Interview with Baba Austin: Vintage Tattoo Art Parlor

Baba Austin at Vintage Tattoo Art Parlor in Highland Park

Young Voices: Boulevard Voices is a series of interviews conducted by Occidental College students, assisted by the Keck Grant, for Professor Jan Lin's Los Angeles Field Research course. Each interview highlights an individual who has made an impact in their communities in Northeast L.A.

Subject: Baba Austin
Organization: Vintage Tattoo Art Parlor
Boulevard: York Boulevard

Baba Austin is the owner and tattooist at Vintage Tattoo Art Parlor on York Boulevard in Highland Park. A resident and business owner there since 1998, Baba has created a name for himself both in the tattoo industry, headlining various conferences nationwide, and within the community, where other business owners see him as a liaison between themselves and city officials and/or film recruiters. In his own words, he "bring[s] peoples' ideas and visions to life on their skin."

Upon walking into his tattoo studio, I was quickly put at ease by the friendly face of the piercer, Hollywood Keith. Before I met Baba, Hollywood Keith told me that I picked the right person to interview, because Baba knew all about Highland Park history and the changes that have occurred in the neighborhood since the 90s. When I finally met Baba, he recounted his story and discussed the role he plays and the changes he wishes to see in the community.

Can you describe your typical customer?

No, there's no such thing as a typical tattoo customer. I do judges, soccer moms, rock stars, actresses and people on TV.

How long have you been living and working in Northeast L.A.?

My family has been in this neighborhood since the '70s. My mom moved here after the divorce in '79, I believe. My uncle used to be the bartender at The Dragon, which is now the York. I started Vintage Tattoo in Burbank in '95, but we moved here in '98, [because] my family was all from Highland Park. In Burbank the shop was hidden.

How has the shop grown over the years?

My shop has been the same size. We've just grown with the people who work here, and we've grown in my reputation. I'm going to New York tomorrow, where I'm headliner at the Jersey Convention. Now, I'm the headliner at the Las Vegas convention. I've been a headliner for 20 years now. People are starting to recognize me.

How do you engage with the community?

I used to be on the Chamber of Commerce here. I try my best to support things, but unfortunately we're an adult industry -- because you have to be 18 and over -- so I'm not allowed to sponsor football teams from Franklin or anything. Secretly, you know, like every single kid that walks in here and sells candy, we buy 30, 40 bucks worth; we don't even eat candy. We just hand it out to clients. We also support the Art Walk. We support almost everything that's pro-Highland Park, but we're not really too supportive of the "I'm a hipster, I wanna change everything scene."

Is that the scene that you've been seeing grow?

That's the scene that they've been trying to start.

Who are "they"?

The hipsters. They've been trying to change everything. Highland Park was one of the best-kept secrets of L.A.; it's one of the oldest neighborhoods actually. It used to be all Irish. It became basically a Chicano community as of the '60s on, very deep in Chicano culture. It's been this special place. Now, it's like people are realizing it's special and they're coming in, but they want to change it and make it something else. I don't understand that. I don't agree with the direness of all of it. They're trying too hard, too fast.

Have you heard about recent efforts to improve boulevards by promoting pedestrian life or new park spaces?

I haven't heard anything about parks. Nobody has told us anything about parks.

To be honest, I was also kind of against the ArtWalk at first, because it seemed pretty bourgeois. Then Kathy [Gallegos] took it over and made it into a nice little event. I would say it's about 98% positive. You bring all of your large crowds here -- I think we had at least 2000 people here last time -- and you run into places with drunk people. You're like, "Really? Where were you brought up?" But other than that, it's all pretty good. She did a good job.

Are there further improvements you would like to see on the boulevard?

Right there, when that tree broke, a branch went through a car, so they cut the tree down. It was rotten. They left it there, but they never fixed the sidewalk, so the roots raised the sidewalk. So improving the sidewalks is important. I think if they're going to beautify [the boulevard], they should start fixing some of the stuff that's broken. You can't spray paint trash gold and expect it to be gold. It's still trash inside.

They also added a bike path. I used to be against it, but a lot of people use it, so I'm in the middle on that.

Why were you against it?

Because of the whole attitude of the little bike gangs: ignoring traffic laws, cutting people off, not letting people go through, hitting cars -- I thought that was what this was for, but it has turned out not to be that. We do get bike gangs coming through -- and I'm talking about bicycle gangs, not bikers -- but it's such a small percentage. I see a lot of kids, a lot of older people, a lot of families, so it's turned out to be a good thing.

I like the new bus benches. I wish they were everywhere. It looks like every other block is getting them. That's kind of cool. They also planted trees. That's kind of cool. We need more trashcans, because with all the bars, there's a lot of trash that just gets left on the street. When you come out here the Sunday morning after ArtWalk, it's a wreck, and all of us are proud business owners, so we clean up even though we have nothing to do with it.

Who is supposed to be responsible for cleaning that?

I don't know. I don't really see a problem with us coming out here and cleaning it, but if there were more trashcans, there would be less trash on the street. There are just little things like that. I think doing new signs or new lights is ridiculous. And where do they choose where bike racks go? That part gets me. They're really random and kind of weird.

Like I said, [the business owners] don't know what their rights are. The city is allowed a certain amount of money for improvements, and if you know the channels to channel into, you can get the money for the improvements.

How do you think newcomers affect the established businesses here?

They're very selective. They're very hipster too. They preach small business, mom-and-pop business, and keeping it local, but they don't. For instance, a sandwich shop that preaches staying local doesn't buy bread from the bakery right across the street. Why would you preach all this and not buy bread at Elsa's? Elsa's has been there for 60 years at least. Why would you go somewhere else? I don't see these hipsters going into Connie's and getting their haircut. I do -- I go there once a week to get my haircut. I think it's a hipster thing. If it's hipster-owned, they'll go to it.

Baba Austin with a 1998 Occidental Collage Lookbook

Have you seen any racial transition throughout the years?

There was a dark time in Highland Park, when certain gangs, even named by the President, did racially motivated attacks on black people. There couldn't be any black people in Highland Park. They would've gotten shot.

When was this?

The '90s. Clinton even brought it up. Due to certain gang injunctions, certain gangs aren't allowed here anymore. I have seen a difference in the racial makeup, it's very diverse now. It's cool. I just wish all the hipster shops weren't all transplants from different states, trying to act like they know what Highland Park's about.

To what degree are mass media and social media important to you and your business? Do you use it?

Yes, we use social media a lot. No one would have thought that social media would be a business tool. I think we first started using Myspace as a social media tool. The best way to have any business is word of mouth, because you have somebody actually defending you. If you have something in an advertisement, there's no conversation about it -- with word of mouth, there is.

We figured that through social media -- at the time, Myspace -- we would put photos up of our clients. Like "Here's Princess with her new Om tattoo on her forearm" [Interviewer's Note: This was in reference to my tattoo]; we'd link to your page, and you'd tell all your friends, "Wow, these guys put my picture up". It blew up from there. Right now I'm probably going to take a pic of you and me doing this interview and put it on Instagram, and it'll go on Facebook and Twitter, like that.

We also film a lot of stuff here. You don't recognize it because you're focused on the actors, not on where it is. One or two times they showed the front of the shop, like in "National Security," the Martin Lawrence movie, but other than that, it's all inside. You would never know that's at my shop. To put it this way, about 80% of the commercials or TV shows or quick little movies where you see tattoo shops, that's my shop. They just make it look like 30 or 40 different shops.

What are your plans for the future?

The thing about my tattoo shop is that we've always had a place where people can bring generations. We've already done grandchildren here. That's kind of cool. I've done three generations of one family here. We don't plan on going anywhere. We're a part of this neighborhood. We promote this neighborhood. When I go on Instagram, I hash-tag Highland Park and I hash-tag 90042. I just want people to know there are other things here.

What kind of future would you like to see for this neighborhood?

I just want to see respect. If there is respect amongst everyone that's here, it will all be good. The minute people stop respecting what was here first, we're going to have problems. And the minute the people who were here first stop respecting the hipsters, we're going to have problems. I think everybody just needs to respect each other. There's a lot of harmony that could be happening here, but it's not, because everyone is just against everybody. That's about it.

Click here to read more interviews with Northeast L.A. community members.


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