By working hard and holding himself to a very high standard, Carlos Torres has built a career as one of the best black-and-grey tattoo artists in the world. Not content to limit himself to one medium, Torres began painting with oils. Filled with deep, rich colors and influenced by old masters like Caravaggio, Torres’s paintings live in an entirely different world from his tattoos, proving what a diverse artist he is. We spoke with Torres about how he first discovered art, the differences between working on canvas and on human skin, and how he wants to be remembered.
What are some of your earliest memories of art? Do you remember when you fell in love with creating?
I grew up in Gardena and we used to live down the street from a comic book store. It was that store that gave me some of my earliest memories of art through graphic novels, comic books and fantasy art. I’ve loved creating since I was a kid. I used to draw all of the time and actually drew a lot of skulls. My mom used to ask, “What’s wrong with you?! Why do you draw these?” I told her it was because she took me to see “The Exorcist” [laughs]. In her defense, we went to see a double feature at a drive-in and the first movie was for kids, “The Exorcist” was second and we just stayed.
Which came first, painting or tattooing?
Tattooing came first. It was something that I fell into a little more naturally than oil painting. But my interest and fascination with paintings was always there. It is fascinating to me that you can stand in a museum and look at a painting that has survived for hundreds of years. Tattoos just don’t live as long.
How does your process differ between painting and tattooing? Especially since you use color in your paintings.
I would say that the time involved and the elements I am focusing on are the big differences. When I am painting, I get a lot of time to sit and study and mix the right colors. You can’t really do that on a color tattoo for a client. Because I am a black-and-grey tattoo artist, I am only thinking of contrast and values when I approach my tattoo projects. Whereas with painting, there are quite a few other things that I am thinking of while I work. Color, value, contrast, saturation and temperature all go into painting, but they aren’t factors in my tattoos.
What have you learned as a tattooer that helps with painting, and what skills as a painter have you brought into your tattooing?
As a tattooer, I learn every day. Every day that I tattoo, draw, sculpt or be creative, it helps with painting. There are things that I am experimenting with in tattooing that I have learned from being a fan of painting and making my own paintings. Edge work, lines and developing focal points are things that I like about paintings and I work to bring these elements into my tattoos. I feel that tattooing and painting can go hand-in-hand. The skills from one carry over to the other and vice versa.
How does the process of tattooing and painting differ in terms of reference materials and subject matter?
With painting, I really like working from my own references. I will have an idea in my mind and hire a model, set up a light source, build props, etc. To an extent, I am able to do that with certain tattoo projects, but not all. It is a little tougher to do the same with tattoos. Although my clients are open to my artistic freedom, I am ultimately creating something for them.
We’ve heard that you often like to tweak your tattoos, even years after they’re started. But with a painting, it’s done once it’s been framed. Does this alter how you approach painting?
Just because you put a painting in a frame doesn’t mean it’s done. I was told once before that artists never finish paintings, we just abandon them. I can always go back into a piece, frame or not.
If you had to choose between painting or tattooing, which one would it be?
If I had to choose tattooing or painting, I would definitely choose tattooing. Although I enjoy painting and being alone, there is something about tattooing and connecting with people that you just can’t get alone in your studio. Clients, who often turn into friends, have invited me to be part of experiences that never would have come about if I was alone and painting.
How do you want to be remembered?
I would like to be remembered as an all-around artist. Alphonse Mucha, who is one of my favorites, is remembered for his paintings, graphics, sculptures, drawings and jewelry. I would like to be remembered in that way and don’t want to be limited to just one thing. I always want to keep growing and exploring new mediums. If I can continue to learn and bring new skills to my tattoos, I want to do that.