Abstractions in Alphabet City

A text message past midnight from an unknown number usually means only one thing: a request for an interview from a tattoo artist! If this project interests you, please go to the Metal Ink website at metalinkshop.com and post your shop’s name and contact info in the forum.

Abstract Black Tattoo
621 E. 11th Street
New York, NY 10009
(347) 351-5223

Byron at Abstract Black
Byron at Abstract Black

Byron Velasquez
Tattoo Artist/Owner of Abstract Black
Byron’s tattoos

MI:  I love your work, it’s so different, so unique from anything else I’ve been seeing. How did you develop your style?

Byron:  I used to work in the Caribbean. I was working out in Puerto Rico for 8 years as my base. I traveled to St. Thomas, St. Martin, St. John, Aruba, Bermuda, all the Virgin Islands. You know people out there have a lot of dark skin so I started doing a lot of darker, black work.

MI:  Looks better on darker skin.

Byron:  Right, then I got a gig with Leo Zulueta. He’s on La Brea, in Los Angeles. After 8 years of being in Puerto Rico, I took one year off and worked in LA. I also worked with Ron Zulu.

MI:  Metal Ink is based in LA! We’re going to do interviews there next month. Tell me more about your time in LA.

Byron:  My year in LA was great. I have family out there, and that led me to LA. I was there with my portfolio looking for a gig. I was looking for an escape from Puerto Rico. I had my shop running by itself so I didn’t really need to be there.

MI:  How did you meet Leo Zulueta?

Byron:  My mentor was shopping the floor of his own shop, and he was about to close the shop but he looked at my stuff. He got me a room on La Brea and Sunset, a total hooker hotel and shit, it was crazy there. But I got the gig and I used to take the bus to the shop at first. Then Draco Rosa got me a car for a tattoo.

MI:  He got you a car in exchange for a tattoo?

Byron:  76 Buick! I had a ton of friends, people who used to get work done by me. It was the whole rock and roll lifestyle. It was a fast and fun lifestyle but it was only for that time. It couldn’t last. I had to go back but I realized I didn’t want to live in Puerto Rico. I realized I needed more. It’s cool but it’s not enough, not fast enough.

MI:  So where do you go next?

Byron:  So I got a gig in New York at Rising Dragon that was in Chelsea Hotel, worked with some really good artists. Moved back to New York, you know.

MI:  You’re from here originally?

Byron:  Born and raised. I was 18 years old when I went to Puerto Rico. I went back to New York in my early 20s. Got the gig at Rising Dragon, amazing adventure, great learning point in my career—spent 9 years there.

MI:  And now you’re doing your own thing.

Byron:  Now I’ve got my own shop and I’m planning on doing custom black work. Everything is going to be creative and custom. Sticking to the culture as well but expanding on it, just breaking it. All original. There’s a lot of followers out there. I want leaders. Eventually I’m going to keep the small shop and expand to the Avenues. But keep the theme black. Everything black. I think Black Wave was one of my inspirations.

MI:  What is Black Wave?

Byron:  Black Wave is Leo Zulueta’s shop or it used to be. Now he tattoos in New Zealand or Hawaii.

Amor Design at Abstract Black
Amor Design at Abstract Black

MI:  You said earlier that you want leaders not followers. Who have you brought on board?

Byron:  I have a tattoo artist named Azi, he’s a Puerto Rican tattoo artist who lived in New Zealand for two years and he came back with the culture of being Puerto Rican, Taino, fusing it with New Zealand, Maori, Polynesian.

MI:  Is that would you would call tribal?

Byron:  Tribal is what you see on The Rock.

MI:  Oh right, he’s part Polynesian. And he’s the one who really shined the spotlight on tribal.

Byron:  Yeah, but way before The Rock came along, people who have a love for tribal tattooing have been using it to adorn the body, taking from the culture, but you know, modifying it into something else.

MI:  Did something get lost in the translation with that adoption?

Byron:  Each line and detail on those Polynesian designs has a meaning, to the family, to Mother Earth, you know, they all have specific meanings. It’s a culture that’s respected, but now it’s been so redesigned that it’s become a tool in designing tattoos.

MI:  Like it’s just a theme.

Byron:  Yeah, it’s like Japanese tattooing. There are so many Americans, Brazilians, all these people who aren’t Japanese, but they use the art. They don’t even know what it means, but they use it, they break the rules.

MI:  Some people would say that Chinese ideographs, kanji, and even tribal, are all fads that came and went, had their heyday.

Byron:  I see each artist who really is a tattoo artist, not someone who does Flash, someone who does custom work—that artist will respect their art and master it. I say that because some people say that tribal has passed but it’s a culture that has existed for many centuries and will continue regardless of tattooing. When you love something, when you love drawing, art, it lives all the way to the end. It’s just your love for it that drives you to master it. Some people specialize and some people just follow lines and color in. They’re like, “Okay there’s your tattoo” and take your money. There are differences in tattoo artists.

MI:  They’re the artists who paint by numbers. By the way, you know I was just playing devil’s advocate about tribal being a fad.

Byron:  Yeah, but I think Chinese characters did have their heyday. The way I see it, if you’re tattoo artist, you’ll die a tattoo artist.

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