At the age of 26, High Noon Tattoo's Manny Hernandez is still working on making his name in the Phoenix tattooing scene, but the traditional-style tattooer wouldn't have it any other way.
"I haven't done a lot of international shows or anything very far away with tattooing yet, because I think you have to represent yourself in your area," Hernandez says. "I believe in planting my feet and spending as much time out here as possible, because this is where I'm going to be."
Hernandez moved to the Valley when he was 14 to get away from drug and gang problems in Roswell, New Mexico. He credits Phoenix's skateboarding and music scenes for helping him realize that he wanted to tattoo in the first place.
"I started going to a lot of punk rock and hardcore shows, and skateboarding and stuff," Hernandez says. "Those guys were all covered in tattoos, mostly traditional tattoos, so I think that's where I really started thinking it was cool."
It wasn't until early 2008 that Hernandez began considering tattooing for a living. He previously built furniture for a living, but that industry took a hit when the housing market crashed.
"A buddy knew I drew, but I never seriously considered doing it for a job," Hernandez says. "I'd been getting tattooed at this little shop in Scottsdale or Tempe, and I started talking to this biker dude that owned it.
"The apprenticeship kind of fell into my lap, but it wasn't easy. I was working every day for 11 hours for no pay and no way to get another job," Hernandez says. "The term 'starving artist' exists because it's so tough to do your own art and make a living."
There were several times when Hernandez considered quitting his apprenticeship, but the death of a friend caused him to stick to it.
"While I was apprenticing, a buddy who was a piercer there passed away," Hernandez says. "He told me that he thought I had something special. I wanted to see it out because he said he saw something in me, that was enough of a reason for me to get through it."
Over half a decade later, Hernandez is now an experienced and versatile tattooer. While he describes his style as "based in traditional," he means solely in style, not necessarily in content.
"When people hear 'traditional,' they always think of eagles and roses and panthers and stuff, but it's really just the style of tattooing," Hernandez says. "I don't mind tattooing anything, but for things like portraits or Chicano black and grey tattoos, I'd tell people to seek out a specialist for those."
What are some of your tattoos? I've got a lot of stuff on my arms from when I was younger and didn't know what I wanted. I got a ton of tattoos not knowing what I was doing, I just wasn't taking it seriously enough. All I knew was that I wanted to be covered in tattoos. It was a blessing in disguise though, because otherwise I wouldn't be tattooing. I try to educate people when they come in here now. Like if a kid wants a hand or neck or face tattoo, I'll explain to them that they won't be able to get certain jobs once they have it.
What's a memorable tattoo you've done? I used to work out in Glendale about three or four years ago. After I was there for about a year, this chick comes in that I'd tattooed before. We started talking and she said she wanted a tattoo on her lower back that said "shipping in the rear" with an arrow pointing down to her ass. I thought she was joking, so I went to the back of the shop to put something away, came back and asked her what she wanted again. She was serious, so I drew it up and started tattooing her. Everything went wrong that could've gone wrong. She couldn't sit still, the vibe was strange, all the other tattooers were laughing. That was the one I won't forget, but I still try not to turn many tattoos down.
What's the most important thing to you about a tattoo? It has to be very readable. It doesn't necessarily matter if it's traditional or stylized, just that you can tell what it is and that it's tattooed well. Every tattoo should have its own style, no matter what it is. It doesn't have to be some amazing, crazy tattoo that you've never seen before, just be able to tell what it is.
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What do you look for in an artist or a tattoo shop? A lot of it is being comfortable with whoever is tattooing you. You can walk into some tattoo shops and it seems like no one wants you there. We all do our best here to make you feel comfortable. The next step after that is just someone who has solid fundamentals of tattooing. They should also be confident, but not cocky or super full of themselves. You don't want some weird tension between you two.
Would you change anything about your tattoos or tattooing if you could? Earlier on, I didn't have the mindset of caring if I tattooed a person's hand or face, because I figured they'd get it done somewhere else if I didn't do it. Now, I've learned to read it and sway some kids to get a tattoo on their forearm instead of on their hand. I'd probably set more limitations on what I was tattooing early on. A ton of my friends have horrible tattoos from me from when I was apprenticing, but that's the reason why I am where I am now.
What's one piece of advice you'd give to someone getting their first tattoo? Look at portfolios. Even if it's not your first tattoo, that's important. Come in with an idea of what you want, but not something so strict that you can't work with it. You want to have something to jump off of, but trust the artist with what they want to do from there. Just research to see if people's tattoos are what you like. It's a serious decision, but it's not that serious, so don't be nervous.