Charles ‘Tattuna’ Belñavis Brings His Style to the Bulleit Billboard

Charles ‘Tattuna’ Belñavis Brings His Style to the Bulleit Billboard

Tattooing on leather is hard. Encapsulating your love of everything that’s uniquely LA in one design is harder.

Created in partnership with Bulleit Frontier Whiskey. Click to explore the board.

Charles Belñavis loves fish. This passion has jumped from the water into his art as he has always drawn fish, specializes in tattooing fish, and even makes his own jigs. You can be assured that if there isn’t a tattoo machine in his hand that a fishing pole is. Still not convinced? The talented tattooer’s Instagram handle is Tattuna.

So when Bulleit Frontier Whiskey unveiled their massive one-of-a-kind billboard featuring leather sections tattooed by 24 artists from Los Angeles, including Belñavis, we immediately started searching for one of his signature fish to no avail. After some very intense looking it was hiding in plain sight all along — in the form of a seafood taco truck.

“My section of the Bulleit billboard came together after thinking about what would be recognizable as LA to anyone that does or doesn't live here,” Belñavis explains. “Taco trucks, the 6th Street bridge, palm trees, the ghetto bird, etc. They're all things that I think anybody would recognize as being unique and definitive to LA.”

The entirety of the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey tattoo billboard. Photo by Elizabeth Dixon

You have to hand it to him, with Bulleit giving him full creative freedom for his contribution to the billboard, Belñavis found a subtle way of working his signature art into the piece that was both clever and indicative of a deep understanding of what makes Angelenos tick. Born and raised in LA and the San Gabriel Valley, Belñavis has been tattooing in the area for over 20 years. Now working at Shogun Tattoo in Pasadena, Belñavis has seen the culture of tattooing in Los Angeles, and the city as a whole, go through quite an evolution.

“When I first started tattooing in the mid ‘90s there weren't many tattoo shops around, it was a lot more rough and closed off to outsiders than it is now,” Belñavis says. “So when I first started I was aware that there wasn't anyone who was going to help me and I learned quickly that the only way in was to let your work speak for itself. What mattered then, and still does to this day, was to earn the respect of my peers through my work.”

Belñavis, much like the Bulleit billboard as a whole, is indicative of how diverse the Los Angeles tattoo scene is. “There isn't a style that you can't find being done in LA,” Belñavis explains. “But I think it's the black and gray work pioneered by guys like Jack Rudy and Freddy Negrete that put us on the map.” That black and grey style is clearly evident in the leather tattooed by Belñavis, but his everyday work is much different. His tattoos are bold and bright, filled with eye-popping colors, and show inspiration from both American traditional and Irezumi.

The artists posing outside of the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey tattoo billboard. Photo by Elizabeth Dixon

Part of what drew Belñavis to tattooing was the unique challenges that tattooing presents when compared to illustration and other artistic mediums. “The biggest difference between tattooing and other mediums is the canvas,” Belñavis says. “You're working on skin. It stretches, sweats, bleeds, moves and twitches, and on top of all that it has to heal and age well.” After 23 years mastering the art of putting ink into skin, tattooing a hunk of leather presented a completely different type of challenge for the tattooer.

“It's a really tough surface compared to skin,” Belñavis continues. “They gave us a piece to practice on and I learned right away that I was going to go through a lot of needles because the leather would dull them out pretty fast. If you spilled ink on the leather it would stain so you had to keep a thick coat of petroleum jelly on it at all times. It was a pain in the ass at times and took a lot longer than it would to tattoo on skin.”

Despite all the broken needles and long hours figuring out how to translate his art onto a leather billboard, Belñavis was excited to see how the whole thing came together. Not only was the final product indicative of the diverse and edgy city that he calls home, but Bulleit understood the ethos of the industry. “My favorite part of the project was how they worked with the artists,” Belñavis says. “They gave us a lot of freedom and respect. They weren't trying to exploit tattooing and they took it very seriously. They did a great job all across the board and in the end I was proud to be a part of it.”

When viewed as a whole, the Bulleit billboard is a fitting showcase for the rich culture of Los Angeles, but it is Belñavis’ section that truly transports you to the City of Angels. Looking at it you feel the warmth of the sun, hear the ghetto bird hovering above, and taste the fresh tacos de pescado. Mmmm. Who wants to jump on the next flight to LAX with us? But if you can’t make the journey do the next best thing and see the Bulleit billboard as it makes its way to the Marfa Film Fest this July. 

Created in partnership with Bulleit Frontier Whiskey. Click to explore the board. 

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