Whenever you’re scrolling through Instagram and see a celebrity getting a tattoo in Miami, you can be damn sure Tatu Panda is the artist they’re visiting. Panda is the go-to guy for the It Crowd, inking up everyone from hip-hop legends to YouTube heavy weights to Latin icons. We caught up with the celebrity tattooer to uncover some of his wildest tattoo adventures thus far and to better understand the lifestyle of one of the Magic City’s biggest rising stars.
When did you start tattooing and did you have a traditional apprenticeship?
I first walked into a tattoo shop when I was 12 to see my mom get tattooed. I was sitting in the lobby, drawing as always and this guy walked up to me and he said, “Man, you would make a great tattoo artist,” and that was the moment that sparked the idea in my head. Two years later after drawing a bunch of tattoo flash and mimicking what I saw on TV and in books, I started tattooing my uncle and my best friend from my grandma's porch. Two years after botching a bunch of tattoos, I tried to get an apprenticeship when I was 16 which was really hard because I was 16—no one would take me. I ended up working at the flea market under Felipe “Pride” Bustos, may he rest in peace. It wasn’t a traditional apprenticeship, I did all of the bitch work around the shop, cleaned a bunch of tubes etc. But he basically threw me into the fire and said “You wanna tattoo, go ahead and tattoo.” I basically banged out free tattoos every day after school until I was 19 when I dropped out of college and started tattooing full-time. I learned a lot more about the hustle and grind than about tattoos.
Who was the first celebrity you tattooed and what was that experience like?
It was definitely Swae Lee. He posted on Instagram looking for a tattoo artist in Miami and people were tagging me like crazy in the comments. I knew I was going to tattoo him but I wanted to go in style. So I hit up my buddy Matt Zingler to come with me as a cosign. Matt immediately pulls up in his G Wagon and he’s like, “Let’s ride.” Swae wanted a pretty big piece on his stomach. He rolled up a few blunts, numbed his stomach up while I drew the design. It was super chill, we listened to some of his unreleased music that he was working on at the time.
How does tattooing Jake Paul usually go down?
There’s never been a dull moment tattooing Jake. I remember the first few pieces I did for him, the “RNBO” on his stomach and the “karma” on his shoulder. It usually starts out with a text like, “Yo Panda!” and then he sends me an onslaught of ideas that he’s saved on his phone. I sort through all the ideas and only pick the ones I think will make good art. Luckily, he’s a good sport and gives me a good amount of freedom when designing.
What are some of your favorite experiences you've had tattooing Marc Anthony?
Every now and then, you have experiences with clients where you know they’re going to be a part of your life for a long time, I just never thought one of those people would be Marc Anthony. Marc called me up for some light-hearted tattoos and I accidentally hit him with something extremely deep and personal. He was drawing blanks and I politely suggested that he let me write a quote of one of my favorite artists and biggest inspiration growing up, Hector Lavoe. When I said that Marc looked at me and just said “Hector,” pausing in contemplation. He then told me that in Hector’s dying days his father would take care of him. There was definitely a connection between him and Hector and my suggestion really hit home. After looking at a few different options and quotes we landed on “El cantante,” which translates to “the singer.” It’s the name of one of Hector's biggest hits and one of the biggest hits in the salsa music genre. At the end of the tattoo, Marc got up and he hugged me tight, whispering “from now on, we’re family.” He’s really lived up to those words and I have tattooed him several times since.
You’ve given a number of musicians face tattoos. How do those appointments usually go down?
Honestly, these face tattoos aren’t usually planned, they’re typically spontaneous. An artist will be chilling at the crib or the shop, then randomly we’re like “Yo, let’s drop a face tat,” and then we drop a face tat. A lot of these guys call me just because they want a tattoo in general. They usually have no idea what they want and I like that rockstar shit, so I’m definitely an advocate for face tats.
How did Mario Judah reach out to you and why did he want his first tattoo on his face?
For some reason, I really wanted to tattoo him and he had no tattoos, which made me want to tattoo him more. I didn’t think it was going to happen but I called up Matt Zingler to tell him. He called me back three hours later while I was driving home to say “Mario is ready to get tatted.” I busted a U-turn and 30 minutes later I’m writing the word “rockstar” on his knuckles. A few minutes later, Matt decides to get in on the action and now we’re gangbang tattooing Mario Judah. Then, like 30 minutes later, somehow we’re now doing face tattoos and I’m putting “like a rockstar” under his eyelid with micro rockstar hands on his cheek. We were on his Instagram live the whole time and his fans were going nuts. I tapped out for the day and tagged in Sarah Lo, who goes in for the kill with a broken guitar above his eyebrow. And that was Mario Judah’s first tattoo experience.