How an Underage Illegal Immigrant Became One of the Valley's Hottest Tattoo Artists
Andrick Aviles is a tattoo artist who makes house calls.
Over the past three years, he's dropped in on famous people like Arizona Cardinal Adrian Wilson and former Phoenix Sun Amar'e Stoudemire. When he doesn't come to their houses, they go to his — a modest, ranch-style house in central Phoenix with a red Radio Flyer wagon on the dirt lot out front and a spare bedroom converted into a home tattoo studio in the back. It's a little unorthodox, but it's not just because Aviles was 16 when he started tattooing.
It's because illegal immigrants need to stay in the shadows.
Niki D'Andrea cover story
For a few months last year, Aviles worked under the radar (and under the table) at a tattoo shop in Glendale. "I worked at a shop before," he says on a Wednesday evening in mid-May, while shading a tattoo of a client's father. "And they didn't care about paying me under the table. I mostly just work out of my house now."
He gets jobs via Facebook, his Tumblr page, and word of mouth. He's tattooed most of his immediate family and high school friends. Then he tattooed Earl Clark (then with the Suns, now with the Orlando Magic) and Clark told his friends. Soon Aviles' client list included Clark, two Arizona Cardinals (wide receiver Early Doucet and safety Adrian Wilson), Cincinnati Bengals tackle Tank Johnson, and Stoudemire, who's now a New York Knick.
That's quite something for a working-class kid like Andrick Aviles.
"We went to Amar'e Stoudemire's house in Chandler a few times — it was a big house — and there was a different car out front every time we went there," he remembers. "The first time, there was a Bentley, then a black Lamborghini, then something else. It was crazy."
Aviles tattooed a large number 3 (an homage to Stoudemire's third child) on the 6-foot-10 basketball player's left forearm. He recalls that a woman rubbed numbing cream on Stoudemire before Aviles started working. "I've never seen anybody else do that," he says with a smile.
Among Aviles' many fans is artist Sage O'Connell, who's been tattooing for almost 20 years and owns both Urban Art Tattoo locations in the Valley (one in Tempe, the other in Mesa).
"I had a kid come into the shop and tell me about Andrick's work and show me his Tumblr page," O'Connell says. "His work is great. His portraiture and black-and-gray work is phenomenal. The kid's really talented. He's going places."
Soft-spoken and baby-faced, Aviles is a renegade prodigy. He's been drawing since he was 4 and tattooing since he was 16. When he turned 18, he could have easily gotten a job in a tattoo parlor. But being in the country illegally made that tough, so he's had to work out of his home.
Turns out, that's illegal, too — a class 6 felony under state law. Arizona does not heavily regulate the tattoo industry and doesn't require individuals to possess any kind of tattoo artist license, but the city of Phoenix governs tattoo parlors through a special permit process. The shops are then responsible for making sure they meet health code requirements, like using clean needles and sterilization equipment used by medical facilities. And it's illegal in Arizona to tattoo anyone under 18 without the presence of a parent or legal guardian.
Aviles chuckles at the idea of asking somebody for their identification in his spare bedroom. He doesn't have fancy sterilizing equipment, so he uses only disposable needles and tubes that are sterilized and medically sealed, using new ones for every tattoo. He also wears latex gloves, which he changes frequently. To get more jobs, he charges about a third less than he'd be getting if he worked at a shop, and he gives steeper discounts to his friends.
There are so many things Aviles wants to do here as a tattoo artist that are so much easier with a work visa — like participate in tattoo conventions, maybe get a guest spot on a reality show like Miami Ink or L.A. Ink, legally work out of a shop, maybe even run his own. He's had a long time to think about it.
The Aviles family came to the United States from Mexico, planning to stay for three months. That was 18 years ago.
Andrick, his father, Armando, and his mother, Yolanda, began the process of trying to get permanent U.S. residency two years after they arrived in Phoenix from Mexico City in 1993 to stay with Yolanda's brother, a U.S. citizen.
New Times has followed the Aviles family since February. No one in the family's been back to Mexico or seen their extended family in almost 20 years. Armando has been painting houses for decades but can't get a contractor's license. And after waiting 16 years for an interview with immigration officials, the family came up a few thousand dollars short of their required fines and fees earlier this year.
For Andrick, who was 2 when his family moved here, life in Arizona is all he knows. He says he doesn't remember anything about Mexico; he's never visited. Like many young American kids, he likes classic rock, brand-name sneakers, riding his bicycle, and going to the mall.
About the only thing he does that succinctly taps into his Mexican heritage and culture is his tattooing style — particularly his elaborate, stunningly realistic black-and-gray portraits.
When Aviles takes his tattooing needle to his friend Corey's arm on a Friday night in late April, he gets an intense look of concentration on his face, the kind of impenetrable focus athletes call "being in the zone." He hunches over the purple stencil of a gypsy woman he transferred onto the skin with carbon paper, and begins to draw the needle over her hairline, etching her thick curls into Corey's flesh. Beneath the buzzing of the needle, Aviles softly hums along to Stevie Wonder's "For Once in My Life" on his stereo.
There's no baby face when he's working. Aviles' thick, dark eyebrows are furrowed; his lips are pursed, and his tongue pokes out the corner of his mouth when he's scribbling a particularly tricky detail. He's a perfectionist about his work, and pores over his portfolio, pointing out all the things he could have done better. Aviles points to a photo of an intricate tattoo he did of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper and mentions that if he could do it over, he'd add a lot more detail to the faces. "Some people think tattoos are dirty or whatever," Aviles says. "But to me, it's art."
The black and gray "Fineline Style" that Andrick Aviles uses is a hallmark of Chicano tattoos. This style was developed in prisons and refined on the streets of Los Angeles. In addition to the fine needlework and lack of color, Chicano tattoos are known for particular imagery: portraits of loved ones (often "in memoriam"), religious iconography (both Aztec and Catholic), Old English lettering, and designs that pay tribute to the bearers' heritage, hometowns, and, often, gangs.
Tattooing has been part of Mexico's culture for centuries. Aztecs and other native tribes, as far back as the 1300s, would get tattoos to intimidate opponents during battle. The Chicano tattoo style as we know it today began in the 1940s surrounding the pachuco gang culture in the barrios of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. The earliest Chicano tattoos were done with a sewing needle dipped in India ink, and one of the most popular images (still prominent today) is a small pachuco cross, usually tattooed between the forefinger and thumb. The cross, originally used to identify gang members, has also come to simply symbolize loyalty to community, family, and God.
Other symbols prominent in Chicano tattoos include Aztec suns, eagles (an Aztec warrior symbol that's also featured on Mexico's national flag), Dia de los Muertos ("Day of the Dead") images like sugar skulls, and religious iconography — particularly the Virgin of Guadalupe (a.k.a. the Virgin Mary), a beloved and universal symbol for Catholic Mexicans. But the most striking works in Chicano tattoo culture are the portraits — realistic renderings of loved ones' faces in black and gray, usually drawn from photos.
The lack of color in Chicano tattoos began as a necessity, as colored inks were scarce in prisons and expensive on the streets. But the black-and-gray style is now maintained as part of the history and culture of Chicano tattooing, and many modern Chicano tattooists simply choose not to work with color because it deviates from tradition.
For more than 30 years, the Chicano tattoo style was developed in jails, and to this day, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are some of the most in-demand tattoo artists in prison. Some Chicano tattooists, such as L.A.-based David Alvarado, a.k.a. Lion, still use prison tattoo methods on the street. Alvarado works out of his kitchen and builds his own tattoo machines from things like Walkman motors, Duracell batteries, and sharpened guitar strings, with inks made from baby oils and shampoos. Other prominent Chicano tattooists, like Mr. Cartoon (whose clients include Beyoncé Knowles, Eminem, and Justin Timberlake), developed their styles on the streets, airbrushing T-shirts and lowrider cars.
The black-and-gray, fine-line work aesthetic pioneered by Chicano tattooists spread to the mainstream in the 1970s, and today, tattoo shops everywhere offer this style, as more people seek elaborate portrait work, lettering, and "tribal" tattoo designs.
Andrick Aviles' tattoo artistry very much follows the Chicano tattoo tradition of black-and-gray fine-line work; he's never veered into abstractions and color. He doesn't like to do tribal tattoos, and you won't catch him etching a cartoon character onto anybody's shoulder. "I'm mostly into realism," he says. "That's what I like to do."
And by realism, he means portraits with eyes so deep and real you'd swear his clients' tattoos are watching you. He's so adept at capturing the nuances of a human face — the laugh lines around the eyes, the worry lines in the brows, the dips and dimples on cheeks and chins — that his tattoos seem as alive as those who bear them. This is why his portfolio's filled with photos of people showing off their flesh-and-ink homages to their dead mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. It may sound corny, but people trust Aviles to paint a part of their souls on their skin for the rest of their lives. He says he enjoys the task, but he takes it seriously. Cover-ups and laser removal are painful and expensive.
One of Aviles' biggest influences is Jose Lopez, an artist who works out of Lowrider Tattoo Studios in California. Like Aviles', the bulk of Lopez's work consists of realistic portraiture and religious images. Before becoming a tattooist, Lopez was already an in-demand oil painter. Another tattooist Aviles admires is L.A.-based Jun Cha, whose art also extends to black-and-white photography. Aviles hopes to one day get a portrait done by his idol, Detroit-based artist Bob Tyrell, who recently launched his own clothing line. Like his influences, Aviles likes to diversify mediums — he draws and paints.
Since Aviles has been living in Arizona almost all his life, some elements of his designs can be traced back to American pop culture. He tattooed a portrait of Jim Morrison, the late singer of rock band The Doors, on his own leg. He also has a tattoo of The Beatles. For his friend Luis, he tattooed a woman's face decorated with Day of the Dead makeup, based on a photo of a Victoria's Secret model. His friend Kike (pronounced kee-kay) has a tattoo by Aviles on his leg of a woman holding a guitar. It's based on a Buffalo Exchange poster Aviles found. Another client has a portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Aviles on his arm.
Aviles says he's also inspired by Native American art. "I like Native American art. Everything is so symmetrical. Some people think I'm Indian because . . . I don't know," he says, trailing off with a chuckle.
He's also big fan of classical art. "I'm not really into modern art or contemporary art. I'm into Renaissance art. They put a lot more detail in it, and realism, too," Aviles says. "They had their own kind of style, too, like Michelangelo — his style, he really emphasizes and exaggerates the muscles, in the face and the body. Even if it's a girl, he'll put huge biceps on her. I really like his style."
Aviles has three tattoos based on works by Michelangelo. One he did himself, the image of God's face from The Creation of Adam painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The other two, based on Michelangelo statues, were done for him by other tattooists. His tattoo of the Virgin Mary's face from Michelangelo's Pietà is one of his favorites. He's tattooed his own versions of Pietà on several clients.
He uses a professional tattoo machine his father bought him for Christmas in 2008. Everybody in the family says that's what Andrick wanted — except Andrick, who says over hash browns at Denny's one day in March that "I would have probably asked for something else."
"I wasn't even that excited about it," he says. "I was like, 'Oh, that's cool. I'll mess around with it.' But then when I started getting into it, it got more fun."
Less than three years after getting his tattoo machine, Aviles had tattooed most of his left arm and both legs. "This is my practice area," he says, looking down at his thighs. "They say when you do something upside down, you use more of the left side of your brain." He estimates he has about 30 tattoos.
Aviles tattooed portraits of his parents on his arm, along with his brother's and sisters' names. "A lot of people usually get portraits of their parents when they pass away, but I kind of wanted to show them, you know, while they're alive," he says. "I really love my family."
Armando Aviles stands in front of the house his family rents in Central Phoenix, setting up targets for Andrick's 17-year-old brother, Kevin, to shoot at with a BB gun. The five-bedroom, brown adobe house has been the Avileses' home for the past five years. A dusty, white '90s-model Ford Expedition is parked in the driveway.
It's dusk on a Wednesday in March, and a rare day that Armando has come home from work before dark. He typically works 10- to 12-hour days, painting houses. His face is burned a deep, reddish-brown color from working in the sun all day. His T-shirt, shorts, and hands are smeared with splatters of beige and white paint.
He's been supportive of Andrick's tattoo career and the artistic aspirations of all his children. Kevin is also an artist; one of his paintings — a fantastical, surrealist monster creature in acrylics and oils — hangs in the hallway next to some of Andrick's paintings. Armando built drawing tables for both of them. He speaks English, but doesn't talk a lot. When he does, he takes long, thoughtful pauses before answering questions. As he hands Kevin the BB gun, he turns and says, "I'm very proud of my sons."
Andrick's mother, Yolanda, is more talkative but doesn't speak English very well. Leaning against a wall inside the family room, with a miniature poodle in a camouflage sweatshirt pacing at her feet, she speaks about why they left Mexico. Andrick's older sister Gio, 23, translates.
"I like that there are more opportunities for us here," Yolanda says. "And the violence in Mexico is bad. Mexico's really pretty, and I miss that. The way I used to live over there is different from the way it is now. I do feel it's safer here than it would be over there."
But Yolanda and Armando say they feel the reports of crime in Mexico are exaggerated. "I think the media has a lot to do with it, because when we were over there, it wasn't that bad," Armando says. "It's more of a fast-paced life over there, and there's a lot more people there."
Yolanda adds, "Muchas fiestas!" (many parties) and everybody laughs. "People live normal lives," Yolanda says of Mexico City. "Or maybe it was just us when we were there."
Andrick Armando Aviles was born in Mexico City on February 11, 1991. "He was kind of a troublemaker. He wouldn't stay still," Yolanda recalls. "He didn't like to play with cars and stuff. He was more into puzzles and things like that."
He started drawing at a young age. "I think I've been drawing probably since I was 4," Andrick says. "I remember me and my dad used to draw — it was like a connect-the-dots thing, but instead it was a bunch of squares. They put a picture right here, and they put squares like — how do say? — cross-hatched. And then there's another square here, blank, and it has cross-hatched lines, and you had to draw this image and the squares would guide you. We would do that. That was fun."
The Aviles family came to Phoenix in 1993, when Andrick was 2. Gio was 6, and Yolanda was pregnant with Kevin. The youngest child, Ashlyn, was also born on U.S. soil. "My brother-in-law has been an American citizen for a long time, and he told me, 'Come to Arizona,'" Armando recalls. "We came for maybe three months, and it's 18 years now."
Yolanda's mother was born in Florida and is a U.S. citizen, and that's how Andrick's uncle obtained citizenship. "He told me they paid American dollars for work here," Armando recalls. "That's a lot more money than in Mexico."
Armando drove to Arizona alone for what was supposed to be a three-month visit, but rather than return home at the end of it, he sent for Yolanda, Gio, and Andrick. "We found [Phoenix] similar to Mexico City," Armando says. "Like here, it's a city, so they have malls and McDonald's and stuff like that. It was kind of different, but not so much."
The hardest adjustment for the children was learning English. Nobody in the Aviles family spoke English when they arrived. For Gio, the only Aviles child of school age at the time, it was particularly challenging. "My dad had to work a lot more, and I went to school not really knowing the language, so it was a little difficult," she says. She also missed her grandparents and the family home in Mexico City.
While Armando found work where he could — at bug spray factories, doing carpentry odd jobs, and painting — Yolanda brought in a little money cleaning houses. She says the family didn't have many struggles after coming here. "Their father's always been a really hard worker, and always able to provide for us," she says. "We kept it so the children are able to go to school and focus on that." (Both Andrick and Gio graduated from high school; the two younger children are currently enrolled.)
Armando says he's never had any problems with law enforcement or with finding work. But the fear that even one member of the Aviles family could be deported was always there. When Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio started his regular immigration raids at factories and businesses around the Valley, Armando stopped trying to assimilate into the work force and started working for himself as a house painter. He figured it lessened the chance he'd get caught in a raid.
"What [Arpaio] does with the raids and stuff are very bad and very wrong," Armando says. "I think he hears the negative comments and negative things going on, and he just builds himself from all of that, and that's where he gets his raids from. Somebody says 'Something bad happened, and this person did this,' and if she happens to be illegal or of color, then he just goes along with that."
They've had friends in Phoenix who were deported. "I feel bad for the separation of families," Yolanda says. "I'd feel [worse] if it happened to us, if one of us got deported, or pulled over and taken to jail."
Gio is probably in the most danger of something like that. Her youngest siblings, Kevin and Ashlyn, are U.S.-born citizens, but at 23, Gio's too old to qualify for permanent residency with her parents (the cut-off age is 21). Unlike her parents and Andrick, she has not begun the residency application process. The family's been talking to immigration lawyers about her options. "Everywhere we go, they always say I should marry a U.S. citizen," Gio says. "I think the biggest hope would be the DREAM Act here for students, but I don't know how it would work, especially since they just raised tuition at community colleges. I can't afford it."
"There's still a little danger I could be separated from my family," says Gio, who's studying fashion merchandising at Phoenix College (she and Andrick both take classes there — they have to pay out-of-state tuition). "I'm protected by 245(i), but not completely — I don't think," she adds, referencing a section of the federal Immigration Code that allows a person to stay in the United States while seeking residency. Congress phased out 245(i) in 1998, but Gio and Andrick are among those grandfathered under the law because they arrived in the U.S. prior to April 30, 2001.
Yolanda worries about racial profiling and racism in general. "Some people see stereotypes of our culture and the people that we are," she says. "And just because some of them misbehave, they think that all of us are the same, and that we'd bring problems."
Yolanda constantly calls the older children on their cell phones to check up on them, and ferries the younger children to and from school. "We always try to keep an eye on them, and show them a better way," Armando says.
The Avileses have a tradition of spending Sundays together. "Family first, you know," Andrick says. "I'd rather hang out with my family than my friends on the weekends. Mostly on Sundays, we'll go to church, and we'll go to the movies or the mall. But usually we hang out for family time."
For Armando and Yolanda, the most difficult thing about their struggle to immigrate has been not being able to return to Mexico to see their families.
"Because what if we couldn't come back again?" Yolanda says. "My father died, and I wasn't able to go see him. In two weeks, it will have been two years since he died. We miss our family in Mexico."
On a mild Friday evening in early March, Andrick Aviles is setting up his ink cups and electric needle to finish a tattoo for his friend Luis. At Luis' previous appointment, Aviles spent six hours working on the face of a woman and four hours working on two roses around the portrait. It's not unusual for him to spend several hours on the same tattoo in a single sitting — once, he started working on a tattoo at 8 in the evening and didn't finish until 4 a.m.
Aviles is what's known as a "street artist" because he doesn't work out of a licensed tattoo studio. But he's not exactly on the street.
The walls in his private studio are painted deep burgundy, with track lights across the ceiling and black curtains over the windows. The only wall decorations are a silver crucifix and a large, black-and-white acrylic painting of AC/DC guitarist Angus Young, which Aviles created in high school. The wall closest to the door is covered top-to-bottom with shelves; on the shelves sit more than 20 pairs of shoes, including several Nikes and Vans, all meticulously arranged for display. The closet is also filled with carefully stacked shoe boxes.
Aviles always listens to music when he tattoos, and his iPod Shuffle plays an eclectic mix through the stereo: everything from hip-hop (Cypress Hill, Notorious B.I.G.) to roots rock and country (Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash) to pop and Top 40 (Michael Jackson, Kanye West) and classic rock (Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath). About the only thing that doesn't come out of his speakers is Mexican music — no norteño, banda, or cumbia here.
"I was raised listening to classic rock," Aviles says. "My father was always playing classic rock in the house. He didn't know English, but he'd still sing along."
Aviles has a pet dog, a Labrador mix he named Hendrix. He loves watching movies and admits with a blush that he's "mostly into chick flicks." He doesn't have a girlfriend, "just friends that are girls," he says.
Dressed in beige, knee-length shorts, a black T-shirt that reads "Departed" (from Scottsdale-based clothing line Dearly Departed), and red Vans shoes with strips of leopard print around the ankles, Aviles adjusts the halogen lamp above Luis' arm and turns on the power supply for his needle. He pulls black latex gloves over his hands and jokes, "No glove, no love."
Aviles estimates he works an average of 20 hours a week. "Some days, I might have a seven-hour tattoo, and some days, I might have a two-hour tattoo," he says. But he charges by the piece, not the hour.
For a tattoo like the one Luis is getting — a highly detailed portrait that covers half his upper arm — Aviles says he charges around $700. The same tattoo at a shop could cost anywhere from $800 to $1,000.
Aviles says a few local tattoo shops have asked him to work for them. For a few months last year, he did work a low-profile, part-time gig out of a shop on the west side. He also had a job for a couple of months at a phone survey company. But when the governor signed SB 1070, Aviles and his father were both laid off.
"We want to be American citizens, so I can work more and not worry," Armando Aviles says one night in early May, sitting on one of the couches in the family room. "I want a better future for my children."
Two weeks ago, the Avileses' lives changed.
On May 4, they got a long-awaited interview with immigration officials. Armando, Yolanda, and Andrick Aviles were approved to become legal residents of the United States, and will be able to apply for citizenship in five years.
Five days later, the family gathers in their living room to talk about their new status. Armando Aviles says that after the interview, he knew they'd be approved. "I was sure it would happen," he says.
Yolanda is sitting next to Armando on the couch but frequently gets up to stomp to the window and shout "Cállate!" (shut up!) through the blinds at Andrick's incessantly barking backyard dog, Hendrix. "We waited for a very long time," she says, leaning back on the couch. She says at one point she thought they'd never get residency.
Actually, there were many points when it looked like they wouldn't.
Last December, the immigration office began to process the Avileses' applications, and the family finally received some news after 16 years. The news was that they needed to pay $11,000 in fees and fines (including a $1,000 fine for each person who crossed illegally) before the immigration office could proceed. It was devastating news for them. They didn't have the money or any idea how to get it.
During the last weekend in January, to the surprise of the Aviles family, Scottsdale shoe store Highpoint Shoes and Arizona Cardinal Adrian Wilson held a fundraiser. Dubbed "Mi Casa Es Su Casa," the event featured music by DJ M2, an open bar, giveaways, and an art auction. All proceeds benefited the Aviles family, and the necessary funds were raised (Adrian Wilson did not respond to interview requests for this story).
"I want to thank everybody who helped Andrick raise the money," Yolanda says. "It was mostly because of them we were able to pay the money we need."
After paying the fines, they submitted fingerprints and photos of themselves, and attended two interviews — one in March (for their work visas) and the one in May, for residency.
Now that they're finally legal, everyone in the family's making plans. Armando says the first thing he wants to do is get a commercial contractor's license and start his own official painting company. Yolanda says she wants to learn more English, get her GED, and go back to school. "I've always wanted to be a preschool teacher," she says. They both want to save up money to visit Mexico in a few months to see their families.
Andrick says he already has a job lined up at 27 Tattoo Studio, downtown off Third and Pierce streets. He has plenty of other plans, too.
"I'll be able to get a [driver's] license and travel. It's crazy. I'm excited," Andrick says. "It's important to my dad, too. He's been working. Now, when he gets his residency, he's going to try to open his own company, hopefully, and run his own business."
Andrick wants to do that, too. A tattoo parlor of his own.
"It's been our dream for a long time," he says of the end of a wait that's taken almost his entire life. "We're pretty happy."
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