It’s a running joke in the tattoo world that everyone owes Leo Zulueta $100. It started when an inker friend handed him a $100 bill, saying it was partial payment for all the money he’d made from the designs Zulueta created. Since then other artists have tried to hand Zulueta cash, too. After all, there are few tattoo parlors that haven’t cashed in on Zulueta’s art.
Known as the “father of modern tribal tattooing,” Zulueta popped up on a television show that Jared Leathers saw one day. Leathers was working at the Arborland Borders and recognized Zulueta as one of his regular customers. He was floored to learn that Zulueta was part of the 1970s San Francisco tattoo scene that helped introduce the once-marginal art form into mainstream America. In 2000, Zulueta had sold his Hollywood parlor, Black Wave, to move here and open Spiral Tattoo on Packard with his girlfriend, Michigan native Dianne Mansfield, a tattoo artist and photographer.
Leathers, an artist himself, drew a design resembling tiger stripes and brought it into the shop. Zulueta tattooed it onto his left forearm, and the two hit it off immediately.
They share a common artistic sensibility. Zulueta’s “New Tribalism” style is influenced by South Pacific traditions, with interweaving patterns and strong contrasts of darks and lights. Many of Leathers’ drawings and paintings similarly explore “positive and negative space.” The men discovered that they had similar tastes in music and started getting together to play guitar. And Leathers began spending more time at Spiral Tattoo.
It took awhile before Leathers found the courage to ask Zulueta and Mansfield if he could learn from them. “In today’s world it is really hard to get into tattooing,” Zulueta explains. “There’s thousands upon thousands of people tattooing now. When someone comes around asking for an apprenticeship at the shop, we usually tell them no straightaway. We’ve actually had people cry in the shop.”
But this time they said yes. At first, Zulueta just had Leathers clean up the shop. He didn’t mind. He watched Zulueta’s every move and absorbed as much about the business as he could.
“There’re just so many different facets to it,” Leathers says, “not only in terms of art, but the people-handling skills. You’ve got a living, breathing canvas in front of you, and you’ve got to make sure that they’re okay.”
Last March, Leathers followed an age-old tradition by putting his first tattoo onto his own skin: a shark holding a paintbrush and palette. Stooping over his leg drawing upside down and backwards, Leathers was so excited he had to keep slowing himself down to stay calm.
The first six months of the apprenticeship were unpaid, but Leathers considers that a bargain. Zulueta says apprentices often pay top tattoo artists between $5,000 and $10,000 for the privilege. His own client roster includes former NBA star Dennis Rodman, film director Jim Jarmusch, actress Marlee Matlin, Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, and Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee. So far, Leathers’s best-known client is U-M basketball player Manny Harris. Leathers gave him a shoulder tattoo of a wolf’s head with the inscription “Kill or be killed.”
Zulueta, fifty-six, was born in Washington D.C. to Filipino parents and raised in Hawaii. He’s slender, with his long silver hair in a ponytail and a few lengthy chin hairs forming a wispy goatee. Leathers, twenty-six, has hair even longer than his teacher’s. When not tied behind his head or wrapped in a knit hat, his dreadlocks hang to his waist.
Spiral Tattoo has a relaxed feel. A Steely Dan CD mixes with the buzz from Leathers’s tattoo machine. He’s tattooing two Japanese Kanji characters on Heather Moore’s back, between her shoulder blades. The characters translate as “soul mate.” Across the shop, Mansfield is tattooing the same characters on the forearm of Heather’s husband, Michael. Michael is home on a two weeks’ leave from serving in Iraq, and the two are getting the tattoos to celebrate their fourteenth wedding anniversary. Nearby, Zulueta draws an elaborate design on a client’s left leg—a diamond around his knee with patterns above and below.
Leathers has done so many tattoos in the last year that he’s lost track of the number. But while he is now paid for each one he does, he says he will always consider himself Zulueta’s apprentice.
“The whole way this thing came together was real fortunate,” he says. “And I plan on staying here with Leo for a long time.”
I just want to thank Leo, Jared and Diane for the terrific tattoos. My husband and I were the ones that had the kanji “soulmate” tattoos. He actually told me today while still over seas that he looks at that tattoo everyday and it makes him feel better. Its amazing how personal one tattoo can be and how more connected it can make two people feel when they are miles away from each other. Thank you again for your awesome talent. H Moore