There’s certainly no shortage of tattooers in the fine art world these days, and there’s a wealth of tattooers focused on turning the alphabet into an art form, but there’s really only one Los Angeles–based lettering specialist making a name for himself in galleries around the world.
The artist primarily known as Big Sleeps has been interested in making art out of letters for as long as he can remember. He literally wrote the book on tattoo lettering, but growing up in the gang-infested Pico-Union of the ’80s, and ’90s, Sleeps was just a kid surrounded by prison tattoos and territorial graffiti. While some may have considered the street art an eyesore, the young artist viewed it as the calligraphy of his people and his neighborhood.
“Lettering has always been a huge influence on me,” Sleeps says. “I grew up in a neighborhood where everything was gangs and shit. You came out your door and it was on the people, the walls, the sidewalks, everything. It was something I’d see every day, and I just started practicing it. It could’ve been markings for gang territories or whatever, but I more appreciated the art in it and the form of the letters on the wall.”
After spending his early years tattooing homies in the neighborhood, working on his best graffiti scrawl and getting into all sorts of legal trouble, there was still no indication that Sleeps would ever be able to bring his artwork outside of the barrio. It wasn’t until the artist spent some time in the penitentiary — or as he calls it, “college” — that drawing and painting really became a serious business. At the time, Sleeps was just trading tattoos for delicacies like Cup Noodles or instant coffee, but prison was also where he raised his skills to a professional level.
“Early in my life, I was doing some bad things,” Sleeps says. “I spent some time in the institutions. I’ve been shot. But I think all the mistakes I made shaped me into the man I am today. I even refined my artistic skills while I was in what I call ‘college,’ because I really took it that way to improve my art. I had all the time in the world to give my all to my art. I regret some of that stuff, but I wouldn’t change anything because it allowed me to see things from a different point of view.”
Although he might be best known for his tattoos, that’s not where the lifelong L.A. resident is putting the majority of his focus this year. For that matter, Sleeps just tattooed for the first time in months at the recent Golden State Tattoo Expo in Pasadena and isn’t sure how often he’ll be doing his signature lettering on people’s skin in the future. The multifaceted artist is working on establishing himself among the galleries and collectors of the fine art world while also putting out new clothing and products with both established companies and his own brand, Letters to Live By, the same name as his acclaimed lettering reference books.
“I think I’m just enjoying [focusing on painting and clothing] a lot more right now,” Sleeps says. “I feel like I’ve definitely made my mark in the tattoo world and in many other forms right now. Now, I like the thought of my stuff being collected and hanging in galleries and homes of people the way that people proudly wear a tattoo of mine or a piece of clothing. I’ve also done collaborations with Hurley, Famous Stars and Straps, Umbro, and clothes with my own brand. My brand started as a little thing to offer my clients T-shirts and stuff, but then it grew into a whole other company. ”
Sleeps’ latest collaboration is arguably putting his artwork on a more global scale than it’s ever been before. British soccer brand Umbro hired the local artist to paint a mural for the launch party of its latest collection — which happens to be aimed at bringing the sport’s style to cities like L.A. — but Sleeps ended up adding some custom jerseys to the collaboration and is hoping for an even more extensive partnership in the future.
“The guys at Umbro approached me for some artwork, so I looked at what they do and thought maybe we could do something new with it,” Sleeps says. “Not just something new for them but also new for myself as well. They gave me the opportunity to paint on some jerseys and create a canvas for their release party. When I posted them, everybody thought the jerseys were going to be up for sale and were asking me when they were dropping, but they were just a one-time thing for now. We’re talking about possibly doing something for the future, so I’m hoping maybe we’ll do something like that.”
For now, Sleeps will continue to take on enough artistic projects to make a lesser man’s head spin, and he’ll continue to relish the fact that he’s one of the few lettering-based artists in the Getty’s archives. Although he may have cut his teeth in the tattoo world, Sleeps certainly doesn’t owe anything beyond the dues he’s already paid. When he’s ready to tattoo again, he’ll do it. Until then, the world will be getting better acquainted with Big Sleeps the fine artist.
Check out Big Sleeps' artwork and collaborations on his Instagram, @bigsleeps.