Before needle hits the skin, before pencil even touches paper, Noah Minuskin wants to have a conversation first. “If someone comes in and they point at something on the wall and they say, ‘I want that,’ and they can’t tell me why, I mean it’s just not good enough for me,” the 25-year-old tattoo artist states with honesty. It’s not that he’s snobby or unreasonably picky about who and what he has to work with. What Minuskin is, is mindful, cautious, but more importantly, he’s taking responsibility—for you.
When it comes to permanently marking your body, it’s advised that whatever you’re getting should at least have some form of meaningful allusion to the self. An obvious, perhaps cheesy-sounding notion, but a pragmatic aversion to the embarrassment and regret that comes from, for example, being inebriated and thinking that getting Alf on your left ass cheek would be really funny. The only bigger crime in that scenario is that the “artist” who should have talked you out of it or directed you back to the front door, didn’t. Of course, there are those who are fine with what they have. Others eventually make peace, acknowledging, maybe even romanticizing that part of their history. “I have tattoos just like that too that I got when I was 15-years-old that I probably wouldn’t get today, if I—” Minuskin cuts himself off with a chuckle and starts over. “Me personally, it reminds me of those times and it kind of gives me like a diary, a yearbook or something like that from those days.”
Still, he’s insistent on deviating from things where the attraction is merely a fad of its time (i.e. the notorious tribal armband). So when Minuskin says not figuring out the “why” isn’t good enough for him, what he’s also saying is a) you really need to think this through again, this time with me, and b) whatever it is you’re hastily proposing to get probably won’t be good enough for you either, especially in the long run. The first step in dealing with these impulses, he explains, is to get the individual thinking conceptually, not visually—that’s his department. Build a “genuine foundation,” a starting ground with the potential to develop into something personal and substantial where its sentiment lasts.
“Noah’s really good at that,” pointed out Jose Lopez—Minuskin’s mentor (plus everyone else’s in the shop) and founder of L.A.’s acclaimed Lowrider Tattoo Studios, where Minuskin is currently based at its Fountain Valley location—when I spoke with him last year. “People come and tell him, ‘I had a really bad childhood, my mom’s like my guardian angel, she took care of me, she passed away, my aunt took care of me.’ He goes in there and he just finds an image and he sets a storyline. Like, ‘Well look, you see this right here? This can represent you, this is your mother over here, this is your guardian angel.’”
It doesn’t happen that fast or that easily. But like any good tattoo artist, Minuskin is adept at stringing narratives together, and there two reasons why he in particular excels at it.
One, he’s legitimately curious about his clients. Consultations from what I gather are best described as candid tell-me-your-life-story chats, which he says is integral to the composition process and building trust. The better he gets to know you, the better he assumes the creative director role; opening up is constructive, reticence is not. It also helps that Minuskin does actually enjoy listening to what people have to say and credits the experience as often being positively didactic. “You’d be surprised how much you can learn about life and different things by hearing somebody’s journey, or path through their surviving those things. Not actually going through it myself, but walking alongside their journey as they recall it and share it is amazing.”
Two, he’s fully aware that tattooing isn’t a solo act. He’ll be the first to tell you that there are decisions he can’t make story-wise, for the obvious reason that it’s not about him. Minuskin is more than accepting that what he does can never solely revolve around his vision, but equally conscious that he can’t pander either. “Both of us have to be equally invested,” he emphasizes. “If I’m a 110% and the client is just 50%, we’re not going to get to the full potential of whatever it is that we take on. If I’m 50% and [they’re] a 110%, it’s the same thing.”
Finding a balance without at least some compromise is a challenge considering the potential for tension when it comes to sharing creative input. But collaboration is where Minuskin finds the greatest fulfillment and where he believes “the beauty happens” regardless of whatever difficulties may arise. When left on his own, he’s unburdened by the lingering suggestions that stem from his consults of the day. In fact, he says he feels “pretty free.” Part of it has to do with that aforementioned curiosity. Minuskin’s the type of collaborator who happily takes all ideas relayed to him into serious consideration along with his own, and he’s open-minded enough to allow things to run in different directions instead of staying stubbornly fixated on the first thing that pops in his head. “You’ve got to be able to adapt and take advantage of an opportunity. Create a lead, you know? See where it takes you, explore that place, grow and push it and see where you can take it.”
If it does get to a point where Minuskin isn’t your guy, then he assures that there will be no hard feelings. Lately though, he says things have been smooth, easier even. The brief writings about the significance of the artwork adorned on the many arms, chests, ribs and backs photographed on his eponymous blog recently, all point to that ease. More importantly, it all seems to satisfy a thought he ponders daily: “Our canvas is the human body. How can we reach that level of quality and timelessness, and something that’s not just a fad?”
There’s something to be said about Minuskin’s penchant for longevity and why his choice to specifically work in black and grey is so fitting. To be clear, I’m talking about longevity with respect to aesthetics.
It’s one thing for meaning to preserve itself over time, but another for the years to be kind to the actual tattoo itself. Fading is inevitable. Minuskin knows this to be the simple, palpable truth about the effect this has on everything he has and will put out in his career. However, the mechanics of black and grey is unique in that it does age more gracefully (several external factors can’t be controlled of course, but there’s a fighting chance nonetheless)—much like a fine bottle of wine as he eloquently puts it.
Lopez explained it to me like this: On skin, color contracts, then separates, leaving behind muddled blotches as it wears down. Black and grey—which, somewhat contrary to its name, is actually various dilutions of black—on the other hand, expands, developing a smoother, softer look that naturally coalesces with the skin. “It almost just deepens the strength of the tattoo, of the image—in my opinion,” Minuskin says. “I think the integrity of the piece is maintained for a longer period of time.”
Thinking on this statement now, it occurs to me that for Minuskin, maintaining integrity within the style is more than just about its capabilities of preservation. It pertains to a response he gives when I ask for his take on the concept of minimalism and the difficulties of restraint given his restriction to a more minimal palette.
For him, what it comes down to is a back-to-basics approach he’s adopted where certain questions are addressed. “I mean…if you’re drawing, what’s the least amount of strokes that I can put on this paper for you to know it is what it is? To capture the essence of what it is and you’ll be able to recognize it? How many strokes do you really need? How many marks do you need?” Simplicity in that aspect, he tells me, is something he definitely thinks about.
Forget, for a moment, about Minuskin’s more extravagant work, the thematically numinous and mythological ones he’s known for—Raffaele Monti’s Veiled Vestal Virgin, Icarus falling with a chariot from the sky, St. Michael, to name a few. Take something less sublime like two roses he did for instance: the way he has the gradients of grey emulate the subtle folds and creases of the petals, how he nails the contrast for a highly effective three-dimensional look, his clever use of negative space and the uncanny realism he replicates, easily allow the flowers to stand out even next to the most epic imagery. It’s the idea of stripping an object to its purest form, capturing it as it is, but accentuating the elemental. That’s where he shines.
Minuskin readily admits he hasn’t always thought deeply about his infatuation with black and grey though. The initial attraction came from being in awe with the tatted bodies that wore it back home in Santa Rosa, some of which he would later work on. There’s also his love of drawing, which he frequently mentions has a direct relationship to black and grey tattooing in shading, organizing values, orchestrating unity between tone and structure—basically a litany of technical chatter he doesn’t have time to meticulously detail. On a personal level, it’s a medium he attributes as his foundation as an artist; how drawing with a graphite pencil at a young age became a literal translation to what he practices today.
But despite the candor on his once premature mindset, a childhood recollection he shares about a particular individual suggests that back then, he may have already been subconsciously challenging himself to think about what he could do with the bare minimum. “We used to call him Oldie,” Minuskin recalls. He describes the man as an old Chicano in his 50’s, a lowrider guy and the president of the car club back up north. “He’d be like, ‘What can you do with a number two?’ Like a number two pencil. So [me] doing these drawings and stuff, he’d just always be clowning around, you know, like, ‘Well, what can you do with it?’”
During one of our chats, Minuskin recounts a story about a client who flew in from northern London for his first tattoo, the first of a large collection they would build together on the rib cage.
“He had a couple sessions booked [and] we got some good work done in the time we spent together. He told me he was sharing the progress and the results with people back home. His parents being the big ones, because you know, they may or may not have fallen into that category where they’re a little bit skeptical of their son having tattoos and what not because of what they represent. But, I mean, upon seeing what their son was getting, they were filled with joy and almost didn’t…I don’t know if…” he starts fumbling for the right words. “What stuck with me,” he quickly returns to his train of thought, “is they described it as ‘Wow.’ They told their son, ‘Wow, that is art and nothing less.’”
It’s an anecdote he identifies as a moment of great praise. Not in terms of validated self-pride, but something external, a line in the bigger picture: that the tattoo was acknowledged as art. Aside from pushing to become a seasoned artist in his own right, (“Ah, I don’t know man,” he responds when I ask who he thinks that is) there’s an underlying aspiration to elevate the craft to a point where it’s held in the same high regard as fine art, or at least whatever is considered as such anyway. To not accept the responsibility, to not even try, would be doing his predecessors who paved the way—the Jack Rudys and the Freddy Negretes—a “big dishonor.”
Given how the past couple years have gone for the industry, the grass has indeed been far greener. These days, the mass attention it receives is more than noticeable: TV shows, web series, shops and names occupying its space spoken in celebrity, fashion collaborations—the list goes on.
But ensuring tattoos maintain its place within the mainstream, Minuskin clarifies, isn’t his concern nor is that sort of popularity the reverence he’s referring to. What he’s after, is the recognition of craftsmanship in every sense of the word—the artistry, the critical eye for placement, the patience in handling the unpredictable canvas that is skin (“It can be the most frustrating. It can break you.”), and the deft hand that delivers clean, straight lines with surgical precision. This all runs like clockwork in Minuskin’s head, and it’s these very thoughts he alludes to when he talks about being conscious of every move he makes. It’s a Zen-like cognizance that has come to reflect his hyper-focused personality, intense devotion and a work ethic that eludes sleep. (An excerpt from one of Lopez’s blog post: “This kid works 24/7 and when I say this, I mean it. Aside from dedicating probably close to 90 hours a week to his schooling he is still right here with me at every chance he can get, soaking up all the knowledge he can.”)
What should be taken from all this, is that Minuskin’s absolute commitment—mentally, physically, perhaps even spiritually—is essentially his way of contributing to that greater ambition for tattooing to respectfully coexist in company of other valued art forms and to do so for years to come. “We’re trying to take the right steps internally to think long term. It’s not just about getting quick results. It’s really taking that time to invest yourself in every step and every part of the process the craft deserves.” The other half of the job is a simple matter of putting the work out there. “I want to share what I do and whether [people] like it at the end of the day or not, I don’t know. I can’t make that decision for them.”
Not that opinions don’t matter, they just don’t matter to a degree. One reason, I suspect, is that he subjects himself under enough self-scrutiny as it is. If there isn’t someone sitting in the chair, late nights at Lowrider are spent with Lopez breaking down what he could’ve been done better. That same critiquing he applies to school (he’s in his third year at Pasadena’s prestigious Art Center College of Design) and personal projects, only he does it alone—a “battle of the demons” he describes these solitary moments of neuroses in his head.
Minuskin also strikes me as fairly level-headed, devoid of the made-for-television, testosterone-driven, macho ego usually found on reality programming. Personal preferences, cultures and religions of a sort can’t be forced into acceptance. Fact is there’s no winning them all, and he knows it. What he also knows, the one certainty he feels confident about tattooing pushing beyond being a fad or short term interest is this: he’s not going anywhere and neither is any other artist with a needle in their hand.
On the road to San Francisco, Minuskin is talking to me over the phone about the audiobook he has in the car: Hermann Hesse’s 1922 novel, Siddartha. A friend had recommended it to him having learned he enjoyed The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho’s equally spiritual tale of an Andalusian shepherd boy in pursuit of a treasure. I tell him I’ve heard of the latter, and he gets excited. “Oh bro, it’s amazing, you got to read that shit,” he exclaims. “This is like some books on spiritual journeys and stuff like that. It’s just filled with all these amazing metaphors that seem to hit home for some reason.”
After inquiring about my reading material, he reverts back to The Alchemist, eagerly filling me in on the plot: how the protagonist is in search of his destiny, and how along the way he encounters several unusual characters and falls in love in the process. “There’s this amazing quote in it where it says when you’re in pursuit of your…I forget what it’s called,” at this point, his iPhone’s GPS interrupts with travel directions. “Fuck, hold on. I got it right here, let me just read this to you. I wrote this shit down. It says,” he continues with words now in hand, “‘When you really want something to happen, the whole universe conspires so that your wish comes true.’”
I say it’s a little too optimistic for me, but in getting to know him, I understand why he’s so taken by the quote he paraphrased. (The actual line goes: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”)
Minuskin was raised in a traditional Hebrew home. His mother, whom he speaks of affectionately, was a doctor’s receptionist, a nurse (among many other things) at an elementary school, a former ballerina, a pianist who plays Beethoven and Chopin at home, and his very first artistic influence. “Growing up in the house, I got da Vinci books lying around everywhere and van Gogh, and we’d go through it like it was a coloring book.”
His father is “real traditional,” a “strong individual” born in 1944 at an Austrian displaced person’s camp. After his family was finally sponsored to enter the States in 1949, the elder Minuskin would later fight in Vietnam, return to the U.S. and move to L.A. where he’d meet his wife and get married. To support the household, he went back to school and got into real estate. “Pops is a businessman,” Minuskin laughs. “To quote Jay-Z, pops would say…what was that quote he was saying…‘I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.’”
Like his father, Minuskin wanted to make something of himself mainly because, as he explains it, he felt pressure being the son of a family name that survived the worst of war. Somewhere along the way, he took a wrong turn. As a teenager he was “getting into all kinds of stupid, stupid shit” that could have landed him in jail, or given the implied severity of his juvenile behavior, dead. The one consistent, constructive thing he did was art, but even then, he says he wasn’t taking it seriously.
In his high school freshman year, he developed an interest in graffiti and adopted the moniker NOMAD, tagging every rooftop he could find, which resulted in a two-year police investigation being launched on his activity. At the age of 16, he started tattooing. His friend’s brother, who inked fellow inmates while doing time, had just been released. They met and built a machine together (which mom still keeps) with the same, if not similar, material prisoners would scavenge on the inside: a hollowed-out Bic pen, a guitar string as the needle, a toothbrush as the frame, and a Walkman radio motor to power it. “You know it’s funny, I look at it and the needle sticks out like probably four times what I would stick it out today. It’s crazy. That thing’s a weapon.” And armed with that weapon, he did his first tattoo: the initials of Santa Rosa in an Old English font on a friend’s leg. Word spread and more requests started to follow. “Girls would get little butterflies, little roses. Guys would maybe want some girls, a little skull or a little cross or, you know, simple ideas.”
When his delinquent phase passed, Minuskin cleaned up his act. That’s when the whole universe conspiring for his wishes would come into play.
After barely graduating high school, he gave education another chance and enrolled in a community college taking art history and philosophy, which re-sparked his interest in learning. “I took one semester there and I said, ‘You know what? If I’m going to do this, I’m going to pursue art because that’s where my heart is. If I’m going to pursue it, I’m going to do it at the highest level.’”
So he began prepping a portfolio for Art Center. He also decided to learn to tattoo professionally feeling that relying on trial and error wouldn’t take his skills much farther. He set out to find a shop willing to take him in, but like many others looking to make the transition to more established settings, all he got were rejections. “A lot of people didn’t want to help me,” he says, surprisingly without a trace of bitterness. Then, a friend introduced him to Angel Gallardo, the owner of American Classic Tattoo. The two met at a Denny’s one night and talked for hours (five from what he could remember), and by the end, Minuskin got the shot he had been looking for.
Gallardo as a mentor was old school, brutally honest, and taught him to take his time, to “do it the right way, not the easy way.” He also drilled basic shop discipline that Minuskin didn’t have when he was going door-to-door. “It’s the cleaning up after yourself, it’s fucking taking out the trash, it’s being quiet when someone smarter than you is talking. Why? Because you ain’t going to learn shit when your fucking mouth is running. It’s stuff like that, basic principles that he took the time to really show me. That goes beyond tattooing, that’s just being a man.”
He stayed for three years, and in 2012, he was accepted into Art Center. He grabbed his things and drove to L.A., but instead of going to the hotel, he went straight to Lowrider to see Lopez. No prior notice was sent.
Minuskin has been admiring Lopez’s work from the pages of magazines since he was fifteen. Somewhere in between attending community college and being introduced to Gallardo, he paid him a visit with his dad. “We ventured in and we caught a glimpse of the studio, and I felt that there was like a Renaissance thinking going on in there. Everybody was just…it was buzzing,” he remembers his first look around at his future vividly.
The encounter was brief, but Lopez’s sincerity and encouragement made a huge impression on Minuskin, who at that point, was used to being aggressively turned away. More trips would be made after in hopes of another meeting, only for mistiming to prolong their re-acquaintance. So Lopez greeting him that late January evening when he arrived with his life packed in his car was a long shot. “And I come in, and this time…he’s got this room—it’s in the back of the studio—I go in and I see this light on, and he’s just working. I’m like, ‘Ok, there he is.’ So I walk up, I introduce myself, we start talking.”
They discussed tattooing, school, life, and eventually, Minuskin was recognized as “that kid that came in with your pop” a few years back. As this went on, the client Lopez was in the middle of a session with sat through the entire exchange “getting a kick out of it,” fully aware of Minuskin’s intentions. Finally, Lopez instigated the proposition for him to work at Lowrider and asked if he could come in the next day. “I said, ‘Fucking hell yeah.’”
When he left, the first person he shared the good news with was Gallardo. (“He was fucking sleeping. I decided to wake him up.”) After the call, Minsukin, still high on adrenaline, couldn’t sleep. “My mind was racing, you know? Just this huge opportunity…I couldn’t ask for a better first day of this journey.”
Since then, he’s had little to complain about. He’s making a name for himself in the black and grey genre, traveled Europe participating in Lowrider’s cyclical pop-up studios, and he’s won his share of awards at conventions. The only gripe he seems to face nowadays, aside from a hectic schedule, is figuring out how to push the boundaries of tattooing alongside his fellow colleagues, which he documents on his blog, often with a militant vernacular: sessions have been (respectfully) described as “battles,” peers at one point referred to as his “band of brothers,” and Lopez himself has been dubbed “commander-in-chief” on several occasions.
It’s been two years since he joined Lopez, but he’s never forgotten about Gallardo. “I talk to Angel all the time still. He’s still very much a part of what I’m doing and he’ll always be. Same with Jose. They’ll both always be. They’ve impacted my life in a way that they’re always going to be a part of me and what I do, and I’m always going to seek them out for advice and all that.”
The last question I ask Minuskin, him being someone who enjoys the wisdom of Socrates and Sun Tzu, was based on something I heard from an equally philosophical figure in his world: Horiyoshi III. At one point during an interview with Marcus Kuhn on an episode of the The Gypsy Gentleman, the renowned Japanese horishi said, “To learn to tattoo is like learning life.”
So I ask: What have you learned about life through tattooing?
When he answers, he instead talks about how tattooing saved his life and how it steered him into a direction of love, passion and appreciation—things I’ve come to know through research and our chats without needing any of it to be blatantly revealed. I do listen, but when he’s finished, I ask him again. This time, he hears me loud and clear.
“What have I learned about life from tattooing…,” Minuskin contemplates. “That’s a good one, that’s a good question. I’m going to get back to you on that one. Let me send you that via e-mail,” he says, ending our conversation with a laugh.
I wasted far too much time trying to get this story published on the blog it was supposed to appear on. For reasons unknown, the individuals behind the site never bothered to act despite persistence from myself and one other person who worked there, so I decided to release it on my own. What you’re reading was actually completed on August 2014, and therefore, all information is reflective of the time it was written.