Baxter's Blog

ROBERT PHO

Posted in Gallery, Road Trip Stuff by misterroadtripper on July 11, 2010

Robert Pho

A BIG WINNER IN VEGAS―ROBERT PHO

BY BOB BAXTER

Years ago (but really not that many), Las Vegas, Nevada was a scary place for up-and-coming tattoo artists. Opening a new shop won you a visit by the local tough guys and the promise of a trip to the desert and a sand nap. “But I have a big following and all I want to do is bring quality ink work into this area,” didn’t win a sympathetic ear. Every bright-eyed and bushy-tailed tattooer got the same answer: “Guido, start the car.” No joke. The last place on earth an outsider tattooist wanted to be was in the middle of that very threatening scene.

Today, most, maybe all, of the tattooist in Vegas’ seventy-five or so shops don’t know what I’m talking about. The majority of people tattooing here today are doing business because of the tattoo pioneers that opened up the area. About ten years ago, I talked to the local chamber of commerce about putting on a tattoo convention at one of the convention centers. The answer was no. There were insurmountable lists of rules and regulations about this and that, especially putting ink onto tourists with an electric needle. Now, look. There’s tattoo shops in casinos, and even a couple high-profile rock ’n’ rollers have put their names on new shop marquees. The climate has changed in Sin City, and opening a tattoo shop is a breeze. Sure, there were “Free Oil Change with Every Tattoo” places but, one by one, some quality artists arrived, and the tattoo boom was on.

Click images to enlarge.

One of the best got to Vegas the hard way. His trail stretched across a continent and included a couple horrific events that most of us won’t encounter in a lifetime. The artist’s name is Robert Pho. His story is a lesson to us all. It started with being young and in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Born in Cambodia of Chinese parents, Pho came to the U.S. in 1971. He started tattooing in 1989, inking prison-style tattoos with a guitar string and a Walkman motor. Prison style, because Robert was incarcerated and, as the result of plea bargaining a life sentence to fifteen years, served seven. He practiced on himself. Both arms, left-handed, right-handed and his legs. In the beginning Robert had plenty of time to practice. But within a short time, tattooing made Pho the cell blocks’s go-to guy. He never had a lesson. He’s completely self-taught.

Once he was released, with no one to apprentice with or compare himself to, Pho sought out the best in the business. Enter Jack Rudy. Pho had read about Jack and set out to get his first professional ink from Good Time Charlie’s master of black-and-gray. Jack tattooed the back of Robert’s neck. Then came portraits by two other of Robert’s black-and-gray heroes, Tom Renshaw and Bob Tyrrell.

“Tyrrell was beautiful to watch,” remembers Pho, pulling down his collar to unveil a perfect likeness of his daughter, Reena. “He took four-and-a-half hours. It was like an art lesson. I learned so much, but I also saw that I had been going about things correctly on my own. I even took about the same amount of time as Bob”

On the other, left side of this neck, is a lifelike image of Pho’s father. “Renshaw works differently,” says Pho. “Very fast. Tom did this one in forty-five minutes!”

Meticulous and slow or fast like a whirlwind, Robert was encouraged that his tattooing methods were on a par with these two giants of the industry. “Both these guys really liked my work,” says Pho. “They were really amazed that I taught myself, and without even using a proper machine.”

Robert wasn’t about to sit and watch the world go by. He opened a shop in North Carolina and had seven artist under him. The shop was called Skin Design and that’s where Robert tattooed for eight years. Tattooing was good to him. He bought a few acres, raised pit bulls and became a solid member of the community. Then, three years ago, disaster struck. Robert’s father was murdered. Coming back from the bank, Pho’s dad, a man in his sixties, was followed home and accosted by three young thugs with a gun.

Robert’s world turned upside down. “I cannot tell you the anger I felt,” says Pho. “I couldn’t work, I couldn’t think. All I wanted to do was destroy those guys. It was horrible.”

But, after a few weeks, the knee-jerk reaction subsided and Robert, reflecting on his life and family, learned to deal with the anger and, after a lot of hard work, focused his energy on keeping the family together. With relatives on the west coast, Pho moved to Vegas with his wife Cristina, four-year-old Reena and thirteen-year-old son, Justin.

“This is one of the best area in Vegas,” Pho told me, as we rolled up in front of his Moroccan-style home in a neat-as-a-pin community about ten minutes from work. There was an obvious sense of pride and accomplishment as Pho walked me through the high-ceilinged entry hall and up the stairs to the family room’s three-foot-wide plasma TV, a pit bull the size of a Buick and a pool out back. It was a beautiful, cool Vegas night, as we sat by the water and talked.

“They caught one of the guys,” says Pho. “But the other two got away. It still haunts me. But every time I think of my wife and kids, I have to let the anger go. I keep myself busy. I tattoo seven days a week. Plus, Tom told me that, when you have the passion, you must follow it. You have no choice, you have to tattoo.”

Burying himself in work is the way Robert focuses himself on the positive aspects of his life, but it’s also a result of his early days as a shop owner. “When I first started,” recalls Robert, “I’d only do one or two tattoos in a entire month. I don’t want that to happen again.”

Not likely. Nowadays, Pho is booked solid and, when he put the call out for customers for me to photograph, the shop was quickly filled with chatty clients and world-class ink. I’ve been to quite a few shops in the last decade and have observed that customers are a reflection of the artist in charge. A downer, Goth-style tattooist? Goth, downer clients. Energetic, stock-car loving artist? Energetic, stock-car loving clients. Pho’s clients are like Robert, positive, appreciative and polite.

And the recurring comment I heard all afternoon was how humble Robert was.

“He’s one of the best and he acts like he’s just one of the guys,” one of his customers told me. As a testament to the vibe of the shop, each and everyone I photographed shook my hand, introduced themselves and shook my hand again, when they finished up. This attitude was reflected in Robert’s courtesy to me during my short visit. He wouldn’t let me buy a thing (I wasn’t even allowed to tip the waiter), he carted me all over town to get some shots of the Strip and would have stayed up all night talking, if he didn’t have to wake up at 7:30 to get his son ready for school. I must say, I was treated in the grand manner by both Robert and his wife.

Robert’s unassuming shop is located on the end of a strip mall on a busy street. The walls are covered with Robert’s flash and, by the door, a celebrity wall with photos of Robert and some of his mentors, Tyrrell, Renshaw and the like. Also adorning this Wall of Fame are professionally laminated spreads from a pretty good sampling of Robert Pho magazine articles. But what really caught my eye were the work-in-progress envelopes for each client. Robert had prepared large, manila envelopes containing all the sketches, communications and design ideas for each, specific project. And, on the outside, was a large, hand-drawn silhouette with cross hatches to signify the size and location of the tattoo-to-be. All spread out on a work table, it was a brilliant way to have an overview of the week’s work and see at a glance how much time was need to schedule.

What with working every day from one p.m. to nine, Robert requires a lot of concentration. He clearly prefers to zone in on a piece of work and not be disturbed. Enter Brandon “Spider” Lombardi, Robert’s shop-mate and right-hand man.

“Brandon used to hang out in the shop,” says Pho. “ No pressure or anything. He just liked being here and helping out from time to time. After a while, I asked Brandon to work for me. He never asked me once. I asked him. It was the logical decision. He’s dependable, someone I can trust.”

It was a perfect match, because Brandon, besides being a pretty formidable tattooist in his own right, fields the inquiries, answers the phone, makes the appointments and tattoos six days a week.

“Robert has shown me so much,” says Brandon. “I’m really honored to be working with someone that has that kind of talent. And he’s so humble!”

From where I sit, I don’t think there could be a better setup. A two-man shop with one of the participants thrilled to help out, run interference and tattoo side-by-side with such his prolific, helpful teacher.

“I like the way the shop is set up,” says Robert, “but I’d love to get Renshaw to do a guest shot. I could set up a third station, no problem.”

What with so many competing shops, the slice of the pie is getting smaller and smaller all the time, and, before long, only the best will survive. The shops in casinos will have their fling, the bedroom scratchers will open new shops and more and more tourists will pour in to get their Vegas souvenir, but Robert Pho will be among the last shops standing. Even now, he’s planning to make up for all those years without anyone showing him what to do.

“I’m learning about airbrushing,” he says. “I love those pinups from the fifties. I want to try that.” Watch out, world. All you artists and collectors that are hearing about Robert Pho for the first time. Just think, if he’s accomplished what he has on sheer talent alone, who knows what he’ll do with a little help from his friends.

ROBERT PHO

Skin Design Tattoo

5645 So. Eastern Avenue

Las Vegas, Nevada  89119

(702) 739-9946

http://www.skindesigntattoos.com

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