Prolific tattoo artist Nikko Hurtado has been expressing himself through art since his childhood. After just one year of tattooing, Nikko was launched into notoriety by a tattoo he did that would change his career forever – a color portrait of Batman that took first place in the Pomona Tattoo Portrait Contest. Today, Nikko is widely respected as one of the world’s most skilled tattoo portraiture artists. And now, he teamed up with photographer Holly Randall and model Tiger Kaufman to spotlight his first love of traditional oil painting.
Well, I guess we should just jump right into it. You get a call fromPenthouse giving you license to produce a shoot based entirely on what you think makes a girl hot. Where do you even start?
I’ve been tattooing for 13 years, and through tattooing I started painting, because that was the evolution of me growing as an artist—trying to do more and learn more. My favorite period to paint is Baroque, so I figured,Why not do a take on the paintings I’ve seen from the past? I know that this is all about what I feel is sexy. I think that a woman’s figure is sexy and that art is sexy. When I see beautiful paintings of beautiful women … to me, that’s just it.
What exactly were you going for when you chose the model, Tiger Kaufman?
I was looking for someone who was natural and pretty normal. I wasn’t looking for someone who was superfit or who’d had a lot of plastic surgery. I just wanted someone with a nice physique, curvy, and just a more average kind of woman. I like that. I like a woman who has a normal body. I’m not into the whole, you know, “adjustments.”
And what was it about her that jumped out at you?
She was soft. I look at a lot of old paintings, and you can see the women in the paintings are more curvy rather than skinny. She reminded me of someone who would have been painted back then. I like all types of women: big, tall, small—I see beauty in all of it. But I wanted to show what inspires me. That is my fantasy woman.
It surprised me that you picked a girl who didn’t have tattoos.
I hate to see bad tattoos on beautiful women. I feel bad, like they did themselves an injustice. I love women with tattoos. But a lot of women who are heavily tattooed don’t have the best tattoos, and it’s just unfortunate. Beautiful women tend to get most of their tattoos for free, and free tattoos don’t always turn out to be the best tattoos. The sexiest thing for me as a tattooer is to have a blank canvas: someone who would allow me to do something beautiful on them and take a large space that is uninterrupted. I think that’s why someone with no tattoos is my ideal.
Does that tie in to why your pictures are more suggestive than explicit? It’s more about what’s not there versus what is there?
I like not knowing everything. For me, it’s the hunt more than the kill. I think it’s sexy to not get it all. It’s the glimpses of a woman that drive me wild. When it’s too easy, I just don’t enjoy it. I need a little bit of a chase.
It’s got to be impossible to experience a “chase” when you spend the day telling a hot girl what to do and how to do it.
She was very modest. Every time we stopped shooting, she would get dressed. To me, that’s awesome. To me, that’s sexy. She was proud to be naked—she was proud of her body and proud of herself—but at the same time, she had a little modesty, so it was good.
So there was more to it than just a fantasy model and an inspiring backdrop?
I really need an intelligent person. That’s the most important thing. I spend time with people every day. I tattoo a lot of women who are beautiful. But sometimes I think, You’re so beautiful, but I can never spend time with you because there’s no substance. I like substance. I like conversation.
Do you have a favorite body part that you were trying to highlight?
What’s weird is that during the photo shoot I realized that I like necks. I like a slender neck. Weird, right?
I like the whole body, of course. I like the hips. But there’s something about the neck … the neck and shoulders. I don’t know. I have no idea.
Is that your favorite body part to tattoo?
Not at all. Tattooing is different. I want the easiest body part: the arm or the leg. Something simple.
Pop Shots is an interesting exercise because it forces you to think about the things that you normally feel but don’t analyze. Was there anything about this process that surprised you?
I’m on a constant discovery. As an artist, I have to be honest with myself. Trying to find out who I am is the process of the rest of my life, so I am trying to be really in touch with my emotions and my feelings. I’m trying to not shy away from those things. The thing I learned the most from this process is being able to step away. Watching the photographer do her work, it was really inspiring.
How does the finished product stack up to the vision in your head?
I think that, like everyone, I have a dark and a light side. I think that the pictures have the balance of light and dark in them and feel more like me because I have both. The contrast in the photos is what I wanted because I feel that I need a full range to represent me.
Do you have a favorite photo?
There was one photo in particular with her lying down as if I was going to draw her. To have a woman who’s lying there, and hopefully articulate and intelligent—you can just sit there and spend hours painting her. That picture reminds me of an old painting. And it sparks up a lot of different ideas and emotions. When I go to a museum, I sometimes feel overwhelmed with the level of the artist’s ability, but I’m also overwhelmed with the amount of sadness that I feel, because these people most likely died without accomplishing everything they wanted to as an artist. They were on such a chase. I feel the same thing when I look at [these photos].
There are so many emotions that come up: You’re self-destructive, and stuff like that. Putting too much pressure on yourself. You’re looking at the picture from where I’m sitting. I’m giving people a window into what I see and what I do on a regular basis. With this photo, it has my paintings in the background. This photo is just one story, one day in our lives: the story of our photo shoot. But all of these individual pieces in the background have their own story, and each represents a different time in my life. This one photo encompasses more of me than one single piece of my artwork because it’s a collection of so many of my stories.
Could that be another reason why your creative choices for Pop Shots were such a departure from who you’re perceived to be as a tattooer? You wanted to share a deeper story?
First and foremost, I’m a tattooer. That’s what I am. It’s my heart and soul, and I’m grateful for everything tattooing has brought me. But what I need right now is to paint. I’ve been working so much lately and have been pulled in a lot of different directions. I put a lot of pressure on myself, but that’s because of how my tattoos affect others. I tattoo for you. I do my work for you. Tattooing is as honest and as truthful as it gets. If you put a line down and it’s wrong, people will know it … or the tattooer will know it. If you blow it out and mess up a tattoo, you can’t change it.
But painting …
But painting is for me. It’s a release.
How does a photo shoot stack up against painting? Was this a release for you, or was it just more pressure?
The photo shoot was a release for me. It’s a whole different avenue, and a way to express myself to a large audience. Anything that can help me put my soul into something, something I can look at, that’s what makes me happy.