Nathan Kostechko began his tattooing career more than 14 years ago in Newport Beach, but it took quite a few years after that for the downtown Los Angeles–based artist to establish himself as a name to know in California’s tattooing scene.
These days, Kostechko’s work is easy to pick out among the vast sea of tattoo artists. It’s generally all black, and it falls somewhere between the best of the trendy new colorless styles and old-school black-and-gray tattoos. There’s a level of detail and shading usually reserved for high-end portrait specialists, but also the clear bold lines of traditional blackwork tattooing. But originally, the San Clemente native was just trying to find a way to prolong the lifespan of both his own tattoos and those he puts on others.
“Living in California, everyone’s out in the sun, so tattoos fade quickly,” Kostechko says. “I considered that, because at the time I was traveling around and surfing a lot, and the tattoos on myself were fading really quickly. I wanted to know how I could make tattoos for the masses that would look great forever and be super easy to take care of. I knew how I wanted them to look, so I did the research on how to make my tattoos look like that.”
Although he’s known for his colorless work these days, one of Kostechko’s main sources of inspiration early on was the art of old American traditional tattoos. Of course, the more modern tattooer never had much interest in sticking with old Sailor Jerry and Owen Jensen designs, but Kostechko understood and appreciated that there were plenty of traditional tattoos that held up over the course of decades better than other ink did after a few years.
“I did color tattoos to start, and I did a lot of them and did them pretty well,” Kostechko says. “Then they started to get a bit wacky. I saw how they healed over time, and I didn’t like the way it looked and how it wouldn’t last forever, so I stepped back and started getting more tattoos from people who were doing tattoos properly. I studied a lot from people who were doing tattoos with more of a traditional aesthetic, even if the designs were updated and weren’t so old-school. I wanted to do whatever I could to apply their methods to a new style of work.”
Between the discovery of his own tattoos fading rapidly and looking at what made traditional ink hold longer, Kostechko knew what he needed to do. The young artist began simplifying each of his designs down to their base elements and taking a more straightforward approach to his tattoos. Rather than trying to do anything fancy, he focused on giving his clients the imagery they wanted in the first place.
“If it’s a skull, I want it to look like a skull,” Kostechko says. “I cut out all the bells and whistles, and I’m just making good solid tattoos that look like what they are. More than anything, I wanted to make all of those who came before me in tattooing happy with what’s happening now. I hope if some old-timer were to come across my work, they’d look at it and think, ‘Oh cool, there’s a young kid who gets it,’ rather than him being pissed off.”
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That respect for the artists who came before him is one thing Kostechko has held onto since he first began tattooing. The lifelong skateboarder and surfer wasn’t necessarily associated with the best tattooers when he first broke onto the scene, but he always appreciated the old-school guys. It’s no surprise considering that much of what drew an 18-year-old Kostechko to tattooing in the first place was the industry’s formerly antiestablishment nature.
“I got into tattooing because it was a way to not do what everybody else was doing,” Kostechko says. “It was a way to not go to college and get a picket-fence house with the kids and the wife. It was like, ‘I’m going to get tattooed so I can stay a grimy skater kid for the rest of my life.’ But then it changed and got really popular.’”
Of course, while a lot of artists who started before the TV show onslaught knock the art form’s newfound popularity, the Saved Tattoo artist knows it’s ultimately a good thing. After all, tattooing becoming more widely accepted as a part of mainstream culture makes it a lot easier for artists to earn a living with it. It’s tough to pay your bills when your entire market is an underground niche.
“A lot of people think that it’s not good that tattooing went on TV and got so popular, but from a business standpoint it’s a great thing,” Kostechko says. “Because it got so popular, I’m able to support myself by doing nothing but tattooing for the last 14 years. It’s awesome.”