Kevin Hinton’s voice sounds like it should be coming over National Public Radio, which makes it all the more surprising when you see his trim, tattoo-covered frame. A father of two who surfs every morning and trains for triathlons, nothing about Kevin, owner of Old Glory Tattoo in Venice Beach, California, quite lines up with what one might expect when meeting a veteran tattoo artist.
Kevin is, in the simplest terms, a genuinely sweet man who just happens to do something not usually associated with sweet people. His passion is tattooed on his hands, literally, officially making him a member of the “all-done” club, and acting as a statement of commitment to his art.
Kevin began his career in high school, placing a single dot on his wrist, which today thrives as his first tattoo, part of a small wrist piece. Soon he was giving friends tattoos. After high school, Kevin joined the Navy, and learned the traditions behind nautical tattoos. After the Navy he was able to travel and embrace international tattoo traditions, especially those of Japan.
Now, at 40, Kevin has transcended the stereotypes of tattoo artist, owns his own shop, and lives life as he pleases; that life is full of positive vibes, his children, art, and plenty of good California surf.
Idea: Different fonts for the different types of people…like Old Glory would be a different font.
Zach: What are you getting?
Noah: I am getting a tattoo that says Quam Minimum Credula Postero and it means ‘Put as little faith in tomorrow, as possible.’ I think it’s a pretty good message for this trip. There’s a pretty solid chance we’re all going to die in the RV. Maybe within the next 24 hours.
I am getting it done by Kevin Hinton in Venice Beach at Old Glory Tattoo & Barbershop. Get your hair cut and a tattoo.
Kevin Hinton: I took Latin in elementary school.
Yeah. I went to a catholic school. I was an altar boy. Now I tattoo for a living. Makes perfect sense (Laughs).
Noah: It’s like sweaty pain. My heart’s not even racing right now. Like a needle is poking into your arm a thousand times a second. Then, when you think it’s done, you look over and realize that that was only the first word.
Surprisingly, these ones take a lot of thought because everything has to line up and stuff. I used to work a lot of spring breaks. Sometimes I think that I was drunker than the college kids walking in. One piece of advice- don’t get tattooed on spring break. Lots of fly by night tattoo artists that open up on South Padre Island.
I tattooed out of the back of a flat bed truck in Lake Havasu, Arizona. Most unsterile, terrible friggin’ place. All we had was one of those quick pop tents to go over the back of the truck. I was piercing out of the back and I had a massage table with no legs on it. Just tattooin’.
Zach: A lot of people came in?
Tons. Tons! It was a huge amount. Wasted! Sunburnt. Friggin’ fried. Drunk. Worst frickin’ environment. This was years ago. Lake Havasau, Arizona, ’81. Whenever the hell it was.
Noah: That time in your life that you can’t remember but you wish you could remember.
Brett: Kevin, I’m just wondering, for the context of the interview, how important is passion within what you’re doing to our friend right now.
That’s a very good question. It’s not that I don’t think any tattooers out there don’t have passion, or didn’t. Everyone did. A lot of people get burnt out. I’ve worked with guys that are burnt out. It’s just a drag. Big time. They’re totally burnt out. They just don’t like people anymore.
During periods where I’m feeling a little burnt out and don’t feel like doing it anymore, where I’m just putting on the blinders, it sucks. Because you still have to put out quality work, but you know that you’re not putting out…as quality of work. It’s passable work.
But when you find the passion again and you…it’s hard to describe. When you find the passion again and you’re really into it, the work just comes so much easier. And at the end of the day, you’re pretty stoked on it.
Right now, I only do between one and three tattoos a day. Usually, they’re all big stuff. I really enjoy finishing one. A big one. That’s the whole payoff. You just have to realize that it is on a living person. And it’s expensive. It’s a long time. Because sometimes that payoff for all the work is a year or more down the road.
I just finished this girl’s sleeve after two years. It would have been quicker but she got pregnant (Laughs). Not a good idea to tattoo pregnant women.
Definitely having a passion for this is an absolute. There’s a lot of extra work that goes into this. Like I have a wall of work that I need to do. I’ll be scribbling papers that’s all essentially, homework. And if you don’t have a desire to sit and draw all the time, you’ll never be able to pull this off. You just can’t.
But I do love the fact that I can just draw for a living. When people ask what I do for a living, I always say I’m a tattoo artist. But sometimes I’ve answered that I’m an artist. And they’re like, ‘Really? What kind of art do you do?’ I go, ‘I do tattoos.’ They go, ‘Oh.’ Like it’s different.
Noah: Why might it be the exact opposite of what people say about it?
You mean when they go, ‘Oh.’
Noah: When people consider a tattoo artist an ‘artiste.’
A lower form of artist.
Noah: But maybe a higher form.
Yeah. You can buy a painting on the wall. And then you can sell it. Someone buying art from me, forever, on their body is way more of a complement than $50,000 for a black dot.
I go to tons of art galleries. I love art. I love buying art. I love supporting artists. My kids and I go to museums probably twice a month. There’s not an art gallery that I haven’t been to in LA. If I had the money, I would fill my house full of art work.
Brett: So does this interest in art go back to when you were a child?
No. Not at all. I was not exposed to any art at all as a child. None.
Brett: When did you get exposed and get that interest going?
I was actually interested in the outcast outside of society look before art. The more I got into tattooing, the more I realized that it’s art. It’s so much more involved. Then, when I really started getting involved with the Japanese style tattoos, you find out that it’s all based on old mythology and stories and everything has a meaning.
There is a system to it all. It gets more and more involved. That’s when it starts getting really cool. The more you learn about it, the more of a system of doing a traditional tattoos you get down. I think it’s great.
Check it out. He’s done.
Zach: Looks good Noah.
Jay: Looks great dude.
Brett: Did you ever envision at 22 years old that you would have this career as a tattoo artist?
Yeah. I envisioned having this job when I was a teenager. When I was 13 and handpoked the very first dot on my wrist and wiped it away, and saw there was still a dot, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
It’s all been a process of getting here. It wasn’t easy.
In the early and late eighties, there was no internet. No resources to become a tattoo artist. It was all held in secret by the older tattoo artists. Which were the old grimy, salty, mean biker dudes.
There was this tattoo shop I used to go to in San Francisco when I wasn’t even old enough to get a tattoo. I had a big Mohawk. The owner was this grouchy old dude. He actually wasn’t, he just didn’t want some drunk teenager in his shop. He’d tell me to get the fuck out. Harshly.
But I would keep going back in. I didn’t care. I just knew I wanted to do it. It was hard. I had to go through many, many steps.
Early on, a lot of this equipment that you me using now, I just get on the phone and it gets sent to me already made. Sometimes already sterilized. I don’t have to go through any of that. Before, we had to make our own needles. The needles come presterilized, preassembled. Early on, this bar was made out of a bicycle spoke. I had to pull off bicycle spokes and bend them by hand. Each needle was bought separately and soddered together and then soddered onto the bar.
There’s so many advances. When I started, the springs in the top of this machine we used to make out of feeler gauges for cars. That was the only thing we could use. The designer of the tattoo machine is still over a hundred years old. It hasn’t changed, really.
All this stuff, you had to make by hand. Now you can go on eBay and be a tattooer with overnight delivery. You could literally be tattooing within twenty-four hours. It’s going to look like crap, but you can definitely do it.
When I wanted to buy equipment back then, you had to be sponsored by an existing tattoo artist. In order to get sponsored by an existing tattoo artist, who would vouch for you as a legitimate tattooer, you had to do whatever he would make you go through. Years of abuse and slavery. Essentially.
I lucked out in the sense that I had a friend who did sponsor me. I was able to buy some equipment that way. This machine showed up in a million pieces. I put it all together but I left out some parts, and I ended up electrocuting myself.
Noah: Yeah, I hate when that happens.
Brett: You mentioned earlier that when you get your hands tattooed, you join what?
The all done club.
Brett: The all done club. When did you join the club?
You know what? I got my knuckles tattooed maybe ten years ago with the words Fate and Hope. These (pointing to cherubs on the back of the hands) are about seven years old.
Zach: So you committed.
I committed already. But when you don’t have your hands or your neck tattooed, then I could put on a suit and tie and be ready to go. And there are a lot of people out there that are just, suit and tie.
Nine times out of ten I’m here in shorts and flip flops. And I’m wet.
Jay: Can I get a close up shot of your hands?
Yeah. See, I have words.
Noah: I’ve been noticing that. And every word you have is positive. I think there is an assumed negativity with tattoos. You have good luck charms on your knuckles.
That’s what it is. And a lot of Ying Yang. Fate and Hope. What you get and what you want. There’s a little devil and an angel.
Noah: But even your devil looks like a little cherub.
I have devils, but they’re not exactly scary. I have this devil girl, with her devil boobies hanging out.
Jay: Haha. Devil boobies.
Noah: Now you get to work with people and take their ideas and put it on their bodies.
That is how I prefer to do it. You can only pick someone’s brain so much. That’s why this right here…it might not make much sense. But this is the result of many discussions. The Yellow Rose of Texas Cactus, a horseshoe, and two blue bonnets.
I’m really a stickler for being on time. I don’t think I could ever hire anyone because tattooers are notorious for being late. So do you really need to come to work and then go buy a coffee? It’s eleven.
Noah: Does this win as the coolest interview yet?
Noah: I’m going to smoke a cigarette.
I used to smoke two packs a day. I stopped. This tattoo would have taken twice as long for smoke breaks, and this interview definitely would have ended, smoking.
Noah: What kind of sacrifices do you have to make to work your job?
You can only be a slave to your work so much. So that’s why I scaled down. When I was working at a different shop, I worked six days a week from eleven until two in the morning. Just, always. And we wouldn’t turn down any work. I’d work until four or five in the morning.
I’ve reached a point in my career where I have my kids half the week, 50% of the time. It’s awesome in the summer because we just surf. We’re at the beach nonstop. And I only work four days a week. I try to be eleven to seven, but I usually work until later. Like tonight, it might end up being later.
But there were some ladies who called me today who are in town, can only get tattooed tonight. Which means, I would have given the lady tonight at six an hour and half, because I’m pretty sure it’s going to be small. Those ladies would have came in at seven, and I’d be stuck here until midnight. But I told them no.
Noah: And it’s worth it, probably.
Mentally, yeah. I used to do it all the time. There’s a give and take. When I opened this little spot here, I started working less. Oh yeah, I’m making way less than I used to. But I also spent three solid days at the beach with my kids. And I’m going to do it again on Sunday.
Noah: And you can’t beat that.
No. I woke up at five and went for a long run this morning. I’m not sweating it. You have to figure out what to do.
Noah: This is going to be the nicest thing I’ve ever written about somebody who caused me an immense amount of pain.
It’s hard to describe. For a long time. It still gets frustrating. I have the opportunity to make a bunch of money. And at times, when the bills are tight, you ask yourself what you’re doing.
Noah: But you can do that. This is the type of industry that if you want to, you can schedule everyone who wants to come.
True. When I want to bust my ass, I can make phone calls. I am leaving for a little over a week this month, so obviously I need to make up for that week. So I’ve started making phone calls.
Noah: Thank you so much man. I’m so excited about this.