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.