Portrait n°6: Joey Ortega


Please introduce yourself.

Joey Ortega, age 29 from Austin, Texas. My profession, more or less my life, is tattooing. I’ve been tattooing for just a little over 10 years now and don’t plan on stopping any time soon. Aside from tattooing I work on all kinds of other projects as well, painting, drawing, building vintage cars, jewelry design and fabrication. Too many things to name honestly, I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. Presently I started a personal sketchbook, something where I can work on developing my own ideas and concepts, as well as work on things I would like to improve on.  This started as a desire to draw for fun again with out any client direction. I find myself submerged in doing nearly all of my drawings for someone other than myself lately, so I decided I needed to do so again. People has been asking me for years if I would sell my sketch books, so when I feel I have the amount of content that I feel is enough, I’m planning to make a printed book of my sketches, notes and in the back portion of the book there will be a few pages that show my process from sketch to final tattoo.


L’Oiseau Noir, my jewelry and sculptures, started similarly to my sketchbook project. Just wanted a creative outlet that wasn’t tattooing. It consists mostly of bird and animal skulls adorned in Baroque style brass filigree and Swarovski crystals. It’s a bout 50/50 jewelry and art pieces. A fun project for me and a way to put another kind of art from myself into the world. I think at this point we’ve sold to 10 different countries and various collectors. My wife Cora Raveyn is also contributing her own jewelry creations to l’Oiseau Noir. It’s a joint venture for us that we work on from time to time, which makes our pieces a little more special to own.

How did you start getting involved in the world of tattooing?

Well it is a lot to say really. I started being around tattooing when I was 17 via a friend who was apprenticing at a shop. I got my first tattoo from the guy who was teaching her.  I then met the piercer of this shop who shortly after offered me an apprenticeship for piercing. I decided to accept her offer and that’s just the beginning. Shortly after my teacher left this shop so I followed her to my 2nd shop. There I began piercing as well as being paid to do drawings for tattoo when the shop was really busy. I wasn’t being taught to tattoo, just how to clean tubes and the equipment and to draw and make line drawings for tattoos.  Due to some shop issues I left this shop and was on to my 3rd tattoo shop in less than a year.  At the shop, there were two tattooers. The senior artist and the guy he taught. They were both young tattooers of only a couple years so of course they were still figuring it out as well. When I began working here as a piercer, Chris had seen my drawings and artwork and said that I should learn to tattoo.  He offered to teach me what he knew and at some point I could start tattooing people. He taught me about making needles, machines, ink. And that traditional style is a good foundation to build off of.


After a few months of being there and watching him tattoo he finally let me do my first one and man did I fuck it up! I had no clue as to what I was doing really. After doing a few tattoos, Chris went out of town and said I could tattoo my friends while he was gone. So there I went.  Trying to figure it out and really having no clue tattooed a few of my friends several times.  We were all really trying to get better and learn more via experience.  It was tough and a lot of valuable lessons had to be learned the hard way.  Short after I started work on my friends we left this shop and went on to a new place which is where I really started tattooing at in 2003. KingPin tattoos was the name. It was just close to a military town and because of this I had lots of people to tattoo and lots of time to grow as a tattooer and learn what I could when I could. I wouldn’t really call it a proper form of an apprenticeship, or an apprenticeship at all really, but it was a start. And I’m very thankful that Chris got me started!


Could you tell me about how you met the Leu Family?

Several years ago, about 5 now, I was working the Evian convention and after the convention I went to Lausanne to the Leu Family’s street shop to meet Filip. I remember going there early in the day and there wasn’t so many people. He was working so I started to ask Titine about how to book an appointment with Filip. He over heard the conversation, so we began to speak about it.  I told him what I wanted and he said to write the shop and they will get back to me.  Now I knew that I was going to have to wait, and I was prepared to do so I wrote the shop and didn’t hear anything back of course. They have a huge demand and a lot of incoming emails.  I was determined to have a tattoo from Filip. So I ended up visiting the shop a couple more times on my next trips to Europe to make it known that I was serious. So finally in 2010 I was able to book my appointment to start with him in 2011.  We started with my right thigh. Pretty much tattooed all the front and side of it with a large golden eagle holding a rattle snake. On the second appointment for my thigh Filip and I planned out my whole back side and when to start it.


What drew you towards Filip’s work? 

When I was still piercing and beginning to learn from Chris, he had the Leu Family’s Family Iron book. I read it and stared at it pages and contents and was just blown away with his large work and how it fit on the body and moved. It was amazing to me the colors, the composition everything about it, I never thought I would be able to do something like that. Even though I was learning  more traditional style work then, his work always remained interesting to me. So once I started coming to Europe in 2007 and adding to my collection of tattoos I decided that I should try to see if I can get tattooed by him just to see if it would even be possible. Once I realized it could be I decided to make the goal of a back piece from him.


Could you tell me about how you and Filip conceived your back piece? I know it was sort of a collaboration.

My back is a large Japanese motif of a kitsune wearing a kimono with clouds, fire and chrysanthemums that compose the background and other elements of the tattoo. I chose this image solely because I think the folklore and the subject itself are very beautiful. Honestly, it was my idea. The subject, and basic composition was something I kind of already had want to do. When Filip was working on my right thigh we discussed what I planned to do with my back, and sat and sketched out the composition that I was thinking. Then he said I should play with it some more myself and send him my ideas via email. So the basic parts of the idea were mine, but Filip just put his touch on it with his drawing style and how he would tattoo it. I had 11 sessions so far and approximately 30 hours of work. I still have 4 sessions booked to finish the piece.


How did Filip Leu influenced and inspired your work as a tattoo artist?

Many tattooers of course will say Filip’s work has been an inspiration to them. As a tattooer, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 30 or so years, you know his name and his work. Filip and the Leu family have been very inspirational to me, and my experiences of getting tattooed by him have greatly changed my approach to my tattoos in nearly every way. He’s very kind as well as happy to give critique. So each time I come he tattoos me then sits to look at my completed work as well as my sketches for future projects.  What I have learned from him has really affected how I approach and compose a large tattoo. Things like my composition, my fit to the body’s lines, and even down to how I use details in a piece. Also making sure my tattoos have a very strong, dynamic silhouette. That’s very important for how a tattoo will look as well how it will age, regardless of its size. I mean honestly I can’t even explain how much I have grown as a tattooer in the last 5 years due to my time spent in the shop and with the Leu family. They are really great people and I’m very grateful to have a friendship with them.


Has being a tattooer helped you getting heavily tattooed? Also has it affected your decisions on who to get tattooed by?

As a tattooer I feel we should be heavily tattooed. This way you can empathize with the client and can truely understand the pain we inflict on a daily basis. I’m not on a quest to cover every inch of my body with tattoos.  If that happens, cool, but if not i’ll still be happy with the coverage I already have at this point too as it’s a lot. And for me I don’t need much more meaning behind a tattoo that I have other than its ascetic value. I also feel as a tattooer, that getting tattooed by another tattooer is a way to give back to tattooing. By putting money in another’s hand I’m helping support him or her as well as showing my appreciation for the time and effort they have put into the tattoo they have made for me. Same goes for buying art or products that are only produced by tattooers. I’d much rather support someone in my trade than just give money to some random person or company. I like to get tattooed by tattooers who work I admire, and or tattooers I look up to. I also like to have a good memory or story attached to the tattoos I get, so the last thing I would do is go get tattooed by someone who’s a jerk or negative person. I’m building a collection of tattoos on my body, so I want to only have work that I know is well done artistically and technically. So being a tattooer has allowed me to know if a tattooer’s work is really well done.


Do you feel a personal connection to any customers because of tattoos?

Tattooing is very intimate. You spend a lot of time with many customers. It can be a short session or multiple long ones, but in the end somehow you have a bond with the client. I think that relationship is built with the physical act of tattooing itself, as well as the experience you have with the client. Many people get tattoos as a memento of good times and of bad times and each story is unique to its individual. At the end of giving someone a tattoo you have somehow changed their life a little bit, and hopefully if you did your job right, you have changed it for the better by giving them something to be happy about.  I think the hardest tattoos I’ve ever had to do are the ones that are memorial tattoos for my family or close friends that are memorial tattoos for lost loved ones. When you knew the person who is now deceased, it’s a reminder of how fragile we really are, and how short our lives can be. So with that said I do my best to make every moment in what I’m doing count, and to constantly be a positive person, to move forward in every aspect of my life and grow as much as I can.


The piece you did on your wife Cora is probably one of your best. Has the pressure of tattooing her influenced  your work?

Tattooing is stressful, it’s rewarding and it can also be disappointing. When you first start you’re always worried about fucking up someone’s tattoo. As you grow and get better and become more confident that stress becomes a little less. But it’s still always there. I think we put a lot of pressure on ourself and even take on the stress the clients feel from the pain of receiving a tattoo. It’s especially worse when we tattoo our friends relatives or significant others. When I tattooed my wife it was hella stressful. I have to look at it every day, and to know that going into it, you put a lot of pressure on yourself… I have to draw this the best I can… It has to be technically well tattooed… Will I like the composition and or the idea of the tattooer later on? She pressured me for nearly 9 months to do it while I put it off as long as I could to just have time to work on sketches and ideas until I finally had something that I was happy with, and even then I still found little things to critique about it after I tattooed it.  If you ask any tattooer a lot of them will tell you it’s really stressful to tattoo your significant other for a whole number of reasons. But mostly it comes down to the pressure of wanting to give them the best that you can because you’re gonna have to see it every day, and you’re going to end up critique it every day…


How do you perceive the evolution of tattooing between now and when you started?

Stylistically tattooing has become really technical now, with a lot of tattooers bringing more and more fine art or illustrative aspects to their styles. Things kind of come in revolution with tattooing.  Right now people are trying things that many artists tried before in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Like with color realism and new school style tattooing. Illustrative tattooing has grown as well. The difference is that a lot more people are coming into tattooing now with fine art background and formal training that has really stepped up the quality of the tattooing they are producing.  Tattooing is more acceptable now too than when I started in 2003. It’s more popular due to it’s exposure to the masses with all the TV shows. They have helped and hurt tattooing, but I always say it’s a double edged sword.  More people want to get tattooed now and find tattoos socially acceptable, but there’s a lot more people who are trying to become tattooers and going about becoming one all the wrong way. I swear for every good professional tattooer, there’s gotta be like 20 shitty ones tattooing from their homes or mobile vans that are just trying to cash in on its popularity and make a quick buck by giving an unknowing client a sub par tattoo.  I’m happy to see tattooing becoming popular, but I do miss certain aspects of how the industry was and was viewed from when I started.


Could you tell me about the commitment of being a tattoo artist?

Well at this point any idiot can be a tattooer. You know, anyone can put marks on skin. But I think if a person really wants to be a good tattooer, it is a lot of commitment. It’s not easy…  It takes up a lot of your life and free time and even your thoughts. It’s a constant struggle to keep pushing yourself to grow and to always improve. It’s kind of like running towards something that you’ll never really reach. So in the mean time you keep pushing forward until you just can’t physically go with tattooing anymore, and hopefully by the time that comes you have produced a body of work that you are proud to look back on and that has made a lot of clients happy. For me having the respect of my peers in the industry is one of the main things I care about. I don’t need to be famous on the Internet or on Instagram or any other social network. That’s just superficial.  Knowing my peers enjoy seeing my work and that maybe it inspires them, and that my customers are happy at the end of the day, that’s the best reward. Tattooing is a service industry. Yes we’re making art for people, but the bare bones of it is a service.  If I can make all of my clients really happy with my work, then that’s where the struggle to produce the best I can pays off. It’s a lifelong commitment for many tattooers, to always produce, to always grow, and to move forward in every way you can with your work…


Joey Ortega will be at the next Paris Tattoo Convention the 7, 8, and 9 of March 2014 and will be then guesting at Mystery Tattoo Club, Paris France.

Interview & Pictures by Céline Aieta – Video by Grégoire Dyer

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