Discovering His Passion for Tattooing in Prison Turned Tino’s Life Around

Growing up in Pasadena, Tino had always been an artistic kid; he loved drawing, especially letters. He was 13 when he joined a graffiti crew, 16 when it became a gang. He moved out from home, started selling drugs. His uncle was his idol — a tattooed gangster driving low riders surrounded by lots of women.

Caught up in the street life, him and his homeboy tried several drugs, sold and blew them, and started robbing people. One of the robbery victims identified only Tino’s homeboy and linked him to robberies that would have him locked up for a several decades. Obeying the code of the streets, Tino did not let his friend down: Even though no one was able to associate Tino with the crimes, he helped his homeboy by accepting a deal with the courts sentencing him to eight years, and his homeboy to fifteen.

In prison, Tino quickly realized that focusing on the date when he would be free again, would help him through the years. But then, something else happened that let time pass by more quickly.

Within his first year, Tino came across a friend of his uncle, who saw his intricate writing on letters to his girlfriend, and asked him to tattoo him with a prison-made tattoo gun. To build it, the friend took a Walkman motor, a pen cut into a porter piece, a bended pencil clip, a heated, stretched, and sand paper sharpened lighter spring as the needle (that was when inmates where still allowed to smoke), a pencil eraser, sock string, window screen tube, tape, and hooked it to a battery pack from a radio or adapters. The needles were sterilized with Barbicide liquid and/or burned. For the ink, any type of plastic was burned inside of a paper bag, which the inmates stole from the kitchen, and mixed with water, shampoo, or baby oil. If mixed incorrectly, this mass will fall out of the skin after days or weeks, or cause infections.

Tino’s first tattoo on his friend wouldn’t be his last, because he kept practicing on his friend and himself. Word got around, and soon, Tino had built himself a reputation as a prison tattoo artist and tattooed in exchange for food or other favors.

When he got out, Tino eliminated partying, drugs, and bad friends from his life, and focused on tattooing. He had lots of practice with prison-made tattoo guns, built his own gun, and kept practicing on his brothers. However, Tino knew that if he wanted to make his newly found passion his profession, he would have to transition to certified, high quality machines, and so he taught himself how handle certified equipment. The owner of a tattoo shop recognized Tino’s skills and potential and helped to improve Tino’s shading skills, and soon, employed Tino in his shop.

Today, Tino “lives, breathes, feels tattooing;” it’s his passion rather than his job. His clients fly him around the country and he wins prices at conventions. “Tattooing saved me,” he says. “I don’t know where I’d be without it.” Tino doesn’t even regret prison because without it, he wouldn’t have found his love for tattooing. “Anything is possible” if you surround yourself with positive people, he says. Within the next three years, he wants to own his own shop with a team of artists.

To prevent his kids (7 and 9 years) from going down the same path as he did, Tino does his best to provide them with what he never had and moved to an area with less gang activity. He states that once they’re old enough to grasp that their father looks “different” with his many tattoos than other dads, he will tell them his story, and explain why they shouldn’t follow his every footsteps.


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