Baba Austin has a lot of tattoo stories to tell, enough to fill an encyclopedia on the art. Like a tattooed Homer, he holds court at the many tattoo conventions he works, sharing epic tales of tattoo gang wars, the wisdom of old salts passed down to him, and the origins of certain tattoo traditions. For this interview, we asked Austin to tell stories about his own odyssey, like apprenticing under the legendary Jonathan Shaw, touring with Vanilla Ice during the musician’s prime, and evading cops while executing a graffiti throw-up at the age of 43. INKED: What was the first experience you ever had with tattooing?
BABA AUSTIN: My brother, Odie, and I used to hang around the World Famous Emporium in Van Nuys when we were around 6 years old. That was about 1973. We went to the elementary school around the corner, and the tattoo shop was on the way home. We’d go by the shop every day and try to hang out; we’d slowly sneak in and inch our way across the wall so [the tattoo artist] wouldn’t see us. One day we snuck over to see what he was doing, and he was tattooing this chick on the inside of her thigh, and she was butt-ass naked. It was the first time I saw snatch. She was this really, really foxy—back then we used to say “foxy”’—blond girl, and I was just in awe. This was the coolest thing. I think that was the start of my sex life too. We went back every day—to hopefully see some more.
You’ve had a long life in graffiti as well, on both coasts.
Graffiti took me to New York City. The pinnacle of being a graffiti artist at the time was to have a show there. I had a show in New York. Mark Walk had bought a bunch of my paintings. I didn’t know it could get any higher, but I didn’t feel fulfilled. I got more satisfaction sneaking out at night and doing burners on rooftops, or my name where everyone could see it, rather than having my stuff at a gallery. I was lost. That’s why I was airbrushing. I had this airbrushing career going on and hooked up with some pretty famous pop stars and made a lot of money.
So when did you come back to tattooing?
At the time, tattooing was still illegal in New York City. This was around 1989. You couldn’t just go into a shop. I’d go to rock clubs and see these guys with tattoos and asked them where they got them. When I was at CBGB, I saw some amazing tattoo work, so I asked, “Who did that?” They said, “Jonathan Shaw.” I had heard of him. When airbrushing, I’d go to St. Mark’s Comics for reference material, and that was the only place you could find Tattootime at the time. Those were Ed Hardy’s five volumes of books that were really cool. I remembered seeing a piece in one of them by [Shaw]. So I open the Yellow Pages and there he was, right there in the Lower East Side. I called up and made an appointment, which was weird because I never heard of making appointments to get tattooed before. I met him on the corner of First [Avenue] and First [Street]. He told me to call him when I got there. I called, he came out and asked me, “How did you find out about me? What do you do? Where are you from?” He wanted to know about me before I even went to his shop. There was this prescreening. So I told him a bit, that I work over at Unique Boutique, that I’m a graffiti artist from L.A. And he said, “Oh, graffiti.” So we talked about that, and we talked for hours.
He did finally let me go to his shop, which was half a block away. The shop was this eclectic, wrong side of the tracks, scary, gypsy, shipwrecked hangout. Everything was there: dead babies in bottles, pictures of old sailors with tattoos, Day of the Dead stuff—before it got big. It had that smell, the green soap smell. The magic was all there. I knew I wanted to be there, and that was the start of me wanting to be a tattooer. So we talked about my tattoo and what I wanted to get, and then I made another appointment.
When did you start to learn the craft yourself?
When I wasn’t working, I was at Jonathan’s. We basically became friends. I drew some graffiti designs for him. I became Jonathan’s little slave. I’d keep asking, “When am I gonna learn to tattoo?” and he’d say, “Fuck off. I’m teaching nobody.” At the same time, he’s teaching me about tattoo design, placement, and tattoo history. I was just learning all this stuff without even realizing it. He was teaching me how to crawl before I could walk. I wanted to just run, like anyone else who picks up a tattoo machine, but he wasn’t interested in any of that. He was interested in keeping the tradition, love, and respect alive for tattooing.
Then around 1990 or 1991, Filip Leu came around and did his spot at Fun City. Filip was the same age as me but he was already an accomplished tattoo artist. He was doing this amazing shit already. Now Jonathan had a new pet project who actually tattooed. I wasn’t blown off; he just moved on. And I didn’t care because that’s when Vanilla Ice hit me up for airbrushing and said, “Do you want to go all over the world?” Fuck yeah.
What was that like, going on tour with Vanilla Ice?
That was amazing because it was at the height of his career. I did the costumes and stage sets for his tours. I worked on his movie. We did the American Music Awards together, we did the Grammys together, we went all over, to Australia, Singapore, and Japan. All first class, limos, five-star hotels. It was amazing.
I walked into the original L.A. Tattoo on Hollywood Boulevard. Around 1994, Mike Brown came to L.A. Tattoo and worked there. And now here is my second mentor, because Mike Brown was the king of lettering. He gave me an alphabet, and said, “When you’re bored, trace this but don’t do that when you’re tattooing. After you trace it, make it your own.” When I stopped trying to make my stuff look like his, that’s when I started developing my own style. And it came natural.
What defines your lettering style?
It’s definitely Mike Brown–influenced L.A. script, mixed with Chicano culture that I grew up in and the way I used to spray paint. When you tag and you flare your letters, flare your can.
You also have a diverse portfolio outside of lettering.
At the time I started, the neo-tribal and biomechanical stuff was coming into play. You had guys like Marty Holcomb doing fine-line fantasy, and Ed Hardy was just blowing everyone away. I saw all of this stuff I liked—I love doing traditional, I love doing fantasy, I love doing floral—I do it all because what I love is tattooing. It’s a great honor that people come to the shop and want us to tattoo them. I believe in the saying, “You’re only as good as the last tattoo you do.” I think this is the most important thing. If you die right after that tattoo, that tattoo speaks for your career.
Tell us about your shop, Vintage Tattoo.
Me and my brother opened up Vintage Tattoo in 1995, in Burbank, then moved to Highland Park in 1998. I wanted to make a really old, traditional tattoo shop. I’ve been an avid collector for 20 years. I have collections of tattoo machines that go back to Charlie Wagner machines. I have 400-something machines. I have original flash from Bert Grimm, Bob Shaw, Fat George, Tahiti Felix. I have signs cut out of metal that Bob Shaw did. I made sure that anybody who has questions on tattooing can feel free to come by, and we’re more than happy to answer them. And what we don’t know, we want to hear. Old-timers come on by and shoot the shit all the time, and we learn more.
You have two living legends working at your shop as well. What’s it like working with Tennessee Dave and Rick Walters?
Well, here’s a story. There used to be two [tattoo] camps: One was the Captain Jim camp. He was very crude, scary, and thug. Then there was Bert Grimm’s camp. They were just as thuggish but more artistic. It was a war between them—shots through the windows and everything. Tennessee Dave was part of the Captain Jim family, and Rick Walters ran Bert Grimm’s shop since the ’70s. So Rick and Dave, who were sworn enemies all through the ’70s and ’80s, are now best friends. They share rooms on the road together. We do 12 conventions a year with Rick and Dave all over the country. They’re like a tag team, like two old ladies.
You also have a lot of celebrities coming to Vintage.
Celebs are just like everyone else; they just want to get tattooed and be treated like an everyday fucker. I’ve tattooed rock stars like Dave Navarro, Phil Varone of Skid Row, Shifty Shellshock of Crazy Town, John Otto of Limp Bizkit, Howie Pyro of Danzig and D Generation, and lots of others. I’ve tattooed porn stars Joanna Angel (above), Shyla Stylez, Alexis Amore, and the model Ivy Levan. Also, actors like Frankie Muniz from Malcolm in the Middle; Baywatch’s Nicole Eggert; Dancing With the Stars’ Lacey Schwimmer; Mollee Gray of High School Musical; and various Disney actors who can’t be named. Gill Montie once said, “Tattooists are the only people who rock stars look up to.”
What do you do when you’re not in the shop?
I’m always at my shop. When it’s two in the morning and I can’t sleep, I drive to my shop. The only time I do anything else really is when I grab a spray can. I still tag. It’s funny because now that I’m 43, I can do graffiti and a cop can roll up and say, “What’s going on?” And I say, “Some kids were tagging until I came out.” And they’ll go after some kids. Nobody thinks it’s me. It’s a lot of fun. And I love to spend time with my wife and kids. There’s my family, then there’s my shop. My shop is my mistress.