Artists: Robert Pho
When did you start tattooing?
I was 16 years old when I did my first tattoo. At the time it was hard to find anyone to be a guinea pig, so my first client was myself. That was back in 1989 when I decided to tattoo my leg.
What drew you to specialize in black and grey realism?
I had seen tattoos all my life, but it wasn’t up until I was locked up that I remember seeing my first detailed black and grey piece. The tattoo was on an inmate’s back that had a huge black and grey dragon and that’s when my fascination with black and grey began. Even though I’ve done tattoos in color, black and grey is my forte. It’s the style that first caught my eye and the one that I chose to put my time into. I guess you can say that photorealism is a style that challenges me and that’s why I love it. To get the lines right and the gradient shading smooth and correct is a task that requires a constant hunger to learn and do better.
Your work features beautiful, smooth shading with no hesitation in the use of heavy black to create contrast. Being a self-taught artist how did you achieve this?
I wanted a trademark look that was smooth and supple. To achieve this it took me many years of trial and error and I can’t say that I’m completely satisfied with my results. I will say that I’m very happy with what I’ve accomplished, but I’m a perfectionist that always sees room for improvement. I think any artist that takes pride in his work finds that perfection is something to be chased knowing that it can’t be hunted down. That said, I’m in this game for the passion and for the thrill of the hunt.
Have you attempted color realism?
I definitely did color realism but that was over 15 years ago. I was pretty happy with the results, but over time the demand for black and grey grew more and more and I stuck with it. I’m still a fan of color realism, though.
What would be your perfect client? What would be your worst?
My perfect client would be a rock; my worst client, a worm. [Laughs] I think we can all agree that those who sit still are ideal, but in the end, my best clients are the ones I can learn from. Each and every one of our clients has a story and it’s interesting to hear them all; it’s just up to us to get the story . Just make sure you’re sitting still when you tell it.
So if you had the freedom to do a certain tattoo, what would it be?
This is a tough one. There are so many ideas I have when it comes to being able to have full reign on a tattoo. Doing a full body suit would definitely be on top of the list. If I were to do it, I would go with a theme that revolved around black and grey realism with a twist of Japanese influence. I would create the suit to flow around the natural curves and angles of the body. It would be a full-featured piece with high and low contrasts all around. The suit would also have to revolve around a story, not a piecemeal of images and random thoughts. The goal would be to create a tattoo that would be cohesive in both design and thought. That’s what I would do.
Do you feel you’ve gotten where you wanted in your tattoo work?
No. I’m definitely pleased with where I’m at, but there’s so much more for me to prove to myself. I’m working on one big project, which will ultimately be the last hoorah before I exit to the left, but I’m still ironing out the details.
Where do you usually find inspiration?
I’m inspired by art, and art comes in all media. From oil paintings to nature, I find inspiration everywhere I walk, but if I had to mention just one thing, it has to be my family. They are the ones that have stood by me since day one. In terms of artists, I’m influenced by artists from different periods. Back in the day guys like Filip Leu, Paul Booth, Robert Hernandez, Tom Renshaw, Jack Rudy and Kore Flatmo inspired me as a tattoo artist. Now when you talk in terms of today’s artists, guys like Bob Tyrrell, Tommy Montoya, Chente Rios, Fernie Andrade, Brian Gonzales, Chuey Quintanar, and Carlos Torres are amongst a few of the artists that inspire me.
Are there any projects that you are involved with these days?
I’m working on a project and live installment piece that I’ll be calling “Giving back, before I leave.” It’s a pretty intense project, and you’ll be the first to know once I finalize all the details. Other than that, I don’t like to speak on thoughts and plans, and none of that counts ‘til you commit.