The Conqueror Of Seven Continents
Tattooing saved Adam Vu’s life – more than once.
Earned him a get-out-of-jail-free card in South Africa last year and spirited him from the oppressive grasp of addiction, with the Californian instead chasing the dragon of his own creativity around the globe to unlock his signature style.
“I can never be mad at tattooing, it has literally given me everything and every out possible,” Vu explained while forking down a Caesar salad to settle a stomach turned shit-machine after a breakfast of fish and chips.
Vu, whose family fled the Vietnam War in the 1970s to settle in the States, is, as his Instagram declares – “a conqueror of seven continents” – but his greatest exploration is one far more common to mortal men, the fight to overcome ones environment, and oneself.
Vu is the black sheep of his family, he explains, as Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black plays over the stereo at Salad Box on London’s famed Brick Lane, a short-stroll from Seven Doors Tattoo where he worked a few days in August and September.
“I’m pretty much the only weirdo in the entire extended family that pretty much doesn’t have a normal 9-5 or whatever. I could never wake up early enough for that shit.”
Growing up between Orange County and Los Angeles Vu, 31, didn’t have a very artistic childhood and says he “never really drew anything besides a dick in a textbook until I was 21”.
A MORAL RESTRAINT
He did however, design band flyers for his group, a horror-punk outfit called Moral Restraint and other local acts, a happenstance he now credits for teaching him a “lot about composition”.
Vu was the longhaired lead singer for the group from age 11 to 20 when the cultural currents of skateboarding and punk rock were king in California.
Moral Restraint, Vu said, at their peak opened for “all of my favourite bands… in their modern incarnations… that I grew up listening to,” like the Misfits and Black Flag, before he decided to drop the mic and wash-off the skull make-up for good: “After all of it I was like, ‘man I kind of suck at this anyway… you’re not going to make a living making punk music’.”
At 17 Vu got a part-time job at a local tattoo parlour (he declined to name), “as the shop bitch”, mainly because he wanted to get tattooed for free, having been inked for the first time at 14 – a Misfits skull on his shin with 138 etched underneath.
“I always knew I was going to have tattoos,” Vu, whose arms are blotted with brightly coloured tattoos mainly done before he turned 18, recalls.
“I remember being a kid and watching pro-wrestling with my older brothers and seeing these roided-out dudes, covered in silly tribal tattoos, and I was like, ‘oh man I want one’. Or like seeing my favourite bands play and seeing all their tattoos. Or watching Robert De Niro in Cape Fear with all his tattoos, or Escape from LA with Kurt Russell with this huge snake on his chest. Shit like that. I always knew I was going to be a tattoo guy.”
After high school Vu went to a community college for two years before transferring to a state University where he majored in Fine Arts, gaining a bachelors degree in fine art painting. Around 21 he decided he wanted to be a tattooist.
By then Vu had been at his local tattoo shop for almost three years, earning $200 for working six days a week, while also studying. But they weren’t interested in teaching him and by then tattoo TV shows were multiplying across networks like wet gremlins, with Miami Ink quickly spawning LA Ink.
“Unfortunately I said I wanted to learn how to tattoo around the same time as everybody else that was my age,” Vu recalls, before adding: “Another unfortunate aspect was that no one took me seriously because I was a kid. Because they’d watched me grow-up from 14, they didn’t want to teach me.”
When In Rome
Vu eventually left and after speaking with an Italian artist doing a guest spot at another Orange County store (@samezcherrytattoo), he was offered the chance to come to Rome: “I talked to her about my situation and she said, ‘well if you ever come to Rome I can show you some stuff’.”
Desperate for quick cash to get his tattoo teaching started, Vu fundraised for a plane ticket by “regretfully” selling prescriptions on the side and women’s shoes at the mall for six months:
“I had to make money. I was barely eating. I couldn’t get a job anywhere. Not a real job. I had tattoos and that but I was also going to school full time. Living out of a car. This isn’t something I’m proud of or anything. I had to make money and I wanted to go to Rome because if I wasn’t going to get a chance learning how to tattoo here, I was going to do whatever I could to get this plane ticket.”
In the summer of 2007 Vu left for Rome “with like $20 to my name and a gigantic suitcase I found in the garbage”. There he worked in a tattoo shop, began oil painting, learning portraiture and watercolour, “all the fundamentals of tattooing”.
“She (the tattooist) gave me a chance. She was the first person to give me a chance, who took me seriously and saw potential.”
Returning home Vu realised that none of the five-odd shops in his neighbourhood were going to give him a shot so he approached Lowrider Tattoo, a parlour specialising in black and grey work: “All these Chicano guys, doing portraits, clown girls, sad girls, day of dead girls… lettering.”
“I figured if I learned these techniques then I can apply them to my designs at some point in the future. So I was in there, one of the most intimidating situations ever man. Tough as nails Cholo dudes guarding the door, guarding every room, not really guarding it, but just hanging out… they were different times dude. I was like a longhaired Asian punk dude.”
There Vu met Jose Lopez who he bills as a “fucken God damn legend, one of the best black and grey guys in the world, Godfather of Chicano tattooing, one of them… the nicest guy”.
Vu began the very next day, first as an apprentice for a year, then as a tattooist for 18 months, largely doing black and grey portraits. It was, Vu says wistfully, “some of the best years of my life”.
“However,” he added, as though interrupting himself: “I wanted to learn more. You’re only as good as the five people you surround yourself with so it’s important that you kind of change up those five people every so often. Treat it like school.”
Moving to Los Angeles, Vu got a job at Will Rise Tattoo, a busy street shop on Fairfax Avenue where he learnt “like crazy from really good traditional artists and lettering specialists”.
It was the best of times and the worst of times: “It was great but it was also really depressing because I wasn’t doing anything special, artistically wise, I just wasn’t. There was no identity in my work.”
Three and a half years passed and Vu’s prescription pill addiction to opioid pain medications, Oxycontin and Norcos, got “really, really fucking bad”.
“I was doing a lot of that shit. I thought all I ever wanted to do was tattoo but then once I was doing it there was something missing,” Vu recalls. “I can understand life could be a lot worse. I could be doing lots of lame tattoos and I should just be grateful for just working. But I just felt like I wasn’t actually doing anything creative or bringing anything to the table. There wasn’t any of me in the stuff I was doing. Partly because I didn’t realise what I was doing or trying to convey. Just having higher expectations and not meeting them.
“The whole addiction thing. I don’t think addictive personalities really exist. Not for me. I had a lack of motivation in me when I felt I was doing nothing special. In turn, it oozes into the other aspects of your life. When every day becomes so predictable and the same it’s like, ‘how can I make this more exciting’? And when you pop a few painkillers and shit, like, cool, everything’s happy. I became the person I wish I was all the time. You’re more sociable. You’re more confident. And the most boring tattoo can be interesting. How foolish of me.”
Having been tattooing for almost five years Vu was a wreck. Professionally unfilled and in a “shitty relationship” he buoyed himself with Norcos and Oxycontins “just to get through the fucken day”.
“I just wanted to travel. To get out of Los Angeles, out of California,” Vu explained.
Vu travelled to Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam and got “bitten hard” by the travel bug: “You’re seeing all this shit through foreign eyes. I guess you just get inspired by shit. It doesn’t have to be artwork. You can fall in love with places. There’s just so much inspiration that you just don’t even know about.”
Within two weeks of being back in Los Angeles Vu realised he needed to leave again. The next six months were spent travelling around Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan after first detoxing from Los Angeles, “I needed to get clean, every single time I went home old habits would die hard… I would just keep taking pills just for the familiarity of it”.
“I wasn’t even going out to parties,” Vu explained. “I’d pop pills and sit at home and draw. I’ve done all the partying I’ve ever wanted to do. I wasn’t motivated when I was back around familiar shit.”
In Asia Vu did his first tattoo sober in five years, “I was sweating bullets… my hands were shaking, it fucken sucked”. But he only picked up a machine sporadically, “to sustain my trip”, breaking out his kit to do a, “Mandela or a feather breaking off or an infinity symbol”, to cover a meal or shelter.