Interview with Levi Hilton | Unique Tattoo Style | USA 07/01/2022

  Hello Levi Hilton! Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for our readers. I really appreciate and I hope our conversation will inspire many young people to learn more about the tattoo scene today.

Please start by telling us something about yourself and your background. What made you to start tattooing? Growing up I was always coloring and drawing ninja turtles. I think that’s what really made me interested in drawing. As I got older I got more into drawing dragon ball characters and more anime style stuff. From there I found out about hentai and that held my attention for the last few decades! I don’t think I was a stand out artist, growing up, although. I had a lot of friends that I felt drew way better than I did. I don’t think I took drawing seriously until I started tattooing and then realized I needed to really focus on getting better.

Q: What made you to start tattooing? Was it hard to learn the basics?
A: I wish I could say I knew exactly what I was getting into when I decided I wanted to learn how to tattoo. I just thought it’d be a fun job. I thought it’d let me sleep in late and even if it was just doing lettering all day, I still saw it as art and that seemed better than working at Sears. It was hard to learn the basics. I feel like I’m still learning the basics. I think one way you can divide tattooers is by art-minded or technically-minded and I’m definitely art-minded. I’ve worked around technically-minded people and their tattoos are always so clean and solid and achieving that is what they love about tattooing. I’m definitely more interested in the drawing, color palette, and achieving a certain look or emotion. The technical aspects of tattooing have always been something I’ve had to be very mindful of because my brain doesn’t focus on that sort of stuff naturally.

Q: I like your style today, very cool, vibrant, cartoonish... not boring for sure! Love it! But what type of tattoos you use to do as a beginner? How has your style developed over time?
A: Thank you! I definitely started out thinking I’d be doing more of a neo trad kinda thing. But pretty early on I saw some new school tattoos and knew that’s what I wanted to try to get into. All the things I’d drawn my whole life fit more into that style and it came way more naturally to me.

Q: Do you think that is better for one artist to stick to one style and master it as much as possible, get recognised and thrive, instead of trying to do all kinds of stuff at once?
A: I personally try to see the merits of any choice you can make. There are as many ways to live as there are people on the planet, so I try not to get too opinionated on things like this, as far as what is ‘better’. I think different people benefit from different things and each person has to find their own balance. The more you look at other styles outside of your own, the more things you’ll be aware of, as far as drawing or rendering goes. Being exposed to different styles of tattooing will help give you options when you’re approaching a design. Sometimes you may wanna do a rose more realistically rendered, but in another design it may be better to approach it more simply and traditionally. I personally try to focus on my own style, but I’m always looking at and studying other types of tattooing. I have my favorite tattooers in every style, so if I’m struggling with an element I can refer to someone better than me in a different style and try to problem solve an answer for what’s best for my design. Long story short, there is no right way or wrong way, you just have to put in an honest effort at getting better and learning more. That seems to be the only thing that truly matters.

Q: What do you like the most about your style? Do you feel like this type of designs give you more creative freedom, unlike let's say, doing tattoo realism when detailed "perfection" is a "minimum" requirement?
A: I don’t know that I feel any sense of freedom. I wish I did. I feel very free and creative when I’m sketching...that’s my favorite part of the process, the sketching. Once the sketch is done and all my values are laid out, I put a lot of energy into color decisions and trying to render everything out. It’s a very involved process for me and gives me a lot of anxiety and stress. I’m making everything up on the fly but trying to approach things in a way the seems a little true to nature. Exaggerated, but based on my shallow understanding of how colors actually act in real life. I’m sweating just thinking about it! But the thing I like most about my style in particular is the drawing. I think I’m good at adapting different hand-drawn styles into my own work. You can see the obvious anime influences, as well as western animation styles and specific artists such as Bruce Timm.

Q: The new school style is like a cool, funny upgrade to the well know old school style, but it's so much liberating. In a way like a satirical way of expression. At least that's how I see it, what's your opinion?
A: Yea, in a way it is much more light-hearted and joking. But I don’t really try to approach it that way. I want my tattoos to be very dramatic and dynamic. Exaggerated and impactful. A lot of clients do come in and want more “playful” or “cartoony” images and of course I’m happy to accommodate that, but I think when it comes to the things I want to make, I imagine things to be more muted and melancholy.

- You're so talented, I think you should do like a comic book with some crazy characters and cool story lines : )
Thanks! I’ve actually thought about doing a Batman comic, once or twice, but I doubt I’ll ever make that happen.

Q: Having new styles, new ways of working, from a technical point of view, a lot things have changed. Remember the early 2000 and the damn tribal tattoos? The cross and a rose designs oh I think that was 2010... yup! Hah and now we have a whole new generation of young, really creative people, digital painting, drawings on pen tablets... I love the progress. It's like a tattoo renaissance... what are your thoughts?
A: I love it. I love to see new things and I love the energy that has been brought into tattooing. Some of it is a little misguided, some styles are just fads that’ll disappear in a year or two. But overall, I think it’s all good. The more variety you have, the more healthy things are and the harder you have to work to be average, let alone rise above. A lot has changed since I started tattooing and it’s all ended up for the better, I think. Machines and ink brands have come and gone, but the best things rise to the top and seem to be the things that last. I know a lot of people worry about change and have a more cynical outlook towards younger tattooers but I hate gatekeeping and I definitely don’t feel like I’d be in any position to be a gatekeeper of tattooing. I’m just grateful to be here and have people make me feel like I belong.

Q: I think having good drawing skills is a "must" in tattooing, even though tattooing on its own it's a technique that must be learned but still, I believe drawing is like that first stepping stone. Do you agree?
A: I agree with that for myself. My drawings are really the foundation and everything else is just icing on the cake. But some people are great at rendering values and others are great at designing shapes that flow on the body. Some people do digital mock ups of everything they tattoo and they don’t really “draw” at all. It’s all valid. I draw a lot. I learn things through drawing. I would like if I was thought of as a good illustrator. But everyone’s process is their own and I like that we’re all so different. I love seeing how other people go about designing things. I feel like I can learn so much about a person by seeing their process for coming up with a design and I’m here for it.

Q: I saw really cool drawings I your portfolio, I don't have a favorite, I simply love them all. Do you draw for each client? Do you use some reference images?
A: Thank you! Yeah, I try and draw every thing I tattoo. Again, I believe a lot of my style is in the drawing so I want to make sure I’m able to leave my mark. I appreciate any references my clients send so that I can know where their head is at with what they’re wanting, but as much as I can, I try to draw things out of my head. I try to rough sketch my layout and shapes and then use reference to dial things in and make adjustments as I need them. Like, if I’m drawing a wolf, but for some reason it’s giving off more of a fox vibe, I’ll look up wolves and try to see what exactly I got out of proportion. That’s how I go about it.

Q: I bet you hear crazy stories every day from your clients, what's like the weirdest/funniest tattoo idea you have heard of? Hah
A: A long, long time ago I did a tattoo of sushi on a girl, right above her vagina, and it had a banner that said, “eat it raw”! I still think about that tattoo a lot. I wish I could redo it now. I know so much more about drawing, tattooing, and sushi.

- What would be the funniest tattoo you would like to do on your best friend?
I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it. Again, I’m always imagining tattooing sad girls or pin ups. I’m not so clever at coming up with funny tattoos.

Q: How important is to be open minded with your clients when it comes to tattoo ideas? Have you ever turned down someone?
A: I try to be as open as possible. If you go in closed off, you’re not gonna be able to creatively problem solve, and in my opinion, so much of designing tattoos is problem solving. So I try to really understand what they’re looking for so I can get the idea and make suggestions accordingly to try to lead someone to an image that I think will be successful. I only turn people down if there’s someone readily available that could do a better job. I’ve had to turn down a couple people because we weren’t seeing eye to eye, but over 14 years that’s only happened two or three times. But I just want my clients to not only get a good tattoo, I want them to have a great experience with me. I try to accommodate them in anyway I can so they remember me well. I like knowing my clients are happy with their tattoos, but when they tell me that they really enjoyed talking with me and had their best tattoo experience, it means a lot. I’ve met so many great artists that have been such shitty people. I have tattoos from people like that, and I honestly would prefer a subpar tattoo from someone I love than an amazing tattoo from someone I hate being around. I think about that feeling a lot. As a tattooer I come and go in peoples lives pretty quickly. I know they carry the tattoo forever, but I just hope the tattoo is tied to a pleasant experience. I learned a few years back that it’s pretty impossible to be the best tattooer on the planet, but it isn’t impossible to make sure my clients feel appreciated and cared for... so I try my best to be mindful and focus on that.

Q: To be a tattoo artist is truly amazing. You're giving a part of yourself with your knowledge and experience in every tattoo. Then the client has a life "mark" on their skin and also remembers you. That's a special dynamic in my opinion. Not all professions are like this. What do you like the most about being a tattoo artist?
A: I wish I had the words, but I feel like I’ll never be able to express this. What do I love most about tattooing? Everything. I love how hard it is, even though I also hate how hard it is. I love that it keeps me struggling because I’ve never felt like I could just coast through a tattoo. I’m always giving 100%. I love the feeling of running a line at the perfect depth. I love how you can feel the vibrations traveling through the skin in the hand I use to stretch. The sound of coil machines. The smell of bactine and green soap. Seeing a clients face when they’re beyond stoked. Tattooing someone and making them feel more comfortable in their own skin. Covering scars or stretch marks that make them feel self-conscious. It’s the best. I’m so fortunate to do this.

Q: We live in very uncertain times now with the ongoing pandemic. Many tattoo artists are struggling with the restrictions and overall livelihood. How are you? How this whole situation affects you as a person but also as an artist?
A: *sigh* it’s hard to talk about this, because I’m so aware that I have it great compared to other people. I’m so fortunate. But mentally, it’s fucking rough. I just recently relocated to San Diego, California this summer and being new out here is a little hard. No clientele yet and it’s hard to build one in this climate. I mean, America is kind of a shit show right now and the pandemic is only a part of it. It’s taken a toll on everyone’s mental health and we all feel it. But we’re all just doing our best to get through it and provide. It’s hard, but again, I’m getting by.

Q: Are you available for bookings? If so, please write down your email and studio location.
A: Yes! I work at Guru Tattoo in Pacific Beach of San Diego, CA!

Q: Any motivational words for the people who want to try getting into this business?
A: Just work hard. Really apply yourself to learning and be open to failure. Failure is such a bad word. You’re just learning. You have to make mistakes to learn from them. It’s part of it and the more you embrace it and understand how to deal with it, the better off you’ll be. Take advice. If someone belittles you, try to take the lesson from it, but don’t take it to heart. Being an artist is so hard. The harder you push yourself to get better, the more you’re convincing yourself that you’re not good enough. Be mindful of that and try to remember to love yourself and be patient with yourself. If you can remember that and really work hard on learning to draw, you’ll be ok. Watch art videos on YouTube. How to draw. How to render. Anatomy. YouTube is such a powerful resource. Work harder than anyone is asking you to and you’ll do great. I worry about young people getting into tattooing. As much as I love tattooing, there’s a lot of toxic and problematic people here. People like to imagine this industry as the Wild West and you have to be prepared for that. People are gonna talk shit to you and about you. Try to break you down and take advantage of you. Set your boundaries and work your ass off. There are great people in this community who want to see everyone flourish and reach their full potential. Seek those people out. Be yourself and again, I can’t say it enough, throw yourself into it head first and work hard. Give yourself to it. It pays off.