If you were going to get your first tattoo, what would you get? Before you jump the gun, remember that it will be with you for the rest of your time on this earth. My first one is a flag representing the greatest city in the United States of America. Yep, you guessed it…the Chicago flag! My fiance and I got our first tattoos together (she stamped the Buddhist “Ohm” symbol on the back of her neck) at our friend Sam Rivera’s house on the Northwest side. If you happen to be an ink aficionado, have you ever considered a Chicago themed tattoo? What you are about to read is a journey through a city by way of the primordial art of tattoo.
Tattoo art is one of the most ancient forms of self expression, dating as far back as 3300 BC in Neolithic Eurasia. Our human predecessors possessed less advanced tattoo tools opting for two sticks to tap through the skin instead of the tattoo guns you’ll find in shops everywhere these days. Tattoos have come a long way since then. The culture of tattoos, self expression, and individualistic freedom here in The States have made significant strides in just the last few decades or so. Many modern day humans have used this medium and their freedom to do so to display their passion for the coolest city in the world: The City of Broad Shoulders, The Windy City, The Second (to no) City, The City That Works, The Big Onion, Urbs in Horto, The City By The Lake, The Miami of Canada, The Chi: Chicago, ILLNOYZ!
We Chicagoans have a fierce sense of pride more so than other American cities. We have a chip on our shoulder. We have a tendency to question authority due to our deep gangster roots. We represent seemingly every nationality, gender, age, and ethnic background known to humankind. We experience almost every weather pattern from sub-zero temperatures and state-of-emergency snow to ninety degree, sunny summer weather (sometimes in the same day!). Our arts community is second to none, we have the best food, and our sports teams have loyal fans everywhere. Lake Shore Drive (LSD) may very well be the quintessential American street, taking travelers on a trek from far North Side to super South Side in under an hour along beautiful Lake Michigan. It is this undying pride in these things that has led many of us to the tattoo parlor to stamp a permanent sign of pride somewhere on our body.
Recently, this aforementioned Chi Town pride led me to Pilsen’s Studio One where the studio’s owner and sole tattoo artist, Beer Run Gallery’s Jose “Nuco” Villanueva sat down to chat about tattoos while he tattooed the phrase “Nothing is Permanent” in a stunning font on my inner right bicep. Here’s what unfolded that afternoon:
How long have you been doing tattoos?
Approximately 14 years.
How long has Studio One been open?
About 10 months.
What’s your favorite thing about owning your own shop?
Oh, I don’t know (laughs), the schedule? (Laughs) I can close if I want to. No, really it’s very gratifying. Owning your own business, at least you know where the money is going. I mean everything, just all in all. To be able to have control over everything you’re doing.
How many tattoos would you say you’ve given in your life?
In my life? Thousands, I mean you figure 14 years, 10 a day, 5 a day. I can honestly say I have lost count.
How old were you when you got your first tattoo? Were you just a shorty?
Yea, I was a shorty. I did it on my own. I was about 9, 10 years old at my grandma’s house. I used a thread and needle and pen ink. By the time I got around to tattooing again, I was about 15 and one of my cousins went to jail and when he came out he learned how to make a tattoo machine out of a motor and guitar string and all that good stuff. . . since I knew how to draw, or people knew that I liked to draw, “Oh yea, go to Nuco, he likes to draw, whatever.” He just basically built one for me, and he said, “Here you go, you’re gonna tattoo me.” And I’m like, “Fuck it, I don’t care.” My older cousin just out of jail, whatever you say, buddy. You know? So I started with that, did a few thugs from the neighborhood, family, you know I was a little skater kid, so needless to say, I did all my punk skater friends and I definitley massacred every single one of them (laughs). You know? After awhile I wasn’t really digging it. I started looking at magazines and looking at my work and I’m like, “What the fuck is going on here? Something is not right.” And I got really bummed out and I stopped. I was like, “This is not worth the trouble.” Because at this point I don’t know anything about sanitation, cross contamination, I mean I don’t know shit. I’m a kid in high school, I had never even thought about it. It wasn’t until I went with my friend to get a tattoo, and the artist there noticed one of my homemade tattoos on him and said, “For a homemade tattoo…that’s not bad at all.” And 6 months later he hired me.
Where was that?
World Class Tattoos in Berwyn. So I started there and it was a great opportunity. After I was there, I realized he had ripped me off on the equipment (laughs). After 2 years, I quit. I was doing vocals for this hard core band and we went on tour and I never came back to the shop.
How do you think people with tattoos are viewed by society as opposed, to say, 20 years ago?
Definitely it’s a lot more open. People are a lot more open. People who (never) thought about getting tattoos 20 years ago are getting them now. And now with TV shows, it brings something to the home that was never there, that was always perceived as something that only someone in a back alley would have. It was always associated with drugs or crime or anything negative. And back then, I guess it was. Tattoos started in the US, just American traditional tattooing, that’s kind of what it was. Only, people that were joining the circus or freak shows would be heavily tattooed because that’s how they were making their living going from show to show. And you had a bunch of people that weren’t trustworthy, but that’s changing. And now there’s better equipment, definitely better inks, definitely better technique now to apply a tattoo. Even though the old concept is the same: it is what it is, just a needle piercing the skin with ink. But you know, the quality and style of the content of a tattoo has become very refined and artistic. And alot of people with educations and art degrees are doing tattoos.
What’s the coolest tattoo you’ve seen on someone else?
My friend Rodrigo in New York City has really cool stuff. Also this guy had a beautifully executed Japanese back piece.
What’s your favorite tattoo that you have?
Um, I like all of them. I gotta say the 2 pretty skeleton pieces on the top of my hands. I see them all the time, so I’m able to appreciate them a little more.
What’s the weirdest body part you’ve ever tattooed?
I gotta say the labia. Not because of where it is, but the texture is weird. it’s like tattooing on a wet rag or something. It’s weird. The texture of the labia is really weird.
Who are your favorite artists?
As far as tattoo artists and traditional American tattoo artists, I would say Owen Jensen. From more of a plastic arts, I would say Posada. He’s one of my influences. (He points to a framed piece on the wall) Like that.
How do you view the relationship between tattoo and religion?
It’s kind of hard, I’m not a very religious person. A lot of religions believe that your body is God’s temple, so no tattoos. Then again, other religions actually require a tattoo to belong or be a part of. It’s so weird because (the ideas are) so opposed to each other but they go hand in hand like no one’s business. A lot of people get tattooed religious icons. It’s insane how many religious tattoos I do compared to anything else, especially the Catholic side of designs, especially in this neighborhood it’s obvious. So I do a lot of that, which is cool because I love to do religious pieces. They’re so much fun to do.
What’s your favorite thing about Pilsen? And your least favorite?
There’s a lot of culture here, not just Mexican culture, but just culture in general. A lot of different type of people here, lots and lots of artists. That’s one thing that I love most about Pilsen: (it’s) just saturated with very intelligent, very talented people as far as art goes. That I’ve been here a long time to get to know a lot of people here and get to know the galleries, the cafes, everything. Do stuff together. It’s just great. Some of the things that’s hard for a Mexican comminity to have. They don’t have what we have.
And one thing I hate about Pilsen? GENTRIFICATION. Other than that, it’s good.
What inspires you?
Surroundings. People. The neighborhood. The way this neighborhood is built. Architecture. Walking around the community. You can go from here to Ashland and I could point out 15 people who are doing something. It’s nice to be able to go out, walk my dog, have coffee with someone who is working on something. . . you come back home and you’re like, “Alright, let’s do this!”
We’ll end it on a light note. What’s your favorite color and why?
My favorite color is black because it makes everything else stand out. Whatever you have, however insignificant, black will make it stand out. Black is awesome. Black can save your life as a coverup or like I said as far as making other colors standing out.
Studio One Chicago
1010 W 18th Street
Chicago, IL 60608