In just about every tattoo shop in L.A., you can find someone who does acceptable traditional/neotraditional pieces (whether custom or based on flash) and likely an artist who can do a detailed black-and gray-tattoo. At dozens of parlors, there are fine art tattooers who do painting-like work and grossly trendy watercolor tattoos.
But there are only a few places you can go for a Japanese-style bodysuit, and Jojo Ackermann’s Ten Thousand Waves Gallery is one of them. Ackermann and fellow large-scale Japanese-style tattooing icon Robert Atkinson only opened the Sherman Oaks studio less than two years ago, but it’s quickly become a destination for those looking for sleeves, back pieces and other large projects.
“Not everybody who comes through the door is going to get a bodysuit tattoo or a full dragon back piece,” Ackermann says. “It’s about fishing for the right clients. A lot of the people come to us because of the specialty things and they notice the work we do. Doing the big work is where it’s at for the people who come in here.”
Although most elite Japanese-style tattooers are part of a tattooing “family” in which they learn the finer points of the style from some of Japan’s oldest and most legendary tattooers. Ackermann never officially joined one of those families. He did have the pleasure of meeting one of those legends, Horitoshi, and traveling to Japan to perfect his craft.
“I went out [to Japan] to tattoo out there, and I ended up not even getting to tattoo,” Ackermann says. “I ended up just getting fully engulfed in what was happening out there. Once you go there and you see those guys working, you get intimidated and you don’t even want to tattoo in front of them. It turned into more of a lesson learned just by watching them.”
It wasn’t always giant dragons and waterfalls for Ackermann. No one starts off sleeving folks (at least no one should), and the Antelope Valley native’s story was no different. By the time he started high school, Ackermann and his best friend were hand-poking tattoos on each other. At 17, the young punk rocker and artist got his first professional tattoo. Shortly after, Ackermann knew tattooing was the career for him, and he was looking to get into it any way he could.
“I basically helped Mike [Pike, another veteran tattooer from just north of L.A.] build the shop I apprenticed at,” Ackermann says. “I was working from midnight until 7 a.m. at the Air Force base painting airplanes and then I’d go apprentice from two until 10 at night. I was living on my own, so I had to support myself even if it meant splitting my life into crazy sections.”
Now, Ackermann’s been inking folks for well over two decades (he boasts that he’s only worked at three shops in that time) and is among the most respected tattooers in all of SoCal. Ultimately, Ackermann believes his success in the field is primarily due to work ethic and “staying true to tattooing.”
“Just sticking with it and working really hard,” Ackermann claims as the “secret” to his success. “I’m just always trying to be better. Part of that process is putting yourself into situations where you might be uncomfortable, but you can grow.”
Of course, one might question Ackermann and Atkinson’s choice to open up their crowning achievement (up to this point) in Sherman Oaks. It’s not exactly a neighborhood known for its tattoo culture or gritty crowd. Aside from being a sign of just how much popularity tattooing has gained with nearly all groups of people over the last decade, Ackermann also believes the location is ideal for what he wants to do.
“It’s super nice because it’s just quiet and mellow,” Ackermann says. “There’s no real foot traffic here, so it’s the perfect place for an appointment-only studio. Robert [Atkinson] was already up the street in Studio City, and I was ready to make a break for Hollywood or something. We talked about it for a while, and then we decided to join forces.”
Between the two owners, one could argue that Ten Thousand Waves has the market cornered for L.A.’s large Japanese work. But in the early days, Ackermann only knew what he’d seen in magazines and on those around him. One day, he opened up a tattoo mag and it changed the way he looked at the art form.
“I had always been an admirer of the work of Ed Hardy,” Ackermann says. “I always thought no one did it better than him, but then I saw this bodysuit Paul Jeffries had done and it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I started drawing bigger tattoos based on what I saw in that tattoo, and then I read an interview with Paul Jeffries in which he said he just takes the '80s Ed Hardy style and enhances it to his own likings.”
Looking back on those first few years of doing Japanese-style tattoos, Ackermann recalls the whirlwind that threw him headfirst into the style that’s earned him respect throughout the tattoo community.
“Over a five or six year period, everything just started happening,” Ackermann says. “From there on out it was just about trying harder to make it better, stronger, and faster. Then it was just about pulling in influences who were doing the same style that I wanted to be doing. It was basically just finding my flock.”
13716 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 849-5317, @jojoackermann.