If you're in Temecula - or anywhere in southern California, really - and you want a black work tattoo, or an intricate geometric piece, go see Chris Phipps.
Currently at Devoted Ink in Temecula, Chris is a master of the ornate, creating pieces that leave you staring, discovering new details the longer you look.
I've always admired tattoo artists. Tattoos are such a permanent art form, and when done right, they're simply breathtaking. To not only carve out your own spot in the art world but to do it in a such a lasting way requires a special kind of boldness.
So here's to you Chris.
I’ve been tattooing four years or so now. They say the first time you touch a needle to skin is when you should start the time, but I did that when I was 19; I’m 25 now but I would say I started during my apprenticeship.
I was basically drawing my whole life. I didn’t take drawing really seriously until senior year of high school. I got asked if I had ever thought about tattooing: I had always wanted tattoos, I thought it was pretty cool, and I remember specifically coming across this little tattoo kit that they sell online. I mean, it’s kind of garbage and you probably shouldn’t go anywhere near those, but I knew what the case looked like. I ended up being at my sister’s house one day and went into her closet to find something, and I came across that case. I automatically knew what it was, and so my brother-in-law gave it to me. I kind of messed around a little bit and tattooed my legs, and did a couple super tiny ones on friends. I then knew that that’s what I wanted to do, and I knew I wanted to be good at it, and I knew I wasn’t good, so I knew I wanted to get better.
So then I was hanging around a few different shops and getting to know some people, and I was at Old Town Tattoo in Temecula and got to know those people pretty well. I got to know the owner, and we were all hanging out at his house when I came up to him and asked “would you ever teach me how to tattoo?” He said, “if you know how to draw.” And I was like, “well, I do”, so I ended up showing him this book of some drawings that I had done, and he looked at it and said, “you do that?” I told him yeah, and he said “wow, well that’s really good.” So he looked over at the artist who was there at the time, Gina, and just said “hey, this is your new apprentice, he starts next week.” And I’ve just been doing it ever since.
How long did you apprentice for?
I apprenticed for a year. Typically, an apprenticeship is about a year to two years. I did mine for a year, and I was tattooing at three months which is pretty unheard of, but they threw me in the lion’s den and had me learn right away. It was a nice little jumpstart.
Before you discovered tattooing, when you drew, did you know that it was something you wanted to pursue?
Yeah, I knew I loved drawing, I knew I loved music (I’ve been a musician for 18 years), and I knew I wanted to be somewhere in that industry. At the age of 19, I tattooed some stuff on my left hand, on my fingers, and a lot of people got mad, thinking I was going to be stopping myself from potentially getting a job. For me, it wasn’t so much of a stopping point – it was more motivation to just keep pursuing what I love to do. I would keep looking down at my hand tattoo thinking you know what you said, you want to do music, you said you want to do something involved with art, so keep pushing. So about a year later I ended up pursuing it and it’s what I’m currently doing now.
Did you ever worry that your art wouldn’t support you?
Yeah. Going through my apprenticeship, you get told so many times “oh hey man, the first two to five years you’re not gonna make anything, you’re nobody, you just gotta keep fighting to get to the top”. I knew I loved it and I wanted to pursue it, but that was at the back of my mind, hearing that you’re not anybody for so long. So I thought man, I might not be making money, I might not be able to support myself. I definitely thought that until I found myself the right mentors who had a better outlook on things, more of a positive outlook, and I started staying consistent and creating a name for myself.
I’m two to three months booked out now and I’m only four years in, so it’s funny to look back on that and think about how I used to worry. Thanks to those dudes pushing me to become what I am today, I’m not stressing out about that stuff. Things are very consistent now.
In those low points where you were worried, what is it about tattooing that kept you from giving up?
I guess it was once I found my niche, once I found that dot work and black work was the area that I started to succeed in. I started seeing a demand for it, and I started seeing myself getting booked out more than some people that were around me tattooing for five, ten years. I knew this was where I wanted to be. I wasn’t forced into dot work, thinking that this was going to be my sellout point and I was going to make all this money. I started to grow a passion for it. Eight months into my apprenticeship, I started drawing black work and mandalas, and I was stippling things, and I just had a true passion for it. I was comfortable in that, and I knew that if I kept pursuing this, and it’s what I love to do, then I can definitely support myself and I know that I’ll be successful at it. I just kept looking forward.
What is it about that style of tattooing that appeals to you? Why do you think it’s your niche?
It’s just so unique. Every time I look at it I see something new, something exciting, more so than any other style I’ve done. Not to downplay any styles, because I’ve dabbled in a lot of different styles. I started my apprenticeship doing black and grey realism, and then tried traditional and neo traditional, I tried a bunch of stuff.
But [black and dot work] just struck me because of how unique it is, and how intriguing. It could just be a little skull with a rose on it, no bigger than 4 inches tall and 3 inches wide, but it took me 5 hours to do. People ask why you would put yourself through that, but it’s the fact that somebody can look at that and know someone actually put 5 hours into this piece, and it’s actually very precise and they did everything built up with dots. Apparently doing this kind of style is very stressful for people, doing this dot for dot for dot for dot. People get stressed out and don’t find themselves doing it. I just knew that I was pretty patient with it and knew the outcome, so I just love it. It’s perfect for me, I never get tired of doing it.
Have you ever had a client that’s just said “do what you want”?
Yeah, actually the client you just took pictures of. She just said, “all I want are these mandalas going up and down my arm, that’s it. Just go for it and do whatever you want.” She doesn’t nitpick any of my mandala designs or anything. I’ve had a few clients like that. I had another guy that just said “I like triangles. Do whatever you want.” So I did this super geometric looking symmetrical triangle thing with circles in it on his forearm.
When you do those pieces where you have free reign, do you ever get nervous or worried that you’re putting yourself out there even more than usual?
No. It gives me confidence that they’re putting that much trust in me to do whatever I want. It creates a level of comfortability on my end to not be stressed out. It’s so peaceful to me to just come into work and know that there’s not going to be any haggle or any stress. It’s the nitpicking, that’s the stuff that’s stressful, because you can put time and effort and hours into a drawing, and then have to go back to the drawing board three or four different times.
Have you ever Had moments of burnout?
I would say when I was learning how to do bigger geometric pieces, and learning different levels of stippling and gradients and stuff during the first year or so of my career. That was pretty stressful and time consuming, and I burnt myself out a lot just overworking myself.
Typically I’m pretty patient when it comes to this style. But at one point I realized that stippling was taking way too long, so one day I was like man, I’m jussttststststst about to go to shading inssttststead, it’ll make this go by a lot fassttstster. But then after that week of being burnt out, I realized that I have this style that I love to do, there’s a reason why I love to do it, and the outcome is always something I get so much positive feedback from. So I pushed through it.
It builds you up, builds you stronger to be able to push through all that crud, all that stuff that’s dragging you down. It gets you through that wall so you can make it through the bigger pieces. If I were doing the pieces I’m doing now back when I was an apprentice, I would be done doing geometric stuff, but now I love it. It’s good. I just learn new things every day.
Did you work a day job while you were doing your apprenticeship?
No, I gave everything I could to being an apprentice. That’s something they require, that you’re there all the time. I was there five, six days a week consistently. You’re cleaning stuff up, you’re taking out trash, cleaning the bathroom, tearing down the stations. I’d be sitting there watching them tattoo for five, six, seven hours. It requires a lot of your time, so there was absolutely no room for any other job. I’d get tipped out $10-$20 a day on a good day, for five days a week. I was making the bare minimum, enough to pay for my phone, some insurance and some gas. But I also started at a younger age, so I didn’t have a whole lot of responsibilities, and I was able to dedicate as much as time as I could.
How did it feel when you first started, knowing you were leaving a stable day job behind and going into a riskier field?
I felt pretty peaceful about it. Ultimately, if you go to a junior college or university or any kind of schooling, you’re paying thousands of dollars to learn a certain trade. With apprenticing, it was like I was getting paid daily to be doing this stuff, to be learning. Yeah, I had to pay for stuff later on like my tattoo machines, my own inks, stuff like that, but it was pretty peaceful. I mean, you pretty much get paid for school, and school for something that you absolutely love to do.
Did that peace come from feeling that this is what you were meant to do?
Yeah. I knew I was investing in something solid. Talking with my folks about it was really comforting, knowing that they had my back on it. They knew I’d been artistic for so long, and they knew this is what I’d been wanting to do and had talked about. There was definitely a peace knowing that I was putting in the time and effort trying to better my future.
So, four years later, looking back at where you started and where you’re going, how do you feel? What’s it like to look back?
It’s really crazy. I mean, just knowing that this dude in this old 1988 Beamer, cruising into work every day not making any money at the bottom of the chain is now somebody that’s recognized in the Temecula area for doing black work, and I’m getting complimented by some of the artists I looked up to growing up, some of them being my mentors - it’s pretty insane. It’s very humbling at the same time. I’m just very thankful to be where I’m at. I owe a huge thanks to everybody who put up with me, and my days of being lazy and prideful. Just a big thanks to my mentors who kept at it and kept pushing me and seeing my potential.
If you had one piece of advice for somebody who needs that extra push to pursue tattooing, what would you tell them?
If you're in a decent shop with an apprenticeship, be very open-minded and listen to your mentors, even if it may irritate the hell out of you. Just take a minute, take a breath, listen to what they have to say, and apply it to whatever you’re doing. Some of these guys know what they’re talking about, these guys have been tattooing ten, twenty years. Their styles may be completely different from yours, but they can give you advice.
I’ve butted heads with so many different artists that I lose count, but with each person you pick something up, and I’m just think wow that was good, I’m glad I liststssttened and applied that. Some of these guys don’t even know where to start when it comes to geometric tattoos or black work, but there are very, very valuable things they can teach. It’s just about being open-minded. If you’re not open-minded in this industry, you’re going to crash and burn. There are people that have been tattooing 20 years that still learn something new every time they tattoo. I’ve witnessed those guys talk about it, and they’re pretty humble about what they do.
Here's to you, Chris, for finding your niche and getting after it, to boldly embracing this permanent art and creating your career.