James Tran is a tattooist specializing in stippling-inflected illustrative pieces. Tran’s work signals a comfortable synthesis of illustrative styles, ranging from early European to contemporary Japanese. He is currently a resident tattooist at Full Circle Tattoo in San Diego.
What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
My name is James Tran, I was born in Aurora, Colorado, USA, 1983.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles—no one really knows where when I actually tell them the city. Just a small place in the shadows of LA. I was a latch key kid; my parents were first generation refuges who worked hard for our family. So they were never home, but family was important. It was weird being an Asian American: I never fully felt like I was an American, and also had a hard time with my family’s traditions. Eventually I figured things out. I’m still trying to figure things out.
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
I work in sunny San Diego in Southern California at Full Circle Tattoo—the shop I’ve been at since my apprenticeship. They still haven’t figured out a way to get rid of me yet.
How long have you been tattooing?
Shit, I hate this question. I remember in old tattoo interviews, I forgot who said it, but the highly-respected artist said you don’t really start to figure out tattooing till your tenth year. I’m about to hit ten years. It’s so weird to say aloud.
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and what did you initially learn how to tattoo?
It looked fun. I didn’t grow up around tattooing; there was no scene. I grew up in the suburbs, remember? I did remember a few of the guys in high school got some tattoos when they turned 18. It was the coolest and most foreign thing possible. It was dangerous, magical, and so mysterious. No one in my family had a tattoo or would consider getting one. My family was very utilitarian: self-expression wasn’t frowned upon, but wasn’t encouraged either. I was supposed to be a lawyer or a computer engineer, but honestly I fucked around too much in school and wouldn’t have made it. I eventually got tattooed right as I entered the military. I just remember seeing how awesome of a job tattooing was. It just seemed so fun, not to mention every tattooer I met was so cool and had amazing stories. Funny thing, I hid my tattoos from my mother for like a decade—she had no idea. Bless her heart.
Were you trained through a formal apprenticeship? Describe the circumstances of learning.
I was given the opportunity to learn under Bill Canales. I’m sure he needed free labor and I had just gotten out of the military, had my benefits, and knew how to clean and stay quiet. It took a while, tattooing came very difficult to me. But it was awesome to just be around so many amazing tattooers. I never felt like I was going to get the hang of it. It was a nice apprenticeship though: Bill always treated me with respect and so did the shop. It was no nonsense and very professional. He treated me like a friend, and now like family. I’m forever thankful.
Have you previously studied art in an institutional setting? If so, what level of training did you reach and in what disciplines?
I was going to college right when I started my apprenticeship. I was an international business major, but once I got the go ahead and I scrubbed my first tube, I automatically changed my major to art. I eventually got a Bachelors in Art, with an emphasis in painting. Honestly, art school mostly taught me how to bullshit during critiques, which I guess helps out when I’m trying to explain to a customer why their idea might not work out so well.
Did that training help as you learned the mechanics of tattooing?
It helped me with the vocabulary and language of the visual arts. But the dexterity was never there: again, tattooing came slowly for me.
How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
I honestly just thought I had to learn how to do Asian- and Japanese-inspired tattoos, mostly because Bill was my mentor and he crushes it when it comes to that. But it never worked out—I absolutely enjoy the imagery, but my mind doesn’t process it and my heart was never fully into it. There are guys out there who paint all night and obsess over this Japanese master or that woodblock print. I was never able to get that into it, at least in my personal work. I was trying to find my way, and had seen a few tattooers like Thomas Hooper, Jondix, and James Spenser Briggs. I couldn’t figure out how they did what they did, but man the tattooing was incredible! It was so different from anything I had seen before; I loved it. It felt like there were no rules, at least not as ridged as traditional American or Japanese for that matter. Later on, I saw some early Guy Le Tatooer tattoos and others.
I was excited—still doing shit tattoos, but experimenting with different machines, trying to figure out how everyone did those little dots. One at a time? How? It was a lot of trial and error. But I think I sort of figured some of it out. If I had to describe it, I would say it was like going through an old textbook and seeing an illustration of some sort or an attempt at an alchemist engraving, something from Wenzel Jamnitzer or George Wither. I also love botanical prints, things like that. Plants and flowers all day. Everyone deserves flowers.
"My family was very utilitarian: self-expression wasn’t frowned upon, but wasn’t encouraged either. I was supposed to be a lawyer, or a computer engineer, but honestly, I fucked around too much in school and wouldn’t have made it. I eventually got tattooed right as I entered the military, I just remember seeing how awesome of a job it was, it just seemed so fun, not to mention every tattooer I met was so cool and had amazing stories."
From the first tattoo you acquired right before entering the military to the apprenticeship you began when you left, the military seems to bookend your beginnings as a tattooist. How, if at all, did this affect your developing interest in becoming a tattooist? Did this experience shape either your approach to the craft or the style and imagery you now work with?
Actually, I had to wait until right after boot camp (three months after I officially left for basic training) to get my first tattoo, as I was a broke high school kid right before and was worried about my mother taking a very, very late term abortion. (I was 18 so what is that, the 54th trimester?) As for the military having an effect on my views of tattooing, I grew up in the suburbs of the suburbs. There was no rebellion, no punk shows, no gangs. Once I was thrown into the mix and getting tattooed twice a month became a regular thing, tattoos became our way of having a say about what we could do with our lives, since we were officially the property of the government.
After that six-year period of doing whatever I was told, tattooing became my chance to take back what little I had in life at the time and to strike it out on my own terms. No one at that time thought tattooing would make them rich—we just wanted to have fun while navigating this life.
As for the imagery, I was attracted primarily to Asian art because I didn't know I had any options: we just liked what we were told we should like. In hindsight, that’s all nonsense. It’s like when a white friend of mine doesn't think he can have Japanese-inspired tattoos because he's not Asian. Don't get me wrong: there are lines people shouldn't cross and lines people should navigate carefully. There are, for example, massive historical implications that come with receiving indigenous tattoos from marginalized peoples.
Once I was out of that Asian art phase, American traditional was the next logical step—pouring into the rich military history and its traditions. At the time, the information was all there; all the references were easily accessible. In no way am I suggesting that traditional is ‘easier’ to tattoo, just that I was able to access multiple sources and references. Ultimately, I came upon the style I use because of the tattoos I saw from the early European blackworkers. Their style was different; it had such an immediate visual impact. More importantly, no one I knew was doing it so I just started experimenting—something I couldn't do while working for the government.
Have you had or do you have plans to take on apprentices?
Ever hear that saying, children shouldn’t be having children? There are too many tattooers coming into the industry already. As for now, and the near future, I have no plans on taking an apprentice.
What do you look for in a shop?
A sense of family and comradery. A non-toxic environment where people can just produce the best work they can produce.
Do you have any hobbies outside of tattooing?
I enjoy reading, watching movies, going to see all types of art. I also enjoy fashion and design and all types of culinary experiences.
What inspires you generally?
Other tattooers inspire me all the time. I’m always amazed by the incredible level of work coming out of the places you wouldn’t traditionally think about when it comes to tattooing. I’ve recently got into a lot of Japanese horror illustrators like Junji Ito and Takata Yamamoto. There are a lot of contemporary illustrations I’m discovering that inspire me every day.
Are any other forms of media, traditional or digital, important to your work?
I really enjoy all types of art, but currently I really love the more interactive experiences that you get from being in a James Terrell or Robert Irwin installation. It’s a nice escape from the two-dimensional world I work in.
Is traveling important to you? If so, where do you usually travel? Do you have any interesting experiences abroad that you can share?
God, traveling is so important to me. My family traveled a lot; I traveled to too many places while in the military, and traveling for tattooing is so amazing. I just enjoy seeing how everyone else lives in different parts of the world. It’s incredible how tattooing also unites people. I feel that when I travel and meet other tattooers and tattoo enthusiasts they don’t see me as an American, or as an Asian person, but as a tattooer or someone who has tattoos.
One of my fondest memories was when myself a few of my colleagues went to Nepal to hang out at the Nepal Tattoo Convention back in 2014. After trekking in the Annapurna range, one of the porters who helped us during the trek asked for a stick and poke after witnessing a few of us give each other one commemorating the trip up in the mountains. He was so thankful and amazed at something as simple making a marks on the skin; it brought back a lot of memories of how I used to view tattooing way before I started tattooing.
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
Finding your path in such a saturated industry, being true to yourself, and not being a hater. Finding ways to uphold tradition and respect for those who have come before, while also trying to separate yourself from everyone else.
At the beginning of this interview you mentioned that, as an Asian American, it is difficult to feel completely comfortable with either one of those terms. You conclude your piece with an interesting reflection on the way in which tattooing and travel provide some relief from this question: you're encountered first as a tattooist or as a tattooed person. What I'd like to know is if your growing collection of tattoos or career as a tattooist has had a similar effect in the American context? How, for you, does this once-subcultural and now-popularized practice function in the context of these more general identity categories?
I often joke with my girlfriend that, when we're out together and I don't have my tattoos exposed, I look like an IT guy that's going to help her set up her computer. I think I'm a very average, dull-looking person but having tattoos is a non-verbal way for me to force the viewer to ask more questions or challenge their presumptions about my identity. Tattoos give me that first-degree separation—a barrier from the kinds of identities that people ascribe to me. To go from that random Asian guys to that tattooed Asian guy: though it seems trivial, it does have an effect on my day to day life. Mind you, I don't have any tattoos on my hands or neck—one last bastion of respect for my mother?
It seems like I'm going from one category to another but at least among tattooed people of all backgrounds I share something in common. Going from a dorky Asian kid that lives in the suburbs to having conversations about tattoos with amazing albeit intimidating bikers in Europe was a vast difference from what I was used to.
Ideally, how would you like to see tattooing evolve? How do you think it will evolve realistically?
I have no idea—it is interesting to see how social media has affected it. The television shows all show an exaggerated “reality” and people don’t know the wiser. More people will get into tattooing: you have kids, actual children, whose goal is now to become a tattooer. A generation ago, a lot of people kind of just fell into it. It will become more mainstream, and there’s no reason to fight it. I know a few older tattooers that are rather bitter about it all, and I’ve met a few guys that have only been tattooing less than five years that think they have it all figured out and could care a less about the previous generations. I’m rambling now, but what was it that Dan Higgs said in an interview with Ed Hardy? “It’s about being in the middle, not being at the end. You‘re not initiating something. Nor having the last word, you’re just carrying it through, with the time you’ve got.” I’m just trying to have a good time, and make some amazing memories.
You can find more of James Tran's work on Instagram (@visualamor) and online (visual-amor.com).