Joey Ortega

Joey Ortega: “I feel that my work has a fairly definitive style, but I’m always trying to refine and evolve it.”

Joey Ortega Interview

  • First off, thanks for doing this; I know you had a busy day! Let’s begin where everyone starts! How did you get into tattooing? 

In 2002, when I was 18, I was asked to paint a Mural for the piercing room of a local tattoo shop in Copperas Cove , TX. After some time getting to know the piercer, I landed a proper apprenticeship with her.

Fast forward to having to move through a couple of shops (due to internal shop drama), in 2003 I jumped ship from my second place of employment and got a job at a shop in Killeen Texas by the name of VooDoo Tattoo. Two guys by the names of Chris Arredondo and Ian Jones worked there. They took notice of my drawing ability almost immediately and told me that I needed to start tattooing!

Chris was still a young tattoer at the time, having only worked a couple years, but he started to teach me what he knew and he let me observe him working (when I wasn’t dealing with all the piercings).

After a few months of observation, building machines, making needles and stencils, etc., I did my first palm sized tattoo on my friend Dick’s back. It was a kind of new school Chaos symbol and, man, did I dig a hole in him!

  • Haha! How long were you there? 

Not even a year! A friend of ours was opening a new shop and wanted our crew to work there. Later that summer we left that place and opened Kingpin Tattoos. That’s really where I started to cut my teeth and tried to figure out how to tattoo.

  • Where was that? And how long did it last?

We were all just trying to grow and learn more and get better. The shop was in Harker Heights, Texas, next to Fort Hood. That’s a huge military base, so it was a good place to learn. Lots of soldiers through the door, which meant lots of practice.

  • Did you move directly from there to Austin?

Yeah After doing a number of US conventions and traveling a bit, I was feeling like I’d hit my ceiling in Harker Heights, and needed to get out so I could continue to grow. 

Develop my work and myself. So, in Fall of 2007, Scott Ellis reached out to me and asked me if I’d join him at his soon to open shop, Triple Crown Tattoo Parlor.

We worked two conventions together, the old Eternal Route 66 in Dallas, ( that’s where I met you in 2005) and then the St Louis one the very next weekend. Triple Crown would allow me to travel as much as I wanted, and was going to be an environment where I could focus on learning and growing my work.

After those conventions and getting to know Scott a bit better, I agreed to come down and join the crew. Due to my busy travel agenda at the beginning to that year, I finally had the opening to move up to Austin in August 2008.

  • One of the first things that drew me to your work was that you drew. A lot! That seems to be almost a non sequitur in the scene now, but back then, it wasn’t really common. And you got a lot of shit for it. Do you still create just as much art outside of tattooing? In fact, was your initial plan to even be a tattoo artist? Mine wasn’t!

Yeah I was hungry to say the least! I really wanted to be something special in tattooing, to contribute to the art form, and also to let all the dudes who came before me know I was serious about the craft!

Joey Ortega tattoo

I still do a decent amount of art work out side of tattooing. Both between painting with various other mediums. Jewelry, tons of sketching( mostly in my personal sketchbooks) sign painting, sculpture, and a whole slew of other things. For me creating and making is like breathing! I’m always working on something, and I’m very rarely sitting at Idle.

Like you, tattooing wasn’t really something that was on my radar as an art career path. It really just fell in my lap, with me painting that mural as an 18 year old kid, but I’m glad it happened that way. It’s been an awesome journey! 

Joey Ortega tattoo
  • I agree. Tattooing has opened up a whole new world to me that I didn’t realize even existed and I’m better for it. That said, you have a unique, sort of neo-traditional style. What would you call it, and what inspired you?

Yeah, tattooing has definitely helped shape my work and even myself in many ways.

I suppose the best way to explain what I do these days is “illustrative tattooing” because it’s an amalgamation of so many different genres. My foundation is traditional tattooing, as that’s what I learned when I started.

In that time period though, you had to tattoo a bit of everything if you were in a street shop. So I was influenced by so many different genres, and a slew of artist’s putting out inspiring work.

These days, my career has evolved into working on projects that are more true to how I naturally draw. More dynamic poses, silhouettes, details, textures, flow and movement.

The style also changes depending on the size and placement of the tattoo. If it’s small I’m going to make it more traditional/neo-traditional looking, but if it’s big, the whole thing is going to get pretty fancy. Haha!

I’ve worked with and have learned from many amazing artists over the years, and many of them have pushed me to do even better. 

Joey Ortega tattoo

I’m actively inspired by a lot of fine artists and illustrators from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Plenty of fantastical stuff. Erotic art, renaissance paintings, and sculpture, art nouveau, decorative art stuff, fashion design, etc. It’s a bit all over the board. I think it’s good to find inspiration in many sources, instead of just looking within tattooing for inspiration.

  • I agree. One thing that was kind of a rough transition for me, was learning how to adapt my illustrative style into tattoos. Was that a problem for you? I draw and paint all the time, and you seem to keep busy with that (I see your art gracing the Star of Texas show bills all the time), and I’ve just learned over time to approach the mediums completely differently.

In the beginning, I came into tattooing wanting to draw hella detailed stuff with lots of texture, and I had to learn to tone that back a bit. To get myself thinking always keeping in mind that the tattoo is on the body, and that skin changes.

Being able to edit, and not over render a design can be a long road, but its a good skill to have. Getting my back tattooed by Filip Leu really drove that principle home for me.

Joey Ortega tattoo

He gave me so much good advice that those words have definitely remained. Namely, what to look for, and aspects to always keep in mind when designing a tattoo. I agree that each medium should be approached differently. They all have different abilities and limitations, and learning how to work with each one proficiently takes time and patience.

  • Yeah, I had that over-detail problem too when I began! Obviously, I like your artwork-I asked you to paint a page in my yearly horror calendar twice! With the tattoos, you started big but they have only seemed to grow, it seems like you cover have the body most times? Is that a fair assessment? What would you say your normal size and theme is?

Thanks for asking me to do those, they were fun! Yeah it seems these days most of what I do is huge. Haha!

Full sides, backs, legs, sleeves… I’d say on average a “small” tattoo for me is about half sleeve size. I don’t know how it happened to be honest.

I just started with a few larger pieces , and continued to get more and more and more requests for big work. Most of the requests I get these days are for big work.

I really enjoy it. How impactive the journey of getting a large piece is on a person. It really is a way to build something with a client, a kind of relationship/ friendship that causes us to learn and grow together.

A lot of the work I’ve been doing for a last several years has been pretty organic. A lot of fantastic and mythological creatures, paired with floral and foliage images, all sprinkled with some ornamental designs and embellishments.

There’s a good deal of Japanese Folklore and related themes as well, but its my take on Japanese themes. Since I don’t do ” traditional ” work, I have a lot more freedom to play with elements.

I’d say about 90% of my clients are women. My aesthetic is fairly feminine and I have a lot of movement in my work, so I think it’s really appealing to the feminine eye. I like to make pretty tattoos. Haha!

  • What are your plans for future growth? You seem to have a fully developed style now, not that it’s static and stale, it looks great actually, but are you completely and unequivocally happy with how it’s developed?

Hmm, I don’t know. I feel that my work has a fairly definitive style, but I’m always trying to refine and evolve it.

The ultimate goal being to create a good balance between strong silhouettes, while maintaining an elegant aspect; design work that really flows with the shape of the body that it’s on.

As if it was always meant to be there. To date, the most coverage I’ve done on a single client would be from her sides to knee, armpit, full back, and onto her stomach, stretching from her breast to pubic area.

I’d love to design and do a full suit, to have a nearly clear body to work on that would really allow me to do something that fits and is interesting to view at every angle. One day perhaps!

With as much as I travel, I’m often finding new inspiration and meeting new people and that’s always influential. It helps to push me toward further development.

  • Are you happy with Austin as your home base? And as a follow up, how much do you travel, and where to?

Yeah man, I really like this city. it treats me really well and I have a good group of connections and friends here. I’m not mad about how long our summer is! For now, Austin is home. Who knows where the future will take me in the future.

As far as travel is concerned, I do it nearly every month! Usually I’m out of the country three times a year. I also travel around the US a lot for conventions and/or guest spots.

Joey Ortega Tattoo

I think since 2007, I’ve been to like 26 countries, and I don’t even know how many cities. A lot. Haha! This year for sure I will visit, France, Switzerland, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

Normally each year I try to go see a new country and city. I love traveling and how it reminds me that I’m small. There’s so much out there and that most of my problems really aren’t much to be stressed about. It gives me a lot of perspective.

  • Do you have one you like the best? You just told me you are doing a charity for Australia, what with all the wildfire damage there.

Ah, I don’t tend to play favorites to be honest. I like all of them for so many different reasons. There are some places I go more often, but mostly because of the the friends and connections I have there. Speaking of which, I’m in Paris and Geneva several times a year.

Joey Ortega Tattoo

New Zealand has defiantly been one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited, and Australia harbors some good friends of mine. I was there in early December and had to fly through Sydney, so I got a firsthand view of some of the damage the brush fires have done. It’s pretty devastating to the wildlife there, and I felt it was the right thing to do a charity drive to help out.

As artist, we have a reach that some others may not have. One of the great things about the tattoo community is that we can come together and donate our time to raise funds. The amount of donations the tattoo community has given to Australian has been amazing.

  • We could talk all night about art nerd shit I’m sure, but we both have things to do, so let’s wrap this up. Give us your social media links so people can find you!

My Instagram is oiseau_noir. I don’t have a website these days; I suppose I need to get that thing rebuilt at some point! Definitely!

  • Thanks for doing this Joey, see you in Austin next year!

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