Artistic ability runs in Chris Mendoza’s family and made the most sense to pursue a career in following his high school graduation. His initiative at a young age, a successful, brotherly mentor, and a natural skill set has resulted in a respected reputation after 13 years of tattooing.
LOCAL 219: Was it hobbies, circumstances, or your childhood that led you to being in this position?
Chris Mendoza: More so, circumstance and hobby. Like I’ve drawn my whole life, and my uncles were painters and stuff, but when it got closer to time to graduate, I was the first of my brothers to graduate at all.
I didn’t know about student loans and my parents didn’t tell me about student loans. So I just totally thought you have to pay $30,000 a semester or something, and I was like, “That’s not in the cards for me so I got to figure out something,” and then my friend Gill, Brendan Gill, told me to just try tattooing since I always drew all the time and that’s what I did.
The day that I graduated I took my graduation money and I went to all the shops and tried to buy an apprenticeship.
L219: That’s awesome. Way to take initiative.
CM: Yeah, and I did get one on the day I graduated.
L219: That reminds me of Taylor Swift taking her demos to recording studios as a young girl. Did you end up getting an apprenticeship?
CM: I did but it only lasted around three months. The guy was more into the partying scene of tattooing, but he did show me how to set up a machine and how to make it run, and that’s really all I needed because I was so good at drawing already.
For years, I was drawing family portraits of people, like really intricate pencil sketches. It transitions pretty easily but I didn’t have the technical skills. There was a learning curve in my mom’s basement but it ended up working out.
L219: That’s amazing. We all have to buckle down if we truly want to refine a skill.
CM: I did like three months and then I quit my apprenticeship. Then I just tattooed my friends at my mom’s house.
L219: Get out of here.
CM: Yeah, for like three years, and then I met Tony Reyes.
L219: So how many of your friends have you tattooed?
CM: Oh, so many now. It’s in the hundreds probably. Most of my clients are my friends, honestly.
L219: Sounds like you have good friends. How did you meet Tony Reyes?
CM: Through my friend Mike Chandler. He owned a tattoo shop in Valpo called Think Ink. I met Mike through like wrestling and stuff because he’s a wrestling coach, but he was always kind of in the tattoo world and he and Tony were good friends.
Mike, one day, when I was still in the very beginning of my tattooing in the first couple years, was like, “I gotta introduce you to Tony. He’s a badass tattooer.” So I met Tony, like, oh, over a decade ago now, and he was tattooing at Lacuna Lofts in Chicago at the time, but he made it seem like it was a badass job and really showed me what it was all about.
The cooler side and the really artsy side. He was already doing crazy paintings and worked at this big art loft. Every studio space in there was rented by different types of artists and hairstylists and stuff. So that’s when I got to be in this whole community of people, and that really changed my outlook.
L219: It allowed you to see art flourish and the possibilities…
CM: ..and artists inspiring each other and stuff. Like, not just tattooing it a little shack.
L219: What gets you out of bed in the morning? What gets you excited to come in to work?
CM: Oh, that would be just that you never know what you’re gonna get.
You can have somebody come in and want a lame little tattoo, but then you get some maniac coming in and wants a full back piece that he wants to make look like robot frogs that are gonna have a war.
So you can always count on something surprising you here. That’s always fun. I don’t like the repetitiveness of a normal job so it really works out.
L219: Then I imagine you enjoy the creative ideas and figuring out how you can make something work?
CM: Yeah, the process of listening to somebody tell you their idea and then to try to bring it to life; that’s a lot of fun. That’s like the most fun part about it.
L219: I think I’d enjoy the design aspect also. Okay, who has been one of your greatest influences along the way, either in personal life or work?
CM: That’s definitely gonna be Tony again. He’s good at what he does and he’s turned it into a really successful business. It’s always easy to follow somebody who’s leading so well. So he’s definitely got to be the biggest influence I got.
L219: How long has he had this place for?
CM: Five years, and like I said, he had Lacuna Lofts for a while and all kinds of different stuff over the years. He’s always just been doing something or inviting me to a convention or an art show, you know.
L219: How valuable that he took you under his wing. What’s been one of the greatest lessons you’ve learned along the way?
CM: That you have to take it seriously because it is a real job when it comes to tattooing. Like, I’ve definitely had the years where I was being the rock star party animal. I mean, there were a couple years where I would tattoo just enough to make rent and party money. It was fine because all the bills were paid but now I see it as much more serious, and you get bills as you get older. You got to take it more seriously.
Then people take you more serious when you do that too. So, it’s a good learning curve to go through.
L219: I’m sure you’ve also learned that as you get older you don’t recover as quickly.
CM: Oh yeah, absolutely. Thirteen years in and it’s not a mystery where the night’s going to go anymore. I just know I got to be up the next day to tattoo again.
L219: What do you enjoy most about being a tattoo artist?
I like to kind of get to know people on that personal level when they’re coming up with their ideas and listen to them tell me where they’re coming from. You get a good mix of learning about different personalities and there’s so many differences in all these people. They surprise you a lot of times with how deep they actually are. It’s fun to find that out.