How L.A. gang, prison experience shaped one tattoo artist

Robert Pho is just one of the greatest black-and-gray realism tattoo artists on the world. Collectors from close to the planet fly to his Honolulu studio for a opportunity to lie on his desk. A wealthy patron the moment compensated Pho $300,000 for a comprehensive physique go well with, a swirl of clowns and mobsters and mythological gods popping off every single inch of his skin.

Pho’s talent isn’t the only thing that captivates clients. Many are drawn to his backstory: A Cambodian kid who acquired caught up in the Southern California gang existence — and then turned it all around to grow to be a tattoo grasp, activist and, some say, therapist.

I achieved Pho 1 day at Rodeo 39 Public Current market in Stanton, the dwelling of his newest tattoo shop and his to start with in California. He held his baby, Vanna, on his lap throughout the check out.

Tattoo artist Robert Pho exterior Skin Design Tattoo.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Periods)

The soft-spoken, inventive Pho tells his tale with type eyes and a serene smile, the sort of smile you see in yoga studios. He says he is humiliated by his “ugly previous,” but it was there in prison that his spiritual search commenced.

“I believe that in destiny, the universe coming jointly, all that,” he suggests. “I very strongly feel that God has appeared out for me, and he’s the motive why I am wherever I am nowadays.”

Pho, 48, was born in Cambodia for the duration of the Vietnam War. When he was 2, his relatives fled to France, and when he was 10, they arrived in the San Gabriel Valley.

It was in L.A. County that Pho fell in with a gang and eventually ran absent from home to stay with his crew. On St. Patrick’s Working day 1989, Pho, who was 16, was rousted in a predawn house raid and arrested on suspicion of attempted murder.

He took a plea offer in exchange for 14 several years guiding bars and was sent to the infamous Youth Education Faculty, a juvenile prison in Ontario so violent (it shut in 2010) that inmates nicknamed it “Gladiator School.”

It was there that Pho’s tattoo career started. He purchased a guitar string off an inmate to use as a needle and rigged it with the motor from his prison-approved Sony Walkman radio. The initial tattoo he did was his gang title on his possess knees. Then he started out charging other inmates $60 to $80 a tat to endure. He needed money to pay out the gang leaders he was locked up with — to get their protection.

“It kept me harmless,” he suggests.

Pho got superior at tattooing but didn’t get the probability to get also imaginative. “Everything was gang-associated nobody got butterflies,” he states.

In 1995, approximately 7 a long time and hundreds of tattoos later on, Pho, by now in the Mule Creek Point out Jail in Ione, was paroled. Ready for him was a substantial college classmate named Cristina, his only jail pen pal.

The two have been never an product, but when he wrote to her from prison, she cannot say why but she wrote him again.

“It was great getting mail from him,” she says. “He even drew on the envelopes — bouquets and nice points. I would notify him how my lifetime was heading.”

Robert Pho works on Nevada resident and client Brooklyn Martell.

Robert Pho operates on Nevada resident and customer Brooklyn Martell at Pores and skin Layout Tattoo.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Situations)

And he would inform her how he got caught tattooing all over again, including time to his sentence.

Soon after he was paroled, the two commenced to dangle out and grew to become a few. One particular working day, he tattooed his name on her butt — his Cambodian name, Daravan.

“I just preferred the meaning driving it,” claims Cristina, who is Filipina. “It signifies the moon and stars, but it is deeper than that.”

Because Pho was on parole, locating a occupation was really hard. He started off advertising random stuff doorway-to-doorway: calculators, stuffed animals, calendars. He ongoing to do tattoos on the facet, although.

A single day, a paroled good friend from prison phoned Pho to request if he would assist him at his tattoo studio, Skin Design, in Lexington, N.C. Pho packed his baggage. A yr afterwards, with business enterprise blowing up, the companions obtained permits to open a more substantial room in the close by High Issue community, America’s furnishings money.

This was 1999, in advance of tattoos became as mainstream as Mickey Mouse. Tattoo outlets were being continue to shady as far as Main Road was worried and relegated to regions zoned for strip golf equipment.

“The full community obtained with each other, hired huge-shot attorneys,” Pho states. “They ended up making an attempt to do almost everything in their electric power to get rid of us. There had been individuals with picket symptoms. It was just crazy. We have been on the news each individual day. I had to battle. I wished to show to individuals that we were being just a typical company.”

Pores and skin Structure won the battle, earning Pho a popularity as a winner of tattoo society, as properly as a increasing star in the globe of black-and-gray realism. In 2003, Pho bought out his companion and left North Carolina to open a solo Pores and skin Design studio in Las Vegas. He opened his next shop in Honolulu in 2018. The pursuing yr, he opened a third studio in Brooklyn, N.Y. His fourth Pores and skin Design opened last drop at Rodeo 39 in Stanton, a blink-and-you are going to-overlook-it metropolis in Orange County.

“We were being hunting to appear to California, and then this fell into our lap,” Pho suggests, once more invoking fate. “They attained out to us.”

Nevada resident and loyal client Brooklyn Martell.

Brooklyn Martell shows off her partly done tattoo for the duration of a split in her session with renowned tattoo artist Robert Pho.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

He blessed the new studio the he blesses all his stores: by tattooing his wife, the identical female who was ready for him the working day he walked out of jail. The tattoo: A rendering of their baby’s eye.

Pho now flies into Orange County every single couple months from his household in Hawaii. On one particular new excursion, he expended an afternoon tattooing Brooklyn Martell, who drove 300 miles from Las Vegas. The plant shop proprietor had been lurking on Pho’s Instagram feed, a feast of clean black-and-grey realism, for almost a yr in advance of scheduling him.

“I was obsessing, looking at his films constantly,” she says of Pho’s YouTube channel, Marked Pho Life. “I experienced a savings. I didn’t know what to use it for. And then I utilised it.”

Martell, 29, suggests Pho’s friendship has turn into as expensive to her as the Greek gods he has tattooed on her leg. “The artwork is crazy, but I just adore his presence,” she states. “He has a specific top quality of creating people really feel read.”

Like Pho, Martell’s father was a gang member and in and out of California prisons all her life.

“Robert lived that way of life and turned it about, and now he’s a household man,” she says. “It’s really special when you meet up with a person who’s come out through the other finish.”

Pho suggests he occasionally feels like a therapist.

Clientele fly in from all around the environment to his Honolulu studio, his residence base. Pho spends the day or two with them — or 2½ many years, in the situation of Monte McMann, the Vegas-dependent small business mogul who invested $300,000 for a entire bodysuit. Pho worked on him in eight-hour sessions after a week at his Vegas studio.

“Most men and women, they have a story,” claims Pho, whose tattoos start out at $4,000. “And when they listen to my story, they want to link.”

Some cry on his table, he suggests. “They have a unhappy earlier. Maybe they simply cannot get about it. We discuss about our struggles, our interactions. I really feel like the universe put us collectively.”

Earlier this 12 months, light-weight WBC boxing champ Lord Devin “The Dream” Haney contacted Pho and asked him to fly to Vegas and give him his really first tat: A portrait on his leg of Haney’s 1st knockout. “Thank you Robert Pho for heading insane on my initially tat!” the boxer wrote less than a picture he shared with his nearly 1 million Instagram followers.

In addition to befriending consumers, Pho has a standing for getting treatment of the tattoo artists who pass via his studios, helping them resolve their credit, open bank accounts, get out loans and begin their individual business enterprise when they’re completely ready to go solo.

“I treatment about them,” he says. “With me, they go from becoming a tattoo artist to currently being a businessman.”

Just like he did. Pho, the immigrant who wound up in a gang and then prison, now life in the affluent Hawaii Kai community on the southern shore of Oahu with his wife and 3 daughters — and quickly a digital camera crew.

Tattoo artist Robert Pho.

Tattoo artist Robert Pho at Skin Design and style Tattoo in Stanton.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Moments)

A documentary and reality demonstrate are probably in his potential, even though he signed a nondisclosure arrangement, so the only information he would share is: “It’s gonna be insane.”

Particularly because he’s also set to open up 4 supplemental Skin Style and design studios by the close of 2021: In the Forum Stores at Caesars Palace in Vegas (opening later on this month), Nashville, Miami and Whittier.

Cristina, 48, mentioned she’s all set for whatever.

“It’s nuts entertaining,” she states of lifestyle with her partner. “Everything is spontaneous. I’m however seeking to get employed to it.”

She states they in some cases sit by their pool and marvel at how far they’ve come. “I’m quite proud, pretty proud of him,” she states. “He’s worked so tough. I’m acquiring emotional now. But it is so awesome to see him shine like this.”

In particular due to the fact he has introduced so several many others alongside for the trip. “For true, he’s helped so numerous,” states his wife. “He knows how it is to battle.”

And although he no for a longer period has to stress about income or recognition, there are however struggles. Cristina claims when her husband is restless, he goes out to the property, sits on a blanket in front of their statue of Buddha, lights incense and claims prayers.

Or he goes to the studio and tattoos.

“I get missing in it, and then I do not have to fret about just about anything else,” Pho claims. “I have a major passion for it, more than at any time. It is nuts. I appreciate it as well much. I’m afraid of not tattooing.”

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