Illegal Tattoos: Interview with Juan Diego Prieto

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Illegal Tattoos: Interview with Juan Diego Prieto

In this interview with Juan Diego Prieto, aka Illegal Tattoos, he talks about the work ethic, motivation and devotion behind his artwork.

I met Juan Diego, aka Illegal Tattoos, years ago and, of course, it was tattoos that brought us together. It so happened in Greenpoint, that with a few mutual friends we hung out after-hours in one of our favorite tattoo shops drinking beer, talking shit, and smoking cigarettes. Our friend Franco gave us all stick and poke tattoos in the basement, and it was one of those late nights I'll always regard fondly.

At that time, Juan Diego was practicing tattoos in his painting studio at Pratt. I didn't give it much thought back then because everyone I knew was trying to tattoo, but his work certainly struck me later on as very unique. It's not every person that has the motivation to carry them from their home country to a completely new place, especially one as difficult as New York. Even more so, his talent has been perfectly matched with his work ethic and his intrinsic devotion to artistic creation. I'm fortunate to carry one of his pieces with me everywhere I go: a wild stallion forever jumping over my shoulder. 

Of course, the question that everyone always wants to know: what is your artistic background? How did you get into tattooing and why were you drawn to it?

I have a background in graphic design, illustration, and fine arts. I got my undergraduate degree in graphic design back in Bogotá, Colombia. While I was finishing the program I had the chance to get an apprenticeship at a tattoo shop. That changed everything for me. There I learned the basics of tattooing: how to step up machines, how to clean a station, how to make a stencil, etc. I also did my first tattoos at that shop. Once I was done with school, I decided to move to New York to study fine arts at Pratt Institute. Back then I knew that moving out of Colombia meant quitting my apprenticeship and that I had to start from scratch but I took the risk and so far it's been the best decision ever. During the two-year MFA program at Pratt, the school gave me my own art studio which I used as a tattoo studio when I was not doing art. Slowly I started to develop my skills (something that I'm still doing) until I had a decent portfolio to start looking for a place in a shop. When I arrived to New York I had no tattoo equipment and a pretty basic knowledge on how to make a good tattoo. And now, three years later I'm fortunate to say that I make a living out of tattoos and that I´m eager to keep growing within the trade. Even though in the present time I'm not pursuing a career as a graphic designer or as an artist, I try to use my educational background and everything that I´ve learned so far in my practice as a tattooer. The more tools you have the better.

I got into tattooing when it made its breakthrough on TV. Tattoo culture in Colombia is not as accessible as it might be here in the United States. And me, growing up in a conservative family and a close minded country, the only exposure I had to tattooing as a teenager were TV shows that showed and talked about tattoos. Since I was a kid I knew that I wanted to dedicate my life to art, specifically drawing, and when I found out that you could actually live out of making cool images on people I got hooked. I remember painting all the walls in my bedroom with tattoo related images. Back when I was eighteen I got my first tattoo here in New York. Once I did that I started learning more about the tattoo culture. After the first one I got more. One thing led to another and a few years later I was able to start learning at the shop I mentioned before.

What I like about tattooing is this obsessive behavior that underlies in the act of reworking a specific type of imagery over and over. Skulls, hearts, roses, daggers, depicted deities, etc. I see all of these images used in tattooing as embodiments of our everyday life, and that is why they are so strong to us. There's nothing more tough than a Christ head tattooed on a chest. Is powerful.

I see all of these images used in tattooing as embodiments of our everyday life, and that is why they are so strong to us.

What was it like practicing tattooing in your studio at Pratt? What is a favorite story or moment from back then?

Having the studio at Pratt for two years was a great experience. At the beginning it was hard because I didn't know anyone in New York and my technique wasn't the best. I was lucky because all the students at Pratt were super supportive and by the end of the program I had tattooed many of them. Sometimes it was stressful because not all of the times I knew if what I was doing was right. I remember constantly texting the guys at the shop where I was learning back in Colombia so they could help me out. Besides that, the studio experience was great. It was good to have that creative freedom.

I don't have any favorite stories from back then but I do remember every person I tattooed at Pratt. I'm grateful for their trust. Something cool about tattooing in a more private space is that the way you relate to the person that you're tattooing is different. It is more intimate.

Can you talk about your style and how it evolved? What is it about the old school Chicano illustrative style that really resonates with you?

I´m pretty young in the game but since I started tattooing my style has gone through many phases. At the beginning I was only interested in doing American traditional tattoos. But, moving to New York completely changed my taste and approach to tattooing. This city is one of the capitals of tattooing as it is for everything else. Besides the great American traditional tattoo artists that work here, I started to feel attracted to black and grey tattoos. Even when these tattoos are often more detailed than traditional tattoos there's a roughness to them that I really like, especially when they heal. Seeing the work of artists like Anderson Luna, Zac Scheinbaum, Tamara Santibañez, Franco Maldonado, Mina Aoki, and Big Steve among others, was a game changer for me. That's when my style shifted completely to what I'm doing right now. And still I'm trying to figure out how I want to tattoo and how I want my tattoos to look. It is a never-ending process.

Since I didn't grow up in the Chicano culture I wouldn't say my style of tattooing is strictly old school Chicano. But it is true that my tattoos are heavily influenced by that style. What I love about the Chicano tattooing is its duality. It's both delicate and tough looking. It kind of resembles Latin America: a rich culture heavily affected by social inequalities. I guess that's the reason that pushed me to explore the imagery behind this style. It delves into themes deeply rooted in the Latino folklore. Being an immigrant has made me rethink my identity and that's why I'm trying to expose some aspects of my Hispanic heritage in my work. But I'm not trying to be a traditional Chicano tattoo artist. I pull references from anything that is visually interesting so I can keep myself entertained. I get bored of doing the same thing several times.

I think the motivation comes from this raw desire to express something.

Your style is often so fine line and detailed, like your illustrative works especially the diptych, that I’m often in awe of the time and effort you put towards your work. Where do you think the motivation to be an artist comes from? What is it that makes artists spend so much time creating work?

I think the motivation comes from this raw desire to express something. Artists have this constant drive to put something out there. Whether tattooing, painting or drawing, for me is about doing something that is challenging. That's why I did that huge ballpoint pen drawing. It was a constant struggle, but once an image appears in my head I've got to put it on paper before it goes away. My biggest motivation is always about proving to myself that I can do it. I enjoy working on intricate large-scale projects because it helps me focus and clear my mind while I’m working. Everyone must have different reasons for spending a lot of time creating work, but I think that there's a meditative quality in the art making process that every artist experiences. While I'm tattooing or creating something, I tune out from everything that's happening around me. Because of this, doing art becomes more of a necessity rather than an obligation.

What do you love about New York? Why is it the place you decided to make home and how does it differ from Colombia?

There're many things I like about New York as are the ones I dislike. I'm grateful for the opportunities I've had in the city so far. Here I've become a tattooer. I've met so many people that have helped me both in my career and personal life. Being here has put me in a situation were I'm always out of my comfort zone which means I'm constantly changing. The level of tattooing in this city is overwhelming, some of the best tattoo artists in the world work or have worked here. This is especially inspiring to me and hopefully, with time, I'll get to the level of mastery of the tattooers that I admire. I don't see myself staying here forever but I think right now is the right place for me to keep growing as a tattooer.

I decided to move to New York because before moving out of Colombia I used to come here often for vacations. It always felt like the right place to be to expand your mind. Since I moved here, my perception of the city has changed drastically. The rhythm of life here can be exhausting sometimes and you're in a constant hustle. You get to meet many people from all over the world but it is hard to spend quality time with them. I'm not a huge family guy, but what I miss of my country is that life is more about having a good time with people. New York is a great city with an amazing level of energy, but I like it better when it is warmer. I'm grateful with this city because it has proven to me that if you work hard towards a goal eventually opportunities will show up.

I guess I moved out of Colombia because I was bored. I love my country but in the creative fields there aren't as much opportunities as here. There's a tendency to only respect artists when they go to another country and they make a name for themselves. Colombia is also a conservative country, which means that people can be judgmental and really harsh on others. In this aspect New York really differs from Bogotá; I feel people here mind more their own business and I like that more. But don't get me wrong, Colombia is the best. And tattooing is evolving really fast. I think South American tattooers should be more acknowledged.

Beyond tattooing, what are you passionate about? How do you spend your free time, and what do you do on your vacations?

I'm a huge football (soccer) fan. That's something I really miss about Colombia. Other than that, and as boring as it sounds, my only passion is tattooing and art in general. I also enjoy literature but since I moved to New York I've been losing the habit of reading. From time to time, I like going to the museums in the city. I spend most of my free time drawing and painting. If I'm not doing that, probably I'll be hanging around with friends or with the guys at Black Square.

Any plans for 2019 you’d like to share?

Right now I'm trying to solve my immigration status so I can stay longer in New York. If everything works out as expected, I have many plans for next year. I'm finally at a place were I feel confident with what I'm doing. So I think is time to start moving around. I want to see more of the United States and also I want to go to Europe. Besides this, I'm planning to keep working on more large-scale projects. I hope next year people are more willing to get large pieces.

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