Art comes in many forms, but there is one medium in particular that is on-the-rise — and it’s ready to wear. While tattooing for many has become the most accessible form of bespoke art out there, it was something that renowned artist – Jose Contreras – had never pictured on his body, or better still, in his future.
Having studied Law for one year in his adolescence, his family, who he admits are grounded by their tradition, were met with surprise when Contreras’ career prospects turned to the tattoo gun. Starting a tattooing career equipped with resilience, Contreras battled with a lack of resources to pursue his craft, working tirelessly in various studios across Venezuela — soon earning himself an esteemed reputation and ardent following.
Hopping from high-profile studios in Lyon, France to the likes of London’s No Regrets Tattoo Studio, Contreras was eventually offered a spot as the resident artist of New York City’s Last Riles Tattoo Studio — one of the top in the country, no less.
Spending the next seven years placing himself under the skin of the American tattoo scene, Contreras now sits before me as an established artist responsible for iconic work seen on the worlds hottest A-listers.
Talking on his journey, technique, lessons learnt and more, head below to read his exclusive interview with Rollacoaster…
Hey Jose! How has this year been for you so far?
Just starting and it is already loaded with a lot of movement, fully booked schedules, commitments, some projects in continuation from last year, others already in development and most important of all, Enzo, my son, who came into my life to become a better version of me. I hope that the days have more hours for this year, so I can have time for everything that is about to come.
What was your biggest lesson learnt in 2022?
I would say that learning how to use social networks in an optimal way, and understanding the wonderful support and dissemination tools for your work and getting the most out of them. Thanks to them, I have met good people, great artists from the medium and their work, new clients and excellent communication professionals.
I’d love to know a little bit about your background! Can you tell us what growing up was like for you?
I grew up in a traditional family, where with a lot of effort we managed to support ourselves, but without great abundance or wealth. My family, being as traditional as I mentioned, tattoos were not approved or well seen by them: zero piercings, zero body modifications, etc. For that reason, it was a big shock for everyone when in my adolescence I began to show interest in this area. Then when I made the decision to tattoo, believe me when I say that at first, it was a big disappointment for them. I was studying for one year in law school, but eventually, I realised that it was not my thing. Since I was young I was always interested in art, in my free hours outside of classes (and sometimes not so free) I spent my time drawing and painting with a great friend who also liked to do it. Besides art I was always interested in water sports, I spent a lot of time swimming and playing water polo, and in fact, I still feel a great fascination for the sea.
At what point did you discover you had an artistic/creative mind?
It could be said that artistic creativity comes in addition to my DNA, my mother and my uncle were not only creative but also had wonderful manual skills, from all the preparations for a birthday party, decorations, invitation cards — even some necessary home repairs. In general, everyone at home contributed with their ingenuity and manual ability, that was the example with which I grew up and as I grew older, I realised that I also had those gifts.
You first entered the world of tattooing when you were 18. Did you have a particular vision of what you wanted to accomplish? Did you have a specific style from the off?
At the age of 18 thinking about working in Mythos Tattoo – the most important tattoo and body modification studio in Venezuela – was the biggest goal and above all to be able to eat and bring food home and improve my quality of life doing what I do and what I love to do, those were my dreams for that time. At that time the situation in my country was not as complicated as it was later and that's why my dreams of travelling to Spain and touring Europe were not so impossible to fulfil, because there were tattoo artists there whom I admired and who inspired me to improve every day. In addition to all this, I always wanted to speak English fluently because I genuinely liked it and also for business, since handling multiple languages is key to progress in this world. As for style, at that time New School (e.g. cartoon tattoos) was in fashion, that's why I leaned towards that side until I started to develop realism as the next level.
What is most important to you with tattoos? Do you feed off of meaning or aesthetic?
Not all clients necessarily want their tattoos to have some special meaning, some only want a work by a specific artist, others are collectors. On the other hand, there are those who do want to exhibit art with meaning, for example, a tribute to someone who has passed away, to a son or daughter, a landscape that brings back memories or a fantasy. As with music, everyone has their own tastes, like their own stories, even most of the time a tattoo can affect your self-esteem in a positive way. Taking into account only the aesthetic, the piece must be logical with the area of the body where it is placed, easy to see and understandable from a distance.
Over the years, the discourse around tattoos has changed significantly. Where some used to see them as "run blockers", we now see people all over the world getting inked. Did you ever have an opinion on this narrative? Why do you think the world has become so much more welcoming to body art?
I think when a person decides to get a tattoo, they should be aware of what that means — both for their skin and for their image. It should be a well-thought-out decision, taking into account aspects such as: tattoo style, dimensions, and part of the body. The latter will depend on the activity carried out and if its appearance does not affect it in the area in which it is carried out, for example, educational institutes and workplaces. In general, I believe that society has stopped demonising those who get tattoos as before. This matrix of opinion has been dismantled, where those who have tattoos are criminals, misfits, or worshipers of the devil, among other adjectives. Today we see many people from different socioeconomic and academic backgrounds with at least one small tattoo.
And now your profession includes tattooing some of the biggest names in the world of celebrities including Post Malone! When did you notice you were being booked by A-listers? How did that come into action? Do you find there is added pressure knowing that millions of people will see your artwork?
That pressure could be translated into commitment, I’m always trying to improve the results of every new piece that I do and also trying to maintain that high-quality standard that characterises me and my work. That’s a commitment to myself and to the clients because since I was young I have been very self-critical and I wouldn’t enjoy the idea of doing the same pieces that I used to do when my audience was smaller. And as the audience is getting bigger and bigger, that “wow” factor has to get greater and greater too.
What do you want people to know about you and your art?
I would like my work to speak for me, that is to say, that when the client sees my finished design on their skin with a smile and leaves the studio extremely happy with the result, everywhere they go they awaken that interest or curiosity in the people who look at it. That every person they come across inspires them to talk about this beautiful art we call "tattooing", especially to those who still do not speak or know much about the subject. May the subtlety of what I do help to eliminate social stigmas about this subject.
Do you have any particular goals you want to achieve in the future?
Being able to reach more people, offer them a true experience — one of those pleasant experiences that remain in the memory and invite them to return and all this will be possible with the opening of my studio. I have currently had cases in which clients have shown an improvement in their state of mind after a tattoo session with me. This is nothing more than the result of the quality of care that I try to provide them during their stay. We talk about different subjects, share knowledge about anything you can think of. And finally, travel and travel! Keep touring other countries and meeting other artists.
Do you have a favourite piece you have ever done?
To be honest, it's quite difficult to choose just one, as I always want the most recent one to be better than the previous one.
And what about you? What’s your favourite tattoo you have on your body and why?
In this case, I do have a favourite with more meaning and that is a portrait of my father on my back, who passed away when I was less than one year old. The rest are very random without much depth of concept.
Finally, what would your advice be to anyone aspiring to do what you do?
Simple: be focused and ask yourself, “How far do I want to go?” Once you have that answer, do not pay attention to the distractions that you will find along the way and do not deviate — doing so will make you waste time and go back to the starting point. Have real discipline in your day-to-day basis and pay attention to your social networks, nowadays they are the priority when it comes to showing your portfolio to the world. And when success knocks on your door, do not allow that bright light to blur you, remember that a true professional does not take his feet off the ground.
Words and interview by Ella West