Tell us what drew you to tattooing in the first place.
I started tattooing 1977. I bought my first machines on my own in January, I think, in 1977 and I’ve been tattooing ever since. I remember being at the beach and an Irish hoodlum friend of my father’s coming up and I’m lying in the sand. He’s talking to my dad and I think his name was Shackie, and he had a big pinup girl in his calf. I was just staring at it and oh, it was so cool. Then a few years later, I’m a teenager and hanging around with a little gang thing, and the older guys are going to Rhode Island to get tattooed because in Massachusetts, it was illegal. I go down with them and the second I walked in the shop, I just knew it. It was an epiphany. It was a really beautiful, old school shop. I’ve always drawn and I knew that was my gift. I was going to do something with my art but as soon as I walked into a shop, that was it. Nothing else really mattered.
How did you get your start in the game?
I had one of the, you know, like the leader of our gang, this guy Mark Herlehy. He was getting the most tattoos of all of us, and he joined the Navy after high school. He broke in with a tattooer, I think in Jacksonville named Cool Hand Luke. He got some equipment, and he came back and gave me a little game. He was on leave. He came back and came to my house with a case of beer and all this tattoo equipment piled on the top of it and says you’re going to do my back piece. I dived right into the deep end working on Mark’s back. He’s got a tattoo shop in New Hampshire that he’s had open 30 years and I think he’s drawn every single tattoo on with a pen. He’s never used a stencil. He works it in there by himself. He’s the real thing.
So tattooing was illegal in Boston, where were you working from?
For the most part, I had a standing thing every week at this motorcycle club’s clubhouse. The guys in the club, their old ladies and their friends would get tattooed. It was a great experience. These guys were so good to me. I look back on it, man, we had such fun. It was wild and it was almost like the highlight of that outlaw biker era. It was cool to be a part of that. I’m just, you know, a teenage kid. My Massachusetts stuff was basically in that clubhouse.
What took you from Boston to New York?
Before I had gotten hold of a tattoo equipment, I had started to go to art school and I think I went for about three or four months in Boston and in the meantime, I had done a couple of tattoos on Mark, found out where to get this stuff, and the cool kids from the art school were moving to New York so I just decided you know, fuck this, I’m going with them. So I moved to New York maybe in ’77.
New York was awesome. I guess it was dangerous and all of that stuff but I never had any problem. We were downtown in Lower East Side and it was rock and roll music and Johnny Thunders was being managed by one of the guys I lived with and those were my friends. They’re kind of Lower East Side, early punk rock or whatever you were calling them.
Were you tattooing down in the Lower East Side at this time?
Around that January, I started tattooing and I would go back and forth between Boston and New York for that first year and then I think I was in New York full time in ’78 or something. I would tattoo, but business was slow me for me at first. Not that many people were getting tattooed and not that many musicians were getting tattooed so I’d have to go back to Massachusetts where the biker guys were getting tattooed and I already made a name for myself.
So then what brought you to LA?
It happened two or three times that I saw a couple of guys with good tattoos, and I’d ask them and they all came from southern California. One of the motorcycle club had a couple of functions actually. I would see guys from other chapters at the club and guys on the West Coast. It happened two or three times that I saw a couple of guys with good tattoos, and I’d ask them and they all came from southern California. Then I started to hear from two or three people “Long Beach” and “the Pike”.
I remember, there was this biker run and outdoor event that was set up in a little tent and there’s this biker walking around and he was conspicuous and that he had long, blond hair and he was tan and in New York, nobody looked like that back then. He had these tattoos that were bright and beautiful. I’m like “Oh, man, where did you get those? Those are amazing.” The guy’s like “Oh, I got them at the Pike in Long Beach. I’m like oh, well, that’s what I’m trying to do, save some dough and move out there.” He’s like, “Oh, don’t bother going there, kid. They only hire people that are good” or whatever. I don’t think he’d even seen my work, you know. He was just assuming then. Fuck him. A couple of months later, my first or second day in California, I got a job at the Pike, and not just tattooing there, but living in the back of the shop.
The Pike was really a wild place. It was just on it's last leg. It was a dying amusement park like Disneyland and Mickey Mouse killed it slow. It was beautiful, the Pike.
So what was it like tattooing at the Pike?
The Pike was a wild place, it was like the first day when I got there, this girl that worked at the shop was leaving and she walks out and she has on a beautiful, all-black panhead with leather saddle bags and stuff and she puts her—takes a .38 off her belt and puts in her saddle bag and starts her bike and splits. I’m like, wow, this is different out here. It was like the wild west to me. Like someone getting on his horse and riding out with this piece.
Rick Walters was working there at the time and he became like a mentor of mine and helped me figure out the differences between LA and Boston and New York, and it was cool.
When I got to the Pike in 1980, there were six tattoo shops, I think. Ron in this one three-block stretch of the Pike. They started me at Bert Grimms at the Rose Tattoo which is actually on the Pike itself. I lived in the back of the tattoo shop and it was a little apartment and it was like a hundred years old. Maybe they built it in 1910. It had been a bar and it had been a spook house and its latest incarnation was as The Rose Tattoo, but the Pike was really a wild place. The rollercoaster was still up but it wasn't running. It was just on its last leg. It was a dying amusement park like Disneyland and Mickey Mouse killed it slow. It was beautiful, the Pike.
Can you tell us about your time at Good Time Charlie’s and your introduction into Chicano culture?
Like in Boston, we had this, little gang and we dressed like the 50s in Greaser hair, wore leather jackets and listened to 50s music and all cars and motorcycles. That was our thing. There was nobody that really did it then. We were the only people I knew. There was no such thing as rockabilly or any of that shit. We’re little greasers, man.
I’m out there in California and first month or two there, I see Colonel Todd was tattooing this cholo guy and his partner was with them and he had a t-shirt with an old ‘58 Pilot on it and has this lettering in Spanish and it’s like I think it said “Rucas, Caruchas, y Rolas, Soneando” or something. I asked them man, that’s cool because I liked old cars. What’s that about? He tells me, you know, rucas, that your high school sweetheart or your home girl or your first love; and caruchas is like that’s your old car, your bomb, your pride and joy; rolas is like that’s your favorite song. Then he’s like what’s that soneando? He thinks for a minute and he’s like that means that’s my spirit. My soul. Wow. I dig that. That was like kind of my introduction to like low-rider culture.
In the meantime, I’ve been seeing these tattoos from Freddy Negrete, Jack Rudy, where they were Coyote and Mr. Juero. That’s what people were referring to them as at the time, and what was then coming out of Good Time Charlie’s in East LA - I’ve never seen anything like that. I was like that’s the shit I need to be doing and that was a whole another epiphany when I first saw that stuff because as an artist or whatever drawing of my own accord in the winter in Boston, you know, I never used any color. As a kid, you know, I’d get the 64 things of Crayolas and the black one would be tiny before I even touched any of the other ones. That spoke to me.
How did you gain more knowledge and jumps towards that style?
I would learn little bits from Sapo and there was a badass tattooer, a white guy convict tattooer named Horse that had gotten out of St. Quentin on a work release and went to work for Ed Hardy, and he was in the top five of black and gray tattooers at the time. He would come by the shop and he would give me a little game and there was guy Boy Loco, a local Long Beach cholo artist that Cartoon was a huge fan of and Cartoon says he was his inspiration. So there were these people coming around, but still I hadn’t made it over to Good Time Charlies. I think that girl, Jane, the one that worked at Bert Grimms with the panhead. She took me over and introduced me to the guys and I saw Jack do a portrait of some 30s movie star on her. It was badass. I was in the door and then I made a point to start getting tattooed there myself.
When and how did you start bringing your own thing to it?
I think once you know like between all of these people, I was learning to do this black and gray and I worked at Fat George’s in La Puente and I opened a little spot on my own in San Pedro after the Pike and I’m just taking it all in and like trying to get good enough to go to work with Jack over there and I got to that point but I think, you know, like one of the things that I brought different than the guys was I had been exposed to this all of this Catholic imagery, Caravaggio, and Michelangelo. I always liked that stuff. I’m devout Catholic and when I went to church, I just spent the whole mass looking at the crazy pictures.
I would talk to people into getting Jesus’ and Virgin Mary’s and cholos were into it at that time so it was cool. I would do more than just Guadalupe. I would do a pieta or angel, cherub angels. I had a teacher in high school that told me I would never be painter or a very good artist because I’m myopic, that I see small. So I think I also—that kind of detail, that fine detail, I was more into doing that stuff than some of the other guys.
It sounds like your early career was pretty cool cultural mash up of punk rock, biker and cholo culture?
I’d always been around bikers my whole life and I had been in New York around the musicians. When I got to the Pike, it was right as these local Long Beach punk rock kids were starting to get into tattooing. These bands like Crude and the Vandals were kind of coming down to the different shops and dipping their toes in, and a lot of the old fucking biker guys would throw them out. They wouldn’t take them seriously. But then like Rick Walters and Colonel Todd and couple of guys at Bert Grimms started tattooing them. Then I started tattooing a lot of the guys and it was funny how different that the California punk rock thing was from the New York punk rock thing where a lot of the kids—and the same is true of Boston music also - they were like all art school students, cerebral types or whatever. New York was a little bit of that, you know, not so much as Boston but in Long Beach, they were all hoodlums, man. Like some of them maybe were surfers but most of them were hoodlums. And the punk rock music was so different, it was kind of violent. It made for a different kid that got into it. It was refreshing to me. I thought it was cool. I start tattooing these guys and they’re gung ho and they don’t care about nothing. They'd get a bunch of tattoos. They don’t care what nobody thinks about them.
I have been working at the Pike a year or so and I didn’t have any photo album. You didn’t really need one then but people would ask and I would do some cool stuff and then never see it again so I wanted to throw a party and have all the people that I tattooed come over and set up a tripod and take pictures of their stuff. So I had this big, old house in the ghetto in Long Beach and it had been a motorcycle clubhouse itself at one time in the hood. So I invited my friends over and the sun is going down and it’s like 6, 7 kids with big Mohawks, punk rock kids, leather jackets and then there are 6, 7 like old bikers guys in the other corner of the backyard, cement backyard, with long beards and they had leather jackets on.
One of the guys gets on his bike and starts it up and I go “Oh, wait, where are you going?” He’s like “Man, this is going to be ugly. These people are too different. They’re going to kill each other.” It hadn’t even crossed my mind. I just thought like man, they both like leather jackets. They both like to get drunk and have a good time. I don’t see the difference. But he was like yeah, it’s going to be ugly, Mark. I’m getting out of here.
So it got me nervous but anyway, it was a legendary party. The Vandals played in my living room and the guy’s bass went through the ceiling and everybody had a ball. All the old biker guys got to fuck young punk rock girls. They were happy as can be. That’s one of the things that I like about tattooing and one of the things that I try to have at the Shamrock. There’s still a guy in here from East LA or a guy from Compton or a guy from wherever any given day of the week. It’s the mixture that gives a tattoo shop life and that’s the cool thing about it. Those tattoo shops that only do military or whatever, that’s cool and that’s good money but it never appealed to me. I like the mix.
There’s still a guy in here from East LA or a guy from Compton or a guy from wherever any given day of the week. It’s the mixture that gives a tattoo shop life and that’s the cool thing about it.
You’ve been on Sunset for a while now - what keeps you here?
I made a move up in this general direction at some point maybe ’84 or something and had a little house on Fairfax and Hollywood. I was just driving down the street on 3rd Street one day and this cool, little streamline, modern, kind of deco looking storefront was for rent and I hadn’t put any thought about opening a shop or nothing. I was commuting to Tattooland and I just seen it and pulled in and ended up renting the place, and that was the first Shamrock I opened up. Third Street at that time, there was nothing there. There was a print shop and then there was a bunch of empty buildings. That’s why I could get in there. Now, it’s like a thriving, hipster, expensive shopping area.
I think like the 3rd Street is kind of where it all started coming together with the elements of the punk rock kids from Orange County and Long Beach and the South Bay and all the guys I had met at Good Time Charlie’s and the ones at Fat George’s and they’re all coming out there and I’m meeting new people and it’s when Mickey Rourke and his buddies were riding motorcycles. So Mickey became like a local. He would be at the shop everyday and I think he was kind of the segue into like legit entertainers who—and I think he deserves a lot of credit for, you know, he’s like one of the first people that there was that much in the public eye and at the peak of his career getting a bunch of tattoos. It was pretty unheard of then. I was lucky enough to be around a handful of people at the time like him and Cher and some others right at the time when they were getting tattooed.
That was cool and Mickey’s got that—he’s all of them things himself. He’s a wild like a punk rocker, don’t give a fuck what anybody things and a biker. That was kind of like the new beginning for me and run that I had for awhile and then ended up with Gil Montie at Tattoo Mania. I got to fall in love with the Sunset Strip because the heavy metal thing was just kind of on its last leg, but the Strip had that vibrancy like the Lower East Side did where everybody was a musician and working on this and working on that. It was cool to be around there. Johnny Depp had just opened up the Viper Room and that was a cool thing. I hadn’t really spent that much time on the Strip except to go to a show or two.
I really got to fall in love with it. One of the things I like is that it’s kind of a rite of passage for everybody in this huge greater Los Angeles area at some point when you’re 19 or 17 or 18. You and your boys kind of get in the car and go to the Sunset Strip whether you go to a club and get drunk or try the Strip joint or whatever, it has this thing that everybody comes there sooner or later—tourists. It’s a great spot for a tattoo shop.
Reminds me of the phrase we hear you say frequently in regard to Shamrock, “where the elite and the underworld meet."
I think tattooing has a draw where it appeals to a wide range of people but I think I’ve made a more conscious effort than some people to make sure it stays that way for me. It would’ve been easy for me to raise my prices and not tattoo the people that I use to tattoo or the sons of the people that I used to tattoo at the Pike, but the relationships, that’s the important part of tattooing. Even more than the tattoo itself. It’s the fact that so many people have brought their sons or daughters on their 18th birthday, you know, that’s an honor. That’s cool.
That’s the connection, and I think a lot of people in the tattoo world don’t really get it, the connections are what this is about. It’s two people coming together for an hour or couple of hours, it’s a good thing, you know?