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Raul Ortiz slid black latex gloves over his freshly sanitized hands. The 24-year-old tattoo artist mulled over his ink drawer, selecting bottles of red, blue, black, pink, and purple inks. He dabbed the bottom of small plastic inkwells with Vaseline, sticking them onto a Popsicle stick in a neat line. After filling each one to the brim with different colors, Ortiz beckoned his customer to sit in his chair.
Ortiz joined Voodoo Tattoos, located on Aransas Avenue just off South Hackberry Street in Denver Heights, seven years ago. He first became interested in tattooing after experimenting with graffiti-style art, honing his lettering technique. Ortiz never received a formal arts education but is now the main tattoo artist at Voodoo and finds himself next in line to take over the shop.
On Tuesday, Ortiz etched a small elephant holding balloons onto Diamond Huerta’s left arm. The style was simple and was an homage to her son, Huerta explained. The balloons spelled out “Colby,” her 4-month-old’s name. Ortiz didn’t design it – he prefers American traditional style tattoos, he said.
“I like to do the fundamentals – bold lines, saturated color,” he said. “I do some black and gray, [but] it kind of got boring for me. Color is way more fun to me.”
As Ortiz worked on Huerta, Voodoo owner Adolph Arellano, who prefers to go by “KB,” watched from his own cubicle. Arellano recently assumed ownership of the tattoo parlor after former owner Roland Garcia died last Christmas Eve, but Arellano said he’s thinking about turning the reins over to Ortiz in the near future. Arellano said he was impressed by Ortiz and how he made a name for himself in the community.
“He’s come a long way from when he started here,” Arellano said. “He started the way a lot of us did … learning on your own.”
Ortiz still remembers the first tattoo he inked at Voodoo when he was 18 years old: a small pink “Joey” on a woman’s finger.
“I was so nervous,” he said. “I didn’t do that one until a few days after I started working here.”
Since then, Ortiz has grown in his confidence as an artist and developed his own style. He also became more comfortable with strangers. When Ortiz first started at Voodoo, he kept to himself, he said.
“I didn’t talk to many people,” he said. “I grew out of that shyness. … KB talked to me [and said], ‘You gotta talk to them, make them comfortable, help them relax.’ Even people with a bunch of tattoos, they still get nervous.”
Ortiz brings the right attitude to tattooing as well, Arellano said. He described Ortiz as flexible – ready to adapt to different types of skin with specific needles, patient with squirmers, OK with a little blood and plasma leaking out from fresh ink – and fearless.
“You have to have the heart before anything,” he said. “I know people who are good on paper but can’t tattoo. You just gotta want to tattoo, because it’s skin. It’s permanent.”
When Ortiz finishes Huerta’s tattoo, he gives her the rundown – keep the area clean, wash it with water and soap frequently, apply Aquaphor to help it heal, and avoid exposing it to anything that could lead to an infection. If the tattooed area scars, it could mess up the design, he explained.
Huerta held her arm with care as she stood up. She said she heard about Ortiz through her friends. She lives down the street from the shop and had seen it frequently but finally made the decision to visit for her first tattoo. She was able to smile through her session with Ortiz.
“I thought it would hurt a lot worse, but it just burned,” she said.
Huerta plans on returning with her sister Valerie in a few months, after Valerie turns 18, to get matching tattoos. Ortiz is used to repeat customers and tattooing family members of past customers. The people from the neighborhood know the shop well, he said, and his customer base grows through word of mouth.
“When I started, I didn’t really have any clientele,” he said. “I did all the walk-ins, people checking it out, who get one tattoo and just keep going.”
One of his customers has been visiting him since 2013. Ortiz first tattooed Rozlyn Ramos when she turned 18. She still travels to Voodoo for her ink, though she moved to the Far West Side. She brought her husband, Humberto, to Ortiz when they started dating, she said. They come together and often get tatted on the same day.
On Monday, Ortiz etched a crown with wings across Humberto’s throat. Rozlyn put a comforting hand on his ankle while the needle carved
“I only come here because I like the work he did,” she said. “Raul did my whole arm.” She pulls aside her T-shirt sleeve to show off intricate black and gray designs: the Colosseum in Rome, an Aztec temple, the words Mortui Vivos Docent (Latin for “the dead teach the living”).
Though Ortiz has been tattooing Rozlyn for years, they only recently discovered that they were blood relatives.
“Now that I know that, I see [our similar] features and stuff,” Ortiz said. “I didn’t know that until she mentioned my grandpa’s sister is her grandma.”
Ortiz’s tattooing lets him show his family members love and give them permanent reminders of him, he said. He has tattooed his mom (who keeps some of his early, less professional work out of sentimentality), his dad, and his siblings. Tattoos also led Ortiz to his wife, Emily. He gave her her first tattoo four years ago, a small cross on her ankle.
“She was screaming,” he said.
Four tattoos later, he asked her out. Two years later, they got married. They share a 9-month-old daughter named Breeden; her nickname – “Breezy” – is inked across his fingers in the same font as Amazon’s series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It’s one of the 30 tattoos decorating his body. He also has homages to his grandparents on his arm, a portrait of a woman on his hand, a chrysanthemum curling up his neck.
Ortiz’s own tattoos serve as a monument to his passion. He has never had another job, he said. And he doesn’t see himself pivoting away from tattooing anytime soon.
“I love this,” he said. His whole face lights up. “I love what I do. Hopefully, I’ll be next one to own this place.”