Occupations: Tattoo Artist & Owner, Old Glory Tattoo, Venice, CA
Preoccupations: American Traditional tattoos and Iron Man triathlons
“I got my first tattoo when I was thirteen,” says Kevin Hinton.
“I saw African tribesmen tattooing themselves with a sharpened bone on a National Geographic show,” Hinton says. “So I got a sewing needle and wrapped thread near the tip to control the depth and hold the ink.” Ah-ha…
“I poked myself, right here (he indicates his left wrist), wiped it clean and…it left a dot. And I about lost my fucking mind! I was, like, BING! A light went off.”
As did young Kevin Hinton: Four hours later he had four, self-inflicted tattoos and he’d given a friend another. A chain circling his left wrist was the first of those tattoos. It’s still there (and looking remarkably good, I think).
An adolescent, Santa Cruz, Calif. punk rocker, Hinton’s folks didn’t notice his tattoos, probably because, in true punk rock fashion, he already drew all over himself — his jeans, jackets, and pretty much everything else. Of course, the chains and bandannas acted as camouflage, too. (This was around 1980.)
Hinton was soon “poke”-tattooing all his friends, and anxious to improve his methods. Having heard of DIY prison tats, he found someone who’d been in the county jail. That person put him in touch with someone who’d been in state prison.
“I’m, like, fifteen and this (ex-con) is showing me how to melt a spoon, bend it over and put a Walkman motor on it,” says Hinton.
Naive but industrious, he put his new prison tattoo machine to good use.
“I tattooed everybody with it, all my friends, strangers…” Hinton says. “Early on, all I did was punk rock tattoos like Corrosion of Conformity or Raymond Pettibon art — stuff like that — Black Flag album covers, Circle Jerks — anything that was on a punk rock record, I was doing on people.”
After high school, he joined the Navy. He served from ’86 – ’89 aboard the USS Belleau Wood, “a landing amphibious assault ship full of marines.” And he kept tattooing everybody.
It was in the Navy that Hinton gained an appreciation for traditional American tattoos, though he didn’t yet do them.
“I couldn’t — they require a solid, clean line, and I wasn’t competent at that yet…” Hinton recalls, smirking, “unfortunately for the people I tattooed.”
Upon leaving the Navy, Hinton got a professional tattoo set-up, “an enormous, crazy-archaic Spaulding & Rogers kit that a lot of people who started tattooing in the eighties had.”
Neither tattoo equipment nor knowledge were easy to come by in those days.
“Nobody would help you. There was no Internet, no eBay,” says Hinton. “The only way to get equipment was to be sponsored by someone working in a shop, or to do a traditional apprenticeship, which meant being mistreated by some old grouchy fucker.”
Though Hinton did make headway on a post-Navy tattoo career, “habits” he’d acquired in the Navy — habits not uncommon in the tattoo industry back then — got in the way.
“I made a living tattooing,” Hinton says, “I was just a little more strung out.”
Hinton struck a “dysfunctional trade agreement” at the time with a well-known tattoo artist. (Hinton didn’t want to identify him.)
“I traded him drugs for lots of really good advice,” he recalls. “Even though I was wasted all the time, the advice stuck.”
By 1993, Hinton had cleaned up his act and was tattooing full time. Doing punk rock tattoos gave way to doing the traditional American tattoos he’d come to love in the Navy. American tattoo legends Ed Hardy and his inspiration, Sailor Jerry, were big inspirations for Hinton.
While he wasn’t that into the ubiquitous tribal tattoos of those years, he did a lot of them. “They were popular and easy,” he says.
As Hinton’s skills developed over the years, so did his appreciation for larger, more complex tattoos. Tattoos with a story: Japanese-style tattoos.
“The American Traditional stuff is one-point tattooing,” Hinton says. “You come in, get one piece. Maybe you come in, again, get another over here. One doesn’t usually tie in with another.”
Japanese-style tattoos flow.
“You can’t get them piece-by-piece because there’s over-and-unders,” Hinton says, alluding to the collage qualities of Japanese-style tattoo. “They’re all one big piece.”
And they tell stories, “like the story of the golden koi that swims up a waterfall and turns into a dragon: It’s a koi at the wrist, then, up the arm, half koi-half dragon. At the shoulder, it’s a golden dragon.” Japanese-style tattoos are mythic, filled with the gods and the elements.
“They’re just so much more involved,” Hinton says.
While Hinton loves and appreciates Japanese tats, he has none. He says they wouldn’t look right with the traditional American tattoos that are his specialty…and that cover his body.
Traditional American tattoos tell stories, but more the way stickers on luggage tell stories. Still, the old school tattoos are often rife with meaning.
“A lot of them are based around superstition,” he says, of the nautical tats he got in the Navy.
“I have the swallows,” Hinton says, referring to a pair of birds on his clavicle. “If you get the swallows, that means you’ll always return home.”
Indicating a nautical star in the center of his chest, Hinton says: “You get the nautical star so you won’t get lost at sea. Getting ‘Hold Fast’ tattooed on your knuckles means you won’t fall overboard. And having a pig and a chicken (tattooed) on the tops of your feet, means you won’t drown, because neither one can swim, so they won’t go in the water.”
Despite being pretty much covered in traditional tattoos (“all done” as he describes it), Hinton says he has room for at least one more: The Iron Man triathlon logo. He’s been competing in triathlon for three years and will soon compete in his first Iron Man (in late March).
Hinton says it’s common to get an Iron Man logo tattoo after you’re completed the event, and he hopes to have one of his own soon. (He already offers the service free to anyone who finishes.)
I don’t tell him, but I consider such a thing frank lunacy. Competing in an Iron Man competition, that is, not getting a tattoo. Though some of the tattoos Hinton’s performed over the years do seem fairly lunatic.
“One girl had me do a nautical star right on her butt-hole,” Hinton laughs (as I pick up my chin off the bar).
“I did stars and dots on a guys ball-sack, so it looked like his grandmother’s rosary bead bag,” he continues. “I’ve done flames coming out of (a girl’s crotch), and a girls crotch in someone’s armpit… Sometimes you’re like ‘What are you thinking?'”
“I just had a guy ask me to tattoo ‘Welcome aboard’ on his fucking junk,” Hinton laughs. “I told him no.”
I guess even the most hardcore, Iron Man tattoo artists — of which Kevin Hinton is surely one — have to draw the line somewhere.