The tattooer without borders talks about the universality of art.
Does this guy look familiar? If you’ve been to any tattoo convention in the past five years you have had an 87 percent chance of seeing Stéfano Alcántara. The realism wizard spends as much time in folding chairs as a soccer mom because he likes to soak up different tattoo art scenes. Originally from Peru, he now gets his mail delivered to New York City, where he takes clients at Paul Booth’s Last Rites Tattoo Theater. Alcántara’s pieces are spellbinding—he’s simply one of the best realism tattoo artists in the world. One of his life goals is to advance tattooing to a place where the medium gets its rightful respect in the art community. When the 20-plus-year veteran first tried breaking into tattooing, he wasn’t welcomed in by the old guard, but in the past two decades he’s seen a change in the culture and thinks that tattooers are set to unite and propel the form forward. “For once I think all tattoo artists are on the same path,” he says. “We are all in the same mission: to bring tattoos to where they have never been and become artists validated by our counterparts in fine art.”
INKED: How did your journey begin?
Stéfano Alcántara: I was in art school in Peru and I saw the tattoos in American magazines and I knew that is what I wanted to do. I ordered some equipment online and tried to teach myself. Luckily in art school I had those free-spirited, art-loving friends who were willing to let me try on them.
Did you have any type of mentoring early on?
Not really. This was over 20 years ago when there wasn’t much tattooing in Peru and tattooing in the States was really closed off to people not really on the inside. I would travel to the U.S. and try to get people to show me how to tattoo, but the trade was really kept a secret, especially to some Peruvian kid like myself. So I would visit the United States, and go to conventions or get tattooed by the guys that I thought had really good work. Back in Lima when they would tattoo me I would be watching the whole time and asking them all these questions. Because I couldn’t find a place to pay my dues, I paid for sessions. When you try to hang out at a shop it takes months for tattooers to talk to you seriously, but when they are tattooing you, you have their attention.
You worked for a while in Peru.
Yes, 14 or 15 years.
And then you landed at Last Rites in New York City.
Yes, I set up a guest spot with the shop manager through MySpace—so you can guess around when that would have been—and my first day there I met Paul, and we have been friends ever since.
The shop moved recently, right?
It is a lot different than before. It looks more like a high-end gallery. It is three stories: The street floor is an art gallery, the basement is the tattoo shop, and the second floor is a VIP waiting area and Paul’s studio for work and painting. I think it brings tattoos to a different level, as the emphasis is on the art.
Are you at Last Rites full-time?
I consider myself a traveling artist. When I’m not traveling to tattoo at conventions and everywhere else, Last Rites is my home base.
In that case do you consider your home Peru, New York, or an airplane somewhere in between?
New York is now my home. Peru is my roots and I don’t want to forget that. I want to bring something back for my country—it deserves to have a good-quality tattoo shop.
Is that one of your missions?
I never closed my shop when I moved to the States, and I am opening up another tattoo shop that is going to be different than anything in the world. I bought a house and remodeled it to be good for tattooing. When you walk in, there will be a store, a big gallery, and a waiting area with a movie theater. With this I am going to bring good tattoo artists to Peru to enjoy the good food and the culture. I see it as a destination in South America for high-level tattoo artists to work and hang out. I don’t even see it as a business; it’s just my dream concept for a shop come true.
Are there any good artists working in Peru now?
Hell yeah—Peru is not known for tattoos but you’d be surprised at some of the tattoo artists. If they come to the States they will get really famous right away.
Are you trying to keep the spotlight for yourself or are you going to facilitate them coming to America?
I will be bringing them. I think art is for everybody, that we are doing a disservice if we aren’t sharing the best art in the world. The problem is they need a work visa to tattoo and that isn’t always the easiest thing to get.
Does Peruvian tattoo style differ from the stuff we are used to seeing? American tattoo styles influence the whole world, so they take what they can see online or in magazines and put their own flavor on it. It doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen but it isn’t so different that you wouldn’t recognize it.
If social media and the internet had been prevalent when you started tattooing, do you think that you would have traveled as much?
I would not change anything I did; I liked the way that it worked out. I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason. While I learned from seeing things in magazines and then online when I was in Peru, I learned much more quickly when I got the guest spot at Last Rites and was around other artists. If I never had that experience I wouldn’t be the same artist I am now. I think art is something that you can’t just look at—you have to experience art. And art is a never-ending learning process, so I try to experience it as much as possible.
Which is why you still travel often?
Exactly. I like the fact that I can be everywhere, and I feel it is way more interesting to experience different people and places which have their own way of informing your art.
Do you consider yourself a fine artist?
Tattooing is my number one art for sure. It is the one that gives me so much in my life—it gives me confidence and a career. From there I go to different types of art but they are always to strengthen my tattoo career. When I paint or try to create in another medium it gets me better at tattoos. Painting taught me so much about realism, like depth and lighting. I feel like the first time I am able to bring all the other mediums into tattooing.
Were you always drawn to realism?
Yes, that was the kind of art that I was doing in art school.
Were there realism tattoos when you decided to go into tattooing?
No, that’s the funny thing—realism is my natural art but I was drawn to tattooing, which was all images with bold lines. Then as the equipment got better and I started trying to do realism in tattoos, it blew my mind.
In your opinion is there a particular element that makes a good realism tattoo?
You have to do every single thing right. There is nothing more important than the whole piece. I think you should pay close attention to detail in order to have a really accurate piece. Values are something that a lot of tattoo artists forget about. You really need to make an effect on the whole image in order for the tattoo to stand out or be brought to the next level.
How does one set him- or herself apart in a genre when you are copying an image or an object?
I think that lately I have finally been defining my style. Right now people can recognize my tattoos as being a piece done by me more than they could five years ago. A lot of people talk about how detailed my pieces are or how I use more textures than other artists—like when I do a hand I put fingerprints, while other artists don’t think to do that. I try to go for that extra mile in the tattoo to be a little bit different. But also I go for realism and then add something that is not exactly in the picture, so I don’t exactly copy. I try to bring something from my own style and flow them in to make my client a unique piece. The image looks totally real but I interpret it in my way and add different textures, so in the end maybe the tattoo is more than what it actually is.
What fine arts do you like?
Rembrandt and Sargent are artists who do realism in such an incredible way, but the ones that inspire me lately the most—those who influence my paintings—are the ones that are alive, because I don’t want to paint in too much of a traditional style. Right now my influences are illustrators like Casey Baugh, David Kassan, Donatto Giancola, and Martin Wittfooth. Also direct influences are the artists that I know and meet in New York because I am able to ask them questions about their work, their approach, and their process. To me art is very personal. I want the work to evoke an image that grabs my attention.
It makes sense that a tattooer who specializes in a newish genre would be drawn more toward the works of contemporary artists. Is art timeless or does it evolve?
Art definitely evolves. The next generation is always better than the old ones. Someday I am going to be part of the old ones and the new kids are going to be doing amazing things. I am excited to see what is coming in every field, not just tattooing but painting, architecture, everything.
What do you think will be the next step for tattoo art?
That is a really hard question. I don’t know what the next style is going to be. I don’t think anybody does yet. What I do want for tattoo art is for it to be recognized as a fine art on par with painting. Tattoos got popular from a bad background, and I don’t think they have a bad name anymore, but I think tattooing now demands its rightful respect in the art world. I don’t even think that we should treat tattoos that separately, like how we have art galleries in front of our tattoo shops. I think that across mediums we are all artists.
What is your take on fine artists’ opinion of tattoos?
They are fascinated with tattoos, but only to the point where they comment, “That’s cool.” What I would really like is that our craft gets the appreciation on a higher level.
Would you be shocked to see tattoos in museums in five years?
Yes, but I don’t even think we’ll have to wait this long. Tattoo artists get interviewed in magazines, we are in bound hardcover books, we are already deserving of the ink, and that makes me so happy and proud. Street art is getting into museums—why not tattoos?