Most of us start our trek on this planet with the same equipment: ten fingers, ten toes, one head. You know, the basic factory model issued to carbon-based bipeds. While we all begin our journey with certain characteristics inherited from the parental units, for most of us that’s not enough to differentiate our uniqueness from the pack; it’s the after-market mods that tell the world where we’ve been or what we stand for.
There’s nothing new about body modification — we’ve got ancient mummies that prove the point — but what is new on the scene is better (and safer) equipment, ever-evolving trends in design and, thanks to social media, better ways to maintain a tattoo artist’s portfolio. What just might be unique to Houston, however, is the progressive, socially aware, let’s-hear-it-for-the-heroes work going on over at Prison Break Tattoos.
Owner Bryan Klevens found a way to combine his passion for ink and his support for those in public service; his team has inked first responders from across the country and as far away as Canada and Australia. He’s walked the walk, having been in law enforcement for almost 24 years, and understands that these men and women are putting their lives on the line for the general public each and every day.
When lives are lost, it’s the siblings — widows, adult children, family members — who turn to Prison Break for solace. “When the Dallas officers were ambushed and killed, we did [memorial] tattoos. Every story that we hear is difficult,” says Klevens. “By coming to my place, it allows them an opportunity to express that grief; we’re more like a family.”
He supports the men and women who risk their lives — whom he refers to as the “true heroes” — by donating to The 100 Club and other first-responder charities, handing out wristbands and cookies that support police and firefighters, and promoting a family-friendly atmosphere in his shop. But it’s his policy on gang tattoos that could have far-reaching effects.
“Every studio may cater to a different type of person or type of group, and I appreciate that. There are studios that will do the typical smaller, gang-type tattoos. We just won’t,” says Klevens. While he won’t do the work, he will take the time to have a discussion with the individual, talk to him or her about other opportunities, and plant the seed for a different outcome in that crossroads moment in life.
What’s trending now? While those who serve gravitate toward badges, patches and patriotic symbols, the general population is open to just about anything. “Whether it be the typical feathers or infinities to the bigger cover-up pieces, the bigger flowers or [biomechanical] tattoos,” says Klevens, “there’s a lot of different things that are trending, animals and such.”
Spiro Kambitsis, owner of Artistic Impressions Tattoo Studio, says he also sees a lot of requests for infinity symbols and feathers, but that he also could make a living just doing cover-up tattoos, trying to fix bad ink. “There’s more people out there doing bad tattoos than there are good tattoos.” The skill also comes in handy when love turns sour, or an affiliation loses meaning, or it’s just time to redecorate. And remember all those barbed-wire armband tats from the late ’80s and early ’90s? “Now those tattoos are being covered up,” says Kambitsis. “Those people are feeling outdated.”
Other than the ubiquitous butterfly tattoo, trends seem to change every two or three years. Now Kambitsis says his customers are gravitating toward abstracts and the watercolor styles, which are lighter and have a softness. His real joy comes when body modification is done well. “I would say that it can change people’s lives, especially on an emotional level,” Kambitsis says. Getting a memorial tattoo gives a sense of closure and, if it’s on a wrist or easily visible, offers a daily reminder of that person.
And in some cases, Kambitsis says, people come to him to relieve their pain.
“They might have had an emotional pain, so getting the tattoo, and the pain of the tattoo itself, gives them a release,” says Kambitsis. “It’s a natural high; it definitely makes you feel good. Some people, they feel more relaxed after that; they get a sense of euphoria. At first ‘it hurts, it hurts,’ and then it feels good.”
While our story focuses on the best establishments in the area, it’s the individual tattooers who make the shop. When zoning in on that “I’ve got to have it” design, make sure to connect with the same inkmaster who brought it to life.
In Texas alone, there are more than 1,200 licensed tattoo facilities — more if you count edge-dwellers who have gone rogue or aren’t licensed. So, in our search for the 20 best shops in the Houston area, we turned to Instagram, which has proven to be one of the fastest and most immediate ways to keep an artist’s portfolio up to date. Here are the 20 best local tattoo establishments for 2016, presented in alphabetical order.
Family legacy is important, and perhaps no better example can be found than with 3rd Generation Ink, owned by “let’s continue the family tradition” Larry Shaw II. His late grandfather, Bob Shaw, was an innovator in the industry and was inducted into the Tattoo Hall of Fame. 3rd Generation’s Instagram page features saturated colors, elegantly shaded 3-D images, “miracle” cover-up tattoos, complex Day of the Dead images and intricate lettering. Shaw says he’s got five artists in the shop and, among them, they can pretty much do a little bit of everything, though he personally specializes in Japanese and traditional.
This perennial favorite in lower Montrose handles both piercings and tattoos, and resident artists have deep portfolios to help guide those decisions when you’re planning a sleeve. The shop’s Instagram page also has snaps of some amazing custom paint work they’ve done for the local chopper community.
Don’t expect cookie-cutter designs at this northwest Houston establishment. Owner Mike Woods says that he hires his team so that they can handle any project, though their preference is in the large-scale, fully rendered tats that can take anywhere from ten to 100 hours. They transform body art into fine art, and customers keep coming back for their custom designs. Woods says he’s opening a second location, in the Katy-Cypress area, this December, which will grow his crew to eight artists.
Artistic Impressions Tattoo Studio
20633 Katy Freeway, Suite B, Katy
16326 Mueschke Road, Suite E-12, Cypress
With locations in both Cypress and Katy, these creative artists stay busy with piercings, tattoos and the convention circuit. Launched in Katy by industry veteran Spiro Kambitsis in 2010, Artistic Impressions later added the outpost (nicknamed AI2) in Cypress with partner Tyler Turnbull. The snapshots from their Instagram page show the variety and depth available; Kambitsis says he doesn’t have mediocre artists at his shop, and that they’re all fairly versatile. The interactive portfolio feature on their website is quite helpful when you’re deciding on a next project and artist.
Frequent winner of Best of Houston® and Houston Press Readers’ Choice awards, this west Houston shop really took off after moving to its 2,100-square-foot facility in 2005. From custom tattooing to body piercing to microdermals, this Outer Loop facility has 17 years worth of samples to spark an ink idea. Plus, the piercing room is completely private for those “more intimate” jewelry needs.
1507 North Durham
Houston-based artist Catfish Perez is the heart and soul of this Heights establishment. In the past he’s done art gallery fund raisers for breast cancer, and now he opens his garage to Houston Ghost Bikes for bike preparation. In addition to tattooing and piercing, the team runs an in-house art gallery with custom jewelry and T-shirts, and they keep it local by playing music from Houston-area bands.
Gold Rush Collective Tattoos
831 North Loop West
The Gold Rush artists also do color work, but it’s the intricate details and line work on their portraits that we find so phenomenal. The illustrations are stunning, demonstrating photorealism and deep emotion. If you’re memorializing a loved one, this talented crew should be able to match a photograph spot on.
Houston Ink Society
105 North Milby, Suite 7
Houston Ink Society got its start about ten years ago in northwest Houston, later moving to Montrose. It added a second location on the east side a few years ago. Check out the portfolios at both locations, then go in for a personal consultation before committing to a design.
17602 West Little York
Kevo’s Instagram page shows ornamental, arabesque-like geometric patterns in blackwork, detailed portraits; American traditional style and meticulous lettering work. Kevo (a.k.a. Kevin Aregbe) is also a deep thinker; a couple of years ago, he released a motivational and inspirational book designed to get people out of the hood, titled Street Pamphlet for Success.
Main Street Tattoo Company
1520 East Main, League City
Main Street’s portfolio shows some rad socks and sleeves, demonstrating both vivid color work with a creative spin and intricately inked geometrics. Owner Blake Moye says his shop does a lot of classic Americana traditional and black-gray realism designs, as well as traditional Japanese tattoos like dragons and koi. With five artists, Main Street can handle anything from Freddy Krueger to Frankenstein, and from calavera skulls to the portrait of Jesus.
Bryan Klevens, the owner of the theatrical “this looks like a movie set” Prison Break Tattoos, found a way to merge his love of ink with his dedication to first responders. He served in law enforcement for almost 24 years, including the Houston Police Department, and his only uneasiness came from sitting next to a gangbanger getting a tattoo. His shop on Washington has become the darling of police, firefighters, first responders and those who serve in the armed forces. If the artwork doesn’t blow the mind, the shop will: Klevens has designed the space with prison bars, bunk beds and even a zap-worthy electric chair.
Husband-and-wife team Erik and Victoria Del Rio took home the win for best tattoo studio last year in our Best of Houston® awards. There’s a waiting list for Erik’s unique lettering work and trademark style, while Victoria’s American traditional designs are vibrant. Between the two of them, they do it all: black-and-white portraits, sugar skulls and even a few roses and anchors (imagine that).
The wildly creative artists at Royal Avenue have really established themselves in the Spring area since their 2013 opening. From deep, saturated colors to stream-of-consciousness designs, these inkmasters know their stuff. If a wrong turn resulted in a cheapo ink mistake somewhere else, their miracle cover-ups will get that tat-love going again.
Don’t get stung with a bad experience. This lower Westheimer mainstay has been inking Houstonians since 1991, transforming plain backs into artistic masterpieces. Sure, they can do everything from American traditional to abstract, but it’s their pedal-to-the-metal, full-blown socks and sleeves that bring the glory.
One look at its Instagram page and this Montrose establishment won’t be a secret anymore. From itty-bitty finger tats to Day of the Dead to dotting and hyperspecific details, the stable of artists at Secret Tattoo cover the gamut of styles. Take the time to chat with the individual artists here before deciding on that next ink project.
Sole proprietor Larry Shaw is indeed world-famous, but it’s because tattooing is in his blood. His father, Bob Shaw, began inking in 1940 and was responsible for spearheading industry-wide safety standards. The shop in which he worked now serves as a tattoo museum in California. Larry, the most successful of the three sons who carried on the family business, was presented the 2009 Lifetime Achievement award at the Body Art Expo in Houston and, in 2013, was awarded the Bob Shaw Award by the National Tattoo Association.
Texas Body Art
Biolab Piercing Studio, 281-894-2227
5930 Highway 6 North, Suite A-3
Established in 1998, Texas Body Art has the largest crew in Houston, with 19 artists, and is led by veteran inkmaster Johnny Jackson. After his 30 years in the business, don’t expect to walk in and ask Jackson for a copy of anything; this iconic artist only does original work. He’s got a long list of tattoos that he won’t do (tribal art or racial or hate designs), but what he will do is take an idea and transform it into a unique work of art that won’t be duplicated. Jackson has inked Shaquille O’Neal and dozens of players on the Houston Texans. He also is still mourning the passing of his wife, Mizuz Inkaholik, two years ago. During her life, the progressive pin-up model with more than 480 hours of award-winning ink paved the way for alternative models here in Houston.
Texas Tattoo Emporium
The folks at Texas Tattoo Emporium have been inking since the late ’90s, and can be found in that little blue house down in Montrose. The artists here have received Best of Houston® nods from us over the years, and really know their stuff when it comes to details, line work and lettering. Their Instagram page shows a nice cross section of American traditional, and their colors are stunning.
Technically not in Houston, but don’t call foul for this one. One look at the work of Galvestonian Chuck Jones and see why we’re giving him the thumbs-up. And more than 6,000 followers on Instagram have to agree. His inked portraits of Jesus will bring tears, and his color work is whimsical, fantastical and stunning.
Timeless Ink Studio
The social media-savvy marketers at Timeless Ink depend on word of mouth and repeat customers to grow their client base. Their Instagram portfolio sports a strong amount of black ink portrait work, done well and with a realistic hand. Each of the inkmasters has developed his own individual style, and the shop also handles piercings.
There’s no shortage of capable tattoo parlors in our area, and chances are we missed some strong contenders when compiling our list. The important thing is knowing how to identify a quality shop.
According to Kambitsis at Artistic Impressions, first make sure the shop is licensed and that the license is kept current.
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Cleanliness also is critical. “These days they make equipment that’s completely 100 percent disposable — the needles, the tubes, every little part, excluding the tattoo machine itself, is single-use,” says Kambitsis. He says that some artists continue to use older equipment, which is perfectly acceptable, but just make sure they clean it, sterilize it and autoclave it between customers.
Some of the newer artists who come from a background of graphic design are trending toward insanely photorealistic designs, but, according to Kambitsis, without the solid black lines that stand the test of time, the tats will soon lose their luster.
“Those types of artists have not had the longevity of seeing what their tattoos will look like down the road,” says Kambitsis. “They’ll fade or break apart after a few years. My style is in between — it’s illustrative but has more detail.”
His final piece of advice is to look at the portfolio of the artist. “It will definitely show you their style and skill set, and you want to find some that are moderately updated,” says Kambitsis.