning moment throughout your career?

A: “Being young and a bit cocky was sort of the way it was. They called it the “5 year pukes” because you were a little puke for the 1st 5 years until you got your ass spanked by making a big enough mistake to open your eyes.
A misspelled name can make you sick to your stomach if you tattoo consciously. I learned real fast that I need the customer to write down things in their own writing before I translated them into a tattoo to save my skin next time.
Also being at work from open to close is super important. I still believe in this because it isn’t about anything else except keeping the lights on so people see the consistency of the business being OPEN.”

 

Q: What are you most grateful for looking back and what is your sweetest memory?

A: “The day I signed the papers to buy my house.
I was finally able to bring my daughter into the world with a home to live in and raise a family. I worked hard to make that happen and to this day I still feel grateful for the life tattooing has provided me with.”

 

Q: What is for you the most important and treasured aspect of tattooing? The freedom, the connection with people, the craftsmanship, the tribe…

A: “I treasure the older generation. I love meeting them and listening to their stories and jokes, talking with them- but mostly listening. I feel like if you were to say it’s a tribe, there are some amazing old timers with great stories that can be passed down to other generations wether they are helpful or funny. On a side note, I know times are changing and when I hear people shinning old timers because of their beliefs or their ways I want to say, stop and pay attention. You don’t have to say anything, just pay attention. There are also things I learned not to do by just watching and listening.
The freedom to connect with people has always been one of the things I find remarkably interesting with tattooing, wether it’s fellow tattooers or customers, there is never a shortage of interesting topics being discussed.”

 

Q: What does the style that you specialize in have that resonates with you? What characteristics and qualities does it carry and what makes it special in your eyes?

A: “In a way I always fall back to my grandma and her introducing me to Japanese art since I was very small. My mother’s family lived in Japan and I was raised around my grandmothers Japanese art collection.
Later in life, as I became more versed as a tattooer, I realized these images in tattooing were strangely familiar and the connection was made. Of course for me Ed Hardy was and is the be all end all of East meets west style that I fall back on. He is and will always be my favorite. I hope to be as good with every tattoo I do.”

 

Q: What inspires you, outside of specialized books and artworks, and how does your creative process develop? How does an idea get into your head and where do you take it from there?

A: “Life generates ideas for paintings. Customers usually generate the spark for the direction of the tattoos. I take thumbnail sketch notes a lot, I also write down a concept if I’m on the road or can’t get to my sketch pad at the moment. If I don’t document it right away I usually forget it for a while until it comes back to me, but by then it has evolved again hahah.”

 

Q: As somebody that has been in the game at top levels for a long time, you saw changes and cycles substituting each other over the years. What valuable aspect do you think in this new phase of tattooing, with a strong influence from social medias, we are at risk of losing and which one should be absolutely preserved?

A: “My experience has allowed me to see my work come and go for over 20 years. I learned what to and not to do by seeing where my work excelled and failed. Social media has a very vague and muddled truth to a lot of things that experience will tell you are bad ideas. Social media is all about the moment. So many images are fresh and not healed , and most certainly are not healed for 5 years or more. The truth is in that. I was told by an older man from Japan that tattoos are not truly finished until they are 4 years old. Sounds like a good measurement to me.
People are a bit overstimulated looking at social media in my personal experience because it happens to me as well. The dam has broken and the information is too abundant to control, so we must practice self control. We are the magicians, please don’t let the internet steal magic from you.”

 

Q: Where would you like your tattooing and tattooing in general to go in the future?

A: “I would love to see my tattooing continue to grow and evolve obviously. I had an idea that I was only going to strive for one style but since I was in a street shop for so many years and learned so many styles I feel like I need to persuade that more.
As far as tattooing itself goes, I’d love to see less government involved in it and certainly see less of a  whistleblower mentality with tattooers who feel they should be the powers in control to bridge the government and tattooing. It all sounds negative but it isn’t.”

 

Q: A few of your favorite tattoo artists that you admire and why

A: “First of all , I admire many tattooers for different reasons. My list of favorites always changes a bit here and there. But off the top of my head right now:
Bill Salmon and Junii Shimada because they believe in and lived “do what you love and love what you do!” Hard work and vision!
Mick (formerly of Zurich) his paintings and tattoos have fascinated me and as a person he is just great.
HoriToshi and Horizakura because I believe this style of Japanese tattoo is super powerful.
Freddy Corbin cause he is really mister nice guy. And he’s always been a great inspiration to me as a person and artist.
Ed Hardy for too many things to mention. You should know what I mean.  
Mike Pike for believing in me ,bringing me in and giving me my shot.
Bob Roberts because he’s still the boss and produces tons of art. Very inspiring
My biz partner Robert Atkinson for pushing me to do better through example and making me question myself when I normally wouldn’t.”