ICON: Nikko Hurtado


Black Anchor Collective
13567 Main Street
Hesperia, CA


Get inside the head of the next-level tattoo artist and one of the most creative minds in all of the art world.

Piece by piece, Nikko Hurtado may have been the best tattooer on LA Ink. While he didn’t get deeply involved with the show’s on-camera drama, Hurtado did tattoos that outshined superfluous in-fighting and demanded to be seen. If you are a Hurtado fan you know his pieces: super-bright, ridiculously detailed color work. If you are unfamiliar with his work, you’ve probably seen one of his tattoos in passing but didn’t know it was a Hurtado piece. If you’ve seen your friends post an amazing tattoo portrait of Steve Jobs, Bill Murray from The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, or Willie Nelson on social media, they probably should have tagged him. Hurtado doesn’t just tattoo portraits of celebrities, he also has a robust A-list clientele that includes Drake and Cheryl Cole. Enjoy his words and his amazing work.

INKED: We understand your grandfather and uncles had homemade tattoos. What was it about those tattoos that piqued your interest in the medium?
NIKKO HURTADO: They were just cool to me. They were nothing special, just black-and-gray prison-style tattoos, but to me it was different than anyone else and I just found that interesting. My grandpa had my grandmother’s name, Lucy, tattooed on his hand, and now I do as well. It’s now my daughter’s name. I looked up to my grandpa and lost him when I was 10, so it’s a small reminder of him as well.

What is it about art that has always interested you?
Art has always been a part of my life. I loved cartoons and comic books. When I was young I loved to draw anything I saw, from the room I was sitting in to trying to replicate illustrations in comic books. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to appreciate fine art. I’ve had the opportunity to visit many museums around the world and see beautiful paintings in person. Art is something that I’ve always felt I’ve wanted and needed to do.

You drew throughout your childhood, but you wound up working in construction for about three years before you began tattooing.
I drew ever since I could remember—I took art classes in high school and even Saturday art classes at the local art center. Due to circumstances in my life at a young age, I didn’t graduate high school. I started working painting houses with a friend. It wasn’t something that I loved, but it did teach me about hard work and being proud of doing a good job. I appreciate that time in my life as it was a learning experience, but I am happy that my career path went in another direction.

Jack Nicolson (The Joker) tattoo by Nikko Hurtado.

How did you go from construction work to embarking on a tattoo career? 

I used to work painting houses with Mike DeMasi. He eventually left the job to pursue tattooing and open a shop of his own. I had come by a few times to his shop to say hello and see how his business was doing. He had offered me an opportunity to apprentice. I quit working construction immediately, and it just took off from there.

You’re known for your impressive color portraiture work. Why the interest in portraiture specifically? And color?
I think it comes from when I was young and I would draw things from life and try to make it look as realistic as I could, like faces. I feel like it transferred into my tattoos. It’s not something that was intentional, I guess, but what I was drawn to. I feel like when a portrait is done properly, people can relate to seeing the image, people can connect with the tattoo. For example, when you see a famous portrait it will remind you of your own family member, or a famous face will make you think about that movie the person was in. I like color because it was more of a challenge for me. People seem to like my color work and I am happy to do it. It’s challenging and fun to try to get the colors to look the way I want.

What’s your artistic process on a tattoo?
When I was doing more movie portraits it was pretty straightforward: Bring in the photo, stencil, tattoo. Although I still love doing movie portraits, my clients seem to want large-scale tattoos. Nowadays it’s more of a collaboration between me and my client. They come with the idea, possibly some reference photos, and we will spend the day designing the piece, making it fit the body well. We use the computer to lay out the design. If it’s a large tattoo then I will make a large stencil and, hopefully, if it’s not too late, start tattooing. Those types of tattoos take several sessions and a large commitment for me and the client.

You also do beautiful oil paintings. How has painting influenced your tattooing?
Thank you. I tattooed before I started doing oil paintings. Tattooing has done so much for me, such as allowing me to travel around the world. I have had the privilege of being able to see old master paintings in person. I also have a lot of friends who are painters, and I look to them and their work to figure out realism rather than looking at other tattoos. I think there is a lot of information on realism in the art world. Painting has really shown me how to add dimension in my tattoos and shown me how to use color in a different way.

You have been tattooing since 2002. How has your work evolved?
Since 2002, my portrait work and color work have changed dramatically. Back then, I didn’t really have a method to my tattooing—I just kind of went for it and didn’t really understand how to do color realism. Since then I have been on a quest to understand. There was no one who taught me one thing, like, “This is what you need to know to do color realism”—it’s been more like trial and error. I took seminars on tattooing, read books, traveled, and worked with different artists. It’s been a learning experience and I know I will never stop learning. I hope to continue to grow as an artist and person as time goes on.

You have appeared on LA Ink and Tattoo Wars. Have your TV appearances altered your views on the tattoo industry?
The tattoo shows were interesting at the time. I’m thankful for that because my work was shown on TV worldwide.

Do you think that the shows have helped your career?
It’s obviously given me a better life because I have a lot of people wanting to get tattooed by me. I’m thankful for that. People sometimes recognize me when I am out and that’s pretty surreal. It doesn’t really alter my view on the tattoo industry because at the end of the day I’m just a tattooer and it doesn’t define me or my art.

The funny thing is, when LA Ink and Tattoo Wars aired it was taboo for a tattoo artist to be on TV. Now it seems that everyone is running out and getting on these competition shows, and the people that are on these shows are the ones who were condemning these same shows. It’s helped me because it’s made me more popular in the sense that so many people contact me to get tattooed. When someone e-mails me and tells me they have been watching my career since LA Ink and now they are 18 and want a tattoo, that’s pretty crazy. Or they never considered getting a tattoo until they saw my work. That’s pretty cool.

What’s a day in the life of Nikko Hurtado like?
A day in the life of Nikko is one of two days. It’s either me getting up for work, spending all day at the shop tattooing or painting and staying really late—or the other kind of day would be just hanging with my kids, watching Adventure Time cartoons on the couch, or a trip to Disneyland, where no tattoo or art-related stuff is going on.

Jesus and Disciples (Last Supper) tattoo by Nikko Hurtado.

What’s your waiting list like?
I don’t really have a wait list. I get so many requests for tattoos, and while I appreciate every single one, I can’t possibly put a wait list out there. It would take me a long time to get through all them! I usually book out two, three months at a time. If the client has a cool idea we’ll go ahead and set it up. I just choose what would be the most fun or interesting pieces to do. My schedule can be crazy so it’s hard to plan my life out more than a few months at a time. I travel a lot and try to fit in time with my family, so I just encourage my potential clients to be persistent with e-mailing.

If the topic of portraiture work comes up, your name is sure to follow. What do you think it is about your particular style that resonates with people?
I don’t really know. There are so many amazing tattoo artists out there doing color portrait and black-and-gray portrait work, like Bob Tyrrell. At the time color realism style started, there were only a handful of people approaching it in a different way. I guess I took a lot of chances early on using different techniques. Truthfully, I don’t really know why my style resonates with people.

Working so long in a particular career has the tendency to burn a person out. So how do you avoid that? What keeps you going?
I took a couple months off recently to paint. I was given the opportunity to have a solo art show at Copro Gallery in Santa Monica. Hopefully that will reinvigorate my inspiration to tattoo. What keeps me from getting burned out is my desire to be better than the day before. I love tattooing. There’s something new every day. I don’t think I will ever not tattoo. This break from tattooing has been good, though, and I am happy to get back to it.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
My goals always change. I hope to be creating beautiful paintings and tattoos, still learning, still working hard. I hope to travel more and see more of the world, show my kids the world. My daughter wants to go to Japan and I hope to visit again with her. I can just hope to have a great life and be the best I can be.

You’ve appeared on TV and tattooed celebrities. What has been the most memorable moment for you so far?
To be honest, tattooing has given me so many memorable moments. It’s given me a life that I couldn’t even dream up. Tattooing celebrities has been fun and great experiences, but the best times have been traveling to other countries, meeting new people, and appreciating other cultures. It’s very humbling.

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