Many tattooers in the industry are known for a signature subject, from Paul Booth’s demons to Ryan Ashley’s filigree. Alexis Vaatete is the Owl King. He’s taken the tattoo world by storm by inking powerful and dynamic owls, primarily working within black-and-grey. However, for most of his career, Vaatete was a color guy. We spoke with the tattooer from Lake Forest, California to learn about his first shop experience, how he met his mentor and why he gravitated toward owls in the first place.
How did you get into tattooing and what was your first shop experience like?
I had always been interested in art and tattoos since I was young. My family is Polynesian and tattooing is a major part of our culture; because of that, I was brought up with it around, so my interest in tattoos naturally grew as I got older. It wasn’t until I was 24 that I had had a friend come into my art studio and recommend I should take up a tattoo apprenticeship. I’d already been searching to become an apprentice but because the industry was so protective at that time, the opportunity to become a tattoo artist wasn’t available. But that same friend told me he knew someone who was looking for his first apprentice at a shop called El Toro Ink House. At that time, the shop was owned by Franco Vescovi. My friend arranged an appointment to speak with Franco on an over the phone interview. After our conversation, we arranged to meet several weeks later. I had set up my paintings all around the shop, then after he took a look at my work and a brief conversation, he asked me to spend the day with him. Ever since, he and I have been working side-by-side since 2002. I had a three year proper apprenticeship from Vescovi, which was a blessing and a proper introduction into the industry.
Apart from being an amazing creature, I love how cultures from around the world have built their own folklore based around owls. From bad to good omens, a sign of death, a creature of intelligence and a symbol of freedom. There are so many different perspectives throughout many cultures and the owl allows me to tell a variety of stories for each collector around the world, based on their own personal story. The owl is a magical creature that I hope to expand on as my Owl King series evolves.
What's the best piece of advice you were given during the beginning of your career and how did it shape you into the artist you are today?
Some of the best advice I was given was, “Do whatever it takes to get the results that end up with your collector receiving a beautiful tattoo.” Whether that means extending the session to longer hours or staying up late to learn new styles and techniques. I feel it has molded me into everything I am today and to always become better than I was before. We must do everything it takes so that we can evolve.
As a primarily black-and-grey artist, what role does color play in your designs?
The majority of my work now-a-days is black-and-grey. From the beginning of my career to nine years in, I was predominantly a color artist. I would definitely say that a lot of my color techniques and my application of saturation really assisted on how I approach black-and-grey. For the last few years, I have been doing more of a black-and-grey with color fusion, choosing one pop color to compliment my black-and-grey work. But I remain versatile and diversify, because sometimes I do color and sometimes I do black-and-grey. My collectors keep me sharp.
What have you learned from seeing your healed tattoos over time and how have you used in the application of your work today?
I think one of the biggest learning points for all tattoo artists is the healing process. It's not about seeing how the work heals after a month or two years, it’s about learning from a five-year heal to a 10-year heal. That’s when you can truly see the longevity of your work. We will truly know our tattoo abilities and how it will uphold through understanding application, healing and time. I’ve learned so much about what tones and values hold and what colors last by observing my work over longer periods of time. I’m constantly learning as new equipment and supplies evolve. A good heal also depends on the aftercare routine of our collectors and informing our collectors is key.