Avalon II - Terry Ribera

Published: 24 August, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 183, March, 2010

Born to an Italian photographer and Tahitian dancer, Terry Ribera was arguably always going to be destined for a creative career. Having grown up in the Bay Area of California, Terry began his tattooing journey in San Diego at the studio ‘Master Tattoo’. Nine years on, he still resides on the West Coast in his native San Diego, working at Avalon II, and travels regularly to the East Coast to work at Dare Devil in New York.

There’s no question that Terry Ribera has a passionate love affair with colour. His large-scale tattoos boast dynamic depth and flawless transitions between shades, and in my opinion, really are incredible pieces of work. Heavily inspired by Art Nouveau and Baroque imagery, Terry brings the archaic into the 21st century whilst putting his distinctive Ribera stamp on every piece.  With an expanding client waiting list on two sides of the USA, it’s really not hard to understand why.

Terry, let’s start with some history. What are your earliest memories of tattoos? Was there any one thing that inspired you to set foot on the tattooing path?

My uncle had one. I remember asking him what it was and after he explained to me that it was a tattoo I asked him why it didn’t look like the midget from Fantasy Island. Being an artist got me interested in tattooing. It wasn’t something that I wanted to do for the sake of tattooing. I just knew that I wanted to be an artist and that it was the something I thought maybe I could do. Originally I thought I was going to go to school to be an illustrator. I looked for an apprenticeship with that in mind. That it was a stepping-stone to other kinds of art - little did I know how much of my life it would absorb and how much it would be part of my life. Looking back now it’s really pretty funny, because I was so clueless in the beginning. Denny Besnard a French Tattoo artist living in San Diego apprenticed me. I was let into the shop by Gil Taimana, he talked it over with his brothers in law that owned the place and the rest is history. Denny was working there at the time and more or less took over the teaching aspect. We were both really interested in art; maybe Denny saw something in me. It was kind of an old-timer shop, lots of military flash. Denny focused on large Japanese imagery and he kind of helped me push my art in way that would be more appropriate for tattooing. But he never really tried to direct me in the same style as himself; he encouraged me to find my own path. I worked there for three years and oddly enough I’ve worked at three different shops with Denny, more or less by chance. We’ve worked together since the beginning of my career that is getting close to nine years now.

Where do you think your interest in tattoos and tattooing comes from? Was it from your art background?

Just being a painter and loving to draw really. Like I said originally I had no intentions of tattooing. To me when I started it was a way to do art, I never really thought of how it would affect me. It was a big wake up call once I really started doing it. It really took over my life, and still does. My interest grew as I was becoming more involved, my idea of art really changed and my view of tattooing is really something different than I how I regard other kinds of art. Tattooing to me is really a whole different thing than painting. It’s a lot harder, there’s a lot more preparation, there’s a lot more on the line and dealing with clients changes the whole dynamic of creating something for yourself. There’s a lot more pressure involved. It’s not a fun and free kind of art, it is really technical at times and can be a lot of work. Unlike painting which is more just an intellectual thing. Tattooing is the most fun and most terrible thing I’ve ever done, but all at the same time if that makes any sense. It’s definitely something I have a lot of passion for.

At what age did you get your first tattoo and by whom?

Twenty-three after I had been apprenticing for six months. I received my tattoo from Hiro of Cotton Pickin’ Tattoo in Japan. I met him at a San Diego convention; I really like his work. It looked like tattooing, like tattoo art. Very different from where I came from as an artist. I liked that a lot about his work. I wanted it, so I could feel like I was more part of this community that I was learning so much about. I felt like a big fake until after I got that first one.

Did tattooing come easily to you from the off during your apprenticeship?

Yes and no, the shading and the colouring didn’t seem so hard. It felt similar to me as how I would paint or draw in a way. It was harder to get things to heal solid and to be dark enough at first, but it didn’t take that long. I really watched a lot tattooing, stood over a lot of shoulders and paid a lot of attention. The outlining however was a whole different story, and I am sure most tattooists would agree. Learning about needle types, machines, the speed you move, how you stretch the skin. It really took a while for that to sink in.  

Did you ever consider being self-taught over getting an apprenticeship?

I never thought to try it at home. That just didn’t seem like a good idea to me. I figured if I couldn’t get an apprenticeship then it probably meant that I wasn’t good enough for this industry. I still think that is usually the case for most people trying to get in. It’s not for everybody.

From your experience and what you learnt, do you think an apprenticeship is the best way to learn the business?

I think it’s the only way. There are far too many technical aspects that you would never figure out on your own. It would be like trying to be a surgeon on your own. You’d probably kill a lot of people by accident.  Luckily with tattoos it’s only an ugly scar with some colour, but none-the-less it’s a pretty terrible and irresponsible thing to do without any guidance.

What’s the atmosphere and ambience like in the studio?

At Avalon II in San Diego it’s like a family environment. Fip Buchanan the owner is a very laid back, he really allows us to focus on our clients. To do what’s best for tattooing, he’s not a money driven man. But he understands business when he needs to and he works just as hard if not harder than all of us. First time I’ve ever worked anywhere where I could say that. It’s pretty amazing. I am also working at Dare Devil in NY, I’ll be travelling there every month for around 2 weeks or more.

Part of the time to tattoo; the other part of the time to focus on painting. Michelle Myles and I have just arranged everything. Dare Devil her first shop is where I’ll be when in NY. The shop’s atmosphere is really lower east side, it feels like NY to me. It’s has a lot of character to it, I like that. She’s really friendly and easy to talk with, and also pretty laid back. I’ve only just met the crew, but they all were very friendly. I feel like things are really going to work out great for me there.

Other than the NYC convention you mentioned coming up, have you worked at many conventions?

Not hardly enough. It’s been hard with my schedule; I have around a five to six month waiting list in San Diego. There are times when I feel like I can hardly fit in another project, but I am changing that. Going to NY is going to give me that time. Me and my fiancée Jen have set up an apartment there, she’s taken on a Job with Disney’s publishing division. We are planning a lot of trips and conventions. This will be a nice change of pace for me. To get out of the shop and not just be tattooing so heavily.

I’m really looking forward to being able to actually enjoy tattooing beyond just physically doing them.

How did people at the conventions perceive your work?

Not really sure, usually I’ve lined up my own clients. So I am not too interested in what goes on at conventions exactly. I feel like I have a good clientele, so for me it’s not really about trying to tattoo people that happen by me. I am just there to meet friends, get exposure and to attract serious clients and hook up with people that will eventually book for later dates. Tattooing people that happen to cross my path by accident isn’t really enjoyable to me. I’d rather somebody actually want to be tattooed by me, not just pick me because they liked my work that day. It gives me more time to really focus and take time with a project.

Did you pick up any additional tips and tricks from the artists working at the conventions?

I really just go for the fun of being there. I have had the opportunity to work with so many great tattooists there’s always an opportunity to learn. I really just like to go to conventions to see the art, meet friends and see people’s portfolios. I feel like you get a lot more out of somebody once you get to know each other and really work together. I think guest spotting is more productive for learning new things. But certainly a convention can offer that too.

You travel across America a great deal it sounds, but have you worked overseas at all? Do you find that certain styles are prevalent depending on whereabouts you are?

No, but I would like to. My friend Chrystian Nguyen owns Inkvaders in Switzerland. I would really like to work with him there; he comes to the US a couple times a year. He’s a really great guy, him and his work partner Greg. I really would like to plan a trip. Last time I was in Europe I did go to the London convention on the Tobacco Dock. It was amazing, by far the best convention I’ve been too.  

During your trips abroad, have you noticed any particular areas that aremore welcoming to tattoos and tattooists than others?

Same as any place to me, in the city you get less looks. But I’ve only travelled to London and Paris, so my view is very limited. I am sure I would have a better understanding of that if I travelled more. In Europe it’s easy to hop countries, in the US it’s just more US. Pretty boring. NY and San Diego, San Francisco, these are the places I’ve spent the most time. Nobody really cares if you’re tattooed, other than other tattooed people sometimes.

Have you had any kind of formal art training since you trained to be an illustrator?

I wish I had more. I have done some Jr. College; I’ve also studied at Jeff Watt’s Atelier and the San Diego Art Department. But no I don’t have a degree I’m mostly self-taught.

Do you think that formal art training is beneficial to a tattooist?

Without a doubt. Anything that improves your art improves your tattooing. Anybody who doesn’t think so, is really missing out.

Who are your main influences, including both tattooists and the more traditional artists?

I really enjoy Filip Lue, Shige, Lars Uwe, Rob Koss, and Aaron Cain.  These are probably my favourite tattooists. As far as traditional art mediums Alphonse Mucha is the most influential to me.

Do you have a favourite style of tattooing? Can you describe your own style?

I guess you can say I like Art Nouveau, Biomechanical, and Baroque period sculpture. I really love figure studies, timeless stuff. A lot of people would call the stuff I do as New School, but I don’t thing that it is. I actually really don’t like that term at all. I feel like my interest in art is really influenced by a lot more timeless imagery, I really old churches, oil painters, like William Bouguereau, and of coarse Alphonse Mucha. I just try to pull inspiration from that kind of imagery. I really like Iconic imagery, Greek and Roman architecture, and filigree, anything organic. I just adapt those ideas to tattooing, limiting my colours and increasing the contrast. Making it into a more graphic image, because with tattooing that works best, to be simple. I really like larger compositions. Pieces that really move well with the body.   

What is it about your chosen area of expertise that you enjoy so much?

Trying to come up with compositions that work well on the body. Tattooing to me is like sculpting in a way. You have a predetermined shape and you have to make the best use of that space, and to move with the shape that you are given. Painting on a canvas doesn’t really have that.

How do you go about designing a tattoo? What processes do you go through to get from the initial idea to the finalised design?  

I usually do some research; learn about whatever it is that I am drawing. I try to find good photo reference usually rather than art. I feel like you can really make a better abstraction of something if you reference real things as opposed to other people’s art. It helps me to get my own style in there, rather than having too much of somebody else’s. There are days when I look at other people’s work, to get a feel for something. Ultimately I want it to look like my own.

Do your clients tend to have set ideas of how the tattoo should look, or do they give you a concept to work from and let you control the outcome?

Most of the time I get a lot of freedom. My biggest issue is too many ideas from clients. A large space doesn’t mean more ideas. The best looking tattoos usually don’t have a lot of things going on. They look better from a distance if they are simpler compositions, but that doesn’t mean the tattoo has to lack detail.  It’s always a lot better to keep the space open with less clutter, it gives you more room for shading, colour and ultimately will it not only look better, but it will last longer as it ages. The clients that understand that are my favourites. I really like a client that knows what they want, but are open to me interpreting it with as much freedom as possible. Those are always my best tattoos. The more somebody gets tattooed, the more they listen they eventually start to realize the artist is really trying to do the best tattoo they can. We aren’t trying to stop them from having the tattoo they want. I don’t really take on projects that are too controlled by the client. To me, it’s basically a waste, they are going to get less of what they can out of me. 

What would be the ultimate tattoo for you to create? What subject matter/placement/techniques would you use?

It’s more about the imagery, Simple large proportions. Not a cluster of a bazillion ideas. To me a simple figure with some flowers is all that’s required, a good subject, like a bird, or a woman and some flowers, maybe some water. That’s it, nothing else, and not every inch of the figure I like to make use of the background to have it flow over the subject, so there’s more of a relationship with how the design affects the body of the wearer.

Where do you draw the line on what you will and won’t tattoo?

No faces, hands, no necks. I don’t want to tattoo people that aren’t prepared for those things. So hands and necks are reserved for those that a lot of visible tattooing already. Faces, I won’t even do. I don’t want to tattoo something I wouldn’t wear myself. I don’t tattoo curse words, pornography, nudity is one thing, and people fornicating is something else.

Do you work in any other mediums, e.g. sculpture, painting? Do these pursuits influence your tattooing work at all?

Painting, I like acrylic, oil, watercolour and I do digital painting as well. They definitely influence my tattooing.

Do you have any ambitions in either the tattooing industry or otherwise?

I am currently working on illustration. I am hoping to divide my time in half between tattooing and illustration.

Have you seen any changes in the tattoo industry that worry or concern you?

Too much TV.  I’d be fine with it if it actually taught people about art, instead it promotes drama and stupidity.

Is there anybody you would like to thank for helping you over the years?

Denny Besnard and Jen.

Finally Terry, is there any other information that you would like to add?

I’ll be working at Avalon II in San Diego and Dare Devil in NY for the next couple years.

Go to my website and check me out! Thanks!


Interview: Neil & Faye Parsons Photos: Terry


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