Franco Vescovi

This isn’t a rock star job; it isn’t what it seems. There’s a lot of hard work and sweat—it takes 20 years to be a success. Don’t try to become famous.”—FRANCO VESCOVI


Vatican Studios
22622 Lambert Street, Suite 306
Lake Forest, CA

For the head of The Vatican, religious iconography and black-and-gray tattooing as a whole is a spiritual experience.

It is undeniable that the artwork, conditions, and tools have never been better (and will only continue to improve), but there certainly is something special about those original prison tattoos etched out using an aquarium-pump motor and a guitar string by artists with no reference materials—and no training, for that matter. Compared to today’s elaborate pieces, those tattoos are so bad that they are good. Outside of prisons, tattoos show no signs of reverting backward to that simple style. But we’re lucky that some true artists came up that way, as their work is indelibly polished but still embodies the spirit of a time when tattoos were solely for renegades. Franco Vescovi is one of those tattooers. He first picked up the art form with instructions from his cousin who was inside the joint, and then he taught himself with guidance from Jack Rudy and Freddy Negrete. Because of his own journey, Vescovi is leery of apprenticeships, which are the norm today. He believes no matter how many times someone scrubs a toilet in their mentor’s shop, it’s not going to replace one hour of pushing a single needle into your classmate’s skin during study hour—not that he advises the latter. Since the tattoo industry has come so far, it’s not likely it can go back; the best we can do is absorb the knowledge of a black-and-gray master.

INKED: When was the first time that you saw a tattoo?

FRANCO VESCOVI: The first time I remember seeing a tattoo was when I was 16. The first tattoos I really saw and noticed were made by Freddy Negrete about 21 years ago. The one that stands out was a big mermaid on this guy’s arm. It was beautiful—I didn’t even know tattoos could look that way!

How did you get into tattooing?

I used to draw on people all the time with markers. I never thought about tattoos before then, but ever since I saw those first tattoos in the San Gabriel area, I fell in love with the idea of making tattoos. I developed a fascination with it. It was calling me, and I came to it. That was the beginning, and from there, my brother and I made a homemade tattooing machine. We got the instructions to make the machine from my cousin, who was in prison. Back then, there weren’t distributors selling these start-up kits, so we had to put it together with a motor and all kinds of little parts.

Who are your mentors and biggest influences?

I used to draw all Chicano-style tattoos. That was the only style for southern California back then: roses, cholos, and girls. I was very influenced by my environment. There are people who have mentored me who aren’t artists, but they’ve helped me develop my artistic sensibility. Some of my mentors in the tattoo industry are Negrete and Jack Rudy, because that was the first style of tattooing that I saw and liked, and that was what I wanted to do. I fell in love with single needle tattooing, and that’s all I did for the first three years. Big pieces, small pieces, everything was done with the single needle. I’m fortunate and blessed to have started that way, because nowadays it’s impossible for anyone to start with that method. It honed my eye for detail, especially when you’re doing a 12-inch chola girl, even the shading—lips, eyes, hips—all single needle. So for tattooing, my mentors are Jack and Freddy, but along the way my number one mentor was my mother, who always encouraged me to draw even though I was bad in school. She always told me I would be a famous artist. I’m still waiting for that day, but maybe I have to die first.

Which came first, the pencil or the tattoo machine?

I’ve always loved drawing. I’ve drawn with a pencil since I was a kid, 4 or 5 years old. The pencil is still one of my favorite tools, so that came way before tattooing.

Do you think that drawing skills are essential if you want to be a good tattoo artist?

Drawing is essential to becoming a good tattoo artist. If you’re a great artist on paper, you have the potential to eventually do good work on skin. But it doesn’t work the other way around. Nowadays, there are so many artists and competition that you need to follow those steps to succeed. Otherwise you won’t have a following. But I draw as well. I make album cover artwork for bands like Blink-182, and most recently Psycho White. I also make designs for T-shirt companies.

And you tattoo Dennis Rodman.

Dennis is an old friend and I started tattooing him about 13 years ago. We’ve done most of his tattoos. I first started tattooing his neck and chest, a lot of pieces on his arms. Then we started a big back piece, which we never finished. It’s a large pinup girl. Then we started a large piece on his thigh. He’s a very good-hearted, interesting man. He just loves to get random tattoos whenever he’s in town.

Has your style changed over time?

My style is black-and-gray, fine line, single needle. For the first 10 years, all I did was Chicano-style artwork with portraits and realistic tattoos. Then I started getting influenced by the baroque Italian Renaissance—Bernini-style type of artwork. I guess you could say my style is Chicano and religious [artwork]. I don’t use colors—it’s just not in my soul.

As someone who uses religious iconography in his pieces, do you always stick with symbols of your own faith?

I’ll still do other religious iconography, because everyone should be able to express themselves. If someone is Buddhist and comes to me, even though I believe in Jesus Christ, I don’t judge. But when it comes to evil tattoos—negative subject matter or violence, that’s not really the imagery I like to create. Sometimes I like to look at them because the artists are good, but I can’t create those kinds of tattoos because it’s just not in me.

Do you remember your first portrait tattoo?

It must have been in 1996. It was a portrait of one of my friend’s girlfriends. I outlined every tooth with black. It was very poor quality, but on the bright side, it triggered a lifelong pursuit of trying to draw portraits correctly. I wanted to never draw another portrait, but I’m glad I took on the challenge of trying to improve my skills instead.

You were an early adopter of white ink.

I started using white in my tattoos 16 years ago, before people began using white in tattoos. I used it a lot, in the same way someone uses color. People used to think I was crazy. But for some reason I was fascinated by using white in a black-and-gray piece.

Who did your first tattoo?

I was already a tattoo artist for nine years before I got my first tattoo because my mom didn’t want me to get any tattoos, so I promised her I wouldn’t. After she passed away, I decided that I could begin to get tattoos. My first one was by Rudy, who did a portrait of my mother on my leg. It was a wonderful experience—I knew I would become addicted to getting more.

Where did you start tattooing?

The first shop where I worked was called Body and Mind in Los Angeles, in 1997. That’s where I learned the foundations of professional tattooing. Before that, I was tattooing underground, and back then nobody wanted to take on new artists. I had a good time at my first shop, met a lot of good people, and I was able to further my black-and-gray skills there.

Why did you decide to open up the Vatican in Orange County?

I moved to Lake Forest several years ago. I love Orange County because it’s more mellow and laid-back. Lake Forest was the perfect city because, at the time, it had no competition. We were the only tattoo shop around for 40, 50 miles. We decided it was a great location in between L.A. and San Diego. We opened up the Vatican, a unique shop in the sense that it’s not in a mall, it’s in a warehouse. I got the inspiration to do this from Mister Cartoon and my good friend and artist Noah, who operate their businesses from their warehouses. I never understood why they wanted to operate this way until I started to get sick of owning a shop in a busy mall. One day, I had enough of the bars and people all around the shop, and decided to open a private shop in a warehouse district. We have an energy in here that’s different, and we have award-winning artists who are fully booked, so we don’t need the walk-in traffic. We like to have a nice, comfortable environment. We also were free to decorate the studio with free reign.

Who are in your stools?

Everyone here is very custom—we all draw our pieces for our customers. We have Alexis Vaatete, Robert Ullom, Latisha Wood, London Reese, Carlos Macedo, and Rich Pineda. We also have two guest spot stations, which will be opening soon for visitors around the world. They’re welcome to come to our city and experience what we have. Alexis Vaatete’s style is described as surrealism, and it’s pretty unique. Carlos Macedo does nice Chicano black-and-gray. Latisha makes fabulous pinups. She’s very detailed, and does great black-and-gray, as well as color tattoos. Then we have London Reese, who does the brightest color ever. He has his own style, super realistic portraits. Rich Pineda’s lips and eyes in his portraits are so real and vibrant. Rob Ullom is very versatile, tattooing everything but specializing in Japanese-style tattooing. We all make art together.

Do you travel much?

In the beginning of my career I used to travel all the time, especially around California, and then I stopped. But I’ve been traveling again in the past few years to promote my machines. We love to travel overseas. I love Europe and London. And I love some of the local conventions here. Some of the local ones don’t treat the artists very well, and that’s one of the biggest problems. A lot of tattoo artists don’t talk about it, but I will: Most of the conventions take advantage of the artists, but some throw a convention and take care of the artists.

What’s the oddest tattoo request you’ve followed through on?

The weirdest one ever was when a girl came in and she wanted me to tattoo a butterfly from just below her belly button to right close to her anus. It covered her entire pubic area. It was no fun, it was very hard work, and I wish I never took that job on. I’m sure she’s one of the many people who regret getting a tattoo.

Anything else you don’t like being asked to do?

A customer should avoid asking me for a discount! A customer shouldn’t ask me to tattoo their under- age kid. A customer should avoid asking me to tattoo anything color.

Do you have a policy on tattooing hands and necks?

I honestly think that anyone can get whatever they want. But no matter what, people who do tattoos will agree that you have to earn those tattoos. Of course, there’s a little part of us that is bothered when we see these people jump into daring areas like the hands and neck, mainly because you had to be a musician or a hardcore gang member or someone crazy to get those. Nowadays, people just jump into them and they probably get them for the wrong reasons.

Have you seen any other changes in the tattoo industry that concern you?

These recent tattoo TV shows are a good thing, because with this economy it’s better that customers keep coming through our doors. On the other hand, the bad thing is that everyone wants to become tattoo artists, and bad companies are peddling crappy machines to people who don’t know how to use them safely.

Does TV do a good job portraying the craft?

They are very misinformed. Tattoos are not as easy as they seem on TV. Actually, they are very time-consuming and difficult. And there is not that much drama. I hope one day there will be a show that could set the record straight, with no negativity. I hope this show could inform viewers what it really takes to be a tattoo artist.

How about the documentary Tattoo Nation that you are involved with?

Tattoo Nation is a really good movie because it revolves around Freddy Negrete and Jack Rudy. To me, it’s real. The writer and director, John Corry and Eric Schwartz, did a great job in casting and the story line. I’ve seen a few rough cuts and it looks really good. I’m working on the movie poster right now, and I’m very thankful they gave me that opportunity. For a lot of tattoo artists, this movie is very important because our story is being told, especially mine of black-and-gray in southern California. It’s wonderful to be able to share this story with people around the world.

Do you have any advice for young tattooers?

My advice is just to be more realistic with your direction and to start tattooing for the right reasons. A lot of people get into tattoos because it’s popular. Everyone who tattoos has to know that it’s a saturated market and could be bad for everyone. I would ask everyone who’s starting to tattoo to please do it with the right intentions. This isn’t a rock star job; it isn’t what it seems. There’s a lot of hard work and sweat—it takes 20 years to be a success. Don’t try to become famous. That’s the worst thing any young artist could do, is try to be famous. Put your ego to the side, and just be who you are. Nowadays it’s very hard to get people who are real. Everyone copies styles from different artists. Try to develop your own style that is unique, because with so much competition these days, it’s the only way you’ll stand out or make a living. If all that is done correctly, that’s the only way your work will be recognized.

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