Dante caught my attention one day while I was working out at the gym. He can’t help but be noticed…he’s quite fit (in a way that tends to turn most female heads ;)), he has captivating eyes, and his massive arms have several eye-catching tattoos. As I was pondering how I could tactfully ask him for an interview without coming off like a cougar, he walked by and said something friendly. I never waste an opportunity! Before he could get away, I told him about my project and asked if he would allow me to interview him. I’m not sure what was going through his mind when he said yes…is this just a smooth line, is it even legit, oh man…how do I get myself out of this awkward situation? I can only imagine. It was during this brief conversation that I noticed the scars on his upper chest and arm, partly covered by tattoos. I was enthralled and so thankful he agreed.
WHAT’S THE FIRST WORD THAT COMES TO MIND WHEN I SAY ‘TATTOO’?
WHEN DID YOU GET YOUR FIRST TATTOO?
I was 16. I was a gang member when I was a kid and [a friend of mine] gave me this first “W.T.” [meaning “Wop Town”] on my back. When I got it done, I came back home and I was sleeping on the couch and my dad just happened to pull my blanket down and he’s like “What???”. He got really upset.
I don’t know if you’re familiar, but [“Wop”] is what they used to call the Italians back in the old days. I grew up in Little Italy [in San Diego]. So, back in the day there was a little gang called “Wop Town”. Still is.
YOU’RE HISPANIC THOUGH, RIGHT?
Yes. But, when I was like 12, 13 and 14, I lived with an Italian family. It’s a long story, but my mom had kicked me out, I couldn’t live with her, and they took me in.
WHAT WAS THE REASON BEHIND GETTING THIS TATTOO?
When you’re part of a gang, you want to people to see where you’re from. It’s stupid now, but…
DID EVERYONE GET IT ON THEIR BACK?
Mainly, yes…that’s one of the main spots, but they don’t get it that small. The only reason I think we went that small was because the ink was limited. It’s what we had around.
WHO DID IT?
It was actually a friend of mine [Character Tattoos]. He just recently did the ones on the front right here. He did the back and he did this other side. We were both 16 [at the time he did the “W.T.”].
DID HE KNOW THAT HE WANTED TO BE A TATTOO ARTIST AT 16?
Yeah, that’s what he is. He’s trying to get a shop going, but because of the economy [he’s holding off]. For me, its works out really well because for what most people pay $300 for at a shop, I get for like $150, depending on what I want. He does good for what I want.
WHICH ONE WAS YOUR SECOND TATTOO?
My second one might have been this [‘W.T.’ on my leg]…same thing (“Wop Town”), but I think I did this myself with a little home made gun. ‘V’ stands for ‘varrio’, which means ‘neighborhood’. And, the three little dots means ‘Crazy Life’. It’s kind of faded now.
YOUR THIRD TATTOO…
This might have been my third one…[this ‘W.T.’ on my arm]. As you can see, it’s a little faded. I don’t really care to cover it up…it reminds me of when I was a kid. That was the extent of the tattoos I got as a kid…everything else came later.
DID YOU DO THIS ONE YOURSELF?
A friend of mine did it first, but it faded, so I went back over it again with another machine.
WHICH TATTOO WAS FOURTH?
It might have been her…[the lady’s face on my upper left arm].
TELL ME ABOUT THIS DESIGN…
There’s nothing special about it. After a long weekend hanging out with my friends – I might have been 26 or 28, I don’t know – we were all drinking and went out and a bunch of us decided to get tattoos. Normally I’m not too picky about my tattoos. You know how some people say it has to have meaning? I guess I don’t think like that. So, I went over there and I picked something off of the wall. Of course, she doesn’t look anything like what I picked. Because I went back some other time and they really didn’t look anything alike. I was pretty drunk at the time.
WHO DID THIS ONE?
This was a guy in Chula Vista on Third Street…I can’t remember his name.
THE FIFTH TATTOO…
When I went back to the same guy [in Chula Vista], I got this one…[the girl’s face with the teardrop and half a man’s face]. People kind of trip out about this teardrop. If you look a little lower, there’s a guy with a fang sticking out of his mouth.
THE SIXTH TATTOO…
My [sixth tattoo] is the Aztec serpent. A lot of people like the way it came out. This was done by a neighbor of one of my buddies [from National City]. The guy was not too good at doing shading, but I think he captured it pretty well.
DID YOU DO THIS ONE FOR CULTURAL REASONS?
Yeah, a little bit. At the time, I wanted to get something Hispanic/Mexcian.
THE SEVENTH TATTOO…
This might have been [seventh]…the eyes. I picked [this design] out of a magazine. It had a full face to it, but I decided to eliminate everything else and just stick to the eyes. The guy [from Mark’s Tattoos] did a unbelievable job on the shading.
THE EIGHTH TATTOO…
“San Diego” was my eighth tattoo. This was done by Grafix Tattoos in Imperial Beach.
THE NINTH TATTOO…
And, the ninth was [the wizard], which was a recommendation from a buddy of mine. This was done by 1904 Tattoos up on Adams Avenue…the name of the guy might have been Jason. Personally, I think [he] did an unbelievable job on the shading of the hand. The hand is one of the most difficult things to draw or tattoo and the way that he broke it down makes it seem like it is coming out at you. You can even stretch the face and it doesn’t even look off…the guy did an unbelievable job.
THE TENTH TATTOO…
The tenth was the topless girl on the back. Same thing [on picking it off the wall]. I changed it up a little bit…it had some different stuff on it, I can’t remember exactly what it was. This was done by Mark’s Tattoos again.
THE ELEVENTH TATTOO…
The skulls. I went back to the guy who did the eyes [Mark’s Tattoos]…I went back to this guy like four or five times.
THE TWELFTH TATTOO…
After I got the wizard done, I fell in love with shading. I started getting into skulls. This one right here [on backs of shoulder blades] was actually part of one big tattoo [design], but I cut it in half and did part of it [on one shoulder] and the rest on the other side. I wish I went higher on one side and dropped it lower on the other side…I kind of regret going this high because it hurt a lot. I just really should have thought about it twice. Next time I know, right? I didn’t know if it was because of my plastic surgeries.
WHO DID THIS ONE?
My friend [who did my first three tattoos], Character Tattoos.
I WAS GOING TO ASK YOU ABOUT YOUR SCARS…IF YOU WERE COMFORTABLE TALKING ABOUT IT. WHAT HAPPENED?
So when I was a kid, I was a huge pyro. I burned a lot of mattresses, I burned a bathroom down…I was fascinated with fire. And, when I was eight years old, I had seen these older kids playing with fire and doing a trick that you see down in Mexico. In Mexico, you’ll be at a stop sign and you got adults coming up to you just blowing fire out of their mouth. So, anyways, I was doing that, but I guess I used the wrong liquid. I was doing it for so long…I thought I was a magician. I thought it was unbelievable. After a period of time doing it, I was drooling [the gasoline] down my mouth onto my shirt and the wind was blowing the opposite way and I just caught myself on fire.
DID YOU HAVE A LOT OF SURGERIES?
Yeah, actually to this day. In the last 10 years I must have had like four or five surgeries. I went to a doctor for a consultation to see what they could do and they put tissue expanders on my neck. That’s part of the reason, I think, that my shoulder was really sensitive. When they put tissue expanders, it’s actually like a balloon and they put liquid into it and it expands it. That’s what they did on my shoulders and that’s part of the reason it was really tender.
I THOUGHT YOU COULDN’T TATTOO ON TOP OF SCARS?
That’s what me and my buddy [from Character Tattoos] were experimenting with. Basically, this scar actually comes all the way out here, so we did a little coverage here and you can see the lines are actually pretty well drawn. My buddy told me he had tattooed somebody else that had a scar on his arm or hand and he said it came out really well, so I said ‘What the hell…we’re going to try it.’
WHICH ONE OF YOUR TATTOOS IS THE MOST MEANINGFUL TO YOU?
Maybe the first ones, because that was part of my childhood. I wished I would have stayed friends [the guys I was in the gang with]. I wanted to get older, hang out, barbecue, and this and that. My teenage years meant a lot to me, I guess.
HAVE YOU EVER REGRETTED GETTING ANY OF YOUR TATTOOS?
Not really…no. I keep mine above my sleeves…I never go down below that. Sometimes there are occasions when I dress up and I’m in a place where I don’t want them to show.
YOU MENTIONED GETTING MORE…WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO HAVE DONE?
I want to connect both of my back ones together…my shoulder blades. I don’t know what I want yet…every time I just leave it up to my buddies to come with drawings. Let them be creative…