Utilizing only his naked eye and good lighting, renowned SoCal tattoo artist Ben Grillo makes miniature masterpieces and pushes the boundaries of tattoo detail.
By Mike Landers
Name: Ben Grillo
Shop: Two Roses Tattoo
Location: San Diego, CA
Life is all about the details.
It’s the little things that count.
Art imitates life.
Take these three sayings, add them together, and the sum of these parts is humbly embodied by 35-year-old SoCal tattoo artist Ben Grillo. You want details? He can carve a perfectly shaded portrait of Jesus onto your knuckle the same size as a penny. He can place a detailed skull on your earlobe as an earring replacement. If you can wait through his 8-month waiting list, he’ll put a pinup girl on your neck no larger than a half dollar. Of course, coming up under artists like the legendary Jack Rudy, Mr. Lucky, and Chris Brand at tattoo mecca Goodtime Charlie’s Tattooland would make any artist focus on his detail hand-if he were talented enough to earn a job there.
Talented is certainly what Ben Grillo is, although he’d never tell you that himself. More student of the game than star player, Ben loves all aspects of tattoo culture not just the micro-tattoos he has become known for over the past couple of years. “I’d like to think of myself as being well rounded; I like doing everything,” says Ben via phone from his current shop, Two Roses Tattoo in San Diego, California.
After just six years in tattooing, this former electrician is now one of the most sought-after artists in the California scene. “My mom and my sisters pitched in to buy me my first tattoo machine,” he says, looking back on his beginnings. “My friends loved my art and I think they just wanted free tattoos, so I began by working out of my house.”
Understanding the value of an apprenticeship as being the key to a safe and successful career in tattooing, Ben landed a job at a local shop and began building his portfolio. Influenced by the American traditional style, he began studying the artists at Goodtime Charlie’s Tattooland closely. “I always showed the guys my work as I progressed, so they saw my improvement.”
Impressed, Mr. Lucky needed someone to fill in for a few of his days as he had begun taking on commercial opportunities that required his absence from the shop. Ben was asked to fill in, and he did so eagerly. Before he knew it, he was tattooing right alongside his biggest influences.
After honing his skills under these amazingly talented and legendary artists, Ben has already enjoyed what many would consider to be a successful career. He remains hungry, however, which is a testament to his dedication to the artform. “I love tattooing, I do have some potential commercial opportunities floating around, but nothing I’ve committed to. I just want to continue to push myself and progress as an artist and hopefully keep giving my customers badass artwork they can appreciate,” he says.
Bound By Ink was lucky enough to gain some industry insight from one of the best in the game.
How did you get your start?
I started about six years ago out of my house. I was an electrician at the time, but I had been drawing all of my life and I had friends telling me I should start tattooing. I think they pushed me so that they could get free tattoos [laughs]. I looked into getting an apprenticeship and asked some tattooists about how to get into it. They told me to bring in portfolios, so I put one together and went to a bunch of different shops in the area and no one was taking apprenticeships. I was frustrated, but I decided to buy a tattoo kit and began doing tattoos out of my house for about four months. I tattooed myself and my friends, which is totally the wrong way to go about becoming a tattooist. At the time I didn’t really know any better, but I wouldn’t encourage anyone to start that way; doing an apprenticeship is the only way to go. Luckily, three months later I got a job at a tattoo shop and began learning the right way.
Who or what were some of your influences?
I was influenced by the American traditional type of style. There’s a guy named Brian, also known as Mr. Lucky over at Tattooland, I really admired his work. There’s also a guy named Bucky, who also worked at Tattooland at the time (he works at Gold Rush Tattoo now), and those guys were phenomenal traditional artists. From there I got familiar with the other styles from hanging out there and getting tattooed-the black and gray fine-line stuff of Jack Rudy and guys like Antonio and Chris Brand. These guys were all a heavy influence on me. It was mind-blowing that only two years later I was working out of this same shop!
How did you get in there so fast?
It was crazy. At the time, Lucky was doing a lot of painting for a clothing company and was having to take a lot of time off from the shop, so he asked Jack and Li’l Roy if I could help cover some of his shifts. I didn’t know he was going to do that, so one night I was getting tattooed by Antonio, who was finishing a portrait on me, and Li’l Roy hit me up and asked me, ‘Hey, what would you think about working here a couple nights a week?’ I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Hell yeah, you don’t have to ask me twice! [laughs]‘ I told my boss at the time what was up and he was actually happy for me and encouraged me to follow the opportunity. It was cool of him to do that.
How would you describe your own style?
I’d like to think of myself as being well rounded, I like doing everything. The only thing I don’t attempt to do is Japanese, because I don’t understand all of the aspects of it. The stories… there’s actually a lot behind that style. I mean, I guess you can slap on a koi fish and call it done, but for me, I’d rather do it the right way. I don’t have the knowledge base to do them properly, so I just won’t do them. I think it’s important to be well rounded-you have more clientele, and you don’t get pigeonholed.
Speaking of being pigeonholed, your micro-tattoos are one of your specialties. How did you get into doing them?
I started doing those by watching Lucky do a couple of pieces behind the ears that were really small. I didn’t know you could do tattoos that small. I saw some of the other guys at the shop doing it-they tattooed Goodtime Charlie one weekend when he came down. I didn’t because I was the newest person, but everybody else did a cross tattoo on him, and all of them were badass. I noticed that Antonio did his and it was stippled. He said Jack had taught him that the best way to keep ink into the fingers is by doing it stippled so that it lasts longer. I did a couple of basic things to start out, and then a friend of mine wanted me to do something more drastic. It was a bold move, but I decided to do a Jesus portrait and it worked. That was probably three or four years ago. I took pictures of it, and it opened the floodgates-everybody wanted one of my micro-tattoos.
How do you feel about doing them? Are you worried about being pigeonholed?
The more I had put the pics on the Internet, the more I was getting requests for them. I try to tell people that they look cool for a while, but being on your hand it’s not gonna last too long, because hand tattoos tend to fade. It’s better to get ink on your arm or something rather than your fingers. I still get a lot of different style requests, so I’m not worried about being pigeonholed.
What’s the process for getting detail into something so small? Do you use a magnifying glass?
No, I just do it with my own natural eye and good lighting. I won’t get into details about my technique, but I will say that I do them a certain way to help prolong the freshness of the tattoo. They actually take a long time, because [of] the technique of being extra careful; sometimes they’ll take like up to two hours or more. It’s the same tools and principles involved in getting a regular tattoo; it takes a lot of patience. They’re definitely a pain in the ass to do.
With hand tattoos becoming more prevalent, how do you feel about wedding ring tattoos? Do you think something like that is bad luck?
People always say that it’s a curse or a jinx to do that or to get a girl’s or a guy’s name on you, but if somebody comes to you and tells you that they want a name on them they’re going to want it regardless of what you say. They’re just going to go down the street and get it so you might as well do it. Now if it’s a friend of mine and I know his girlfriend is a bitch and their relationship is not going to last, then I won’t do it [laughs].
Is there anything you won’t or don’t like to do besides Japanese-style tattoos?
I won’t do any racist shit. There are certain things, like when somebody wants to take an image or style and warp it into something it shouldn’t be or when somebody wants to get something out of a children’s book. I’ll still do it for them, but it’s like, ‘Why would you come to me to do that?’ To each his own. If somebody wants a tribal tattoo, I mean, I’ll do it. For the most part I just try to satisfy my customers.
You have an interesting back piece. What’s the story behind that?
My back piece is mostly done by Chris Brand, but there’s a piece by Jack Rudy on it. That’s my favorite piece because of all the time that was put into it, and those guys are such good dudes; it’s very meaningful to me. The whole concept was from Chris Brand. He had this sketch of the two cholo figures fighting under a streetlight, but it was drawn out almost in a Japanese style-it was perfectly balanced. I thought it was badass, so I asked him what he was going to do with it. It’s based off of a real Japanese story, but he mixed it up with the cholo style. I told him I wanted it on my back for sure, so we did it in a span of about a year. It came out awesome.
Do you face any discrimination outside of the industry because of the way you look?
It’d be worse if I had face tattoos or something like that. I guess it still happens sometimes, but most of the time people like my tattoos. Every now and then I’ll get weird looks from people, but I’ll just give them weird looks back. I think it’s a lot more acceptable now that it’s not just associated with prison and gangs.
Any future plans outside of tattooing?
I love tattooing. I do have some potential commercial opportunities floating around, but nothing I’ve committed to. I just want to continue to push myself and progress as an artist and hopefully keep giving my customers badass artwork that they can appreciate.
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