(Main photo: Getty)
The first time I noticed “cool people” wearing tattoos was sometime in the ’90s. I remember being surprised at the phenomenon, since — in my mind — tattoos were something only sailors and bikers wore.
I was fairly certain I would never get one myself. The idea of marking my body permanently seemed too extreme: especially given that my interests seem to be constantly changing. Yes, I’m into robotics this year; but next year it may be parasailing. Who knows? Music has been one constant, but even that seems to encompass so many styles: do I get a picture of Serge Gainsbourg? Ringo Starr? And do I really want to look at these guys every day? I mean, not really.
The idea of marking my body permanently seemed too extreme
So when my buddy Chris Lavish suggested getting a tattoo of Beauty Starr, my rescued-stray cat of 9 years, I knew I’d finally hit on an image that — even after close to a decade — I honestly never tire of seeing.
(In fact, I seem to enjoy looking at her more every day: a strange phenomenon in a world where watches, boots, even art seems to get a bit less exciting over time. Paramahansa Yogananda defined spirituality as “ever-new joy.” I think this must also apply to loved ones.)
The next step was to find the right artist. I spent my first year in NYC looking. Some were amazing, but wanted to do an “artistic interpretation” of my cat, which is a cool idea, but not what I was looking for.
I wanted photorealism: something that looked like her, that I could look at every day. (And — for better or worse — share with the world.)
I am also insanely picky: if I was going to put something on my body permanently, “good” or even “pretty good” weren’t options. It would have to be great. And I was willing to wait.
I saw a lot of talented artists, but no “wow”s.
I wanted photorealism: something that looked like her
One day, as we were walking between a photo shoot and an event, my friend showed me pictures of Keith Hernandez’s (@keithhernandez.nyc) work at Bang Bang Tattoo — which is — I learned only the day of the tattoo — a pretty famous tattoo parlor: having been covered in everything from Vogue to WWD to the New York Times, and sporting a laundry list of celebrity clients I won’t bother to name (but let’s just say it’s the proverbial “everyone”).
I instantly got goosebumps as we walked, simply because of Keith’s amazing, lifelike work, which speaks for itself. I literally grabbed my friend by the shoulder and said: “This is the guy! This is the guy!”
So it was, less than two weeks later, I somehow found myself sitting at Bang Bang in Soho, and learning apparently I was lucky to have snagged an appointment so quickly. (My goal was to get it before leaving to Paris Fashion Week.)
Bang Bang didn’t look like the cramped, dimly-lit, “hip” parlors I’d been visiting in the Village. Inside, the Grand Street location looks more like a Zen Buddhist temple mixed with an Apple store. So it was a great location for my first tattoo.
I was so pleased with the result, I had to take the opportunity to get to know Keith and learn a bit about him, and his artistic journey.
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(Photos: Ismael Ramirez @i_hussle23)
Q: So I spent about a year looking for the “right” tattoo artist, and I was completely blown away by your work. First of all, tell me about your background, apart from art. Where did you grow up, what kind of family do you come from, and what were your goals as a young person?
Lol, okay for starters I would like to say thank you; I definitely appreciate the love and support I’m getting from all you guys, it means a lot to me.
I was born and raised in the Bronx; my parents both came from Puerto Rico at a young age. Growing up without much, it wasn’t easy for them, so they taught me to appreciate everything, work hard for what you want, and be kind and help others.
my parents taught me to appreciate everything
As a kid, I was always drawing and doing creative things, not knowing it was a gift/talent; I just did it for fun. I really just wanted to be a Major League Baseball player like the person I was named after, but as I got older I didn’t have time to play as much ‘cuz I was too busy with school and work, so that didn’t work out: but it’s cool ‘cuz it led me to get back to basics.
As a kid, I didn’t know it was a gift/talent
Q: You must have been involved in art before you began tattooing? Tell me about any artistic background, or how you got started drawing or sketching?
I was always drawing on anything and everything!
My mom told me I’ve been drawing since the age of 3, so I’m guessing it just came naturally to me.
My mom told me I’ve been drawing since the age of 3
I was even drawing on the hallway walls of my home, which — come to think about it — idk how my parents didn’t kill me, lol. But I guess they just always appreciated the gift I had. But, back to the question: yeah, I didn’t have any artistic background or training. I guess you can say I was self taught, lol.
Q: Why did you decide to become a tattoo artist? How did you start in the business?
Well, first I was a barber, cutting and designing heads.
first I was a barber, cutting and designing heads
After that I wanted to try something a little different, that fell more into the art of drawing.
I got myself a tattoo starting kit, but I was afraid of using it until a friend of mine begged me nonstop until I gave in. The tattoo wasn’t the best, but it wasn’t too bad, so I figured I could get used to this.
From there, I just tattooed the neighbor with no experience.
I definitely don’t suggest anyone doing it like that! Please start off as an apprentice.
I definitely recommend starting off as an apprentice.
Q: How has your style evolved since you began?
In the beginning I tried it all: lettering, black and grey, even color.
But as I continued, I fell in love with with black and grey, and in the style in which I was doing it.
I fell in love with with black and grey
So I slowly started stepping away from every other style, and focusing more and more on my style of black and grey: I just loved the dark black contrast with all the open skin-tone space, which is the style I’m still doing today.
Q: What tattoo artists inspire you?
I still consider myself a student of the game, so I still try to pick up a lil’ something from every artist I meet.
Q: What is your artistic process when creating a tattoo?
I really don’t have a process, I kinda just let it come to me, but THC is definitely the first step into letting my mind get pretty creative, lol.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your life today. What kind of goals do you have for the future, or are you happy where you are?
As of today I’m engaged and a father of two young beautiful boys, and considered to be one of the top 25 tattoo artists in NYC by Inked Magazine, and working out of the world-famous Bang Bang tattoo shop, aka tattoo heaven, lol.
I’m engaged and a father of two young beautiful boys
As of right now my plan is to work on a few fashion collaborations with brands like Kith, Pair of Thieves, and Converse, but that’s just some ideas in my head for the near future.
I’m hoping I can talk it into existence.