More than ink: Local tattoo artist brings community to Cal State LA

Joshua Letona, Entertainment Managing Editor

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“Not all stories are written down or spoken. Some stories are inscribed upon bodies.”

 These are the opening words displayed for the exhibit, “Established in Ink: Asian American Tattoos from the Street to the Studio,” inside Cal State LA’s library.

 The exhibit featured the work of local tattoo artist Richard Vasak, whose presence brought more than just the Cal State LA community. 

 “Growing up in L.A., I came from a tough upbringing, but what changed my life and saved it was art. Now, I’m able to tattoo clients from all over the world… bring all these people to Alhambra,” said Vasak. The artist taps into his Asian American heritage to create designs that carry meaning.

 Vasak works at two tattoo shops: Inkfiend Art Studio and IFA2, both in Alhambra where, before, he was a former inmate. The exhibit featured some of the tools used to give prison tattoos, along with a video about the process.

Not only did some attendees know  Vasak, but they also donned tattoos done by the artist himself.

 Carlos Colin, a criminal justice major from Orange Coast College, said he spent weeks searching for a tattoo artist. Colin had heard stories about people simply going to a local shop and regretting it after.

 After coming across Japanese-style art and artists, Colin discovered Vasak. He said he contacted Vasak through Instagram and phone calls until he finally heard back.

 “One day, Richard calls me in the middle of the night… I start telling him my ideas and he tells me, ‘Hey you know what, man? Those are great ideas and I know it’s your first tattoo… tell me about your life.’ Well right now, I’m transferring from being an introvert to an extrovert… but I’m also trying to keep my friends and family close,” said Colin.

 Colin said Vasak came up with the idea of a phoenix on his chest, which represents rebuilding, a new life. A tiger to represent strength and bamboo for balance. “Right there… I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

 Colin wasn’t the only former client of Vasak who attended; Andy Banh, a biology major from Cal State Long Beach, came, along with his friend, Eric Nguyen, a student from Golden West College.

 “I don’t think I’m going to any other tattoo shop other than Richard… My brother was the first one to show me his art. He got a full back tat from him. [Vasak] gave me my first tat,” said Banh, a client of Vasak’s who received a dragon and a foo dog tattoo from the artist.

 “I really love his artwork. Compared to other Asian tattoos, from what I saw, he’s a bit more unique… [there’s] a little storytelling,” said Nguyen, who made an appointment with Vasak for later this year.

 Nguyen was thinking about getting a geisha on the right side of his chest and a samurai on his arm. 

 “When I first started tattooing, it was 19 years ago and there was a real big [stigma]… but throughout the years, it’s become mainstream because of the designs,” said Vasak. “All the tattoos I’ve done… have a special place in my heart.”

 The exhibit is open on the first floor, north wing of the Cal State LA library until March 23.

UPDATED: Feb. 3 @ 4:25 p.m.