Robert Pho specializes in black and grey tattoos. He has done large scale back and chest tattoos as well as full sleeves for clients around the world. In 2019 he was able to spend seven days, back to back with his brother Andy Pho and tattoo an Angkorian bodysuit. Read the full article with Houseink Magazine. When Robert is not tattooing you can find him spending most of his time with his family enjoying the beautiful scenery and adventures in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Walkmans, Guitar Strings and Skin Designs
How many years have you been tattooing?
This year will be my 27th year of tattooing. Guitar string, walkman, prison-style.
Tell us about your tattoo journey from your youth to today.
I was 16 years old when I got into trouble in Los Angeles, CA. I had served some time, about seven years and that’s where it all began for me you know. Seeing all the artwork that was coming through there, I was amazed by it and became very curious about how they did it and I wanted to get some. A machine was passed down to me and they taught me how to make my own ink which was pretty gross actually. So we made our own machines, our own ink and went to town.
I have also heard that they would use the car window motor parts to power the machine. Can you tell me about the tools and processes you used to tattoo?
Yes, we used walkmans. We were able to get a hold of that and we would break it apart and took the motor because it would spin. All we needed was a battery to power it up. THAT WAS ENOUGH POWER? Yeah, that was enough power and the needle came from a guitar string. So some of the guys who were able to get the guitars in, would grab a couple of strings from them, cut it, sharpen it and burn it – that was our sterilization. Burn the tip and we just went with it.
The INK actually came from the styrofoam of a cup of noodles. We burned the styrofoam and collected the ash. SOUNDS TOXIC. Yeah but back then we weren’t thinking about that. So yeah we would burn that, collect the ash, mix it with toothpaste, shampoo, and tap water.
What tattoos did you get when you were in prison?
I came out with a whole bodysuit. Both my sleeves were done, my chest… my whole leg. When I got out, I got them lasered and put new stuff on them. But yeah I did come out with a lot of heavy work from there. First off I’m glad I did do time because that’s where I learned Tattooing and it changed my whole life. Secondly, I got smart in there and realized who’s who.
When I went in I realized who my friends really were, cause on the streets you think some of your friends are family and I didn’t live at home I was living with my friends. So when I went in I realized who I was, what I was, and where I stand. That’s when I woke up and realized my family is the ones that really care about me, you know.
Speaking about family. Are they still in California?
Yeah, so I am from Cambodia. When I was two years old that’s when the war was going on in Cambodia and we had to flee the country and my parents where kinda well to do, so we were fortunate enough where they had money saved and we could just go straight to the airport and leave. During that time it was very chaotic and we were able to go to France because France had a relationship with Cambodia, so that’s where we went. A majority of the Cambodians went to France.
We lived there for about eight years till I was about ten years old and then when we went to LA. Our parents moved us there because there were so many things about the United States being the land of opportunity and stuff like that. They wanted a better life and future for us. They didn’t pick the best part of LA. either, we went straight to a neighborhood with graffiti everywhere. That’s where we lived. They didn’t think anything of it but for us, we had to go to school and had to become street smart and survive.
I would get into a lot of trouble so we ended up moving around 10 to 12 different times. That caused a lot of social problems for me but when I got out of the joint, I was like this is the real world now.
After you got out of the joint what steps did you take in the real world to stay focused and out of trouble?
In 1995 I was released from prison. I had 500 bucks to my name, no skills, no high school diploma, nothing. So I was kinda worried. I think a month before I got out, that’s when it really hit me. I called my mom and told her I had no idea what I was going to do after prison. I feel like prison was already my home and I had everything there. I was already well known in there, busy, had money and I did well with tattooing. So imagine coming out, what am I going to do, where am I going to live, I have nothing? I was stuck and didn’t really want to come out.
SO YOU FELT SAFE IN PRISON? Right, so now everything was different again and I was trying to get back to what it really means to be free you know. I stayed with my parents for about two or three years until I got off parole. During those three years of parole, I had to get a job as a requirement. So I found a little typing job, minimum wage. On the side, I was still tattooing my friends. I didn’t realize how big tattooing was at the time. This was in 95’ / 96’ and I started getting a lot more requests for my work. So now I was making a lot more money doing tattooing on the side then I was at my job and I was like, man I could open a shop and do something, so that’s what I did.
I tried opening a shop in LA but during that time. I had a friend that had just got out of prison also and moved to North Carolina. He had called me to come to visit, cause he had opened a shop. I went to go visit him and that’s how I got introduced to North Carolina. The shop was 200 square feet and he was by himself and doing very well. I worked with him for maybe like a week and I really loved the area. After I came back to California I got a call from his mom saying that he got locked up for a warrant and she was worried and wanted someone to watch over the shop. So being the friend that I was, I told my wife and son that I have to go and help my friend.
I ended up staying in the 200 square shops for about a year and then he got out. When he got out we upgraded to a bigger shop, about 1200 square feet. I moved my wife and kids over and we joint ventured and partnered at that shop. After a couple of years, we didn’t see eye to eye and I felt like I was getting a lot more requests then he was and then started to see a lot of jealousy. I felt like we were good friends but when it came to a partnership there were a lot of feelings involved and he decided to move away and I bought him out.
During that time in 2004, I got the news from my parents in California that my dad got killed. I couldn’t concentrate and found out he was living in New York, got remarried, had a new family and I did not know about any of this and was looking for him when I got out and nobody knew where he was, he just disappeared. When I went in, that’s when my parents got separated. When we went to the funeral that’s when I met Andy, my half brother.
Is Andy the only brother you met at the funeral? Did you meet additional family members? Siblings?
I have a half-sister but I also have another full brother and sister. That’s how Andy and I met and then he kinda hung around me and I taught him the ropes in tattooing. But anyway during that time after hearing the news I couldn’t work, so my mom told me you should just move back to the west coast so you can be closer to us. So that’s what we did. We packed up and left North Carolina and came back to LA first thing.
Not every city is welcoming you have to really do your research on where you can open a shop because there are a lot of underground rules. With a lot of older shops, you couldn’t open within a certain amount of feet or you had to get permission from different people. I didn’t want to deal with that so we came here to Vegas, which I think was great and it worked out well. During that time I did not want a big shop I wanted to focus more on me. More on my work, more on my name and got an 800 square foot shop.
I started doing conventions and getting my work in magazines and in 2004/ 2005 that’s when I started getting my name out there. I did flash and sold it to every shop and started getting a lot busier. People started requesting a lot of things I didn’t do and I was losing money. So that’s when it was time to get an apprentice and the shop was big enough to have two more artists. I hired two guys then ended up hiring a lot more guys. Opening a bigger shop meant high rent and risk.
Skin Design Tattoo has been around since 1999?
Yes, that’s when we were incorporated, 2005 is when we came to Vegas and two years ago is when we upgraded to this shop. This is a big job, the build-out, everything. LOOKS FANTASTIC! It wasn’t all just me, I hired a team and I feel like everything that happened in my life is a blessing from god. It was almost like when I was down he brought me, somebody, to reconnect and built me up again.
THE STRUGGLE IS REAL! WE ALL FACE CHALLENGES AND THINGS GET TOUGH. DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR YOUNG ARTISTS TRYING TO SUCCEED AT WHAT THEY LOVE? Are you talking about tattooing wise or business-wise, it’s two different things. LET’S TALK ABOUT THE BUSINESS of TATTOOING. Right, so not everybody has to open a shop this big. I started in 200 square feet and a mindset, keep all your cash, don’t put in the bank. I was told that. I was taught by my parents and from other business people. You don’t want to put all your money in the bank because the IRS is going to take and you’re going to pay a lot of taxes. So that was like a big fear in me for so many years.
Then I learned that all this time I was taught wrong and this is why now we keep growing because we are paying taxes and we’re not afraid to put anything in the bank. Now we are claiming everything and that would be my advice to anyone trying to build a tattoo business. So now I’m opening a lot of doors to a lot of young artists and advising them not to hide and to pay taxes. I would be retired by now if I would have known what I know today. So in a way this like a new start for me.
By no means am I telling anyone what they should do, but if you want to buy a house, finance a car, if you want to own a shop you need to pay taxes. We aren’t here to say anything but the proof is here. I just want to help people that want to be helped.