If you're not familiar with the artwork of L.A.-based tattoo artist Nikko Hurtado, that's likely to change. Or maybe it already has. Just yesterday, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson showed off a newly completed tattoo — inked by Hurtado over the course of 30 hours — to his 96.2 million Instagram followers. The piece, a hyper-realistic bull's skull that covered up an older bull tattoo on the Rock's upper arm, illustrates why Hurtado is largely considered to be one of the top color-realism and fine-art tattooers in the world these days. But, like many modern tattooers, he was drawn to the art form by more rudimentary styles.

“My first interest in tattooing just came from looking at people’s tattoos when I was younger,” Hurtado says. “My grandfather had tattoos on his forearm and hand, and my cousin was the first fully sleeved person I’d ever seen. He went to prison and came out with full sleeves, and I always thought he looked cool when I was younger.”

It wasn’t long before one of Hurtado’s close friends, Mike Demasi, opened up a tattoo shop in Hesperia called Art Junkies Tattoo Studio. Even though the lifelong artist didn’t have any ink at the time, Demasi knew how artistically gifted his buddy was and offered him an apprenticeship to turn his drawings and paintings into permanent skin art. At the time, the fledgling tattooer likely didn’t realize his life would be changed forever — after all, tattooing wouldn’t reach mainstream popularity until a few years later, when the tattoo reality shows caught on in the mid-2000s — but it was all the San Fernando Valley native needed to give up his job in construction to pursue art as a career.

In 2009 — after establishing a clientele willing to travel around the world to see him — Hurtado took the next step in his career by opening up the original Black Anchor Collective in Hesperia. But when Yucaipa-based artist and Artistic Element Tattoo owner Roman Abrego decided to leave his Los Angeles location on Melrose last year and offered the shop to Hurtado, the pride of Hesperia knew he'd be foolish to turn down the more central storefront.

“You have to put your heart into it and develop a strong team and a positive team to work well,” Hurtado says of building up both Black Anchor Collective locations. “My vision is to create a place where people can go in, be comfortable, and get great tattoos from anyone who’s in there. With tattooing, you’re always dealing with other people, so you want to give them a good experience and feel proud. It was actually harder for me to do that in the desert, because people have to travel to me to get tattooed. If we were to rely on just the desert clientele, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to open the shop in L.A.”

Hurtado is known for his impossibly flawless full-color portraits and similarly realistic pieces. Although he’s not the first artist to put his focus on color realism, the 36-year-old tattooer is among the finest when it comes to combining the use of colors sometimes seen from older European tattoo artists like Filip Leu and Tin-Tin with the level of detail portrayed by black-and-gray artists like Bob Tyrrell and Freddy Negrete.

“It was a little bit of a different style, but I really looked up to guys like Bob Tyrrell because he was capturing so much realism in his stuff,” Hurtado says. “I think it was just a natural process to follow that up with the same type of realism in color. It came kind of intuitively to me because in high school, my art teacher would always tell me to do what I see. I’m always just trying to do what I see and not change it too much, so it seemed really natural for me.”

While Hurtado is certainly honored to tattoo everyone from the Rock to Drake to Jenna Jameson, the artist truly prides himself in being able to put his full effort into every single tattoo he does. Putting his heart into each piece of art is what keeps Hurtado going, even when others might pour all of their efforts into their high-profile clients. For Black Anchor’s owner, this may just be the beginning of a long — and hopefully inspiring — journey.

“To be honest, when I was really young I used to tell my girl that I just knew in my heart that I would do something that a lot of people would know about,” Hurtado says. “It’s really weird to say that, but I always felt like this was the place where I’d be. I actually feel that I’ll be a lot further than where I’m currently at, and I always just felt that inside of my heart and my soul. I wouldn’t say I’m a religious guy, but I always thought that the energy of the world or God or whatever gave me something to do. I don’t know if it’s the art or the tattooing, but I’m always looking for a way to do something positive and something greater for people to be inspired by. The tattooing part is just the thing that drives me.”

Black Anchor Collective, 7460 Melrose Ave., Fairfax. blackanchorworldwide.com/collectiveartists.

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