Jess Yen, an imposing man with a staunch frame and hair tied back in a pony-tail, is drawing an Asian-themed mosaic of crashing waves and pastel-colored fauna on the shoulder of a client who’s still in the prime of his young adulthood. The client – who had likely called in the appointment with Yen months in advance – waited dutifully as Yen broke from his work to speak about the shop. There is something peculiar about the client’s silence, as if he is minding an unspoken rule that is unknown to newcomers.
My Tattoo is an unassuming store near the intersection of Garfield and Valley. It’s a modern tattoo parlor – the shop is sleek with mirrored walls and white tiles – that's operated like an old dojo where respect and dignity reign supreme. Yen, a Taiwanese-born artist with more than 16 years experience considers the shop not only a business, but a family where six other artists are both his pupils and his kin. He is the patriarch, and likewise exudes the sort of calm that inspires deference in those around him. A large oil painting of him looms inside his studio, making it known that he runs the show.
He is economical with his words, as many discover upon meeting him.
How long has My Tattoo been here?"It used to be called Mi-Ne (meen-nay) Tattoo. It started in 1994. I took over in 2001."One thing that the shop offers is the Tebori style tattoo, in which the needles are operated without the aid of machinery. Do many other shops in California offer it?"Not a lot of people do it anymore."It's not until we talk about My Tattoo's code – the artist’s respect for the skin and the artwork – that really gets Yen going. “People come here and trust us with their skin. They suffer through a lot of pain. They come here to get something with meaning, and it is forever. And if the tattoo artist doesn’t have the right mindset, or the respect, they can’t do good work.” This reasoning is echoed in an apprenticeship that Yen offers to all aspiring tattoo artists. This isn’t a 30-minute tutorial with Bob Ross, mind you. While the lessons start with a study in drawing circles, they expand into a multifaceted course that reexamines the student's lifestyle. “I am teaching you life skills, like I’m teaching you how to fish. I teach my students how to fish, and let them fish in my lake,” Yen said, explaining that the lessons are more than just a crash course. The apprenticeship is marked by a clear hegemony: Yen is the Sifu (the teacher, the master) and claims a stake in the student’s life. One of Yen’s tenets is that apprentices must be celibate as they’re learning from him. “With the apprenticeship, I want to see how much you can sacrifice,” he says. “And relationships will only distract you from that.” Of the 50 or so hopefuls who’ve come to Yen in the past, only five have made it out of the process. Asked about what had happened to the other 45, Yen said “I don’t fire nobody. You fire yourself.” One of the five who’ve made it through the fray is Andy Tran, who works as an artist at the shop, as well as serving as an assistant to Yen. Originally from Westminster, Tran already held a job as a tattoo artist in the Bay Area before coming to My Tattoo. But he was in search of something more profound than a steady job, and was lured by Yen's philosophy on art and life. "I didn't feel enough. I didn't feel that I was happy with myself, with my work. So I needed someone to show me about life, not just tattoos," Tran said. In spite of the emphasis on spirituality and higher self-conduct, My Tattoo is just like any other business, the artists say, and customer satisfaction is of utmost priority. Milton Nunez, another disciple of Yen, says that the artists aim to help clients hatch out their own ideas for a tattoo. “Some people might not come in with the best ideas, but that’s where we come in to say ‘What you got is cool, but let me do something with this and see what you think.’ Just point me in the right direction and I’ll take you there,” Nunez said. Added with this client-first mentality is the strength of the talent. The shop has won a bevy of awards in tattoo conventions across the nation – so far this year they’ve garnered prizes in New York, Miami, Philadelphia and Salt Lake City – with much of the praise saved for its Asian-themed artworks. In spite of all the accomplishments, however, Yen warns that contentment can be a dangerous thing. Refusing to settle, he cultivates an environment in which everyone from the shop – including him, the Sifu – strives for improvement. "I continue to be an apprentice of the arts, and apprentice of the mind," Yen said. "Learning has no limits. We’re all still learning from life.