El Bara is a tattooer who is hugely admired by many fans of solid, clean tattooing. We had heard that he was going to be guesting at Angelic Hell in Brighton so we sent Hugh Sheldon of to interview him. We made our way to Brighton on a cold December evening to catch up with El Bara after his day of work. It was cool to meet all the folk down at Angelic Hell and great to meet a humble guy with such a wealth of experience.
Interview – Hugh Sheldon
Photography – El Bara
An interview with El Bara of True Love Madrid
How long have you been tattooing?
How did you get into it?
It was through music. When I was young I played in punk rock bands. I saw a lot of musicians with a lot of tattoos. That’s my first memory of serious tattoos.
How did you start tattooing?
I started at home and tried to learn as much as I could on my own. At that time in Argentina, there were only a few tattooists so there wasn’t much chance to apprentice. Some of my friends started tattooing at the same time and we exchanged techniques. After a few years, I went to some tattoo conventions in the United States to learn more as it was very difficult to do that in Argentina back then.
How important is painting and drawing in your tattooing now?
I don’t have much time to paint or do flash sets as I draw every day for each customer. It is very important to me, but right now I don’t have any time to paint unless it’s for an expo or a book or something like that.
You have a very well-defined style, it’s easy to spot your work from a mile off. How did that develop?
It wasn’t my intention to focus all my attention on one style. It was more of an evolution. I also do other styles of work such as Japanese and some black and grey. But I feel more free with the traditional style because you can do other kinds of designs, not just the traditional iconography. It’s more interesting.
What do you do most of at True Love Tattoos?
We love to do walk-ins, though I don’t have much time to do them. Some guys do very specific work and the others do everything. It’s not just traditional and Japanese.
When did you set the shop up?
A little less than eight years ago.
Have you ever had an apprentice?
I have an apprentice now, and I had one before him too. Ricardo was my last apprentice and right now it’s Miguel. Ricardo was a client. He wanted to start tattooing, so I said if he wanted to apprentice at the shop then he could. It was great because he had a lot of talent and he really wanted to learn and become a tattoo artist. Miguel, my new apprentice, was already at the shop a lot because he was friends with us.
How long did Ricardo’s apprenticeship last? How long do you have your apprentices working before you allow them to tattoo?
With Ricardo, it was about 3 years. He was tattooing some of his friends within the first few months of being an apprentice.
Who else is working at True Love?
Right now there are five other guys besides myself and Miguel: Know, Gaston, Blize, Chicho, and Ricardo.
You’ve been tattooing a long time. How have you seen it change over the years?
In the last ten years, tattoos have been changing too much and too fast. Younger people these days are getting a lot of tattoos all at once. People used to take their time a bit more. But they didn’t have that much information back then. People now get all their information from the internet. A lot of great tattooists are not popular because they don’t have much of an online presence.
Besides the internet, there are a lot more different types of reference now. Not just tattoo books or flash books but realistic pictures and photographs. I try to use tattoo flash as a reference, but I try not to use it too much.
From the new world to the old
El Bara was born in 1971 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He started tattooing in 1991. Two years later he opened his own studio, American Tattoo. He spent the next several years developing his skills and his distinctive style in Buenos Aires whilst travelling to the US for conventions. But it wasn’t until 2001 when he travelled to Spain to work at Zion Tattoo in Tarragona, that he really found his niche. He returned to Argentina to sell his share in the shop there and came back to Spain, this time, to stay.
He won awards at conventions around Europe and guested in studios from Italy to Sweden before starting True Love Tattoo, which has become one of the best-regarded studios in Spain. El Bara’s bold designs, intricate shading and strong colours have helped define Spanish tattooing in the new millennium, but his style remains uniquely his own.
El Bara has become one of the greats of the European tattoo community, and his star is still rising. We can’t wait to see what the future holds.
At one point you were building machines. Are you still doing that?
When I started tattooing I didn’t have any money to buy machines and so I started to experiment, but I moved on to buying machines. I still fix machines for a lot of friends.
Which do you prefer, coil or rotary?
I’ve tried lining with rotaries, but I prefer to line with coil machines. For colouring and shading, I use rotaries at the moment. It causes less stress on the skin, and perhaps the healing process is a little bit faster than it would be with a coil.
What is the tattooing scene like in Spain and Madrid?
We have a lot of different kinds of customers. I have clients who have many traditional tattoos but also have a few realistic pieces. A few years ago people in Spain were really interested in realistic and black and grey, but right now the most popular styles are traditional and Japanese. Portraits and dark stuff are still popular.
We have seen a lots of artists come to the UK from Spain and Portugal because people seem to have less money to spend on tattoos there. Has that affected you at all?
It hasn’t particularly affected me, but it’s affected the guys at the shop.
I know you work the London and Brighton tattoo conventions. Do you work at any other conventions?
Every year I do the Milan convention. I also work the Edinburgh convention and this year I’m doing the Moscow convention and Florence in Italy.
Do you want to continue doing conventions? Do you enjoy them?
Do you see yourself tattooing forever?
I hope so!