It’s a common truth in the tattoo world: If you’re really good at one style, you’ll probably get pigeonholed into tattooing it until you’re so tired of it that you’re giving preferential treatment to clients who want something a little different.
But while some artists may complain about only getting to do American traditional tattoos or rarely having the opportunity to venture outside of fine-line black-and-gray work, Phil Garcia has taken specialization to a whole new level.
“I’ve been tattooing flowers for a long time, and roses are one of the biggest and most timeless designs in the tattoo industry,” Garcia says. “I wasn’t seeing a lot of realistic roses tattooed, and when I did they were usually all red. I started to get bored with the simple ones and wanted to do more of a variety, so I started doing multicolor roses and it evolved into what it is now.”
These days, Garcia’s clients travel from all over the world to visit him in Port Hueneme just for one of his signature flower tattoos. To many people, Garcia’s flowers — specifically his roses — may look like any other color-realism take on a beautiful piece of nature, but for those who travel to Garcia, the level of detail and shading, along with his penchant for choosing just the right colors, makes his work unparalleled.
“At this point, I think I’ve separated myself from the pack just because of the amount of experience I have tattooing roses,” Garcia says. “I’m a lot more picky with the references I use, and I think I’m a lot more able to see what’s pleasing to the eye because of that experience.”
Of course, that experience comes from taking up an interest in color-realism tattoos before the style had even crossed the minds of many tattooers. Garcia began working in realism in the early 2000s after being inspired by black-and-gray artist Tom Renshaw, but it wasn’t until 2006 when he saw tattoos by famous color-realism tattooers such as Nikko Hurtado and Mike DeVries that the San Diego native thought to merge his colorless realism with the bright shades he used in other tattoos.
Once Garcia realized that color realism was an option in tattooing, both his skills and recognition within the tattoo community shot through the roof. The artistically inclined tattooer took to the new style as few had done before him, and he had all the tools to quickly become a standout in the industry. It took Garcia’s friend more than a year to convince him just to consider tattooing at all back in 2001, belying his rapid ascension in the world of color realism a handful of years later.
“I bought some crappy tattoo machines out of the back of a magazine and just started scratching away in my garage,” Garcia says of his humble tattoo beginnings. “I went about it in the worst way possible. I definitely don’t advise anyone else to do that.”
Since then, the Navy veteran has watched as his chosen art form has become the centerpiece of several reality TV series and exploded in popularity. Television aside, Garcia thinks social media networks such as Instagram and YouTube are making the art form increasingly accessible to aspiring and burgeoning tattoo artists.
“Artists these days who want to start tattooing can just go to their favorite tattoo artist’s social media page and examine their work,” Garcia says. “They can buy machines from a professional tattoo supplier online and just give it a shot with all these instructional DVDs and YouTube videos that are out now. It’s crazy how much YouTube and social media has changed everything over the last seven or eight years. The industry has really taken off profoundly.”
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Beyond the flowers for which so many seek him out, Garcia is always happy to take on portraits and any other color-realism piece, as well as the occasional black and gray tattoo. That’s not to say he’s over tattooing flowers, as rose tattoos have become as big a passion for him as the other things he loves the most, like his family and surfing.
“I love surfing, golf, music in general and my family,” Garcia says. “I’ve always been passionate about a lot of things, but tattooing has taken over a lot of that. My wife and my children are the most important thing to me in this world, and I don’t think I’d be as good as I am or work as hard as I do if it wasn’t for them. The best advice I could ever give is to have a healthy home and be passionate. That’s when your career will take off.”