Ink On Ink: Stefano Alcantara

Tracing the trajectory of a star as it pilots itself through the sky is no easy task but it has to be easier than trying to keep pace with Stefano Alcantara: The Man Who Never Stops Moving…

A good few years back, Kevin Wilson at Sacred Tattoo in New York pointed me in the direction of Stefano Alcantara as a name to watch out for. At the time, Stefano was knee deep at Last Rites with Paul Booth and although he may not have known it, he was laying serious foundations for what was to come. Between then and now, our paths have crossed innumerable times – mostly on purpose, but sometimes by accident, including a trip down the side of a mountain in a bus that was like a panel from a Freak Brothers comic.
Over those years, I've mostly been content to observe, admire and share a few laughs along the way when opportunity has presented itself but a few short weeks back, we found ourselves (accidentally on purpose) sitting on opposite sides of a table with a few hours on the clock until his next flight and nothing but a pizza between us…

It’s been a little over three weeks since we both came back from the Milan show, and as usual, life on Stefano’s autobahn has been pedal to the metal:

“When the Milan show was over, I took a week out to go to Florence, Venice and then back to Milan again. It wasn’t a holiday as such but it wasn’t tattooing either. While I was in Italy, I wanted the opportunity to shoot some photographs of statues and be able to take some inspiration back home with me. I’d never been to Florence before, so it would have been stupid not to take the chance to reference some of this great work. After that I went back to New York, but before that I was in New Hampshire, Brussels and Germany…"

Stefano’s backtracking on exactly where his travels have taken him in this few short weeks are backed up by his Instagram timeline. He scrolls through it to see if it matches his memory and to our amusement, finds that he left something out.

“I remember now. When I went back to New York, I went to Last Rites and worked on some painting…”

I hold up my hand to stop him here—this is something we talked about yesterday over a brief coffee and I was ill-prepared for what he was about to show me. Below, you’ll find a photograph of a bearded gentleman, which was taken in the street on a whim. The results of the painting he made of the man floored me. I was about to offer fistfuls of cash—cash I don’t necessarily have—to own it but I missed my chance.

It was the first item that sold at his recent exhibition and I blew it, but it’s good to know a piece of art still has the ability to make me want to screw over the mortgage payment on the house in exchange for a one-time-only art deal.

We make light of a lot this evening, but the fact remains, this is actually work. No matter how easy he makes it look along the way, it’s very much work.

“Sometimes when I go home to Peru, I kick back a little and relax but even then it’s never 100%. I switch off when I’m visiting or having a meal with family and friends, but as soon as that’s over, I snap right back into it. I check in on my shops and I’m opening a gallery there in a month…”

A frown drifts across Stefano’s face.

“Wait. What’s the date today? I think it’s less than a month now. Twenty eight days! I open a gallery in twenty eight days! Wow, that went fast. I also have a new studio opening in Florida soon…"

As you’ll have gathered, things move pretty fast around here. I did know this and forgot all about it because that damn painting distracted me.

“This is a second shot at Florida. The first time was back in 2008. We were in the building, working on the space, really moving with it and were about to open, then the day I was getting ready for our inspection by the fire department, a guy came in and told me the authorities didn’t allow for two tattoo shops to be open in that section of the city. I had the papers and everything but all he said to me was ‘that guy who gave you the information—he was wrong. You cannot open.’

“I had $200 in my pocket because I had spent all my savings from my tattoo shop in Peru (Stefano's Tattoo Studio–still in business today), it wasn’t the same economy then. It took a lot to save that money and build it. So instead of going back to Peru with my tail between my legs, I decided to invest what I had in doing some conventions, get my name out there and at least do something for me. So I tried to make some noise about myself and that was when Paul (Booth) checked out my work, offered me a guest spot and later, I become a permanent artist at Last Rites.”

At one time, when people spoke Stefano’s name, in the same sentence you would always find it with ‘Last Rites’ or ‘Paul Booth’, but that doesn’t happen so much anymore. I wonder if he himself has noticed it.

“Oh yes. I don’t really think that this newer generation of tattoo artists know a lot about the history of tattooing. They know who is current and who is kicking ass right now, but they don’t know where a lot of things come from—but artists from my generation really feel it strongly. That historical value of things, it doesn’t seem to mean anything to anybody anymore.

“I can’t say what my life will be like in ten years but I don’t think anybody will be remembered from the instagram posts they made that’s for sure. It’s a great tool but to think it’s any more than that is not seeing the big picture at all.”

I’m curious as to how he works, not only in the short term but also perhaps in the long. I ask him if he can go back to when he first opened his studio and think to himself ‘what this place needs is a gallery—and one day I could be the man to do it…’

“When I moved to New York, I never closed my shop in Peru. All the time, it was always my plan to bring things back to Peru. It’s the place I’m from and I have a lot of love for my country, so I wanted—in my own way—to bring something back.”

And while Peru is perhaps not the first place on earth whose name drips off your tongue when talking about tattooing, it’s more popular than you would think. In jest, I blame him for making it that way but I may not be that far from the truth. It even has its own style. Maybe not so well known as, say, Japanese but a style nonetheless:

“As you’d expect—a lot of people ask for Inca designs but here’s a little side-story for you—maybe about ten years ago, they found the oldest civilisation in America and changed the history books because of it. In amongst that, they found a new community, a city and also a woman with two full sleeve tattoos—this was really rare because a man was always king in those times. She was a really important woman way before the Inca empire and that’s the first tattoo found in the whole of the Americas—North, South and Central America.

So walking into a street shop now, are they still working with flash-racks?

“Yes, but that’s one of the things I really wanted to change with my studio. When I opened we had one but I wanted it to be different so it has a big mural to one side and when you visit now you get to see tattoos and art in a gallery. That’s everything I ever wanted to do. To combine the two is very exciting for me and that’s actually what I learned from being at Last Rites. That’s pretty much what my life is all about.”

This is a big business model by anybody’s standards. Florida, Peru and New York sounds—and is—a pretty damn big chunk of geography to be playing with, particularly when you’re not there all the time. Is it possible to run such a sprawling business and stay out on the road or are there plans to reel it in a little?

“I want to get it out of my system to be in every country that I can possibly get to. Once I’ve done that, I’m going to slow down for sure but I see myself being on the road for another year at least. One more year like this and I really want to slow down, but it will only be slowing down to prepare another show, have time to paint, produce commissioned artwork for conventions—lots of different things but I want to really relax and get into painting.

“Painting for me is the therapy. All the time I’m painting, I’m looking for ideas. I find many different meanings while I’m in a painting. While I’m in there, it’s like I’m confessing my sins to the oil and the canvas.

“When you’re tattooing, there are still the constraints of either what the customer wants or what you think will work best for them. I’m not the kind of artist who… well, some tattoo artists will do whatever they please when they’re working on somebody and they don’t care if you like it or not but I’m really not that kind of artist at all. I like the person I’m working with to have input—it’s a two way relationship.

“There’s nothing actually wrong with doing it the other way. If you want a piece of art by a certain artist, then I understand that but I think—particularly at conventions—the average customer can be pulled in to agreeing with a piece of work an artist has already done when it’s not really what they wanted before they walked in the door. A tattoo is not the kind of art you can simply hang in another room or give it away when you get home because it doesn’t work as well as you thought it would.

“What I do know is that, everything you surround yourself with counts. You learn from every life experience you have not just from looking at art. Sometimes you are more driven to create afresh and other days, you have to lean back on what you already know but the aim is always to be better today than I was yesterday and better tomorrow than I was today. It’s a good way to live.

“I still love to do portraits and those are the days I enjoy running on auto-pilot—because I have done so many, most of the hard work of doing it well is engrained in me. It’s not even something I need to think consciously about and sometimes that’s as good as it gets—but sometimes, I like to challenge myself a little more and really leave a bigger fingerprint on a piece. As an artist, no two days will ever be exactly the same.”

Finally, the road warrior is putting on a show in California early next year. If any of you have the time, opportunity or money to do so, then this one is a no-brainer. It’s called Golden State Tattoo Expo (29-31 January, 2016) and the list of artists working it, reads like a who’s who of sheer class…

“Right now, Nikko (Hurtado) and Carlos (Torres) are in charge and hosting the whole event because they are from the area. I’m not a California guy so it makes sense to leave them to do what they are able to do best. It’s not about it being ‘my’ show, it’s about giving something back and doing the show the best way possible to make it a cool show for everybody. I don’t want it to be ‘one more convention’, I want it to be ‘The Convention’.

“I spoke to them about joining forces in some way and everybody is happy. They’re two amazing artists, they’re my friends and also two people I admire—I’m more than happy to share my years of working with them, so it’s more like a collaboration.

“It’s very exciting—not least because it’s a great time to be away from the cold of New York!”

Check-in times at international airports prevent me from rummaging further in this suitcase. That, and the arrival of more food, but if I must stop, I’ll offer this as a closing observation: My life is actually richer simply from having shared time (and pizza) with Stefano. We have talked art, culture, shoes, hair, martial arts, past, present, future and a dozen other things that space prevents me from including here (such as watching the whole season of True Detective in one sitting)—and if you asked me to paint you a picture of all that’s great about being a tattoo artist in 2015, this is exactly what it would look like.

If you're in the market, you can find Stefano right here.

Originally published in Skin Deep Issue 250, which you can find right here.