Carlos Tolentino is a tattooer & artist based out of Fayetteville, North Carolina. Carlos specializes in realism & portraiture tattooing and is a proficient portrait artist in a variety of mediums including pencil, oil, acrylic, and most recently, bleach. Carlos has been tattooing in Fayetteville for 14 years and is in the process of opening his own art gallery and private studio space, Gallery 13. We recently got the opportunity to commission a bleach painting from Carlos and talk with him about his tattooing background, artistic influences, bleach painting, and the new gallery space.
Olivia Huntley: Hey Carlos! Thanks so much for our giant Vulcan painting & taking the extra time to talk about your work. I wanted to start off by asking about your background in tattooing. Are you originally from NC?
Carlos Tolentino: Thank you! I hope you guys love it.
I was born in Mexico City and was brought to Fayetteville when I was 9. I consider myself to be from here. I started tattooing in high school with homemade tattoo machines. I figured out by watching Miami Ink back in the day, you needed an apprenticeship to become a tattoo artist, so I tried for about 3 years to get an apprenticeship and one lucky day, somebody said yes after asking quite a few people. I didn’t know anybody in the tattoo industry at that point. This shop was just opening up and needed some help. They were like, “Yeah, if you can draw some stuff, we can give it a try.” and I was like, “Okay, this is it. I’m not leaving.”
OH: Were you already making artwork at this point?
CT: I’ve always been into art since I was a kid. It’s always been a good escape. When I was brought here at 9 years old, I wasn’t able to communicate with other people because my first language was Spanish. So I went back to drawing, and that was my way to communicate with other people. That’s always been a part of me. All through high school, that was my favorite class - art class. But I didn’t know what I was going to do with it until my senior year when this kid brought in a homemade tattoo machine. I wanted to try it, so I went home and ended up taking some frozen legs out of the refrigerator. I tattooed them and it worked! Then I tattooed myself and that worked too, so I went back to school the next day and showed my friends. I just started tattooing all of my friends from there.
OH: Both your tattoo work and your paintings focus a lot on portraiture. Is that subject matter that you’ve always been interested in?
CT: I’ve always liked portraits. When I first started tattooing, I didn’t want to do them because they came easy. I ended up exploring a lot of different styles. Traditional, biomech…
OH: Portraiture came easy to you?
CT: Yeah, portraiture has been very natural for me to do since I was a kid. Now I’ve learned that through copying other images, you come up with your own style, but for the longest time, I always kept putting it on the back burner to try and explore other things. A couple of years ago, I decided to keep doing more portraits. I started making them again and studying other artists. I love doing them now. I’ve learned to really love portraits. It’s a very special thing for someone to get a portrait tattooed on them. Even a painting - if someone commissions a portrait of someone, that’s a very very special thing. I really love that aspect. Then I started learning that back in the day, only kings or people of royalty would have the money to have portraits made of them, so I just really like that. I started doing drawings of my friends or family members. I have this huge painting of my mom because my mom would never have the money to commission a portrait this big, you know? It was a way of elevating her. For the people close to me, I’ve always loved to show my respects by doing a portrait of them. To me, portraits are one of the biggest ways you can show your respect to somebody.
OH: Who are some of your artistic influences?
CT: I try to study everybody from music to tattooing to portrait artists, there’s just so many people. Especially with tattooing now, there’s so many great artists around. When I first started, Nikko Hurtado was the best portrait guy. Now there are so many. I love Carlos Rojas. Brandon Herrera is probably at the top. He’s one of my favorite artists. Every time he puts something out it's like, “Dude, come on man. Why are you doing us like that?” Every time, he just keeps pushing the envelope. It’s been like that ever since years ago when I first started following him and he was apprenticing. But yeah, right now he’s probably one of my favorite artists.
As far as painting, Picasso is a huge influence to me. How he went from being a child prodigy painting like the masters, and then by the age of 15 was like, “Man, I’m tired of painting like you guys. I’m just going to do something totally different and paint like a kid now.” That became his style and still to this day, he is one of my favorite artists. Andy Warhol, the way he was making screen prints and exploring pop culture, I love that. I love pop culture. Basquiat too. There are so many artists…
OH: So how did you get into the bleach painting?
CT: The bleach stuff came about probably 2 years ago. I made these shirts that said “Ink Dealer” in bleach. Then on Instagram, I started seeing people mess around with bleach stains on a shirt or some pants. Then I saw this other quote that said, “You don’t want this life.” I thought it was kind of cool because sometimes people think that tattooing is super cool and we get to just sit down and draw on people, but it takes a lot of time and it’s a lot of hard work. You’re always creating, always dealing with clients. It’s a never ending thing. So I thought I’d put that on the back of a t-shirt with bleach. I saw how the bleach changed tones just with the letters and just by painting a lot of portraits prior to that, I thought I would try to make a portrait. I ended up doing a Lil Wayne portrait on a t-shirt. That was the first one I did and it came out good.
OH: It’s crazy to me how you can predict what tone the bleach will turn into because it’s such a delayed reaction as you paint it…
CT: I don’t think I could have done it without tattooing either because I’m using the same formula as I do with black and gray. I’m watering down the inks and I’m watering down the bleach. I have a couple of tones pre-made going into it and that comes from tattooing because I’ve done it so much. I’m having to do these time-lapses of the bleach portraits because otherwise people don’t know it’s bleach. People ask me, “How many times did you mess up before you got the right one?” Honestly, it comes from drawing portraits, painting portraits, tattooing portraits… I already know where the tones need to be, I’m just applying the bleach. If I had just picked it up without doing any portraits prior to that, they would be really, really shitty.
The thing I really like about the bleach is that I can only control it so much. It has its own spread. Every piece is super unique, I would never be able to recreate something even if I wanted to. I also really like all the splatters around it, it reminds me of a Jackson Pollock. It’s random and I don’t have to think about it, whatever happens happens. It’s really freeing. Sometimes with portraits, you can get really technical and into the hyperrealism by trying to make it look just like the photograph. That’s not my goal. I just want it to be a very unique portrait, I don’t want to be a 100% printer.
OH: I’ve also seen you do some live painting and public art around Fayetteville, is that something else you like doing?
CT: I feel like that’s the next step in my career. I just really want to be an artist. I will always be tattooing - I love tattooing, don’t get me wrong - but, I want to be an artist and be able to create whatever I want to create. I just really live the life of an artist if that makes any sense. From studying a bunch of artists, that’s how I want to live. That’s one of the reasons I decided to live downtown because it’s opened up so many doors in my journey to becoming an artist. Doing those live paintings, it expands the audience. I want people to see that I can do these paintings and do them live. They don’t even know it’s bleach, every time it’s a crazy reaction. I love that. It also challenges me, because every time I start one I’m like, “Man, I’m going to fuck this up.”
OH: No pressure.
CT: Yeah! I always start one and it looks wonky and I have to talk myself into it, “I have to do this. I have to do it.” and now I can do them anywhere, so it’s been a really good practice. Now I’m opening up my own gallery…
OH: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that and what your plans are for that space.
CT: Yeah! So, it’s a gallery but also an art studio. Before the gallery, I was doing everything in my apartment and that can get a little crazy because I have paintings in every room, the living room, like everywhere. It was getting out of hand. I need my own space to be able to just fully create. When I’m done with the tattoo, I can just move from a tattoo to a painting. I always tell people it’s like going to the gym - the hardest thing is actually going to the gym. Once you’re in there, you’re going to workout. With being an artist, the hardest thing is setting up. If you don’t have a set up, it can be overwhelming or even tiring to have to set up, start painting, then once you’re done, cleaning it all up, then setting it up again. When I was doing it at home, I couldn’t just leave stuff around, especially bleach and oil paint. I’m just trying to make it an easy transition where I have everything I need for tattooing and painting so it’s easier to get in there and just be in full creative work mode.
I also want my clients who are getting tattooed by me to be fully immersed in my work. You’re getting tattooed, maybe you see one of the pieces in here you like, you might leave with a painting or a print or something. It’s just a more intimate setting. You get to a certain point in tattooing where you don’t care so much about walk-in traffic. Especially as an artist being in a tattoo shop, where people are steadily coming in and you’re working all these pieces all day long. All the tattoos I do are all-day sessions, so I just want to be more intimate with my clients. Just hang out, it’s a process, there’s no rush. If we get done at 10, we get done at 10. If we get done at 5, we get done at 5, if we go later, we go later. It’s just more of a creative space. As an artist, you just get to that point where you want to be more creative and in less of a tattoo shop vibe. There's nothing wrong with tattoo shops though!
OH: When are you planning on officially opening?
CT: The gallery side is done and I’m just dealing with the city and permitting for tattooing now. I’m not expecting anything until the beginning of 2023, which is fine, because there’s still some stuff I need to figure out as far as doing prints and what paintings to show. I want the grand opening to be in the spring and actually have a nice grand opening, because I know I’ll only do it once. My dream is to put on a whole art show. I want to do a whole series of paintings for the grand opening and that’ll be the first time you can see them. That’s my goal, to put a collection out, inspired by this time period and that’s it. If they sell, they sell. If they don’t, that’s cool, I had fun doing them.
OH: Well we will definitely be on the lookout for the opening and future shows. Congratulations on the new space and thanks again for the artwork!
Be sure to check out more of Carlos’ work @TheLifeofCarlosTolentino @Gallery13