Robert Pho is widely considered to be among the world’s most talented black-and-gray realism tattoo artists. Collectors from all over the world travel to his workshop in Honolulu just for the opportunity to lie down on his table. Pho once received a payment of $300,000 from a wealthy customer for a full body suit. The costume had a swirl of clowns, mobsters, and legendary gods exploding off every inch of the skin.
Customers are captivated not only by Pho’s talent but also by other aspects of his performance. A Cambodian youngster who got caught up in the gang life of Southern California and then turned his life around to become a tattoo master, activist, and, some say, therapist is fascinating to many people, and this is one reason why he has become so successful.
At some point, I found myself at Rodeo 39 Public Market in Stanton, which happens to be the location of Pho’s most recent tattoo shop as well as his first one in the state of California. During the visit, he sat there with his young daughter Vanna on his lap.
Robert Pho, a tattoo artist, stands outside of Skin Design Tattoo.
The story is told by the creative, soft-spoken Pho with warm eyes and a grin that is calm and collected, the kind of smile you might see in a yoga studio. He admits that he is ashamed of his “ugly past,” yet it was in jail that he began his journey toward enlightenment and self-improvement.
He asserts, “I believe in fate, the cosmos coming together, and anything like that.” “I have a deep and abiding faith that God has watched out for me throughout my life, and that he is the reason why I am where I am at today.”
The Vietnam War was going on when Pho, now 48 years old, was born in Cambodia. His family had to flee to France when he was just 2 years old, and they didn’t arrive in the San Gabriel Valley until he was 10 years old.
Pho joined a gang and finally fled away to live with his crew after being involved with the gang in L.A. County, where the incident occurred. On the day of Saint Patrick’s Day in 1989, a predawn house raid resulted in Pho, then 16 years old, being taken into custody on suspicion of attempted murder.
He accepted a plea bargain that would have resulted in a sentence of 14 years in jail, and he was subsequently transferred to the infamous Youth Training School. This was a juvenile prison in Ontario that was known as “Gladiator School” by the inmates before it was shut down in 2010.
It was there that Pho began his career as a tattoo artist. He purchased a guitar string from another prisoner in order to use it as a needle, and then fitted it with the motor from the prison-issued Sony Walkman radio. His gang name was the first tattoo he ever got, and he got it on his knees. After that, he began charging other inmates $60 to $80 for each tat as a means of subsistence. He required funds to buy the protection of the gang bosses he was currently imprisoned with by making payments to them.
“It protected me in every way,” he explains.
Pho improved his tattooing skills but rarely had the opportunity to experiment with new designs. According to him, “everything was tied to the gang, and nobody got butterflies.”
Pho, who had been incarcerated at the Mule Creek State Prison in Ione for for seven years and had received hundreds of tattoos during that time, was granted freedom in 1995. A fellow student from high school named Cristina, who had been his only prison letter pal, was there waiting for him.
The two were never romantically involved with one another, but when he wrote to her from prison, she responded to his letter even though she is unable to explain why.
She remarked that it was enjoyable to receive mail from him. Even the envelopes had drawings on them, of flowers and other pleasant things. I would fill him in on what was going on in my life.
At Skin Design Tattoo, Nevada resident and client Brooklyn Martell is the subject of Robert Pho’s tattooing.
And he would explain to her how he had been discovered tattooing again, so extending the length of his sentence.
After he was granted parole, the two of them began to spend time together and eventually formed a romantic relationship. One day, he tattooed his name on her butt, which was Daravan, which is his name in Cambodian.
Cristina, who is from the Philippines, explains, “I just liked the meaning that was behind it.” “The moon and the stars are referred to, but the meaning goes much deeper than that.”
Because Pho was on parole, it was difficult for him to get work. He started selling a variety of items, such as calculators, teddy animals, and calendars, from door to door. Despite this, he continued to get tattoos in his spare time.
One day, a buddy of Pho’s who had recently been released from jail called him and asked if Pho would assist him at his tattoo studio, Skin Design, located in Lexington, North Carolina. Pho began to pack his stuff. After one year, while business was booming, the partners applied for and were granted permission to open a larger location in the nearby High Point district, which is known as the furniture capital of the United States.
This was in 1999, a full decade before tattoos became as commonplace as Mickey Mouse. In regard to Main Street, tattoo parlours were still considered questionable businesses and were limited to locations that were zoned for strip clubs.
Pho adds that everyone in the area banded together and hired some high-powered lawyers. “They were attempting to get rid of us by any means necessary, and they exhausted all of their options. There were individuals there holding picket signs. It was completely insane. Every day, we were featured in the news. I was forced to battle. I wanted to demonstrate to everyone that we were nothing more than a typical company.
Pho earned a reputation as a champion of tattoo culture and a rising star in the field of black-and-gray realism as a result of Skin Design’s victory in the fight, which earned Skin Design the victory. In 2003, Pho bought out his business partner and moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, where he established himself as a sole proprietor of a Skin Design firm. In 2018, he opened a second location of his business in Honolulu. The year after that, he established up a third studio in the city of Brooklyn, New York. His fourth Skin Design store debuted in the fall of last year at Rodeo 39 in Stanton, which is a city in Orange County that is easy to overlook.
Pho once more invokes the concept of fate as he explains, “We were looking to come to California, and suddenly this came into our lap.” They made an effort to communicate with us.
During a pause in her session with the world-famous tattoo artist Robert Pho, Brooklyn Martell shows off a portion of the tattoo that she is currently working on.
He gave the new business his blessing in the same way he gives blessings to all of his shops: by tattooing his wife, the same woman who was waiting for him the day he stepped out of prison. The tattoo is a depiction of the eye of their newborn child.
Pho travels to Orange County from his home in Hawaii once every few months to visit his family. During one of his most recent trips, he spent the afternoon tattooing Brooklyn Martell, who had driven more than 200 miles to get there from Las Vegas. The owner of the plant shop had been following Pho’s Instagram page, which featured a feast of beautiful black-and-white realism, for over a year before she booked him as the shop’s photographer.
She adds about Pho’s YouTube channel, Marked Pho Life, “I was obsessive, watching his videos continuously.” “I was following his films incessantly.” “I had a savings. I was at a loss as to how I could put it to use. After that, I put it to use.”
Martell, who is 29 years old, claims that her friendship with Pho has become just as important to her as the tattoos of Greek gods that he has on her thigh. “The artwork is insane, but I just love his presence,” she says. “I just adore his presence.” “He possesses a unique ability to make individuals feel as though their voices are being heard.”
Martell’s father, much like Pho’s father, was a gang member and spent her entire childhood in and out of California jails.
She states that Robert experienced that way of life but was able to turn his life around and is now a family guy. “It’s incredibly remarkable when you meet someone who’s come out from the other end,” said a person who had been through the process themselves.
Pho claims that there are occasions when he thinks of himself as a counsellor.
Customers travel from all over the world to visit his studio in Honolulu, which serves as his home base. Pho will spend a day or two with them, or in the instance of Monte McMann, the Vegas-based business billionaire who paid $300,000 on a full bodysuit, Pho will spend the better part of two and a half years with him. Pho worked on him in sessions that lasted eight hours each once a week in his studio in Las Vegas.
Pho, whose tattoos start at $4,000, adds that the majority of people have a history behind them. “And after listening to my experience, they express a want to form a connection.”
He claims that some of them cry on his table. “They come from a troubled history. It’s possible that they just can’t move on from it. We chat about the challenges we face and the connections in our lives. I have the impression that the cosmos brought us together.”
At the beginning of this year, lightweight WBC boxing champ Lord Devin “The Dream” Haney phoned Pho and asked him to fly to Vegas and give him his very first tattoo: “The Dream.” Pho obliged. A depiction of Haney’s first knockout that was tattooed on his leg. The boxer thanked the tattoo artist, Robert Pho, for “going crazy” on his first tattoo in the caption of a photo he uploaded to Instagram and shared with his almost one million followers.
In addition to making friends with customers, Pho is well known for taking care of tattoo artists who work in his studios. He is known for assisting tattoo artists in repairing their credit, opening bank accounts, obtaining loans, and beginning their own businesses when they are ready to strike out on their own.
He will tell you, “I care about them.” “By working with me, they can go from a career as a tattoo artist to that of a businessman.”
Just as he did. Pho, an immigrant who became involved in a gang and was later sentenced to prison, currently resides in the upscale suburb of Hawaii Kai on the southern shore of Oahu with his wife, three daughters, and soon a film crew. Pho’s story is going to be the subject of a documentary.
Robert Pho, a talented tattoo artist, works at Skin Design Tattoo in Stanton.
It is possible that he will be in a documentary and a reality programme in the future; however, he is bound by a nondisclosure agreement, and the only information he is willing to offer is that “It’s going to be insane.”
Especially considering that he plans on constructing four more Skin Design offices by the end of 2021: one in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas (which will be launching at the end of this month), one in Nashville, one in Miami, and one in Whittier.
Cristina, who is 48 years old, claimed that she is prepared for anything.
She describes her life with her husband as “crazy fascinating,” and she says this of their relationship. “Everything just happens on its own. I haven’t quite mastered the art of adapting to it yet.”
She mentioned that they would often reflect on how far they had come while sitting by their pool. She says, “I am extremely proud of him.” “I am extremely proud of him.” “He has exerted a lot of effort. I’m starting to feel really emotional. However, it is wonderful to see him succeed in this manner.
Especially considering the fact that he has brought a large number of other people along for the ride. His wife says, “For fact, he’s helped so many,” and she’s not lying. “He understands what it’s like to fight against the odds.”
And despite the fact that he is no longer concerned about money or recognition, there are still challenges to face. Cristina’s husband, who she says gets restless at times, goes outside to the yard, where they have a statue of Buddha, and sits on a blanket in front of the statue while he prays and burns incense.
Or else he visits a tattoo parlour and gets inked.
Pho adds, “I get lost in it, and then I don’t have to care about anything else,” and this is exactly how he feels when he’s doing it. “I have more of a passion for it than I ever have before. It’s beyond reason. I can’t help but adore it. I’m terrified that I won’t get a tattoo.”