Freddy Corbin

INKED: When did you first step into a tattoo shop?

FREDDY CORBIN: I went to the shop on Broadway in Sacramento and I pretty much just walked out. It was a really funky, funky shop. I was, like, 17 or 18 and I knew I wasn’t going to get tattooed by the guy in there. His name was Broadway Bob. If you wanted to get a punk rock tattoo, like a skull with a mohawk or some lettering or something, he could kind of pull that off. But I wanted a dragon or some kind of wild shit and he just wasn’t up to par. I didn’t walk into another tattoo shop until I walked into Lyle Tuttle’s place in San Francisco when I moved there a year later.

Was that when you got your first tattoo?

I actually tattooed myself first before I went into the shop. My girlfriend had a tattoo of an Egyptian eye that she had done herself. She hand-poked it. I walked into the shop because it was going really slow and I thought, Man, this is going to take forever.

What did your artist say when he saw your handiwork?

It was interesting because it’s such a cliché for somebody to walk into a tattoo shop and say, “Oh, I did this one myself.” But I was so innocent that they treated me really cool. The tattoo was great and so were the people. I had great experiences and I was off at that point.
Is that when you realized you wanted to tattoo professionally?

I was getting a tattoo and my urge to tattoo was growing as it happened. At the time, I was doing all this artwork with black ink and black paint. The tattoos that I was seeing matched what I was drawing. It was an organic transformation. I just said, “Oh my God, this is my medium.” I was sitting around looking at people who could wear whatever they want, talking to people, listening to music and surrounded by all this art. I don’t talk about this a lot because it’ll make a lot of people want to become tattoo artists. [Laughs.]

Where did you go from there?

I immediately started asking where I could get equipment and stuff, which is such a faux pas. They corrected me because I was calling them “guns” even though I knew they were called “machines.” I said, “Oh shit, I blew it already.” They said they didn’t really sell that stuff and then I kept my mouth shut. I just kept getting tattooed by different people until I found somebody who was willing to teach me how to tattoo or at least sell me equipment.

Did you land an apprenticeship?

I never really got an apprenticeship because Erno [Szabady], the guy who taught me, was busy partying. Basically, I was making it really easy for him to run his business. I would smoke a little weed, but I wasn’t really partying. He showed me how to set up a machine. He said, “Here’s what you want to do and if you have any questions, ask.” I learned through trial and error. I learned through asking questions. I was getting tattooed by Henry Goldfield and I learned a lot from him too.

Did you ever think that you wanted a more traditional apprenticeship?

I just wanted to tattoo by any means necessary. I wasn’t going to say no to somebody who was just going to open the door for me. I wasn’t about to say, “I want a real apprenticeship. I’m going to find someone else.” He handed me the keys to the shop and let me tattoo my friends.How did you get a key to the shop with so little experience?

It was Halloween 1987 and I had been hanging out and tattooing my legs. I used to draw tribal tattoos on my friends, a lot of whom were small-time dealers. They would get a ton of attention and they couldn’t wait to get work done by me. I told them they’d get their tattoos when I got my machine. They always had cash lying around, so one night my dealer roommate handed me $500 and told me to take it down to Erno to see if it could buy me a couple of machines.

Did he go for the deal?

I put the money down on the table and told him it was for tattoo machines. He picked up $250 and put it in his pocket. Then he handed me the rest. He said, “You’ve got the keys, just do the tattoos here.” My dream had just come true. I had done maybe three tattoos and I was already working in a shop. I went back that night and did a skull with an anarchy symbol on its head for my friend.
How did you get hooked up with Ed Hardy?

I worked at Erno’s for just under two years. At the time, Ed Hardy was charging $200 an hour for tattoos. You couldn’t just get tattooed by him, either. You had to write him a letter. He started tattooing me and we hit it off. He liked my idea. Instead of a geisha sitting down with a bodysuit of tattoos, I wanted a nun sitting down with a bodysuit of religious tattoos. He loved the idea and he had seen a tattoo I had done and he thought it looked really good. I didn’t realize that when he was tattooing me, he was really interviewing me.

How did it evolve into you working for him?

Eventually, I told him I wanted him to do a Rock of Ages back piece for me. He got this surprised look on his face, set his machine down and said, “I have always wanted to do a Rock of Ages.” He had only done one at the time. I was so jazzed that he was excited. For me to be hanging out with Ed Hardy was like being a kid who’s just learning how to play the guitar hanging out with Keith Richards. I was just tickled to even be there.

Did he offer you the job on the spot?

The next morning at, like, 9 a.m., the phone rang. I didn’t answer it because I never got up that early. Eventually, the machine picked up and I heard Ed’s voice. I rushed over to the phone and he asked me to come work at Realistic Studio with Bill Salmon. He offered me more money and he said that people who work for him only paid half for his work. He wanted to start on my back piece right away.

Did you accept immediately?

The one thing was that I had a lot of love for Erno. I really wanted to say yes, but I asked if I could talk to Erno first and think about it. I called him back in two hours, but I scored some points that I didn’t jump ship immediately. He was stoked that I thought about it before accepting.
Did you start working with Ed right away?

I was at Realistic Studio with Bill. Ed worked in a condo that he was renting in the Tenderloin and it was super Japanese. You had to take your shoes off and the tiny bedroom was the tattoo room. I worked for him but not with him. It was probably better at the beginning because I would’ve been so nervous.

How do you feel about the clothing line that bears Ed’s name?

Everything edgy is going mainstream. Outlaw bikers, rock ‘n’ roll, and tattooing. I go to the grocery store and they’re playing Ozzy. Nothing is outlaw anymore. The clothing lines and the TV shows play a big part and I really don’t dig it that much. But thank God Ed got that gig. Ed has probably done more for tattooing than any other artist. He published Tattoo Time when there were no publications about tattooing. It was so much work. Do I like the product? No. Do I like Ed Hardy steering wheel covers and lighters and perfume? No, I think it’s stupid. Do I think it’s ridiculous that somebody can buy a big tattoo design of a bulldog with an Ed Hardy signature and put it on their car? I think it’s ridiculous. But I’m glad Ed got the gig.
You now have two shops in the Bay area. Do you still have time to tattoo?

When you have 14 employees, your work never ends. Either the toilet breaks or someone wants to go on vacation or it’s someone’s birthday. It’s always something. Right now, I do two tattoos a day, five days a week.

Where does your infatuation with religious imagery come from?

It comes from my heart, I guess. When I was younger, I didn’t even believe in God. I would go into someone’s house and if I saw a picture of Jesus I would think they were sheep. As I got older, I realized they were metaphors. Jesus, to me, became an icon for being compassionate and doing the right thing. I’m technically considered a Christian, but when I go to India and pray in a temple, I’m basically blaspheming. A real Christian wouldn’t go pray in a Buddhist temple. Organized religion is a crock of shit. It’s fear-based. That’s what I love about Hinduism and Buddhism. They believe they came from each other and neither one is right or wrong. I’m into Jesus, man. I’m into Martin Luther King. I’m into Jimi Hendrix—anything that’s positive.

Have you gotten any negative reactions from other Christians about your religious tattoos?

I used to go into religious stores and buy holy cards that were blank on the back. Then I’d print my info on the back and hand them out as business cards. I would walk into a church supply and they would usually call people over and look at them. I was in Miami a few months ago, and I’m at some Walgreens on the corner and some old lady started telling me in broken Spanish that God didn’t want me to do that to my body. I usually remind people that their bodies are their temples. Do you want to go to a temple that’s just four blank walls, or do you want to go to a church with stained glass windows and incense burning? My body isn’t permanent, so putting artwork on it is no big deal.
When was the last time you got tattooed?

It was in England back in May. There are some artists over there that are breaking new ground. Guys like Tomas Tomas and Thomas Hooper—who actually works at New York Adorned now—who are doing this new kind of tribal stuff that doesn’t look like anything else. When Leo Zulueta started doing tribal, he could do it really well because he was using Borneo organic images. But it became these zigzags with points and it just looked horrible. It became shallow. Real tribal was all black. The Polynesian, Japanese, and all that South Pacific stuff looked very soulful to me. They’re taking that kind of subject matter and throwing a psychedelic spiritual twist on it.

You’ve done a lot of design and artwork for the TV show Sons of Anarchy. How did that come about?

My good friend David Labrava, who’s a Hell’s Angel, introduced me to John Linson, who is the producer of the show. I was tattooing David and he started telling me that they were pitching a show to FX that’s basically The Sopranos meets the Hell’s Angels. I thought it sounded fucking cool, but I never thought it was going to happen.
But you ended up designing the patch and the show is a hit.

They wanted the patch to look like a real outlaw patch. They didn’t just want to send it to the art department. They were afraid it was going to come back with some bullshit that didn’t have any balls. I was honored to design the patch and it became the show logo. You see it constantly. I wanted something that looked really gritty and ’70s. I made sure the letters weren’t all the same size. I didn’t use masks. Normally, if I was doing a rocker on someone’s stomach I would make sure it was all even. I wanted it to look kind of clunky and real.

Will you be doing any cameos?

Charlie [Hunnam] always said to the writer that if we ever needed a tattooer on the show, it had to be me. I thought, Whatever. Then Charlie calls me and says it’s actually going to happen. I’m super stoked. I’ve never wanted to be on a reality show, but I have an infatuation with TV and film. I’d always want to play, like, a hood or drug addict or gangster. That’s the look I have going. I can’t play an innocent kid or anything.

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