San Diego Tattooer Finds Success Blending Past and Present

Phil Hatchet-Yau, a tattooer based in San Diego who is known for his modern American tattooing style. Courtesy of Phil Hatchet-Yau

Growing up in the Sacramento hardcore music scene of the early 2000s, Phil Hatchet-Yau knew he loved tattoos. He didn't think about using his drawing and painting skills to become a tattoo artist at the time, but when he saw the ink up and down the arms of his favorite bands, Hatchet-Yau knew he needed to at least become a tattoo collector.

“All the kids in all of the hardcore bands were pretty heavily covered, so growing up around that, I always knew I wanted tattoos,” Hatchet-Yau told NBC News. “Even in junior high, I was always the kid drawing fake tattoos on myself in math class.”

By his sophomore year at the California College of the Arts in Oakland, Hatchet-Yau came to the realization that he was spending as much time at the tattoo shop hanging out and getting inked as he was learning in the classroom.

In an effort to make the most of his time and set himself up for an art-based career after college, he took on what he calls a “pre-apprenticeship” at the shop, where he focused on drawing tattoo artwork and learning some of the basics of the industry.

Two years later, Hatchet-Yau decided to take on a full apprenticeship under respected tattoo artist Jake Diamond while still completing the final year of his bachelor of fine arts degree. He completed his year-long apprenticeship and began professionally tattooing by the end of 2010.

“It was kind of crazy, but it was worth it,” Hatchet-Yau said.

During the intervening six years, Hatchet-Yau has established himself as one of the most sought-after tattoo artists in California. At Tahiti Felix’s Master Tattoo in San Diego, the Sacramento native's spin on the classic American traditional tattooing style has kept Hatchet-Yau constantly booked. In the artist’s eyes, part of the appeal of the vintage look is the fact that it’s either directly or tangentially related to every other style of American tattooing.

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“I’ve always been drawn to American traditional because it’s the base language of tattooing — it’s one of the earliest forms of electric tattooing in America,” Hatchet-Yau said. “George Burchett and some of the other European guys back in the day were doing really interesting stuff, but it’s all from that bare bones Bert Grimm- or Sailor Jerry-type design. It’s kind of the baseline for tattooing for the people who are looking for bold lines, one-third black, one-third color, one-third skin.”

Part of what makes Hatchet-Yau’s work stand out is his willingness to put a traditional take on non-traditional designs as well as incorporating European or Asian techniques and styles into his work.

“American traditional as a style is kind of like the English language in that we all interpret it in our own ways,” Hatchet-Yau said. “I’m definitely comfortable enough where I can go off and put my own take on it as much as I can."

"I look at a lot of European takes on it, because some of those guys and some Korean guys are doing some really bold and interesting stuff with it,” he added.

Despite his success, Hatchet-Yau is still often surprised that his twist on one of the more common styles of tattooing has connected with so many people. It wasn’t that long ago when tattooing was still a relatively underground subculture and tattoo shops were unwelcoming, but in recent years, more and more different types of people have gotten involved with the culture, according to Hatchet-Yau.

“When I was a kid, the tattoo shop was still kind of a scary place, and it was a little bit more subversive than it is now,” he said. “Now with the TV shows, it’s much more mainstream and acceptable.”

Hatchet-Yau noted that the internet and social media have also played huge roles in the evolution of tattooing — both as a socially acceptable art form and as an industry.

Gone are the days when artists, clients, and fans could only see the tattoos happening near them or wait for magazines like Inked to feature work by world-renowned artists. Since Hatchet-Yau began working, Instagram has made the tattooing community tighter and more aware than ever before.

“Before, you were limited as far as what you could see,” he said. “Everything you were seeing was from six months before or maybe even longer before that. Now, you can see what some guy in Australia did five minutes ago with Instagram and stuff like that. Styles and ideas are evolving a lot faster because of social media.”

Hatchet-Yau has not only seen his tattooing evolve over the last handful of years, but also his self. Thanks largely to the support of his dog, boyfriend, and tattooing family, the biggest lesson the San Diego-based artist has taken away from his years as a tattooer isn’t conveyed through ink on the skin of others, but the thickness of his own skin.

“I think I’ve become a lot better at not taking things to heart,” Hatchet-Yau said. “Not everyone’s going to like you. I don’t go out of my way to step on any toes, but from time to time there’s still some negativity. ... I think it’s made me stronger as a person, and I wasn’t really expecting to have that much personal development just because of my job.”

As for the future, Hatchet-Yau doesn’t want to make too many plans. While some tattooers have schemes of taking over the world or owning their own shop, he would rather take things as they come for the time being. At least through the end of his 20s, Hatchet-Yau’s main focus is simply to continue improving as an artist — and maybe travel for some conventions and guest spots at other tattoo shops along the way.

“I’m constantly pushing myself to come up with new ideas, but I’m never one to point ahead too far,” he said. “I just take things day by day and see where it takes me. I’ve learned that if you plan something, usually plans change, so I just go with the flow.”

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