John Lewis has been a tattoo artist in Tucson for 13 years and started the Tucson Tattoo Expo five years ago. The expo features artists from all over the country and includes contests, art auctions and a car show. Proceeds from the car show and the art auction are donated to a different cause each year. This year's Tucson Tattoo Expo is Friday through Sunday, April 12-14, at Hotel Tucson, 475 N. Granada Ave. The cost is $10 per day or $20 for a weekend pass. For more information, visit tucsontattooexpo.com.
How long have you been tattooing?
I did my first tattoo in ... 1992 ... I don't like thinking about it. It reminds me of how old I am.
Do you own any tattoo shops in town?
Yeah, but to be honest with you, most people that put on an expo, they use it to promote their shop. That's not what I do.
Why did you start the Tucson Tattoo Expo?
As an artist, I had traveled to expos outside of Tucson and got to see a lot of different art and a lot of different artists, broadening my horizons, you know, giving me a different look from one end of the country ... to the other. There's a lot of different artists and there's a lot of different styles. There's different styles from the West Coast to the East Coast ... so I got to see a lot of this and when I would come back, friends of mine that worked at other shops would always ask me "How was it?," and I'd always tell them "I had a great time. I got to meet a lot of people." So I thought to myself, "Hey, this would be great to give everybody in Tucson the opportunity to see artists from elsewhere and to expose the people of Tucson not only to that but to the fact that we're not just tattooists, we're also fine artists."
What was your first tattoo?
My first tattoo was this black rose done in 1983, I believe ... done in Southern California. That's where I'm from.
How old were you?
When did you know you wanted to be a tattoo artist?
It just happened. ... I was a commercial artist for years in Los Angeles doing graphic design work, T-shirt designs and stuff like that. And I used to draw stuff for people that they would get tattooed. One day I was working on some stuff and this guy comes up to me who had been tattooing for like 10 years or so and he asked me, "Why do you let these other guys do your stuff? If you can draw like that you can tattoo." And so that's where it all kind of began.
Tell me more about the charity work at the expo.
We do what's called an art fusion. That's where three artists combine on a canvas or charcoal paper and collaborate in a set period of time to create a piece of work. At the end of that, we auction it off to charity. Each year it's a little bit different. Last year, we just did an art auction and that was to benefit an artist that's a Tucson native that's in Atlanta now, Tony Olivas, who almost passed away. And his medical bills were close to $100,000. So all the tattoo artists in Tucson and from out of town got together and donated stuff. We raised several thousand dollars to help him because ... he'd maxed out his insurance. Now this year we're going to do the same thing, and (it's a surprise to) the person that we're giving it to so I can't tell you his name.
What's your favorite tattoo—on yourself?
I think it's my first one, because it's my first exposure to tattooing. Knowing that that first tattoo led me to where I am now is one of the reasons why it will never get covered up.
At the expo contests, do the people who have the tattoo get the prizes or do the artists?
Normally, the way it works is the person that has the tattoo gets the award but out of respect they give it to the artist. ... I myself, personally have won a lot of stuff over the years. Some guys have given them to me and some guys have kept them. For me it doesn't much matter.