Fit For the Big Screen - Mario Desa

Published: 22 August, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 202, August, 2011

Picture this: the month was July, the year was 1997 and the tattoo kit was one of the best on the market, courtesy of Spaulding & Rogers. A talented artist tore through the book inside in a flash, absorbing every last detail he could from cover to cover and launched himself a career right there on the spot.

This may very well read like a screenplay for the perfect fictional tattoo film, but for Chicago-based artist Mario Desa, it is the exact story of how he got into the industry. 

“I've always been a visual person and I've always been drawn to logos, icons and symbols, even as a child, and once I saw tattoos, I wanted to be covered in them,” says Desa, slowly starting on the road to convincing yours truly that the behavior described above was quite logical and not all that erratic. “And once I stepped into a tattoo shop, it seemed like a sacred space, covered floor-to-ceiling in cryptic symbols,” he continues. “It felt kind of dangerous too, like I maybe shouldn't be in there. I wanted to learn the visual language of it, and also wear it and put it on other people.”

Born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Desa’s first experience with getting tattooed is reflective of the scene he was involved with at the time, and also helps the previously described apartment scenario become all the more reasonable.

The year was 1995, the artist was Desa’s friend’s brother – okay, okay, I won’t go through with this type of storytelling again. Suffice it to say, Desa was 20 years old and got tattooed at his friend’s house, “which was a skinhead hangout. It was a band around my arm of the letter ‘X’. I was into the straightedge scene in the ’90s. I still have the tattoo and still don't drink or anything, but I don't consider myself part of that scene.”

With his overpowering pull towards tattoo culture discovered, Desa chose to veer away from the conventional apprenticeship method, partly by choice and partly because of the law. “I didn't have a real apprenticeship, but I had guidance from a couple of friends who tattooed in a shop. I worked out of my apartment and a private studio the first year I tattooed, [which] was more out of necessity since tattooing was outlawed in Milwaukee from the ’60s until 1998, which is when I got a job in a shop.”

Jumping at the opportunity to turn tattooing into a full-time career, Desa chose to do what many often can’t bring themselves to – he pursued his passion. No excuses. Even when gaining support and understanding from family members was something that took time. As some of those closest to him came to learn about the positive aspects of tattooing and took the time to understand his choice, others continue to meet Desa with the proverbial raised eyebrow. 

“My mom was always supportive of things I got into and she was glad I had set a course for a profession, but she wasn't happy at all about all the tattoos I was getting,” says Desa. “She was born and raised in Mexico in the ’50s and ’60s, so the whole tattoo thing was very foreign to her. In her experience, only criminals and whores got tattooed. She's very proud of me now though! My extended family was used to me kind of doing odd things anyway, but they didn't – and still don't – believe I could actually earn a living tattooing. I have an uncle who still asks me what I'm going to do when the tattoo trend fades away,” laughs Desa.

Now, if this were in fact the perfect fictional tattoo film, this would surely be the time to introduce a life-changing, career-altering moment. Luckily, Desa’s story continues to unfold like the greatest of plots. 

Just as the talented artist fell in love with tattooing at a young age, he also became enamored with the city he now calls home when he was just a kid. 

“I love this city, and it's been good to me,” says Desa when asked about his current home of Chicago, Illinois. Working as one of seven artists at Illinois’ oldest tattoo studio, The Chicago Tattooing and Piercing Co., Desa admits the decision to move one state south wasn’t all that difficult: “I knew if I wanted to become a world-class tattooer, I'd need to be in a world-class city and the Chicago Tattoo Co. is where Chicago's tattoo history is centred, so I always wanted to work here.”  

World-class indeed. The shop has been around and going strong since the late ’60s when it first opened as Cliff Raven Studios just one block east of its current location. In 1973 it incorporated as the Chicago Tattooing and Piercing Co. and Desa says the shop’s rich heritage plays a big role in the undeniably great work that leaves through its doors. “We are definitely influenced by our history every day in our approach to every tattoo, the way the shop is run and the look and feel of the shop,” explains Desa. “It's humbling when people come in who were tattooed at the shop 30 years ago and now their kids are getting tattooed there. Working at a shop like that helps you keep your perspective on tattooing.”  A real street shop by every definition of the term, the artists working at Chicago’s oldest tattoo institution are always ready to satisfy walk-ins. Although the concept may seem a bit off in a world where a mentality focused on exclusivity and appointment-only tattooing seems increasingly rampant, Desa is quick to point out there is no environment he would rather work in than a shop that’s always welcoming to clients, new and old. 

“I love street shops, I can't resist going in them, and could care less about some private, custom art gallery/tattoo studio. That's pretentious and boring,” says Desa openly. “To me, it’s how tattoo shops should be. Tattoos should be accessible, it shouldn't be difficult to get a tattoo, so I always have time open and even do a lot of my custom stuff as walk-ins. I couldn't do the custom, appointment-only routine. Obviously, in a lot of cases an appointment is necessary or just works better for me and/or the customer, so I do like a mix of appointments and walk-ins, but I even schedule my appointments throughout the week to allow time for walk-ins in between. Not just because I want to do them, but to support my co-workers when it gets hectic.”

Delivering a style that I can only describe as being simultaneously old school and very modern, and very Mario Desa, the man himself opts to put things into a less restricting perspective, staying away from the task of pinpointing a single style or signature trait. “I just do things the way I see them in my mind and the way they look right to me, and I hope other people like them too,” he says. “I try to make images that look cool and will maybe stand out against all the other stuff on Facebook!”

With his portfolio bursting at the seems with colorful, attention-grabbing pieces and the years since that very first apartment tattoo flying by, it’s not unreasonable to assume that Desa has picked up his fair share of knowledge throughout his career to date, so what’s the one thing he would most recommend? “It took me a long time to learn this myself, but start a retirement and savings account. And please, please, stop tattooing your faces!”

Desa’s passion and respect for the craft is not only evident in his journey to becoming an artist, but also in everything he does. It’s no surprise then that the social media lover has recently been taking to Twitter to voice his views about TLC’s new (questionable) show, Tattoo School, asking fellow tattoo enthusiast to band together in an effort to stop a show in which competing individuals strive to learn how to tattoo in just two weeks. 

Looking at the tattoos on TV craze as a whole, Desa says, “well, it's a double-edged sword, isn't it? Over the last few years the shows have opened up many people's eyes to what's possible in a tattoo, and that tattooed people are approachable, professional people. It's brought us a lot of business. But, it's also created a lot of wannabe tattooers and way too many crappy tattoo shops.”

So how much is too much, and where does one draw the line? “This new Tattoo School show will make it even worse,” notes Desa. “I think it's gone too far – well, it went too far a few seasons back – and is just completely degrading and irresponsible. But maybe it just needs to get worse before it gets better?”

When away from the shop, Desa keeps his art going through painting, but he also knows how to take a break from his work, devoting time to his family and enjoying some of the simpler things in life like “eating at restaurants and roaming the city”. And although having a tattoo artist for a father may sound like a sweet deal that comes with free tattoos for life, Desa laughs when asked if his 12-year-old son shares in that thought. “I think he takes it for granted a little bit. He's used to it, you know? He does say he wants tattoos, but hasn't said he'd like to make them.”  

Currently working at the Chicago Tattooing and Piercing Co. five days a week, that’s the surefire destination to head to in order to track down Mister Desa himself, although he can also be found taking part in various conventions and his next confirmed stop outside the shop is San Francisco in October for the State of Grace convention. 

And as no good interview would be complete without a stellar, even if slightly unrelated, personal question, and no good film would be complete without a light moment at the end, I had to ask: What’s the most surprising thing you can reveal about yourself right now? 

“I sometimes change my shoes three or four times before I leave the house. If you don't feel good about how you look, your whole day is off, right?” 

After all, what’s a great movie without great shoes?

Mario Desa on...inspiring artists and true friends

“As cheesy as it sounds, the guys I work with, or else I wouldn't work with them! Nick Colella, Josh Howard, Matt Ziolko, Mike Dalton, Dave Mcnair and Erik Gillespie. Also, Steve Byrne, Chad Koeplinger, Dan Smith, Jeff Zuck, and all the Good Gents.”

A bit of history... 

The Chicago Tattooing and Piercing Co. opened its doors in the mid ‘60s as Cliff Raven Tattooing. Following an outbreak of hepatitis in New York City in the late ‘60s, which caused the legal age for getting tattooed to jump from 18 to 21 in most states, Cliff Raven Tattooing was the only shop that stayed open in Chicago. In the early 1970s, tattoo-lover Dale Grande walked into the shop and, enamored with the artists and the studio, decided to put in the time and effort, hanging out at the shop as much as he could and offering to do gopher work, until he was officially recognized as part of the team.

With Cliff moving to Hollywood and his business partner Mac retiring, Grande became the sole owner in 1977. Over the years, he has recruited some of the most talented artists in the industry and, after a couple of moves, the shop found its current home at 1017 W. Belmont Avenue in 2005.

Chicago Tattooing and Piercing Co. 

West Belmont Avenue
IL 60657
+01773 528 6969


Text: Barbara Pavone; Photography: Mario Desa