Mandy Garcia - Soul Signature Tattoo

Published: 15 July, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 181, January, 2010

Mandy Garcia is a Hawaiian born and raised tattoo artist with a gorgeously striking look, with fantastic tattoo work to compliment her exotic features.

Not only a model, Garcia is also a tattoo artist working at one of the most respected shops on the island of Oahu, Soul Signature, with a solid work ethic that will no doubt see her rise up the tattoo ladder as her career progresses. 


Representative of Hawaii’s ethnic melting pot, Garcia is a mix of 14 ethnicities, and is reflective of the beauty of the islands, and the natural hospitality and friendly demeanour of the locals. We caught up with Mandy on a sojourn to this tropical Pacific paradise.


In a nutshell, what do you do?

In Hawaii you have to take what comes. It’s really hard to specialize in one certain thing. I think in Hawaii more so than anywhere else, you have to be a little more well rounded; you have to do Asian, you have to do the small things, and you have to do the kanji that comes through the door, the Polynesian, …whatever comes through. I’d definitely rather do the colour work though.


Who taught you how to tattoo?

I started off at Tattoo Krew, with a few people Ryan Lau, Bernz, Tattoo Rich, Justin, but mostly my boyfriend, his name is Lucky, he taught me a lot of what I know, and still is teaching me.


Did you do an apprenticeship?

It was a short apprenticeship until I started tattooing, but for the first two years, I would still consider it an apprenticeship. At nine months I was tattooing, but I was still the apprentice, I had all the apprentice duties. I was still being taught. Even now I would say I’m still being taught because tattooing is like a totem pole. Everyone is ahead of you, until someone is under you.


What did you do in your apprenticeship?

Well for the first year basically you are the one doing the bitch work! Cleaning the toilets, but what it comes down to is, they are testing your heart. How much you can give in order to become a tattoo artist. They just don’t want someone who doesn’t care about the shop and whatnot.


How did you find the first shop you were at?

I was referred to get tattooed there, by one of my best friends. I was on break from college and I asked them, what does it take to be a tattoo artist? What does it take to apprentice? And they said; “You want to know? You start now, go talk to those customers. Go clean the toilets,” just to kind of test you and see where you are at.


What made you want to be a tattoo artist in the first place?

Oh you know, to be honest, I think tattooing finds you; you don’t find it. I mean, I was going to school and it was during the summer break. What made me want to do it? I would honestly say tattooing saved my life. I was in a bad spot, I wasn’t happy with what I was doing. With tattooing, it felt like I belonged, it was at a place I needed to be, and from there a lot of different opportunities opened up for me.


Did you know how to draw when you started?

Yeah, I know how to draw. When I was growing up, my grandma was very into Fine Arts and ceramics and whatnot. And I kind of lost that over a few years ‘cos I was getting into school, so I lost it, but with tattooing it kind of brought it back.


And how do you improve your technique?

Usually trial and error and I think all tattoo artists grow from their experiences. Making mistakes, as horrible as that sounds, as you are leaving a permanent mark on somebody, but you are always improving with every tattoo that you do.


What kind of references do you use?

We spend so much money on books! Not only your basic references from a butterfly book, but of actual roses, and actual animals and whatnot. You are looking at so many tattoo magazines, and you are seeing so many styles of people, that are developing and you want to learn from that. You definitely set the bar of what you want to be, and those are the references you want to use, as opposed to using a shitty reference, and going, “Ok, I’ll go with that”. You want to be the best.


Who are you mentors?

I would definitely say Lucky, above all. But I really adore Adrian Lee, Matt Shamah, Orly for the Polynesian, Bong; he is one of the famous artists here. I really like Jose Lopez and Aisea, ‘cos he is kind of the Renaissance man for everybody here.


Can you tell us about Lucky?

Lucky was my first serious influence. The other guys would take me under their wing and say, “This is what you need to know”. The shop I apprenticed under is very business orientated. Lucky was like, “You need to know your art, you need to be serious about it, you need to know what you are doing’.


He taught me all the basics, and then the art of it all. And then putting the passion behind the art, and then from that point on, our relationship flourished, and until this very day, he is still teaching me. “Why are you doing this? Why do you want to do that? Look at all these other people - do you want to be like them, or do you just not want to care and just make money?”


Do you tattoo many locals or is it mostly tourists that make up your clientele?

The shop where I was working prior to Soul Signature, - it was mostly locals, but here we have more of an international clientele, maybe because of (fellow Soul Signature tattoo artist) Suluape Aisea has brought his own clientele, and when they come into Hawaii, they hear of Aisea. So they definitely seek him out, and with that comes, “Oh you should go to that shop”. There are people that are strictly coming here, just to come to the shop.


Can you explain who Aisea is?

Aisea Toetuu does traditional tapping. Kind of like the father of us all, and has revolutionized a lot of the tapping, and even machine work with Polynesian. He has definitely created a style all of his own. On top of that he can do everything else.


What is your ethnic background?

I’m 14 different things! I’m more than half Pilipino, Maori, Hawaiian, and all kinds of Caucasian ethnicities, American Indian. Hawaii is so mixed up.


Who did your first tattoo?

My first tattoo was done in a hotel room, when I was 15. One of my best friend’s boyfriends, who actually turned out to be a girl in the end! Like, this is my boyfriend Conrad, but in the end, Conrad turned out to be Ashley. I didn’t find that out ‘till four years later! It’s definitely a good conversation piece - it’s supposed to be a fairy but it looks like a gargoyle. You know when you are 15, you are like, “I’m so awesome!” It doesn’t matter.


What is the appeal of getting tattoos?

Honestly I had enjoyed different types of pain, like self-inflicted pain, I had lots of piercings before I began to get tattooed. I guess the pain factor is a coping factor; it seemed more worthwhile to actually have a souvenir of having gone through that pain. So there is definitely a pay off as opposed to going through it for nothing!


When did you start seeing quality work, and wanting to get quality tattoos?

During college, ‘cos there are a lot of people in Hawaii that just do tattoos out of their garages, instead of out of a shop where they do good tattoos. I actually got tattooed at my first shop, and they were good guys and knew what they were doing - then I started seeking good tattoos, and not going back and getting home tattoos.


Can you tell us about some of your tattoos?

The first non-home tattoos I got represented my grandmother. It is a red tiger and a red dragon on my back. When I was doing my apprenticeship it was pretty much “You are getting these tattoos, you have no choice”, and my view on that is, every artist that I learned from has their own specialty. I have Polynesian from the guys who do Polynesian. The Asian work from the guys who do Asian, the colour work from my teachers that do colour work. It is a collection from the people that I learnt from and the people I love.


Have you had any negative responses?

Yeah, definitely! There are definitely groups of people here, like the Japanese, or the conservative older class that don’t know about tattoo culture now and how it has evolved. Even with my grandma, who goes with the stereotype that it is for bikers, criminals, and they just look at you and go, “God, what a hoodlum!”


What are some of the things that peeve you off about the industry?

Well I think TV has set a standard, but people think that tattooing brings instant fame, or this rock star status and it’s not that; tattooing is all about heart. If you think that it’s just going to give you a huge return. I know a few businesses here that open up tattoo shops ‘cos it’s an instant money maker as they see it on TV, “I’m going to be driving an Escalade”, and that is not what it’s about at all.


What are your goals as an artist?

To be good enough that I can travel and work in different countries and whatnot. I think you have to reach a certain calibre to do that, and go, “Here is my portfolio, can I work for you? Please trust in me, in a foreign country to tattoo you!”


Can you tell us about your modelling?

It kind of came out of nowhere, it wasn’t ‘cos I was searching and seeking to be a model, it came about as a second hand thing. My looks are a little different; I’m a girl with her face tattooed. You see a few of the girls that are like that elsewhere but in Hawaii you don’t see it, and that definitely calls for a lot of attention. In Hawaii people ask you, “Can I take your photo?” And from that you get model status.


Is it difficult being a female artist in the industry?

It is a predominantly a male industry, as it horrible as it sounds I would trust, more than a girl, a guy to tattoo me ‘cos I know that it’s a predominately a male industry. There are hardships but also benefits, because as cliché as it is, Kat Von D has raised the bar for women, to say, women can do it; it is ok for a woman artist to tattoo. I don’t think it’s an excuse to be a woman and ride off of that.


What is your client ratio of men to women?

You know what? I have been seeing more women come to me. At first I didn’t think it would be that way, ‘cos generally women are more catty to each other. But lately I get girls coming in to get tattooed by me, ‘cos they say, “You know what I want”, or are more comfortable with a woman tattooist, especially with the more private parts, you know what I mean?  Like spreading their legs apart! Especially younger girls.


Does it get difficult seeing the work of the people in the same industry as you?

Oh yeah, I’m so afraid of other artists, especially ‘cos the people I meet at parties, and functions, they have been tattooing for so many years before me, and there is definitely a reverence that is there.


You just bow your head and give your respects, if they do even notice and acknowledged you! I was just in San Jose and met Matt Shamah and Adrian Lee, two of the artists that I inspire me the most, and I kind of shut up the whole time, and just said, “Oh my god! I’m meeting Matt Shamah and Adrian Lee!”


If you could get tattooed by anyone tomorrow who would it be? 

Probably Adrian Lee. I really admire his colour work and creativity, and his booking is so ridiculous - hopefully one day I can afford it!


Is there anything else you want to plug?

Definitely my heroes and inspirations, the guys at (San Jose’s) Humble Beginnings, they have definitely pushed us, ‘cos they are our overseas guys. Every time we visit them, or they come to us, they are always pushing the bar, and we are like, “OK that is where we need to be”.  Hawaii is a little way back when it comes to tattooing; we are a little mellower than the rest of the States. Aisea, he is in his own class above everyone.



interview: maki Photography: cory lum, Various


Skin Deep 181 1 January 2010 181