Artist Spotlight: Interview with El Chimu
Written by Baylor Meche
Mindzai owner, Scott Weatherwax jumped on a video call with El Chimu, one of our Marketplace Artists, to catch up and find out more about the inspirations behind his Aztec and Pre-Hispanic themed artwork.
Q: What was the most interesting experience from the places you’ve spent?
A: The thing about traveling is it’s about a lot of things. Number one is experiencing new people and places. But it’s also about bringing forth a certain style of tattooing and a certain kind of medicine. I treat tattooing in a ceremonious way. You’re dealing with energy, you’re dealing with people’s blood. Not saying I’m some type of shaman about to do a rain dance haha. The way I approach it to like each individual person and giving them the attention to make sure they feel what I’m doing is connecting them to their ancestors. You’re grounding, healing, and the tension in this is the medicine I’m trying to spread to people.
There are so many stories, but one does stick out. I was supposed to go to a convention in Costa Rica, but I couldn’t leave Peru because I didn’t have the yellow fever vaccine. Since they’re so protective of their natural resources, they didn’t want someone coming up unvaccinated. So I had to get my shot and wait 10 days. It wasn’t bad at all though. My homie, Nat a tattooer & graffiti artist from Peru, invited me to go to Caral. It’s one of the oldest cities in the Americas with pyramids about as old as Giza’s. We went to a village where the children organized a festival inviting artists from all over Peru to come paint the town. My friend and I joined in. I ended up talking to this fisherman who would go out at 4 am for crab every morning. I painted his roof and he gave me a whole bunch of fresh crab meat. That was a pretty great experience.
Q: It seems like moving away from the city life of Brooklyn to somewhere with a smaller community was good for you. Like not everyone has the latest tech, but everyone has a deeper relationship than “Hey, shawty what’s up?”
A: Yeah I feel like that tech induced cell phone culture is a good tool to connect with people but it also distracts us a lot. It puts our mind in these places that are unnatural and unhealthy, and it’s important to know when to turn it off. We need to try and get back to that universal breath. Just be around people more. I think we’re like androids more where people can’t go a weekend without their phone much less a week. It’s like not having your phone with all of the anxiety of not having it.
Q: So aside from art and tattooing, do you have any other hobbies?
A: I like music a lot. I like collecting music and writing. I try to learn more about playing instruments when I can. Through ceremonies, I’ve been singing a lot more. It may not really be a hobby, but it’s something I find enjoyable that’s become a bigger part of my life. I also like staying physically active. So any kind of action through movement whether it’s hiking, kickboxing, jiu jitsu, etc. I really like the impact and philosophies of martial arts. I like yoga and the breathwork that comes with meditation.
Q: How long have you been tattooing? Was there a moment that made you wanna become an artist?
A: Since Summer of 2004. I come from a big family of artists. My grandfather, my cousin, my uncle, etc. are all successful well-seasoned artists. So I guess all through my life, I’ve been surrounded by art and never really discouraged to not pursue it. It’s a big blessing to have that encouragement from everyone, especially my mom. Some people don’t have that and end up becoming great because their parents are telling them not to do it. You gotta learn to use those critiques and discouragements to do better. My main motivation was always wanting to achieve the level of skill my other family members had.
Q: How’d you get into tattooing?
A: I’ve always been attracted to the culture. Any time I’d see a design like stuff in a flaming skull or something I’d be like, “Ooh what’s that??” I wanted to learn the process and how someone got to that finished design. My cousin who was a tattoo artist would come to New York from time to time and bring all his paint, tattoo equipment, etc. Before that I was trying to sneak into tattoo shops and poke my head in to see what was up. I’d usually get kicked out, but sometimes they’d let me chill and see the art up close. When my cousin started coming in, I was like “wow. This is what a tattoo machine looks like” and he’d let me hold it and stuff. He let me watch him up close and ask a ton of questions. Then one day, he sort of just gave me everything that he owned. He had gotten into other types of art and didn’t want to tattoo anymore so I was blessed to get that equipment.
Q: Can you give us a timeline of where you grew up and where you’ve lived so far?
A: I was born in Manhattan, but we lived in Brooklyn. Then when I was really young, my mom bought a house in Yonkers, New York. When I was 12, I got put in a military style boot camp institute. I was there 4 years. We basically lived there year round and I did a couple hand pokes which was really cool. At 16, I moved back to Brooklyn and got into graffiti, black books, and making music for 5 or six years. Then tattooing really came into my life when I was around 21. After my first wife and I split up, I started spending a lot of time in Peru and was working in Stefano Alcantara’s shop. I didn’t know, but my cousin actually had the first tattoo shop in Peru. There were people tattooing in the marketplace and stuff, but my cousin had the first actual shop out there.
Q: Would you say living in Peru was what inspired your Aztec/Pre-Hispanic art style?
A: Hmm sort of yeah and no. Living in Peru, you’re definitely surrounded by a lot of indigenous culture and references. My grandfather’s paintings were also a big influence on that. Being surrounded by his work and things from Peru definitely helped inspire that for me. At a young age, my mom would take me to sacred sites and I’d notice little picture frames in our house with these ornate faces carved into them. All of that helped me develop an interest in the Pre-Hispanic culture.
Q: So what is your artistic process like?
A: There’s a couple processes you can take. One thing that inspired me is the calendar. There are objects, animals, and symbols almost like a zodiac. Once I started studying the math and history behind that, it became something I like to do. So when someone of like Mexican or indigenous decent comes to me for a tattoo, I’ll suggest we look up their chart. Sometimes, I’ll ask what resonates with a person. Like what are their passions, beliefs, job, etc. Then I can figure out what symbol or character aligns with those aspects of the person. The important thing is that there’s inspiration everywhere. It could be a tree, a flower, a sidewalk, the designs on a lamppost. There’s so much design everywhere, so you need to take that inspiration and figure out how you want to draw that and everything that goes into it.
Q: I know you print a lot of merch. What sells the best for you?
A: Everything. Everything sells, but it depends on how you promote it. I make sure I can get the best quality I can get, and that’s number one. I don’t wanna put out anything even a sticker or business card that doesn’t feel amazing. Even when I don’t promote it, and set up a table at the beach people are drawn to it and wanna check it out.
Q: For an artist starting out, what kind of suggestions do you have for them to transition from being a hobby to a career.
A: The first thing I look at is like “Yo do you wanna make something that just looks cool?” I wanna make something that’s educational. I want people to look at it and want to learn more about it. Tattoos are meant to communicate to others and speak to them so they’re intrigued by it. Like if a person wants a tattoo that is upside down so they can see it, I feel that’s taking the experience away from others. I’m pretty easy going, but I wouldn’t want one of my designs put on someone like that staining my reputation. At the end of the day, you really have to enjoy it if you want to be an artist full time. You gotta love it, but also be honest if you wanna go to the professional level. It’s important to check in with yourself to make sure you still have that passion and drive to keep going.
Q: What would you say are your biggest challenges as an artist? What could you be doing to show up better?
A: Managing my time, man. Figuring out my travels and schedules is definitely the hardest thing for me. With my reputation and portfolio growing, I’m getting a lot of work now. It’s hard to keep up with all of the people who wanna get tattooed by me. It’s tough to get to everyone. I’m in Portland right now, and I keep getting hit up left and right. I gotta be in New York by the 26th, and I have a ton of stops along the way. I probably won’t be able to get to everybody.
Q: How much do you charge an hour for tattooing?
A: Typically it’s $200 an hour and I go down a little bit if someone does a whole or half day. I know guys who tattoo for like $3500 for 6 hours, and I’ve never really wanted to be that way. I like to make sure that my clients are not exclusive to those who have a lot of money. I’ve even tattooed some really cool people who don’t really have the money, but they’re really into my work. Sometimes they’ll offer to help me out with something or trade for a tattoo and I’ve had some great interactions like that. Keep in mind I still need to make a living, but it’s not always about the money you know?
Q: Do you have any books or words of wisdom that inspire you?
A: Hmm anything by Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s a Vietnamese monk and anything by him is so good. I also like a lot of Latin American fantasy authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Llosa, Isabel Allende, etc. They’re kind of imagination writers that blend the worlds of reality and fantasy with politics and different life paths too.