Interview By Jason Brooks
Jason Brooks: Okay, let’s start by talking about your background. Go ahead and introduce yourself, how long you’ve been tattooing.
Tim Lehi: My name’s Tim Lehi, I’ve been tattooing roughly 22 years.
How did tattooing come about for you and when and where did this happen?
I first got introduced to it through my first job, which was washing dishes at a college and I worked with an ex-con and he saw that I liked to draw and he encouraged me to get into it. I also simultaneously was doing flyers for local shows in Wichita, Kansas for a lot of death metal and hard rock shows and I met a local tattooer in Wichita and between those two encounters that’s how I got really into tattooing and got sort of nudged into beginning to tattoo…
You’re in San Francisco now, can you give me a timeline from when you started to tattoo and how you got to San Francisco, where you tattooed at, a list of shops that got you to where you’re at now at Black Heart?
I traveled all over the Midwest on Greyhound, tattooing at peoples’ houses, a total beginner, teenage exploring around trying to get good at the craft or at the trade. A backwards way to begin but I spent time hanging out at shops in Wichita that were on the outskirts of town. There was the old End Of The Trail, and there was a shop called Electric Eye out there that I was hanging out in when I was a little kid almost. And then when I was in high school I’d go tattoo at friends’ houses in Oklahoma, in Tulsa, just to gain a lot of experience at a young age. So on weekends I’d go to Oklahoma to tattoo and I was still illegal there.
That was the very early years. Beyond that I ended up moving to Arizona and tattooing at a chain of shops called Artistic Skin Designs meeting and befriending Aaron Coleman. I sat in at this old shop called Sin City and that’s where I met people like Mike Roper, Harlan and Grime. I became friends with those guys, which was a good thing because I was still kind of all over the place even though I’d been at it for a couple of years.
I spent time working at the Crawling Squid and at the same time I was trying to get my chops up and I wanted to eventually make the move out to California. Also, when I was in Arizona I would go back to Texas and that’s where I started getting tattooed by Chris Trevino and then I started sitting in and working. Also, I worked at Paradise, Richard Stell’s shop. I’d go sit in there and work and meeting all these different people around the same time definitely raised the bar for me and was a big jump in my development and my technical ability as well.
So would you say that Chris and Richard were probably some of your earliest influences in tattooing?
Yeah definitely, for sure, besides the names mentioned before and Tattootime, various other comics and art forms.
So then you were in Arizona, how did you end up getting to San Francisco?
I wasn’t a big fan of Arizona, I spent around four years there and I had met Ed Hardy and Mike Malone at a convention I went to years ago, I don’t even remember which one. And I kind of started corresponding with Malone and he suggested I try to ask Hardy for a job. So I remember writing him a letter but the shop was full at the time. I eventually just moved there without a job just hoping to get my foot in the door somewhere.
This is probably 14 years ago now, around there. I ended up sitting in at Everlasting for a couple months and I was grateful that they let me get in the door there. Soon after that they offered me a job at Primal Urge and unfortunately right when that happened Ed called me and offered me a job and I couldn’t pass it up, so that’s how I ended up working with Ed for well over five years– I can’t remember exactly.
Who did you work with at Tattoo City while you were there?
Obviously Ed Hardy, Chris Conn, Jef Whitehead, Colin Stevens, a highway patrolman (Dalton), a little with Derek Snodgrass. Dan Higgs came and worked frequently when I first started working there, that was nice. Let me think. I’m trying not to forget anyone, at least anyone that matters in my time there.
After you were at Tattoo City for five or six years, you decided to join in a partnership to open up Black Heart Tattoo. What lead to doing that and who did you partner up with?
A series of events happened and it was coming up to six years working there and I felt after tattooing so long it was time for me to do my own thing and venture out on my own. Jef Whitehead was a part of that too and we thought out this thing. We were approached by Scott Sylvia and Jeff Rassier and we all decided instead of making several shops in the city we might as well just do one really good one. So we agreed on that and one thing led to another. I ended up working with Freddy Corbin for four or five months while we found a location and built it out and set it up. That’s basically how that happened…
Tim Lehi is featured in Tattoo Artist Magazine issue #29.
(Tim can be found at Black Heart Tattoo in San Francisco, CA.)