When Michael Pinto opened Thick as Thieves Tattoo in 2004, he wanted to create a place for people like him. A self-proclaimed misfit, Pinto has been immersed in the lifestyle since he was a teenager, and has been tattooing professionally for fifteen years now. Westword recently caught up Pinto, who shared his thoughts on the changing industry, preserving respect for the art form and teaching the craft to an apprentice.
Westword: How did you get introduced to the tattoo culture?
Michael Pinto: My first introduction to it was bikers when I was a kid. I would always look at their tattoos and thought that was real cool. And then punk rock in the '80s, that was just the thing to do. It seems like I've been interested in it forever. It used to be a lot harder to become a tattoo artist, in the late '80s and early '90s, than it is now. It took me the better part of eight or nine years of trying and trying to find the right spot. When I finally did, that was it.
How did you decide to open your own tattoo shop?
I'm kind of a misfit. I didn't really fit in with one group of guys here or another group of guys there. I kind of had a vision of what I thought a tattoo shop is supposed to be like, what it's supposed to look like -- kind of romantic images in my head from times gone by, when tattoo shops were a little more dangerous or a little more scary. Maybe not dangerous or scary, but taboo. When you went into a tattoo shop, you felt like you were doing something cool, like you have a special place, this magic little world. It seems like some of that has been lost. People expect to be spoiled. It has changed a little bit. We have to be a little more customer service-oriented than in the old days. But I really think that doing good art should speak for itself. If your tattoo artist is a little gruff or a little gray, which most of us are -- I call it my home for wayward boys you got a bunch of guys in here and attitudes can fly a little bit, but I think the artwork speaks for itself. Everybody who works here does first-class tattoos. We all put real effort into being the best artists can we can and doing the best job that we can. I guess the question started with why I opened the shop. I wanted a place where guys like me could come and do work that matters.
Is it hard to balance being and artist and running the business?
Yeah. For a long time, I ran this place like a pirate. I didn't really keep track of much, let my guys come and go, and I still do that to some extent. But I had a baby about a year and a half ago, and when I found that I was going to be a father, I spent like a year expanding the shop. I added three new stations, got an accountant, a lawyer, stuff like that. I've done a pretty good job of trying to find a system where it kind of operates itself, but it took me two years to get there. Fatherhood takes more of my time than anything, and then art comes second and the shop is all tied in. I think running the shop is kind of like an art, too.
Continue reading for the rest of the Q&A with Michael Pinto.
What is your style of tattooing?
I would say it's neo-traditional, Japanese influence. That would be my style. My influences, I really like Chicano art. Growing up in Colorado and the Southwest, there's a lot of that around and you grow up with it, so that was a big influence. And a lot of the stuff I was into as a teenager came out of Southern California, with skateboarding, punk rock, metal. You've got a lot of that West Coast influence, so that style of art appeals to me. Fantasy art, stuff like that. I try to incorporate all of those influence into my tattooing.
Do you create art in other forms as well?
I do. I paint. Watercolor is my primary medium besides tattooing. It lends itself to tattoo art very well; they make a nice blend back and forth. There's a long history of watercolor painting your own designs in tattooing. It's something that any tattooer worth his salt does. It also helps improve your skills and gives you a place where you can explore things on paper and then later translate them onto somebody's skin without taking a risk. I also paint with acrylic and I craft. I like to make things out of wood. The shop has a lot of original art from the artists that work here.
You've been in the industry for a while. Have you ever had apprentices?
I actually took my first apprentice; I think the kid's gonna make it. He's been here just about a year, and he earns every bit of his keep.
What's that experience like, teaching the craft to someone?
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It's kind of weird, you know. We're not at the point in his apprenticeship where we're really technical. I really make these kids spend the first year cleaning the shop, answering phones, I slowly work them up into doing the ordering and keeping track of the artists. With five different artists, you learn five different ways of doing everything. And of course I make them focus on their artwork. During year two is when it starts to get a little more technical. We do it old school here. This kid's gonna learn how to do everything, like building machines from scratch. A lot of people get into the business now and they don't learn properly. They don't know their history, they don't know their background. I look at this as a way of life, and not just something I do to feed my family. This is a big part of my identity, and there's a lot to it. I think tattooing deserves respect. Whether we're considered folk artists or fine artists or craftsmen, I think we deserve respect as a genuine art form. For more information, visit the Thick as Thieves website.