Down on the lively thoroughfare that is SW 8th Street, you might stumble across a colorful neighborhood just outside Little Havana where strip-malls reign king, and pink stucco is a lifestyle. Calle Ocho is the name. Palm trees dot long avenues of store-fronts, barbershops and beauty salons — a healthy mix of merengue and Pitbull pour out of the windows of cars that whiz by. Nestled in this one-of-a-kind neighborhood is a modest two story tattoo studio that is home to some of the cleanest, finest tattooing South Florida has to offer.
The shop accepts walk-ins daily on the ground level, while the appointment-only cast reside in the private flat upstairs. With a solid crew of 10 artists specializing in all flavors & styles, there's someone for everyone - but today we've come sit in on a private session with Javier Betancourt, Miami bred tattooer and owner of Ocho Placas Tattoo Company.
In his younger days Betancourt graduated High School early at the age of 16, all the while in dual-enrollment taking college pre-med classes. A whiz kid for real.
After hauling ass out of South Miami Senior High, he spent a year or two free from the chain-gang, smokin’ cigs, playing pool and slingin’ back 99c Arizona Green Tea to his heart's content. When his intrigue with pre-med fried out, Javier got back into his first love, art, much to the distress of his conservative parents. He and his dad had at it quite often, but Betancourt went on with his life, hustling graphic designs and creating logos for bands to make ends meet.
Fast forward 11 years to age 30, Betancourt is doing the most in Calle-8 as a full-time boss, tattooer, photographer, mentor and fine artist in his own right. Your boy found his calling and never looked back.
We sat down after his session to chat, so we’ll let him tell the story...
Do you remember your first experience with tattoos?
The first tattoo I ever saw was on my uncle. I was really young, maybe like three or four. You see it now and it’s like… tiny. It’s about a two or three inch Hot Stuff Devil on his arm that he got when he was in the military and to this day the Hot Stuff is still one of my favorite images. I used to think it was so cool because it was the only tattoo I’d seen up until I reached my teens.
He was the “cool uncle” with the motorcycle wasn’t he?
Yeah! He was the cool uncle. You know… a troublemaker for sure.
Did you have a formal apprenticeship? How did you get into all this?
There were a few shops out here that I would have loved to apprentice at. I remember hanging out at a shop called Tattoo Circus (Miami) when I was younger. It was a typical flash shop, black and white checkered floors. They had a giant Rock of Ages painting by (Chris) Garver and I thought “Fuck, this is so cool”. They would kick me out every once in awhile because they thought I was drawing off the walls… I was always the younger kind hangin’ around.
I then had a formal apprenticeship here at the shop that I own now. I started in 2006, I had been hanging around, getting tattooed here a little bit. My mentor Jose Carrera was the founder. He passed away in 2009. He gave me a shot and it was an interesting dynamic, we bumped heads a lot. But I think that’s how it goes. I ended up taking over the shop at 23.
Were you ready to take over the shop at that point? Was it a sudden passing?
Super sudden. The last thing I ever thought was that my mentor was going to fuckin’ drop dead. He was 37 and pretty much at the height of his work but… I had to figure it out real quick. I’m still figuring it out.
Are you as hard on your apprentices as he was on you?
No, no. Not at all. I don’t believe in abusive apprenticeships. I don’t believe respect should be created out of fear. I got a lot of shit going on, so many projects. Their job is to make my life easier and in turn, I’m going to teach them the best way possible and provide every opportunity for them.
Traditional tattooing is noticeably your primary method of work, when did you begin to gravitate more towards the style you do?
The images that always stood out to me were the classic images that you’ve seen throughout the ages, and I just wanted to reproduce them.
How do you build a unique name while staying true to these age-old concepts?
It’s the whole package. The placement, to the execution to the photograph I take afterwards. Especially with Instagram nowadays, if I don’t get a photo it’s like I didn’t work today. You do an incredible tattoo and forget to get a photo of it and it’s like the tattoo never happened. When I started developing what would be my brand of tattooing, I thought about how I put it out. How I show people my work, how I curate my portfolio, how the tattoo is going to look in a photo, and the photo itself.
What values in tattooing do you hold sacred?
Off the bat, respect for your client because they are paying you. They keep the roof over your head. Another thing that I really do believe is that there are so many things people are forgetting — machine building, making needles, making pigment, how a power supply works. The tools of the trade. I always make that a priority for anyone I bring into the industry. For this to continue being a timeless thing, that information has got to keep getting passed forward or else it’s going to disappear. The last thing I would ever want is to leave it in the hands of the companies.
‘Cause most of them are not tattooer-owned.
If you had to pick 5 artists that influence your work today, who would they be?
RG is probably single-handedly my favorite tattooer. Everything he does is good. There’s tattooers like him, and Garver in-particular that stand out to me because whatever they tackle, not only do you know it’s their work, but it’s textbook. That’s what I want. I tattoo for people like them to pay attention. Scott Campbell has been huge influence as a business owner, as an artist, as a tattooer, he has everything that I’ve admired and tried to emulate. He has an aesthetic and class that’s hard to match. Mike Rubendall and Grez... what they’re doing up in New York, what they’ve created. I can only dream to establish something like that down here. They have something truly special.