Baba Austin of Vintage Tattoo Art Parlor in Highland Park laughs when I ask for an interview. He says that previous interviews were train wrecks, and it’s not that big of a stretch for a tattoo artist to be a bit surly. He’s been practicing his craft since 1989 when he apprenticed for tattoo master Jonathan Shaw in New York. Austin is a consummate professional when it comes to talking craft and even though his analogies involve body parts and pain, he still keeps the conversation moving.
References to Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada and metallurgy flux come up in this interview. Also plenty of four-letter words fly about at the York Boulevard shop, the same shop Austin has called home since 1998. Not a lot has changed inside the shop since opening up and Baba likes it that way. He throws up his fists for a photo, his fingers reading BABA, but with a ring over one finger it reads ABA ,and I ask if it’s OK, “Sure, it’s still me. That’s my signature pose anyways,” Austin says.
Do you remember your first tattoo?
Yeah, a gang tattoo. I wrote it on a drunk in New York City. Jonathan said, “Go get yourself a wino, give him some ripple, and put a tattoo on him.” I didn’t know what to do. All that I was interested in was lettering at the time. So I put a big gang block on the guy’s back.
Do you ever tell people that their idea for a tattoo isn’t good?
No, never. I refuse to do racist stuff. [Points to a customer] I mean, this girl comes here because she trusts us and I’m not going to sit here and be a dick telling her what to do. It’s her vision, we just make it come to life. It’s not our place to tell them that their idea is stupid. I think all tattoos are cool. Just not for me.
Is it true that if you have alcohol in your system you will bleed more?
Yes, alcohol makes your blood thinner and we won’t work with you. It’s not that the tattoo will come out like shit, but it’s a health risk. You could have Herpa-syphil-AIDS. And if that stuff comes on me, I won’t have that. People tell us, “Oh you wear gloves now, you’re going soft.” We’re just protecting ourselves from you. All the safety precautions are disposable: needles, gloves, everything. There is no way anyone could catch anything now.
What was the scene like when you first started tattooing?
We had to hand make all our own needles. The smell of solder and flux will tear up your nostrils, and you get stains all over your fingers. Flux is basically acid. We had to sterilize our needles and tubes, and the minute we were done we had to break them off and throw them away. Nowadays I’m sponsored, so all of my stuff is provided.
Are there any noticeable trends with tattoos?
They come and go. The tattoos are just as individual as the person who are getting them. Offhand the biggest trends have been the nautical stars and the most recent have been some type of Day of the Dead symbol. Girls in Day of the Dead makeup, or a skull. They have no idea who Posada is. That and girls getting big pieces on their ribs. Girls are like fucking punk rock. These chicks handle their shit.
Nathan Solis is a Highland Park resident who writes about and photographs the L.A. music scene. You can find more of Solis stories, reviews and photos at Smashed Chair.