Longform

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.

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.

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea