Rodrigo Melo: interview by Crez
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Rodrigo Melo is a good friend of mine: I love his works, his philosophy and his sense of humor. We’ve met in Amsterdam and kept hanging out as much as possible. We’ve worked together both in Venice and in New York, and traveled together a lot. We’ve many common friends and a very similar taste in tattooing. I’m very happy to have the chance to interview him, this guy has a lot of cool things to say.

When and how did you get started in tattooing?
My interest in tattooing started with my older brother Alessandro. Being 6 years younger than him I looked up to him. My brother was always into alternative things. One day he came home with a tribal spiral kind of tattoo, I thought that it was the coolest thing ever. He told me stories of how the tattoo artist had a monkey in a huge cage in his apartment and how he use to sell weed to Cypress Hill, all this while living above a police station. For as long as I could remember drawing was something that I always enjoyed. Around the age of 15 my interest in becoming a tattoo artist was sparked. I started to collect tattoo magazines and submerging myself in the culture anyway I could. I would go into tattoo shops asking for an apprenticeship, they would tell me that I couldn’t even be in the shop because I was under 18.

I began saving my pennies from working after school with my father making cabinets. Put that together with some money I got from my grandmother for Christmas and ordered a Spaulding and Rogers tattoo kit from the back of one of my tattoo magazines I was collecting and studying at 16. It wasn’t until I met Harry Seda in Puerto Rico that I started really figuring things out. Harry was the first good tattooer that I became friends with. I never got a formal apprenticeship from Harry but I got tattooed by him and Harry was always open to answer all my questions. He introduced me to the magnum needle that changed my tattooing forever. We are good friends upto today. The first job tattooing I got was because of his recommendation. It was a studio that no longer exists called Casa de la Raza in Old San Juan Puerto Rico. I was 1997 I was 18.

How long did it take to get the first proper results?
This is a tricky question… I’m still working on my technique. I think it took me at least 7-10 year before I had a better grasp on what I was doing.

Rodrigo Melo, San Diego, California
Rodrigo Melo, San Diego, California

Do you consider painting a part of your learning process? Tell me about your drawing and painting routine…
I truly believe that you need to have at least 2 mediums to be a well rounded tattoo artist. Painting for me is just as important as tattooing. The more I paint the better tattooer I become. And vice versa. Now when I say painting, don’t get me wrong, I’m not in any way a fine artist. What I call painting most people would consider a work study. I only really paint tattoo theme ideas, and yes they are a tattoo study. I personally believe that paper is the best place to practice, not skin. Whenever I have a title I would like to tattoo I first make a painting of it, that way I can show it to customers and hopefully eventually someone will give me the privilege of tattooing it on them. Painting also helps me as a way to release my inspiration. Whatever I feel like painting I can, at any time. No need to wait around the shop for someone to ask for it. You would be waiting forever.

I use FW Liquid acrylic to paint using some watercolor techniques on Arches paper. I find it similar to tattooing because it’s a one shot deal. Once it dries it doesn’t move so you can do layers similar to tattooing. This is just my personal preference. I got put on the the FW’s in the early 2000’s by a great tattooer that I admire and was tattooed by from Philadelphia PA called Martin Lacasse. I also like to draw with pencil directly on the paper no tracing or tracing paper. I find that by doing it this way I keep my imagery more simple, I tend not to over do the detail as much. Also I find it that the more times you trace and trace the less and less soul your paintings have. At least for me. I feel like that in this style repetition is important, drawing flowers and background over and over, until the point that you can draw anything with your eyes closed. Eventually you can freehand a tattoo. This is the point of it all the drawing and painting. Stencils are great and at times necessary and I would not be where I am without them, but to me freehand is the absolute best way. The most raw form of the art. I paint as often as I can. I am fortunate to have a wife that is an amazing artist and also likes to paint. So we put on some conspiracy theory podcasts and paint the night away. Well…now mostly during the day since we have a little newborn at home.

Before you’ve started tattooing were you involved in any subculture? Punk, dark, metal, rock and roll, rap?
I was always into music from a very young age. At home my father would constantly be playing music, mostly Samba and other Brazilian music like Soul and Funk from the 60’s and 70’s. Growing up in New York City I was exposed to many subcultures. I would have to say that skateboarding was a big thing for me as child. I think that being an immigrant and growing up in New York City really opened my mind to lots of genres of music. Hip-Hop, Punk Rock and Reggae, New York Hardcore, Electronic, Metal, and Classic Rock. I never stopped listening to Brazilian music, and I got into some more Latin music after living in Puerto Rico for few years. I always had a very eccentric taste in music and still do, I get bored listening to just one genre. As far as tattoos are concerned, the Punk Rock and Hardcore scenes were by far the most inspiring.

I remember going to see punk and hardcore bands play on St. Marks in a place that no longer exists called Coney Island High with some friends.

Then after we would walk to the subway station and talk about some of the tattoos we saw that night in the pit. It was normally on some huge dude with a tribal gargoyle backpiece or a burning skull on the side of some crazy skinheads face or some dude with a crown of thorns tattooed on the head. Just talking about it brings me back. Things were simpler then. Eventually I started to link the tattoos with the artist that were getting busy in New York at the time. Every time I’d ask someone where they got tattooed they would say things like “I got it in Brooklyn with this guy Mike” or “I got it in L.E.S with this Lady Andrea” or “Oh yeah this was this guy Tony in his basement”. Back in those days nobody knew anybodies last name and it didn’t matter, those who know, know who I’m talking about. Because having a tattoo shop at that time was not legal, nobody was really advertising either. So, yeah, to answer your question subculture definitely played a part in me wanting to start tattooing. Going against the grain always had a great appeal to me, and I still live my life this way.

If you have to pick three tattoo artists that inspire your work who would you mention and why?
Wow! This is a hard question. There are way too many to mention because I have been through so many changes since I started in 97’. Ok so I couldn’t honestly do an interview without mentioning Ivan Szazi. He has definitely been a huge inspiration to me. The direction of my work completely changed after I met and got my backpiece done by him at his studio Four Elements in Sao Paolo, Brazil. At the time I was tattooing for about 10 years. I think it was his bold aesthetic. It was the first time that I saw someones work that was so clean and legible in a classic Japanese style. I was also attracted to the solid coverage and especially the heavy black. I remember thinking that this was the kind of tattoos I wanted to do. One of the most underrated artists today in my opinion. I also have to mention Rico and Shion of Daruma Goya in Japan. I met Rico around 2003 and Shion soon after. We became friends and I had the privilege of working with them and getting extensively tattooed by them as well. I learned allot about Japanese tattooing from them. I really appreciate the authentic approach to traditional tattooing that they have. The knowledge behind the designs. I am lucky to know them. I know that you asked for 3 artist but I’d also like to thank and mention you, Crez, for being such a cool guys and for being so open with your knowledge. You seriously know your stuff. I thing we met you and Stefy at the opening of the Amsterdam Tattoo Museum quite a few years back now. I learn something every time we hang out. I still remember you telling me that you buy at least one machine a year to try and experiment, I think it’s great you have such an open mind to new ideas and technology.

From my experience I found most tattooers to be very closed minded and hard headed when it comes to their equipment and technique.

In some ways I can understand, because it takes a lot of time and effort just to be able to get it in right. So a lot of people are afraid to change what works for them. I know because I was one of these people. But you inspired me to break that idea. And that has been a big step forward for me and my work. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you on the record for putting me on to cartridge system. Something I would probably never try if it wasn’t for you. It is literally the biggest and most positive change in my tattooing since I found out about the magnum needle my first year in. I have been wanting to go all disposable at my shop for a while but never did because I just didn’t like lining with a plastic tube. I don’t know, something about it didn’t feel right. I had already been using rotaries to shade for some years at that point, mostly because of the weight. Heavy coil machines were getting to my hands. Doing mostly large scale work will do that to some of us. I had seen some people work with cartridges before. But I was never sold on them because at the time cartridge tubes were not disposable. So when you did a guest at my studio North Star in New York City and showed me how you were using a disposable tube in combination with the cartridge system, I really liked this idea. Once I tried using that setup, it was a wrap. It defiantly simplified my equipment a lot, thus simplifying my life.

From when you started, how has the business evolved in your country?
A lot has changed since the time I started, most of all the biggest change has been in the amount of new tattooers out there. It is really mind boggling. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that tattooing is mainstream now more than ever before in human history. I remember when I was walking around the east village looking for an apprenticeship and one guy in a shop told me “You want to learn how to tattoo NOW? It’s too late, there are already way to many tattooers in the world already.” And this was 97’. I guess no one could of guessed what would happen.

Machines (rotary or coil), Tebori (hand tools) or both? What’s your choice? Why?
I truly believe that if you practice enough you can tattoo well with any set up. Nowadays I like using direct drive rotary machines in combination with a disposable cartridge system.
I prefer the light weight, consistency and the no give strength of the direct drive. I love that I have the same setup no matter whether I’m working at the studio or traveling doing conventions and guest spots. No guess work or adjustment period, always on point. Don’t get me wrong. I love coil machines and think they are super nice. Most of my career I tattooed with coil. Iv done woke bodysuits with coil. But if I was to keep tattooing for as long as I could, I had to find something lighter. As an artist your hands are all you have.

Can you list a top five of your favorite visual artists of all eras? What is attractive of their work in your opinion?
I don’t know if this is a question I can honestly answer. I believe that we are a product of all we have ever seen. For this interview I feel it would be appropriate to mention some of my top inspiration for my work. Katsushika Hokusai, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Utawa Kuniyoshi, Utagawa Toyokuni, Okumura Masanobu.

How do you feel about the “ban” of tattooing in Japan?
I feel like it is very unfortunate. I would not be surprised if this were to start happening all around the world. In Brazil they already have some law about what equipment you could use, and I hear other countries are having these kinds of ideas as well. I can only hope that with time things will change.

What’s the most challenging subject for you and why?
Most challenging for me personally is figurative subjects. Most of the time this involves much more knowledge as fas as story of the title. It is challenging, but also the most fun and one of the things I like doing the most as of late. I feel like you only really learn when you are challenged.

Follow Rodrigo Melo on Instagram: @rodrigomelotattoo
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