Alexis Vaalete

Published: 23 November, 2009 - Featured in Skin Deep 174, July, 2009

In the paradoxical idyllic urban landscape that only Orange County could offer lives Alexis Vaatete, resident tattooist at Orange County Inkhouse. Refusing to be classified as a specialist in one style, Alexis seems far more content to free his talents up by harnessing a looser, delicate approach and seeks to push the boundaries of both realism and surrealism.


His composition is excellent and his Japanese-inspired work is as competent and impressive as his portraiture. Meet the all rounder from Lake Forest, California…

    “My earliest memories of tattoos, is one that my brother had. He showed it to me when I was a kid, and I remember thinking that it was funny because he was such a big guy and he had this little tattoo of a heart with his wife’s initials and his initials inside of it. I’m sure it was a touching gesture, but as a child, I just found it to be humorous and at the same time I thought it was cool because I’ve never seen anything like it. When I was in Junior High, I started to buy the magazines and started to draw the images that were in there, then I was able to start drawing my own designs. When I turned 19, I got my first tattoo with my girlfriend to symbolise our relationship. Don’t ask. I lived up in Humboldt County, there was a shop there called Visual Tattoos and I had it done by an artist named Brian.

    I have always been an artist, and this industry has always been intriguing to me. I have always been searching for an outlet that fits my personality and something that I enjoy doing very much. In this type of industry, we are able to express ourselves instead of being a commercial artist. I started tattooing at El Toro Inkhouse, now Orange County Inkhouse. I have been there for 6 1/2 years, but have been tattooing in general for almost 5 years and have been professionally tattooing and done with my apprenticeship for 3 1/2 years, and still going strong at that shop. I’ve been born and raised at this shop; it’s like my second home.”


Was your love of art something that came from within?

As far back as I can remember, I have always been drawing, basically like the story of every cliché artist. Hate to be cliché, but it’s true. It has always been such a big part of my life; every minute of every day I’ve been living and breathing art and with such an intense desire, it’s only natural to be drawn to such an intense art form. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the tattoo industry, and it has allowed me to take my passion for art and make it into a career that I fall more in love with every day. The body is the true essence of an ultimate canvas, a canvas which is dynamic and unforgiving, always new and always fresh, there is an endless amount of knowledge that is to be learned, not to mention the amazing relationships you get to build with the clients and the other artists along the way. I took some art classes in high school and some here and there in college. However, I was always a little too rebellious to maintain formal training, so most of my knowledge has been self-taught.

Do you see formal art training as a boon to potential tattooists?

I think it’s very beneficial. You can’t separate tattooing from art, it’s all creativity. However, there are so many ways to get to the end result, not just formal, but in other ways as well, as long as someone has the drive, the passion and the patience, being successful as an artist will be obtainable.

How did you take your first steps into the tattoo industry?

I feel very blessed that I had a very in-depth apprenticeship for 3 years with an amazing tattoo artist named Franco Vescovi. The apprenticeship that I had to go through was very informative, so tattooing came very natural to me.  I’ve had experience with so many different mediums, that adapting to a new medium was just part of the process.  But I do admit that tattooing was the most complicated of all mediums that I have learned.

Was the apprenticeship route the correct one for you in reaching your understanding of tattooing?

Absolutely, it’s one of the most important ways to learn and bypass all the unnecessary problems, there’s just so much important information to have, there’s no point in trying to fly solo and reinvent the wheel. Our bodies shouldn’t be taken for granted, it is important to pay respect by not seeing how many bad tattoos one puts out there before he or she becomes good. With an apprenticeship, you are standing on the shoulders of giants.  It’s the only way to get the real information that you need to have to become a professional tattoo artist. No offense to the pioneers of yesterday, I know we had to start somewhere, but where all tattoo artists are today, are because of those who trucked it alone. 

Can you tell us a little about the studio you’re at?

The shop is very family-oriented. Almost everyone that works here has been here for 5 or more years, so we’re more like family, than friends. It’s a great shop to be in, I feel like everyone here has a common goal in life and we all share the same passion. It’s definitely the type of environment I find myself thriving in. 

Do you try to work a number of shows each year?

I have only worked at the conventions that are in Southern California, and some in the other states. I go to at least 4 to 5 conventions a year. I would like to go to more conventions and hopefully have opportunities to go to international ones. I’ve never been overseas at all, but I’m very interested in doing so, I’m working my way up. In some ways the location and trend can dictate what people are interested in. However, I find that there are such a variety of diverse people out in the world that no matter where you go there’s going to be a great mixture of tattoos that people want, as long as individuality exists. I always like to think people like my work and I get positive feedback from everyone. I always make certain that my client is happy with what they have on their body; their comments are what’s more important. If other people on the outside like it, then that’s even better.

Are conventions a great source of inspiration and do they advance your skill with a machine?

Definitely, all the time. In this type of industry, you are always learning. You see all these artists in magazines, on the Internet and then you get to see them in person. You get to see their process on how they tattoo, how they get to the beginning and the end.  It’s like an indirect art class.

How would you define your own brand of tattooing?

I love anything that is highly detailed or portraiture and anything I can take from my imagination and bring into the realm of reality. For example, portraits of paintings, realistic cars, machinery, floral, organica, surrealistic scenes and characters. Also, anything that has colour intensity and images with great illumination. My main styles that I often tattoo usually fall between realism and surrealism. I try to achieve a very dream-like quality, whether it be black and grey or colour.

Talk us through the process of receiving a tattoo from you…

I draw directly on my clients with different types of body pens, that way they get a piece that is unique as well as a piece that flows with the curvature of their body properly. Unless it’s a portrait, of course, which I use a stencil to aide and capture the photo realism and the exactness of the image. First, I consult with my client, after hearing their ideas we both conceptualise until we meet a common perspective. Then the next part is where the body pens come in handy. After that, I draw directly on the part of the body they want that image on, I have them check it out to see if they are satisfied with the placement and make any last adjustments. Once the client is happy with what I have drawn, then the image becomes permanent. Most of the clients I have come from word of mouth, and let me do my own thing; which is great because then I can really put my imagination to work. I answer any questions they have, and for the people that are unsure, they take a look at my portfolio to find reassurance of what their piece will look like. Then we go ahead with the concept that we have discussed and have agreed upon. Occasionally, I have people that are very specific but most of them put their faith and trust into my abilities.

What would be the ultimate tattoo for you to lay on someone?

I don’t know if I have an ultimate tattoo that I would like to do. I am very versatile and very diverse in my work, and my mind is always thinking of new things to come up with.  I guess the only thing that I can think of is, the larger the better. I would love to have more larger back pieces and all around larger pieces to work on, even body suits.

Is there anything you do to take your mind away from tattooing for a few hours a week?

My relaxing time consists of doing art at home as well as playing piano and guitar. I rarely get away from doing art, I love it so much. However, when I actually take time away from all the art forms, I step away to be father. My time is divvied out to being an artist and to being father, I rarely have any time for anything else.

So which other media do you pursue?

I work with acrylics, oils, watercolours, sculpture and anything else that I can get my hands on. When I think of an image I want to create, I will use what ever it takes to make that image look exactly like the image is in my mind. My knowledge of other mediums influences my tattoos very much. Painting and tattooing go hand-in-hand, they both share similar theories on whether it be composition, colour, contrast or so forth.  You can’t have one without the other. The one thing that separates tattooing the most is obviously the application and the healing factor, everything else falls under artistic creativity.

Who has tattooed you?

I’ve been tattooed by Brian from Visual Tattoo, Franco Vescovi and Billy from OC Inkhouse.

Are there any other artists that you’re planning to get work from?

Right now I have Franco Vescovi working on my right arm. I also want more black and grey portraiture style work, I’m just waiting till I find the artist, the inspiration and purpose for the next piece I want. I’m very picky on what I put on me, and I want everything to have great meaning. My family is from the Marquesas Islands and the Tahitian islands, so I also want to get Polynesian work.


What’s your favourite part of being an artist?

Well, what’s your favourite part about breathing? It’s just what I do. I can’t imagine not having art in my life. It’s like losing a limb; it’s a part of me that I can’t do without. I know it’s a bit sappy, but it’s the absolute cliché truth.

How do you envision the next few years of your career playing out?

I just want to keep doing what I love and enjoy. I want to make sure that my clients are always satisfied. If anything I would like to increase my clientele and become more international. I want to have the chance to tattoo people around the world, and I hope to be there one day.

Is there anything that bugs you about tattooing at this moment?

I suppose I’m concerned with those who get into the industry for the wrong reasons, because tattooing is becoming more accepted in the world, it seems like there’s a lot of people getting into the industry more for the popularity instead of the enjoyment of the art and are trying to just bypass all the hard work and all the necessary steps that so many of us have taken to become a knowledgeable and professional tattoo artist. Without the right training and knowledge, tattooing can be very hazardous to the artist and the client. The body is a sacred temple and should be treated as such. If someone is really interested in learning, they should take the necessary actions to participate in any kind of body modification.

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

I would like to thank everyone at Orange County Inkhouse, they are my friends and family, they have all participated in my growth of becoming a tattoo artist. I would like to especially thank the man that gave me this wonderful opportunity to become the tattoo artist that I am today and the one that has taught me so much about the industry and has been my friend and mentor, Franco Vescovi.


Interview: Neil - Photography: Alexis Vaalete


Skin Deep 174 1 July 2009 174