Since I’d heard that Marco Cerretelli’s career as a tattoo artist began with a prison style tattoo gun crafted from a walkman, toothbrush and pen, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to meet him on a beautiful sunny day in West Hollywood.
Born and raised in Campi di Bisenzio outside of Florence, Marco came to the US in 2002. After starting in New York, he was drawn to California, as many people are, by the weather and found himself working with the legendary Bob Roberts.
How, I wondered, did he go from tattooing friends in the Italian Army to being one of LAist’s 7 Best Los Angeles Tattoo artists and one of LA Weekly’s 10 Awesome Los Angeles Tattoo Artists?
When I opened the door to Marco’s studio on Santa Monica Boulevard I was met by purple walls, vintage drawings and a stuffed jackalope. As needles hummed in the background and future clients pored over books of inspiration for their inked creations, I sat down with Marco to find out a bit more about his journey from army serviceman to owner of The Honorable Society Tattoo Parlour.
When did you get your first tattoo?
When I was 22 and bought a small tattoo machine, I gave myself a samurai on my leg … The very first “real” tattoo was when I was 24 and did my entire back. It was at a time when I couldn’t have any visible tattoos for family reasons. My parents were very traditional.
When did your parents understand that tattoos would become your career?
Never. Even today my mother still grabs her hair when she thinks about it. I mean, they’ve accepted it; they’re happy that I have a profession and a measure of success in this world.
So, at how old will your sons need to be before you let them get a tattoo?
They have to be at least 18. I don’t know at what age I’ll let them start tattooing – not on people, but practicing on fruit or pigskin and then on that synthetic skin they sell. If they want to start thinking about making tattoos, I’ll let them start a lot earlier than 18, but getting a tattoo, no. They can get tattooed when they’re 18.
You went to art school. Was that before you started tattooing?
Yes, I went to an art institute for high school and then the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence (Accademia delle belle arti) for university.
You must use that experience today…
Yes, even though I must say that they are two completely different things. Experience has taught me that you can be very good at drawing, a great artist, but not necessarily a good tattoo artist and the reverse is true as well. There are amazing tattoo artists who can’t draw, but who are good at copying … Of course there’s the fact that in art school they don’t teach you anything about tattooing…
I’ve seen your style of tattoos described as vintage realism. How would you describe your style?
I don’t know because I’ve never really defined myself … I would say it’s somewhere between realism and cartoon, not too traditional and not too realistic, but right in the middle. Tattoos have never been an expression of realism they’ve always been a representation of reality.
Have you ever had a client come to you and ask you to do something that you don’t feel comfortable doing?
Yes, sometimes, for example if they ask me for something that’s hyper-realistic … copying reality and copying something that exists are two different things. I’ve done a piece that replicates one of Dali’s works and that’s not really realism, but it is the type of challenge I will take on.
The styles of tattoos you see right now tend to go in the direction of certain extremes and that’s not a direction I personally feel like following. I think in the long run these trends aren’t going to have the best results.
And what are examples of some of these extremes?
Tattoos that look like watercolors, that don’t have black outlines, that use tons of colors. When you know how tattoos change over time you realize that those black lines serve a purpose, they delimit the tattoo. The traditional tattoo with thick lines and simple colors might not be my favorite style, but I think it has more substance and stands up to time as compared to all these new styles…
Are there any differences between tattoo culture in the US and Italy?
In Italy, tattoos are very much driven by trends. If tribal tattoos are in fashion, then everyone has to have a tribal tattoo. When it goes out of fashion, then the trend becomes having your children’s names or cursive fonts. Of course, these aren’t in an unusual place, but on the forearm because that’s where soccer players get their tattoos. Then there’s the famous actress who gets a tattoo on her ribs, so everyone else does the same.
Is it different here in the US?
Yes, although some people follow trends here as well. There are hipsters who want the symbol for infinity or a feather that becomes a seagull, or a tree with no leaves, but that’s only a small group of people. Tattoo culture is much more established here and people aren’t afraid.
If you get a tattoo of a panther it’s because you want a tattoo of a panther, not because it’s in fashion … Maybe it’s changed, but when I was working in Italy, you couldn’t be different. If you got a panther tattoo just because you wanted one your friend would say “What the hell is that? You’re such a dumbass!” The tattoo had to be in line with the culture and with a specific way of thinking … Here people are free to express themselves. Even if I must say that culture here is a bit contradictory. People can’t show their nipples or butts on TV, but they are completely free to tattoo their face.
Was it challenging to open your own tattoo shop?
Yes, very challenging. The interesting thing is that, after the crisis started in 2008, a lot of people tried to invent new jobs to earn something. Unfortunately, tattoos are pretty easy to do since all you have to do is buy a machine. So the number of shops, legal or not, has increased. What’s more, this is an area where there isn’t much traffic. For now we’ve won and I can’t complain since so many studios are closing.
How did you decide on the name of the shop?
I’m passionate about the Victorian age. I wanted to recreate a Victorian brothel parlor and I also like Oscar Wilde a lot, so I was imagining this living room as an exclusive club … Moreover, in Italian it’s a phrase used to describe the Mafia. I really wanted to be different from all the other tattoo shops that are black and white with neon signs. You can take a book with you and read while you’re waiting…
Where do you see yourself in the future?
My future is here, I have 4 children, they’re my family and my job’s here. Maybe when I’m old I’ll go back to Italy.
Do you bring anything back with you when you visit Italy?
No because I feel integrated here. I’m not one of those Italians who always complains about everything. I’ve totally embraced this new culture and I’m happy with that. I’ve broadened my horizons, I even eat the pizza if it’s cooked perfectly.
Would you say you’re still Italian or that you’ve become more of a Los Angeleno?
I’m still 100% Italian. I’m just an Italian in the US.
If you’re interested in Marco’s work, check it out at:
The Honorable Society
8424 Santa Monica blvd
West Hollywood CA