The Real World - Levi Hilton

Published: 26 March, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 223, April, 2013

For the most part, Levi Hilton grew up in North Louisiana, where in grade school he’d draw amongst other things, Dragon Ball Z characters. By high school, he had progressed to “drawing tons of naked chicks and that kinda thing”. As Levi puts it, his interest in art and tattooing hadn’t progressed past anime influenced art.

Even a stint in a Christian Screamo band wasn’t enough to show him that tattooing was the way to go.

“I wanted to be a rock star! Tattoos were just part of that lifestyle. I was always creative. I wrote all the lyrics for the band I was in. Drawing went on the back burner to writing throughout high school. My parents were always supportive of me and they love me very much, but when I was in 6th grade they wanted me to go to this week-long medical class to get kids inspired to be doctors and whatnot. I didn’t want to do it at all. Out of frustration my father asked me what I wanted to do with my life since I was so sure I didn’t want to be a doctor. I told him I wanted to be an artist and I got the whole ‘artists are starving and poor’ speech… of which he was right, I’m poor, but I’m mostly pretty happy with my life. I do what I love. But that kinda repressed my doodling until I started tattooing.”

Levi went through a succession of jobs working at Sears, a plant nursery, a big toy company and as a substitute teacher, but nothing stuck until he was offered an apprenticeship.

“I got my first tattoo the day I turned 18. I had always wanted one. I think, honestly, the want to do tattoos came from my inability to find a job that I could stomach. I’ve done lots of things. I think I was just looking for something I thought would be cool and easy. I never took anything seriously in life. I didn’t do well in school and I had no aspirations. All that happened once I found tattooing. Common curiosity led me into a shop to ask how apprenticeships worked. I got one, just like that. I wish I could say it was hard for me, but it wasn’t. The owner didn’t see a spark in me, or care what I had to offer in the long run; I was a stupid kid he got to get some free labour out of… and if it didn’t work out, oh well, he wasn’t out on anything.”

So in 2007 Levi, started his apprenticeship. The next year saw him learning how to make needles, repair chords and work with machines in a shop that cared more about the money than the ink. “It was worth it but it was a busy street shop owned by a guy who was a businessman, not a tattooer. Congrats to him for being able to feed his family but that never sat well with me. I worked with a lot of people who thought I wasn’t gonna amount to much and that is what pushed me in the direction I took.”

In an attempt to teach himself more, Levi started getting tattooed from people he looked up to. He had a lucky run of getting tattooed by people who were kind and helped him out; including Craig Driscoll who Levi feels opened his eyes about art and tattoos. “He really set me on a path to find my own voice and style, which is the most important thing.”

In 2011, Levi had had enough and he left the shop to work with a couple of close friends, Joseph Pineda and Kelly Carlisle. And once again, Levi found himself learning more about tattooing. “This time, they opened my eyes to the technical side of tattooing. Before, I was definitely more artsy and loose. They helped me to refine my tattooing; cleaner line work and more solid smooth blends. I'm still working on it, but I owe a lot to them.”

Around comes 2012 and Levi decided to hit the road. Putting in close to 30,000 miles in his car driving from Louisiana to Pennsylvania, to San Diego, to Kansas… and tons of places in between. But it was during this time that Levi did a few guest spots at Incognito Tattoo in Greencastle, PA, and towards the end of his travels, he got a call with an offer of a permanent chair at the studio.

“I decided it was time for a change, so I took the job at Incognito Tattoo. It was a good choice. I work with amazing people who support me and care about progression of their art, which to me is super important. It hasn’t been easy though. I’m working on rebuilding my clientele and getting my name out there. It has definitely been a humbling experience, but so far I’ve gotten a lot of support from wonderful people. 2012 will probably be one of the most important years of my life; big changes, meeting tons of amazing artists and moving 1,100 miles from my home.

“I learned so much but I’m glad it’s over! Now I’m just focusing on doing solid, clean tattoos that heal well and will last the test of time. I want to be a responsible tattooer. I will have hit five years by the time anyone reads this and I’m just trying to get things in order so I’m better prepared when I hit ten years. That’s the plan. I try not to focus on trends and I try to keep my work unbiased and strong. I want my work to be different from other peoples, but I’m aware that there is nothing new under the sun. This industry is over-crowded and I started tattooing after Miami Ink came out. I’m part of the industry that the people I look up to hate. I’m really just doing my best and desperately looking for my own voice.”

And listening to Levi, it seems becoming a tattooer changed his life. In five years he has grown up and become very serious about his art and career.

Tattooing has given Levi a sense of peace and belonging and a drive to bust out the best ink he can. If the first years were about Levi settling into his art, the next five will definitely be about mastering it. And with this attitude, I reckon we are going to see even more amazing work from Levi.

“Once I started working I bought every magazine I could get my hands on. I studied a lot and I tried to break down tattoos as best as I could. I would ask people what colours would be put into a tattoo. I was into this stuff. I learned so much from this industry. Respect. Dedication. Self-improvement.

Integrity. Humility. Tattooing gave me a lot; things I’d never found before. And I try to remember to give back to it as much as I can. Tattooing is the love of my life… I think. I’m only 25, so maybe one day I’ll meet some girl that changes things, but so far…”

Being Colour-blind

I am red-green colour-blind. It’s not uncommon at all and there are way more amazing and well deserving tattooers out there who have the same problem. It’s just something you have to work around. No different than being left-handed and working out of a station made for a right-handed tattooer.

It’s a pain in the ass but you just do what it takes to get the job done. Colour is a lot more of a mathematical equation to me. I’ve done a lot of studying and asked a lot of questions, and now I like to think I do decent work. I want my work to be judged on its own, as if I had nothing holding me back. I feel like when people hear you’re colour-blind, they’ll perceive your work differently. As if it should be judged on a grading curve, but fuck that. I’m still pushing pigment into skin the same as everyone else. I’ve overcome nothing to speak of. The only time I try to bring it up is when I’m around people I look up to, so that they can talk to me about their colour theory and how they approach tattooing. The only difference it makes is how my inks have to stay in a certain order and my ink cap set up is a little weird I think.

Levi’s Style

I always drew cartoons growing up. When I started tattooing, I set out trying to do neo-traditional tattoos, but after seeing a Tony Ciavarro tattoo, I changed my mind. I was like, ‘this is MY shit!’ I started pursuing the New school style and looking at artists like Jime Litwalk, Gunnar, Scott Olive, Craig Driscoll and Adam Hathorn. That lasted about three years but after some time passed, I kept hearing, “oh, it’s like Jime Litwalk” or “this is like that Tony Ciavarro tattoo”. That had to stop! Craig Driscoll helped push me in the right direction and now my style is just refined new school I guess, referenced a little more from real life than cartoons. I just wanted to do darker and creepier with my tattoos than what bright and bubbly new school could give me. So ‘refined new school’ is what I’d say I’m doing because I just refined my cartoon doodles a little. It’s crazy how the world adapts to your creative style and vice versa. You do start to perceive things in the way you’d sketch them out, making reality a pretty amazing place, once you learn how to read it.

Incognito Tattoo

112 E. Baltimore St.
PA. 17225


Text: Trent Aitken-Smith; Photography: Levi Hilton