There are 10 leading names in today's tattoo world: DJ Tambe, Ryan Ashley, Jess Yen, Carlos Torres, Steve Butcher, Popo Zhang, Jessa Bigelow, Tatu Baby, Andy Pho and TeeJ Poole. If you don't know the face, you at least know the name. Their tattoo work is stunning... and hard to ignore on your Instagram feed. But whose illustrations do these tattoo artists wear on their own skin?
Ryan Ashley Malarkey
Marking herself in the tattoo industry, Ryan Ashley is not only known by tattoo enthusiasts, but to the tattoo curious as well. The 32-year-old is the first female contestant to win the Ink Master competition, as well as host their spin-off tattoo shows. She has graced the cover of INKED Magazine, alongside a variety of other tattoo publications, and has been the first and only tattoo artist awarded to collaborate with Apple, representing the tattoo industry for their “Today at Apple” seminar. Behind the camera, Ryan Ashley has taught seminars across Europe, Mexico, Australia and almost 30 US cities.
Illustrating on the human body for nine years, Ryan Ashley specializes in highly-detailed feminine and ornate black-and-grey tattoos. Her creative history as an artist dates back to when she was a child, finding art and design to be a therapeutic outlet. This included bringing her ideas from paper into fabric, through creating clothing and costumes. Later accepted into the Fashion Institute of Technology's Fashion Design program, Ashley graduated as the Critic Award Winner of her class. She landed a job with a private-label clothing company in the Fashion District of Manhattan, but left designing on the body to pursue a career designing and illustrating the body itself. “I realized that I just had to translate my knowledge of anatomical flow, illusion, muscle structure, pattern making, and translate all of that knowledge into a new medium— tattooing,” she said, adding, “I haven’t looked back since.”
Her career's turning point was finding the untapped and untouched demand for a feminine, intricate and detailed style of tattooing in her small, Northeast Pennsylvania town. Ashley’s fashion-industry knowledge of lace, jewels, pearls and embroidery helped her further evolve her tattoo style. She adds, “I can’t ever express into words how grateful I am to this industry, for giving me the opportunity to live every aspect of life and emotion to the fullest.”
Alongside spreading her art in countless countries, Ryan Ashley has been tattooed all over the world. Her well-known moon and beadwork face tattoos were illustrated and tattooed by Tyler Pawelzik, owner of Black Casket Tattoo in Scranton, Pennsylvania, who also inked her feet and stomach. Her throat and chest pieces were done by artist Bob Lewis. Having also tattooed her own illustrations on herself, Ryan wears art by artists Jacob Sheffield, TeeJ Poole, Jordan Baxter, Nick Malasto, Logan Aguilar, Ron Russo, Ethan Morgan and Marc Roy.
Po Zhang, better known as Popo, has been tattooing for 17 years. Born and raised in Tianjin, China, the 40-year-old photorealism and morph artist studied oil painting before illustrating on the skin. In 2003 Popo opened his first tattoo studio, “Wen Suo Wei Wen,” translating to Popo Tattoo Studio. Popo has traveled to many national and international competitions, winning numerous awards for his work. He also has been awarded the opportunity to judge tattoo competitions in China. While honored to judge, he adds, “It’s never about the competitions, it’s the competition with yourself. This mentality has, and will continue to help me grow as an artist.”
Popo’s first tattoo —aside from the dragon scales he illustrated on himself, to test the machine and needles before tattooing someone else — of his mother’s portrait, was tattooed by Bob Tyrell in 2008, at the China tattoo convention. “The meaning of tattooing has changed to me over the years,” Popo says. “At first it was a side job to make money while I was in college. Later, because of tattooing, I travel the world, started a new life in America and became a key to opening another door in my life. Tattooing has become my passion.”
Popo notes that the most fulfilling part of career is that he never had to lose touch with his art. “Most artists have an untouchable piece of work in a museum, but clients display art in real life and show my work everywhere they go,” he added. “I feel it is a big honor to have my work on clients. They put their money, time and trust into my work. Most artists have an untouchable piece of work in a museum, but clients display art in real life and show my work everywhere they go.“
Admiring fine artists like Michelangelo, Gianlorenzo Bernini, Alphonse Mucha and Salvador Dali, Popo is also inspired by many artists in the tattoo world, including Bob Tyrell, AD Pancho and Tomas Tofi. “To be the best tattoo artist you need to have a strong artistic background. Without a strong foundation in art you won’t be able to have a solid ground to grow on. Don’t be cheap, use professional and quality supplies,” he says. “Always continue to learn and be open, go to seminars and conventions. Be humble and don’t try to be obsessed with your social media numbers. That’s just right now, not your future.”
Growing up seeing her father covered in tattoos sparked Jessa Bigelow’s interest in illustrations at a young age. Bigelow started to learn as much as she could about the art form, and remembers accompanying him at his tattoo appointments. Always having an artistic skill set, Bigelow searched for an apprenticeship, despite hesitations around the prevalent gender gap in many shops. As Bigelow continued to flourish with the shop she worked at, coupled with experiencing the dynamic and the devotion from artists within it, her passion for tattooing clicked. She then went on to open her own shop, Gallery of Ink, in New Jersey, with her partner.
Bigelow says tattooing is the best thing to ever be given to her. She adds, “I intend to work every single day to ensure that it wasn't passed down in vain.” Favoring illustrations of geometric patterns, lady heads, flowers and fine-line designs, The 27-year-old says, “The first time I got to touch needle to skin felt like butter. I still think about the smooth glide of needle to skin every time I think back to that day.” Bigelow, who started her tattoo collection at 17-years old, says her body art stands as mementos from experiences and people in her life, and that they make her feel beautiful. “I think a well-done, well-placed tattoo can completely transform a person and accentuate the fluidity and curvature of the body,” she said. “I’m in awe at the amount of confidence that even small tattoos can give people. That’s a really awesome part of tattooing.”
For Bigelow, the art of tattooing means everything. “It’s my escape, everyday,” she said. “It’s calming, peaceful and allows me to completely focus on my artwork above all else.” Bigelow holds the art of tattooing highly, and feels honored to be where she is in the industry. “It’s a beautiful tradition that has been passed down through generations and is a craft that is greatly-respected among most people who are involved in it,” she said. “Everyday I try to improve my craft. I'm constantly hungry for more; more learning, more growth and more lessons. Every day I wake up with an overwhelming amount of gratitude for where I am in my career, and where I aspire to go with it.”
Bigelow wears lettering by Boog (back of the head) and her eyelids by Carlos Macias. Her throat, death moth, skeleton, and lady head by Frank O’Dowd, with David Osorio completing her chest piece (tattoo machine, pearls, frame and roses. Osorio also completed the horror sleeve on her right arm, as well as her Beetlejuice piece on her thigh, skeleton back piece, and moon and arrows on her left palm.
The first ever back-to-back Ink Master winner, DJ Tambe, has been tattooing for over 22 years. As a child, the Las Vegas resident was heavily influenced by skateboarding and Lowrider magazine. Selling his first piece of art by 8-years old, he was taught to draw cartoons by his cousin, Cory. By 9-years old, Tambe was hopping trains to paint graffiti on city tracks. With art and graffiti leading Tambe to pursue tattooing at 14-years old, the self-taught tattoo artist dropped out of high school, and started tattooing in a shop by 17.
Once hand-poking tattoos on classmates in school, DJ Tambe is now known for his black-and-grey realism, as well as color illustrative work. The 38-year-old’s first shop tattoo of his body art collection was a devil head on his shoulder, from a guy wearing a snake around his neck. Tambe traded the artist 10 of his flash sketches for the tattoo.
When DJ Tambe is tattooing clients, he enjoys putting a twist on Japanese styles, exaggerated realism and stamping his style into every piece he illustrates. However, when he is getting tattooed, he does so out of appreciation for the practice, and for the memory of it. “Many people get tattoos for the meaning, I get tattooed for the moments,” DJ Tambe said. “I want to remember a time in my life. I get tattooed by my friends more and more now so that I can wear their work and remember the good times.” For DJ Tambe’s personal tattoo collection, he wears work from artists including Ryan Ashley, Joe Capobianco, Fred Flores, Aaron Neiman and Brett Rosepiler. While Tambe has also tattooed many pieces on himself, he highlights his 16-year-old neck piece from Tony Ciavarro and a 14-year-old Russ Abbott piece on the back of his calf. “Tattoos are a way to express yourself without having to say a word. It’s a way to get what’s inside my head out for others to see,” Tambe said.
DJ Tambe adds that he is honored and grateful to be an influencer in the tattoo industry, and to inspire both older and younger generations within the tattoo palate. “I want to thank my wife, Jehnna, and my kids, Story and Jadyn, for giving me the every day motivation to push myself to be better in life and in my career,” Tambe said. “It keeps me going, knowing that it’s for you. To my family, especially my mom, for never giving up on me even when I was at my worst, and encouraging me to focus on art, has helped me to be where I am today.”
Tattooing since 2011, black-and-grey realism artist, Andy Pho, also works in mediums such as painting, sculpting and graphic design. While Pho drew illustrations from photos since he was young, he came from a business-oriented immigrant family, who were experienced in restaurants and clothing manufacturing. Thus, he was raised on a philosophy that believed the measure of success meant being a doctor, an engineer or a business entrepreneur. As Pho realized he had to enjoy what he truly loved, he dropped out of an electrical engineering program. His inspiration to tattoo, alongside artists like Bob Tyrell, Filip Leu, Shige, Robert Hernandez, Paul Booth, Fernie Andrade and Jeff Gogue, was Andy’s brother, Robert Pho.
Robert, who has been tattooing since Andy was a year old, has completed Andy’s full bodysuit, which features Hindu and Buddhist mythology imagery. Sharing a father, the two have a 17-year gap between them, and discovered one another through a detective who was working on their father’s case, after his unfortunate death. While Robert started Andy’s canvas in his kitchen the first Thanksgiving they met —of the same bold, black ‘PHO’ lettering that Robert sports across his stomach — Andy’s now-completed Angkorian bodysuit displays aging stonework found in Southeast Asia, from ancient temples, statues and palaces built during the 9th to 15th century Angkor Empire.
Andy gets tattooed as an extension of his personality and state of mind, and appreciates the patience necessary for the practice. “Whether you just get it for fun, there's a deeper meaning behind it, or because you're just practice for your friend who's just starting out, the tattoos themselves, how and why you got it, speak about who you are more so than the imagery and words of the actual tattoos,” Andy said. “My Angkorian bodysuit is a commitment to my brother and mentor, the craft which he has taught me, and that there's nothing that I could ever do to repay him for this life changing career.”
Tatu Baby started her tattooist journey at 14-years old, where she saw the art form as a self-taught hobby. At her start, because of her young age and her appearance, she says her work wasn’t taken seriously. Eventually her style and skillset grew, and she participated as a contestant on Ink Master to further immerse herself in the industry. Now, Tatu Baby proudly hosts some of Miami’s best tattoo artists working beside her at her shop, Till the End Tattoos.
For Tatu Baby, tattooing is her fulfilling escape, where she can make a permanent impact in her client’s life, while being able to let her imagination run creatively wild. Wanting to push her client’s limits and design an illustration that is custom-tailored to their intention with the tattoo, Tatu Baby focuses on the significance of the piece during her consultations, so she can learn the story behind their tattoo, and tell it with her art. “My clients take my work with them forever. Therefore my work has been to places I could only imagine, like red carpets, stages, concerts, countries and exotic cities,” she said. “It's important that my work is up to par as it is my name and my brand on the line. It’s my walking legacy.”
Tatu Baby admires many tattoo artists through her 13-year career, including Nikko Hurtado, who was the first artist that motivated her to perfect her craft, through his color-portrait work. She also highlights Jose Lopez, as well as Steve Butcher's impressive detail work.
Especially known for her portrait work, including the one of Nipsey Hussle that she illustrated for rapper Rick Ross, Tatu Baby’s personal collection includes portrait pieces by Billy Vegas, Shane O'Neill and David Gonzales. Her right upper arm was tattooed by Johnny Quintana, with Boog tattooing the masquerade girl on the outer forearm. The rose and diamond on the right side of her neck was tattooed by Jon Mesa, and her lower left arm was illustrated and tattooed by artist Hector Arriaga. Tatu Baby’s left hand was done by Mike Dargas, and the owl behind her right thigh was tattooed by fellow Ink Master contestant, Jime Litwalk.
Owner of Blackbird Tattoo, 33-year-old TeeJ Poole was born and raised in Graham, North Carolina. Tattooing for 9 years, the black-and-grey surrealism artist started with an apprenticeship, but was left to teach himself how to tattoo. “There was a lot of trial and error, a lot of YouTube, a lot of second guessing and a lot of free tattoos, due to being so unsure and not wanting to tarnish the name I was trying to build for myself,” TeeJ Poole said. He adds that failing as an artist was his biggest fear, as art had been a part of who he was as a person, as early as 4-years old. Being a visual learner, Poole sought out artists he admired, like Scotty Whittaker, Josh Payne and Bob Tyrell, to learn from their style and techniques.
Poole and his wife, who he met through his apprenticeship, are enthusiastically exposing their kids to the tattoo community. “I want to show them it’s not what you do but how you do it, and to always put your best foot forward in everything you do in your journey through life,” Poole said.
Currently, Poole is influenced by a European style of tattoo work, traveling to Spain and Ireland to work alongside artists that impelhim to further perfect his craft. “Being exposed to inspirational art, as well as artists, pushes me in my work; from designing the piece to the stencil, and to the actual tattoo,” he said. “I know I have much further to go and I embrace the challenge to learn, to grow and to set the example that nothing is impossible if you work for it.”
Scenery, people and animals are subjects Poole most enjoys illustrating, but is passionate about combining these subjects to create something new. “I enjoy designing something that tells a story with no words, and something that can create an emotion with no sound,” he said. “Most of all, the highest gratification is creating a smile on my client's face for a lifetime.”
Tattooed by his daughter, son and wife, Poole also wears the work from over a dozen artists, including Paul Kirk, Bob Tyrrell, Gabe Tucker and Jason Spainhour. Poole says he gets tattooed “to pay homage to great artists, and to pick their brains on how they do things.” He adds, “There is no greater respect than to have another person’s artwork on them.”
Steve Butcher graduated from Whitecliffe's College of Art & Design in New Zealand, earning his Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts. After a friend saw one of Butcher’s paintings, he suggested he try tattooing. At the end of that year, Butcher's Nana passed away, and he ended up getting a tattoo of her, which sparked his interest for the art form.
For 10 years now, the hyperrealism, black-and-grey portrait artist has worked alongside Carlos Torres, Dean Sacred, Mick Squires, Nikko Hurtado and Paul Booth, to name a few. Butcher says, “The art of tattooing is everything. It’s what my entire life revolves around and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Much of Butcher’s illustrative work is influenced by pop culture, whether it be portraits of sports-icons, musicians and movie stars, or comic book characters and animals. His favorite subjects to tattoo are portraits from the sports sphere, mainly the NBA. To execute his portraits, Butcher says he plays with contrast to make sure the portrait will last. “The most fulfilling part about my job is applying my art to people’s skin and having them walk around the world showcasing it,” Butcher said. “The coolest part about tattooing is the fact that all your customers are walking with your work. I think it’s one of the only industries in the world where you have that much free, voluntary advertisement.”
Butcher says he gets tattooed for a variety of reasons, but mostly for self expression. “I have a lot of collector pieces that mean nothing and I have a lot of meaningful pieces as well,” he said. In his own tattoo collection, Butcher wears a handful of portraits, including a Kobe Bryant tattoo by Quan at Q Tattoo; and a Tom Hanks portrait from Castaway by Kegan Hawkins. Butcher also sports a demon on his throat, tattooed by Jess Yen; with his back being illustrated by Carlos Torres; and his skull and frogs on his neck by Erin Chance. Primarily, his tattoo work is done by Dean Sacred, who tattooed both Butcher’s hands, arm, ribs, and one side of his neck and face.
Carlos Torres’ early interests had been around sports, baseball cards and comic books. Torres soon became intrigued by art, drawing the characters he saw in his comics, and eventually drew everything around him. After winning his first art contest when he was in 3rd grade, illustrating became his main dedication. While Torres used to fuel airplanes at Los Angeles International Airport, he has now been tattooing for over 20 years, specializing in black-and-grey realism and surrealism illustrations. In addition to tattooing, Torres enjoys photographing his own reference materials, painting and traveling. Through his travels, Carlos has been featured in numerous international publications and has won numerous awards, including “Best Small Black and Gray”, “Best Large Black and Gray” and “Best Back Piece.”
In October of 2017, Torres opened his tattoo studio and fine art gallery, The Raven and The Wolves. Alongside being featured in international galleries, Torres has also been commissioned to paint convention posters, including the Ink-n-Iron Tattoo Festival and the Copenhagen Tattoo Convention.
Some of Torres' favorite things to tattoo are women’s faces, saying, “I don’t think you can go wrong with a beautiful subject matter. Back pieces are my favorite, because they are about as close as you can get to a traditional painting on canvas.” Torres, who feels every tattoo should be better than the last one, adds, “I have dedicated my life to this craft and I have put so many hours into it. Tattooing has allowed me to travel the world, meet amazing people and have once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I am eternally grateful for that.” Torres aspires to pass on the history of tattooing to future generations, and is excited and curious to see what the future of tattooing holds.
Torres’ own tattoo collection comprises mostly black-and-grey surreal art. He wears illustrations by Robert Hernandez, Victor Portugal, Alan Padilla, Bob Tyrrell, Chuey Quintanar, Yoichi Tanaka, Shawn Barber, Nikko Hurtado, Tom Berg, Ethan Morgan and Franco Vescovi.
Jess Yen (Horiyen)
The works of Jess Yen, also known as Horiyen, can be identified through his style and skill by many outside of the tattoo industry, and almost by all, within it. Tattooing since 1992, Yen specializes in traditional Japanese and realism. Yen is also widely known as a master of the “new school oriental” style, or which he calls, illustrative oriental, which combines elements of realism and materialism in his work.
When Jess Yen relocated to the United States from Taiwan, he came with nothing but two suitcases. When he first met his wife, who wanted to get Yen’s name tattooed on her, he began dedicating his studies to tattooing with a machine, as he’d seen from the American tattooists. This is why Yen’s clients come to him for both electrical machine work and traditional hand-poked tattooing, known as Tebori. He offers both services at his studio, My Tattoo, in Alhambra and Huntington Beach, California. The multi-awarded artist – by both national and international tattoo conventions – has traveled to over 30 countries and has won over 400 trophies, for his realistic portraits and bodysuits, executed in both color and black-and-grey ink.
The dedicated and loyal following of Yen and his work, circles around his background in Japanese and Chinese cultures, which helps inspire unique and creative designs to a list of clientele booked up to two years in advance. Under Yen’s touch, the creatures of Japanese and Chinese mythology flow with life, and are inspirited with detail, shadow and light. As a student of karma, Jess Yen believes "what goes around, comes around," and has dedicated his life to his art, the stories of his clients, and creating illustrations that unify the two. Jess Yen says, “When I use the needle and ink to create art on skin, the art becomes a living thing.”
Yen, who idolizes artist Master Horiyoshi II Sensei, from Yokohama, Japan, wishes he could tattoo himself a bodysuit. For Yen’s own tattoo collection, he wears work from artists including, but not limited to the tattoo family he has founded, “Horiyenichmon.” He currently has five direct students with the Hori name, and three unnamed apprentices under training. His right chest piece was done by one of his students, Lucy Hu, with Silverlake Tattoo Tom and a student of Tom’s illustrating Yen’s left chest piece, calf and back. Yen, Indio and another student of Yen, Man Yao, tattooed his forearm and legs.