On an otherwise nondescript street in Wynwood, a two-story building seems to be breathing fire in the middle of NW 36 Street between Second and Third Avenues. This is the home of Hell Bound City Tattoo. As soon as you walk in, you quickly realize this isn't South Beach. When have you seen devotion to something other than the almighty dollar when visiting the highly overrated, overpriced Tattoos by Lou?
Hell Bound has a picture of what looks like Hemingway on its wall. We ask Esteban Dalpra, the shop's Argentinian proprietor, "Who's the old man?" "Oh,
that's Sailor Jerry," he explains, considered the God of tattoos. Born in 1911, Sailor Jerry was an unofficial pirate who
mentored the likes of the ubiquitous Ed Hardy and pretty much created
the foundation for modern tattoo culture.
After this brief history lesson, we spoke to Esteban about the tattoos he refuses to do, why inking in Wynwood is better than inking in South Beach, and the lasting impact of Miami Ink.
Esteban prefers tattooing Wynwood's clientele. There are no
drunken frat boys stumbling in from Ocean Drive. Esteban says that
Hell Bound customers "are more educated. They do research on the design
and on the artists. They know what they want. They have thought about
it." Most of Hell Bound's clientele want traditional (pin-ups, '50s,
sailor-style designs) or Japanese art. Due to the urban demographic in
Wynwood, lots of customers also want black and gray gangsta-style
There are some tattoos he refuses to do. When he talks about his work, you can see he takes tattoo art very seriously. He isn't one to jump at the chance to take $400 from a drunken tourist who wants a tramp stamp of a careening dolphin to take back to Minnesota. In fact, he once gave a deposit back to a customer when he found out the dragon tattoo the customer wanted wasn't a Japanese-style dragon, but a cheesy medieval dragon with equally tacky adornments.
On his inspirations: Esteban practically glows when he speaks about the artists he has been influenced by and still admires, like Mike Wilson, Bob Roberts, and Horiyoshi, and the contemporary, legend-in-the-making tattoo artist, Frederico Ferroni. "He makes new styles and totally surpasses the artists I was influenced by, like in a flash, in no time."
How Miami Ink changed the industry: Esteban says the Miami Ink phenomenon has done both good and bad for the industry. The show made tattoos more acceptable to a society that previously considered tattooed flesh the mark of criminals and sailors. Miami Ink made it okay for suburbanites to get tatted up, "When the show started, they would focus on the story behind the tattoo. Some girl lost her cat, and she came in for a tattoo of the cat. Understanding the reasons behind the tattoos made it more acceptable in society."
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The problem that resulted is that 20 tattoo shops sprouted up in South Beach, when previously there had been only one or two. With so many shops, artists became more like salespeople, trying to get that one sale before the customer walked half a block to another shop and a better sales pitch. With that much competition, customers could become scarce. "How many people can you tattoo?" asks Esteban.
Hell Bound artists spend a lot of time fixing other's tattoo fails. Unfortunately, lots of potential customers don't educate themselves and end up with bad tatts they got at the flea market or the Beach, which is why Hell Bound makes a lot of its business from cover-ups. Although he rather do more original work, it makes Esteban happy when he can turn someone's bad tattoo into something they can be proud of. "Sometimes it changes their life." See the below before and afters:
If there was ever any doubt that Hell Bound is about the art of tattoos, we dismissed it after watching one of the employees, George, drawing new designs for a book while Social Distortion plays in the background:
Lucky enough to be there when someone came in for a tattoo of a
phoenix, we got to see Esteban in action. As soon as his client was
ready, Esteban turned up the music and put needle to skin. This time,
the soundtrack was Number Nines: