Like any industry that can be misconstrued as “taboo”, the world of tattooing has taken time to evolve. With reality TV shows like Miami Ink and Black Ink Crew debuting in the States over a decade ago, tattoo culture has gotten its fair share of exposure in media and subsequently seems to have normalised. The Instagram world took it to another level and these days, tattooing is slowly viewed more as an art form. Nikko Hurtado is one of the many tattoo artists who have flourished in that period.

Nikko Hurtado placing the stencil for a client at the Singapore Ink Show

The 37-year-old father of three was recently down in Singapore as a guest for the Singapore Ink Show and we got to talking about tattooing, his life and how working on celebrities like Dwayne The Rock Johnson has motivated him even more.

How did you first get into tattoos?
I did art in high school and then took some college classes a couple of like art classes. After that, one of my friends opened a tattoo studio. I had no tattoos and I went to visit him because I was happy for him and proud of him. I stopped by and at the time, I was working construction and I hadn’t drawn in about two years. My friend knew that I was trained in art in a sense so he asked if I wanted to just give it a try. Construction was kind of slow and so we just went from there and literally the next day my life changed. All my friends knew that I drew my whole life so I was busy instantly so it was nice.

And people were just straight away flocking to you because they knew that you had the artistic background?
I think that I was very fortunate I grew up in the town I was in. I drew my whole life. I wasn’t the best at it or anything but everyone knew I had a passion for it. And so I think when I was younger, everyone was always saying that I should tattoo. My family always loved tattoos, my friends as well, and so eventually it just became that as an apprentice, I was booked out for like three weeks. So eventually I had to start charging like US$50 for a decent sized tattoo and then it became US$100 for a big tattoo and I did that for like six months, and then my friend who owned the studio was like, “You need to charge more now and you might as well start tattooing people that walk in the door.”

So you’ve seen the evolution of social media for tattoos?
Social media has been a big contributor to my career. You know MySpace was a big deal. That’s how I met like Kat Von D, and then she invited me to be on her show a long time ago and that kind of triggered everything and it gave me a platform to speak to people and network and a place as well for people to see my work. A lot of people for years and years never really knew who I was or what I looked like because I chose not to put that out there. I wanted it to be more just my tattoos but once everything else happened for me, more interviews and things like that it really changed.

But I really enjoyed it, I remember going to one of my first conventions. It was one of the first awards I’d ever won and I had tattooed this Batman tattoo on a friend and I just remember it was one of the most proudest moments that I can remember. I remember how much confidence the guy had, just watching him from afar. Nobody knew who I was or anything and you just get to see how proud that guy was to carry that tattoo. Sometimes when you get a good tattoo, you feel more confident and you feel good. It changes you, you become more of who you are and who you want to be.

I think there is also this idea that people with tattoos are wearing their heart on their sleeves, quite literally. You put what’s important to you on your body and everyone else can see it. What’s on your sleeve then?
I didn’t have tattoos for the first year and a half I tattooed. So at the time, one of my really good friends, Mike Demasi did my first tattoo and I remember thinking, “Wow, this is really like painful.” Like I’ve been doing this to people for a year and a half and I was really surprised man, ’cause people sat so well and I was here hurting big time.

So how do you ensure in a sense, that clients get the best?
I mean, it’s always different, you know but the one thing is that you always try your best. Everybody has their off days. I’m sure there are tattoos out there on people I didn’t get along with, but that’s life right? I try to do my best for people and give them my heart and soul. I honestly believe in the transfer of energy between people and when somebody leaves, I want to make sure that our time shared was valuable. Time is the most valuable thing we carry and it’s more valuable than money or anything else so I believe that time shared is equally valuable to each person because we have a finite resource of it. To me that’s the greatest part. We are sharing something for a moment and creating something together.

They say you can learn a little something from everyone you meet right? But what’s it like working through the design process for you?
So like for today, I’m gonna go meet my client after this interview. We will go sit down in a quiet location and design really quick. We kind of have an idea of where we are going and what we are going to do. But I always design with the client because in my experience, I find that if I design before the client comes they end up changing it before they show up. They tend to go, “Oh, I’ve been looking at it so much,” or, “Oh, I asked 50 of my friends and they all gave their opinion.” Sometimes, you look for validation elsewhere and those opportunities change your opinions. So I never try to give people that option, so if they show up then I show it to them if I’ve designed before or I sit them with me and we do a design day. I’ve actually spent some time doing that. There have been times I’ve tattooed people and we don’t even design. We just talk all day and I can figure it out.

So your art style itself, can we call it realism or what would you like to call it?
Yeah, I would call it realism. I’ve been doing it for a long time. I mean I do a lot of realism, you know black and gray colour or whatever it is. I do pretty much whatever the client asks of me and fortunately, I am able to do the things that I enjoy doing but uh, I tattoo a lot of nerds. I’m a true-blue nerd myself so I’m psyched to be doing it. I tattoo a lot of superhero stuff, I tattoo a lot of movie stuff. I tattoo a lot of things that were considered nerdy when I was growing up but now, a lot of people think it’s cool.

Hurtado was presented a Bomberg watch by Kelvin Lim from Watches of Switzerland

You’ve got a lot of celebrity clients as well right like The Rock, right? What was it like tattooing the big man?
He’s an amazing person, man. I mean he really is that guy, he’s a super positive motivational guy. He’s the sort that if he wants something in life, he’s going to do what it takes to get it. The thing about meeting these people like Sean Combs (Puff Daddy for the ’80s kids) and The Rock, is that you learn what a go-getter is. They don’t take no for an answer and I think they don’t realize how much I’ve been able to analyze them just in the brief moments I’ve seen them in and really take away from them and be grateful for the experience and what I’ve been taught from them. And it’s not by them even teaching me or anything. They’re really just great examples of what success means.

Where do you see the tattoo industry in the next 5-10 years? Or where do you hope for it to be?
The big necessity for the tattoo industry right now is for it to be taken seriously, in my opinion. I think in Europe and America, there have been quite a few reality TV shows that catapulted the industry forward but then a lot of the newer shows just made it cheesy and filled it with unnecessary drama. Like early Miami Ink had a lot of tattoos and no drama but that balance just started changing the more shows that popped up. I’m going to New York soon to pitch an idea that I really want to get running. The whole idea is just to elevate the industry and really show off exactly how professional and creatively-demanding the tattoo scene is.

Hurtado wearing his gifted watch from Bomberg







written by.
In Conversation With: Nikko Hurtado
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