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
FRANCO VESCOVIVatican 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.IS TATTOOING LOSING ITS SOUL?
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.