Japanese Roots, South American Soul: The Unique Ink of Jaco Abarca
Meet Jaco Abarca, an esteemed tattoo artist hailing from Santiago, Chile, in the heart of South America. With an impressive 18-year journey in the ink industry, Jaco specializes in Japanese-style tattoos, a passion that has consumed him since he first dipped into the world of tattoo artistry 24 years ago at the age of 15.
In this exclusive interview, Jaco takes us through the riveting chapters of his career. From humble beginnings crafting tattoos with a DIY machine, he delves into the impactful role his brother played as a mentor. The journey unfolds through encounters with key figures in the Chilean tattoo scene and enlightening experiences with international artists, shaping Jaco into the tattoo maestro he is today.
Tell us a little about yourself. Why did you decide to become a tattoo artist?
- Hey there, I'm Jaco Abarca, a tattoo artist from Santiago, Chile, South America. I specialize in Japanese-style tattoos and have been in the ink game for a solid 18 years. But if you want specifics, I started exploring this art almost 24 years ago. I decided to dive into the tattoo game at the age of 15, always dreaming of making a living through drawing, something I've been doing for as long as I can remember.
What were you doing before tattooing?
- Before tattooing, I had to juggle various gigs on the side, including hard labor. I did all sorts of jobs, but the toughest and most enlightening was working for a small company dealing with spare parts for industrial machines and trucks. We were knee-deep in rubber, lathes, drills, milling machines, welding machines – you name it. In fact, two buddies there even crafted my first steel tattoo grips. It was rough, but it molded my character and made me appreciate my craft, which is tattooing. I valued it a lot when people paid me to leave a real piece of myself on them.
After that, alongside tattooing and that job, I spent a year studying advertising graphic design, thinking it could boost my tattoo game – turns out, not so much, hahahah, you get me? Then, parallel to tattooing, I did a two-year stint in the professional illustration program. I fell short of completing the final year, but tattooing is tattooing, you know? I focused all my energy on it. While they're related, tattooing is a whole different world that demands daily, dedicated study. It's impossible to excel in multiple tasks; you might be good at several, but if you want to stand out, you gotta go all-in on one.
How did your career start?
- Around 2000 or '99, can't quite recall, after my old man passed away, it was a must for me to dive into something drawing-related. Living the dream and all. So, a buddy of mine, Jason, and I, used to kick back in the afternoons watching WWF events on VHS. He had this DIY tattoo machine and would ink himself. One day, he popped the question if I wanted to give it a shot, knowing my brother and I were into drawing. Drawing was our thing, haha.
All it took was one line on his leg, man, I still remember that feeling. My drawings could become a part of someone, no erasing, it's hard to put into words. It was love at first sight, hahahaha! I realized this could be my ticket to make a living doing something that was and is so deeply a part of me – drawing. With every line I laid down, the itch to do more grew. It wasn't the best tattoo by any stretch, but, lucky for my friend, way better than the ones he had. I kept tattooing him regularly, and word got around. Picture a 15-year-old kid with no tattoos using a DIY machine – they must've been awful, hahahaha! But it served me well, facing the skin head-on, you know? It was a wild ride and a hell of a learning experience.
Who was your teacher?
- Well, my brother, Victor Abarca, who's into tattooing now too, sort of played the mentor card when I was a kid into drawing. We were both crazy about it. Even though he was always a step ahead, he steered me right with some good old constructive criticism, you know, looking out for each other and all that.
In the tattooing world, many people have helped me since I never had a formal mentor. Rodrigo Kaos and Jaime Dr Tattoo, two old-school tattoo artists here in Chile, were key figures during my early years around '99, 2000; they gave valuable advice and taught me a lot about tattooing.
Fast forward to 2015, Mirko Knauer, a German tattoo artist, owner of the renowned SkinArt Tattoo in Bieber, Offenbach, Frankfurt to be precise. Endless talks about tattoos and his sincere constructive criticism towards my Japanese tattoos, his European perspective on them. We discussed composition, the importance of water and its movement, the "power wave," his obsession with backgrounds and their significance in Japanese tattoos. Without a doubt, I was like an apprentice absorbing every bit of knowledge in those post-tattooing evening chats at the beautiful SkinArt.
Were there any difficulties in mastering this profession?
- Did I face challenges? Hahah, in South America, it's a constant struggle against the current, you get me? Art isn't well-paid around here, and tattooing is no exception. Getting quality materials can be a mission – from needles and quality cartridges to the specific type of needle you need, investing in good machines, iPad, etc. But the passion outweighs it all. There's no other reality for me than hard work. If it weren't for that, I wouldn't be half of who I am.
Is tattooing art, work or something else for you?
- Tattooing? Man, that's my whole damn life. Thanks to tattooing, I met my amazing wife, Camila Cataldo, who is an amazing tattoo artist, and now we've got this little dude who's my entire world. Tattoos brought amazing people into my orbit, and I've even jet-setted around the globe, hitting up places like Japan. I grew up in this sketchy, dirt-poor neighborhood in Santiago, no dad in the picture, and six siblings, not counting me. Never in a million years did I think I'd get to see the world and make my mark on it. Tattooing, dude, it's my life.
You work at the intersection of Japanese and non-traditional tattooing. Can you tell us what drew you to this direction?
- Man, I'm just all about keeping it real with my take on drawing and expressing myself, you know what I mean? I've never tried to be someone else or jack their style. In the tattoo world, I've heard a lot about how you're supposed to copy the masters and then do your thing. But for me, the way I see art and drawing, that's just impossible. Don't get me wrong, there are different ways to approach tattooing, and I don't think there's some absolute truth to it. But, from my experience, it's like trying to replicate someone's signature. Sure, you can copy it, but it'll never have the unique expression of my own stroke, you feel me?
So, the right way, in my book, is to draw, let it flow, be like a river, hahahah! Based on all your experiences, the books you've read, everything – that's gonna create images in your head. When you draw with freedom, being honest with yourself, that's when your true self comes out. It's been years of grinding, and it's always a constant evolution, never stops. And that's the beauty of this art form, man.
What unique features can you identify yourself in your work?
- Man, that's a tough one, 'cause, like I was saying, it's a constant evolution for me. I'm super into Japanese tattoos, and I lucked out getting to work and roam around the big island of Japan. But being a Gaijin, you got a lot of freedom when it comes to composition. Personally, I dig sticking to the "rules" of Japanese tattoos but throwing in that colorful and wild South American vibe, hahahaha! It's like blending the traditional with a splash of our own chaos, you know?
What designs are your favorites?
- Oh man, picking favorites is tough when it comes to favorite designs. I'm all in on dragons, Kurikara Ken, Hannyas, Onis, masks, frogs, and throw in some deities like Fudo Myoo – that dude's my absolute favorite, the unmovable, you know?
In the neotraditional, I'm all about crafting animals, women, pets – honestly, the list goes on. But what really revs my engine is tattooing the truth. Any idea that's real and raw is a welcome challenge for me. It's not just about the cool or trendy stuff; it's about tapping into the essence of what someone wants to express on their skin. Whether it's a mythical creature or a personal symbol, I'm all ears and ready to turn it into something badass. It's like bringing stories to life, one tattoo at a time.
What is the most important aspect of tattooing for you?
- No doubt, the design is the holy grail for me. A killer design, well-researched and thoroughly thought out, will never let you down. Drawing and more drawing, man. To me, drawing is the top dog when it comes to tattooing. It's all about honing in on your weaknesses, putting in the study time, and, most importantly, never stopping that pencil from hitting the paper. Never stop drawing, never stop creating. That's the secret sauce right there. You've gotta stay obsessed with the craft, always pushing yourself to create something that's not just good but speaks volumes. It's like the backbone of the whole tattoo game.
Do you have favorite tattoos, clients, projects, or perhaps some unusual stories in your career?
- Man, talking favorites in this tattoo game is tough, you know? I got a bunch of tattoo pieces that bring back some dope memories. That's the beauty of this rad craft. Luckily, I've got some kickass clients who've trusted me with their skin, and I owe a lot to them for their commitment and freedom they give me in my work. It's hard for me to narrow it down to just one, man. I've been at this pro tattooing gig for almost 20 years, and it's been 24 since I first picked up a machine. You catch my drift?
Naming just one would downplay the importance of another, and that's not my style. I've got some amazing clients, truth be told. Stories? Hahaha, I got thousands, from wild tales with fellow artists to some crazy client stories. One funny karma story went down in Germany. I had to ink this person who didn't speak English and didn't really want me to do it. I shrugged it off, did my thing, you know? This person was pretty old. So, I'm sharing the tattoo space with my buddy from Bulgaria, Ivo. The person walks in, says something in German to Ivo, who politely tells him he doesn't speak German. Then this character points at me and says, "Bulgaria, Chile, where are the Germans?" Long story short, the dude passed out in the middle of the session, and me and Ivo, the same guys he discriminated against, helped him out. Hahaha, after we finished the tattoo, he left, and maybe, just maybe, he learned a valuable lesson. Or at least, that's what we like to think.
Do you travel a lot? Where have you been already, and where do you feel most comfortable?
- Yeah, I wouldn't say a ton, but I've hit the road quite a few times. Luckily, I've been able to check out various European countries, Japan, the U.S., Brazil, and Argentina. Since the pandemic eased up, I've only traveled once. When it comes to feeling comfy in a place, it's all about the people, you know? Are they chill to work with? That's the vibe.
Every country's got its unique charm, and it's awesome soaking up those experiences. I've been fortunate to meet some kickass colleagues from Japan to my home turf, Chile. I'm telling you, each place has its allure, and it's tough to say which one's the best, you catch my drift? Same goes for the studios – worked alongside some amazing tattoo artists. It's the people and the energy that make a place feel like home, no matter where on the map it is.
You are a frequent visitor and winner of multiple awards at tattoo conventions. Please tell me about your experience. How many awards have you won in total? Which are most important to you and why?
- I'm all about hitting up tattoo conventions, man. It's a blast getting to hang out with friends and colleagues from all corners of the globe. As for awards, it's not the be-all and end-all for me, but I've snagged a few, and even bagged the Best of the Convention back in 2010. The last two wins were pretty special since I hadn't thrown my hat in the ring for a while. Seeing the level go up inspired me to showcase what I'd been studying lately, to reveal the direction my work has taken.
It went down at the Santiago Tattoo Expo 2023, where I clinched first place in the oriental category. Same deal at the Expo Tattoo Atacama – it was a killer experience. It was rad to see the scene had evolved, and I got to share the vibe with Cris from Dont Cry Baby Products, Benja Isekai, and Taka – both kickass tattoo artists. So, yeah, awards are cool, but the real magic is in the connections and the inspiration you pick up at these conventions.
And, of course, we know you are sponsored by one of the most renowned brands in the tattoo industry, Dont Cry Baby. Can you share how you achieved this sponsorship? What does it mean to you, and what does this collaboration bring to you as a tattoo artist?
- Oh, landing the sponsorship with Dont Cry Baby was a cool ride. It's not just about snagging freebies; it's more like finding the perfect match for what I do. Cris, the brain behind Dont Cry Baby, and I connected through the tattoo world, vibed on ideas, and just hit it off. I reckon what brought us together was a shared passion for pushing the envelope in the tattoo game.
Having Dont Cry Baby as my sponsor is huge for me. It's not just about using their products; it's about being part of a fam that's all about top-notch stuff and innovation. It's like having a crew that's got my back, backing up my artistic vision.
This collab brings a ton to the table. Dont Cry Baby isn't just a brand; it's a mindset. They're all about shaking things up, and being part of that means I get my hands on cutting-edge products that make the tattooing process smoother and easier. It's not just about what I bring to the table; it's about what we create together. Working with Dont Cry Baby is like being part of a movement in the tattoo world, and I'm pumped to be in the mix.
How do you assess your popularity? And in your opinion, how can it be measured?
- I don't gauge my popularity in the typical internet personality way, you know? If someone digs that and works that angle, cool; we all see tattooing differently. Luckily, I got into the game at a time when it was more about slinging quality ink than posting the flashiest pics with the best camera, filters, and edits. Those are tools that seem essential today, but at the end of the day, the tattoo lives on the person, and they're the ones keeping this art form alive.
I've always focused on crafting solid tattoos. Throughout my career, I've inked tons of people, and word just spread. Clients would come in recommended by another satisfied customer or someone who spotted my work in the wild – on the street, in the subway, you name it. Social media is a great tool for exposure, but it's not the tattoo itself. I'm still connected to the beautiful ritual that is tattooing. In my book, you can't measure it with popularity, especially with folks out there buying followers. I'll keep doing quality tattoos, ensuring people have a good time, and that, in turn, brings in more clients. A solid tattoo creates a lasting impression that, in my opinion, transcends beyond just being popular. Remember, what goes up must come down.
What is the most important thing in your career as a tattoo artist? What goals do you set for yourself?
- Defining one thing as the most important is tough, you know? In my tattooing journey, it's like this constant battle to keep that spark of inspiration alive. For me, it's all about the design, hands down. A well-crafted and thoroughly studied design – that's the golden ticket. Drawing and more drawing: that's the heartbeat of my tattooing. Zeroing in on my weak spots in drawing, studying like there's no tomorrow, and never hitting pause on the creative flow – that's the secret sauce. It's all about leveling up and evolving constantly, and that's the beauty of this art. You just keep getting better, keep moving forward – that's the magic.
My goals are deeply intertwined with my family, and by that, I mean my wife and son – they're my everything. All the plans I've got going on involve not just me, you know? With Camila, we've built this beautiful family, and she's not just my wife; she's an incredible tattoo artist herself. Whenever I think about personal goals, my little dude is always there in the mix, consciously or unconsciously. Got plenty of personal plans, but some things are best kept between us, you know? Haha, hope you catch my drift!
Share your creative plans for the near future.
- I'm seriously stoked about stretching my artistic limits even further. I'm itching to dive deeper into blending the classic Japanese tattoo vibe with a splash of South American flair. Plus, I've got this intense craving to explore a wider range of themes and maybe play around with a more Neo-traditional style in my day-to-day grind. On the personal side of things, I'm aiming to nail that sweet spot between my hustle and family life, constantly soaking up inspiration from the little things. And, who knows, maybe there's a chance for a badass tattoo collab with some of the dope artists I look up to. Always dreaming big and keeping the fire alive for this insane journey!