When a teenage Carlos Torres did his first tattoo, he wasn’t even really that interested in the art form. The Gardena native and his friends had learned how to make a homemade tattoo machine from a homeboy’s imprisoned brother, and Torres happened to be the only one who could draw.
Of course, Torres isn’t the only South Bay artist who got pressured into tattooing some homies, but he’s one of the biggest success stories. These days, the artist runs Timeline Gallery in San Pedro and travels the world to spread both his tattooing and his oil paintings.
Looking back on his makeshift “apprenticeship” of tattooing out of his neighbors’ garages and kitchens, Torres says, “It was a really slow start. I’m self-taught, and I wish I wasn’t because I think I would be a lot further in tattooing. I’m still someone who’s trying to learn and constantly be better.”
Even after the nerves wore off when he first began tattooing, the young Torres still couldn’t see it becoming a viable profession. It was before the days of Kat Von D and Ink Master, and Torres already had a stable job working at LAX. At best, tattooing could be a hobby he was passionate about and another way to show off his artistic skill — but then fate had other plans.
“I had an accident, and I couldn’t work at the airport anymore," Torres says. "Right after that, somebody told me they were opening a shop and I should come work for them. I had no business being in a shop, but once I did that, it was a career.”
It’s probably better that Torres didn’t continue working at LAX. While plenty of artists would love to have a union and benefits, Torres has established himself as a top tattooer since moving to Long Beach 15 years ago. His style fuses elements of museum-quality fine art into classic black-and-gray tattoos, creating a visual with far more depth and dimension than most fine-line black-and-gray work.
“I really study value, contrast and the way light hits objects,” Torres says. “I’m always trying to study how depth works, and I guess you could say I study a lot of black-and-white photography.”
But Torres doesn’t just study any black-and-white photography. For most of the work he does — both tattooing and painting — Torres takes control of the whole process from start to finish. He chooses, hires and photographs the models and other objects needed for reference photos, and then turns the photo or photos into a drawing or oil painting. Torres then offers that drawing or painting as a tattoo design, and most of his clients are quick to accept. He still does occasional custom pieces, but even those tend to be large-scale projects that include his own photography and fine-art skills as well.
While some may see Torres’ way of tattooing as a labor-intensive method, it’s a style that's made him one of the most sought-after tattooers on the planet. Torres routinely travels abroad to do conventions, visit other shops and teach seminars to fellow tattoo artists — he just returned from Japan — and for someone who spent so much of his youth looking at airplanes from the ground, it’s one of Torres’ favorite aspects of his chosen career.
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“I think my talent is I’ve learned to trick people into paying me to go around the world and tattoo,” Torres jokes. “It’s like a dream come true. I’ve always been a daydreamer, so when I used to work at LAX and I’d put gas in the airplane, I would daydream about these planes taking off. I’d wonder where they’re going, and it’s really surreal to me that now I’m on those planes taking off.”
Although many tattooers would often rather sleep in their own beds and run their own shops than fly around the world, Torres believes that traveling is what fuels his passion for art. The more he gets his passport stamped, the more content and inspiration Torres finds pouring out of his fingertips. It’s the reason why his most-given advice to the students of his seminars is to “go live life” and to travel as much as possible.
“A lot of people ask me if I had to pick between tattooing and painting, which one would I pick,” Torres says. “I tell them that I’d pick tattooing, because tattooing has let me travel the world and meet all sorts of people. My painting hasn’t done that yet.”
Timeline Gallery, 1117 S. Pacific Ave., San Pedro; (310) 833-6900, @carlostorresart