Jose Lopez - The King of Black & Grey

Published: 21 March, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 193, December, 2010

The American/Mexican tattoo artist José Lopez developed his black & grey style from tattoos made in the prisons of California and amongst gang members in the streets of the big cities in the ‘sunny state’. Fine lines, soft shadows, realism with a magical Mexican touch! During the Dutch conventions of Breda and Amsterdam, Jose Lopez’ crew were a living billboard for the tattoos of the artist behind Lowrider Tattoo, located in Fountain Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles.

"When I started tattooing, I did colour at first,” Lopez tells me during the Amsterdam Convention while sitting in his wheelchair. “On paintings I use colours but on tattoos I prefer now the really soft grey tones. The demand for black and grey is so big, I have a lot of friends who are better than me at colour tattoos so I leave it to them.”

Lopez has lived in Los Angeles since he was 12 years old. “I am from Michoacán, a state in the middle of Mexico on the Pacific, not far from Acapulco. From there I moved with my family to Los Angeles. When I was 15 years old I got an accident and wound up in a wheelchair. That’s what got me in tattooing in the first place. When I got in the chair I was very depressed, I was sitting in my room - my friends gave me some magazines and I started to draw.  I used to look at books, I used to copy, try to make the drawings as realistic as possible. That’s how I learn to draw, so I use a lot of references in my designs - Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, many religious images, it’s already been drawn.”

Dia de los Muertos

When Lopez started to tattoo 17 years ago, he gave his own twist to these images. “In my hands it tends to be something else. So even though it’s something that’s already there, while drawing and tattooing it becomes one of my drawings. That’s something I learnt to develop over the past 17 years. I do freehand work as well but over the years you get so many ideas but you can’t just draw stuff out of your imagination. So a lot of what I do is referencing.”

Ten years ago Lopez started Lowrider Tattoo that also has locations in Orange and Costa Mesa, both in California. Before he tattooed at home. His black and grey style is not only popular in the USA but also in Europe. “I have been to Europe before,” he says. “A popular image is El Dia de Muertos. There is also a big demand for designs like the Virgin Mary, the Madonna and images from sculptures of Michelangelo. Anything that has nice variations of grace, that’s what I like. I mean it could be an evil skull piece or a very soft religious piece - or a nice girl, a portrait of somebody’s daughter or son. I mean as long as it’s black and grey I love to do it.”  

Tattoo Icon

While I am talking with Lopez, I see in the busy booth of Lowrider Tattoo Manny Navarete, one of the oldest crew members. The crew helps him with the selling of t-shirts and boards with Lopez’ drawings on. On Manny’s skin I see different images that have a special Mexican connotation. “Manny is a tattoo icon,” Lopez says. “He’s one of the first guys that let me work on him and do a free piece. Even though it’s pretty old, it’s still one of my favourites. He is known for his tattoos. It’s a whole front: Maria, she supposes to be like Mother Earth. It’s hold is in Spanish and indigenous style. Mexico is in the background. The Spanish-Mexican side comes in and then the revolution comes in.”

Soft Shadows

 Lopez explains that his style is derived from tattoos made in the prisons of California.

“There they use a single needle, so the lines are very fine but the thing they lack is the soft shading because they only use one single needle, you could see the texture, the dots because they have to fill big areas of shading in different zones. What I do, it has that same style, but it has a clean smooth shading to it. It looks very soft. I met people who never liked tattoos but when they see what we do, they say ‘wow, I never thought tattoos could be like that’. In their minds they’re thinking tattoos are dark and ugly and for people that are mean! When they see that they are so soft, their whole mind is changed and so all of a sudden they like tattoos.”

According to Lopez, the variation in light and shadow is very important with black and grey tattoos. “A lot of artists do black and grey tattoos just with simple lines and really light shading. It’s nice and soft as well but you need to have different variations to make it pop out - you gotta have backgrounds, you gotta have the really dark contrast with the superlight tones. To be able to do that, a lot of times you have to do different sessions on tattoos which is something people don’t understand. You see a big piece complete, and you think it’s done in a couple of hours, but it’s a whole process. You have to do a layer and then come back, do another one and make it come out. The more you work on it, the more realistic it gets, the more dimensions it becomes.”

And the way the artist does the shading is very important, Lopez adds: “It takes a lot of time, a lot of patience. Not only from me but also from the client. The client is taking all the pain, has to understand that he needs to sit there two more hours after he had already spent seven hours on the chair. The client has to be willing to go through more pain and sometimes pay more money because it’s very time consuming, you know.”


The gangterstyle is very popular, Lopez says. “It’s a new style - those gangster tattoos originated in the prisons, in the streets. We brought street tattooing into professional studios and present this style of tattooing, not only to gangsters but to the masses. We’re not doing like a dirty tattoo for the street. We’re doing a very professional, very smooth realistic gangstertattoo. It can be clowns or a gangster with a big moustache, the typical characteristics of an LA gangster. I do also a lot of lettering - Chicano style. If people want script, I do it. I started doing script when I started tattooing. We just know by nature, really fancy script, really cool handwriting. You know, the old English that’s really gangsterstuff, really calligraphy, black lettering, it’s something that gangsters like back home, that’s our favourite writing.”

Back in the day, gangstertattoos were very scratchy, dirty, very dark. Lopez: “The style is evolving. Now the people who are collecting the gangstertattoos are normal people like you and me. It’s like somebody getting a Japanese tattoo. They are not Japanese, it’s just a look. Anyone gets something and others say: I like that too. Just like the Ed Hardy look you see now on shirts, everyone wants that look. I think that the gangsterstyle is getting as popular as the Ed Hardy-look.”

Higher Prices, More Value

 According to Lopez customers nowadays know exactly what they want. “In the past there was not much information. Today people can learn about tattoos from magazines and the internet. I think a lot of new people are becoming more educated with tattoos. I mean thanks to the internet, across the world people are curious, they want to know who’s doing the best black and grey tattoos, who are the best artists out there, who’s popular: they do a lot of research, they contact us and that’s how we end up here.”

Now the demand is so big, Lopez has had to raise his price: “Before my prices were very low, like 6 hours tattooing for 200 dollars. Now I can work on serious collectors and get rid of a lot of people that were not serious. I get these collectors from all kind of ethnicities. Black, white, Mexican, Japanese, Australian… when the price is high, not everybody can afford it but it gives more value for the person that collects the artwork. A friend of mine - Mr. Cartoon - his prices are very high but at the same time even though people don’t like to pay the high prices, it gives the tattoo value. When somebody goes to Mr. Cartoon, it makes the customer feel good because he has a tattoo from him, not everybody has. It costs a lot of money. So it’s name branding. You don’t become like everybody else. So people who are patient and wait, that call me for months in advance, they are the happiest men on earth! ‘Yeah, I got a tattoo of José Lopez’.”

Lopez is proud of his crew who are like living billboards for his splendid tattoos - and he is proud of the artists who continue to work in the Lowrider studios while he is in Europe. Artists like Jun, Klown, Abey and others. “They are talented upcoming artists. They are like family for me, just like the crew here. They pump up the booth, you know, we like to get along with everybody, we like to have our booth very energetic, it’s part of our job. We like this environment, it makes us who we are and we like to engage with people, to talk to people, to interact - people hear about that and we thank all the people who helped us, they show us a lot of love. The organisers of the conventions, the fans. Thanks to them we can work at conventions like Breda, Amsterdam, Rome, Barcelona and London.”



For those of you who are not down with the lingo, a Lowrider is a style of car that has had its suspension modified - most likely with hydraulics - so that it rides as low as possible to the road.

The style originates from 50s classics which were originally built like this - typically, it will also have many accessories and add ons and not surprisingly, many of them are not exactly 'street-legal'.

One wonders how they would deal with the traffic humps or “sleeping policemen” that are the bane of every driver in the UK.


Fountain Valley

16014 Harbor Boulevard

Fountain Valley,

CA 92708,


Tel: (714)4189575


Text: Rik Van Boeckel; Photography: Lowrider Tattoo