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Leo Zulueta’s style of neo-tribal tattooing made him known as the father of modern tribal tattooing

Ian Harvey

Known as the father of modern tribal tattooing, the American tattoo artist, Leo Zulueta was born in a naval Maryland’s hospital in 1952.

While other founders of modern tattoo styles have passed away, Leo lives on, continuing to inspire many tattoo artists with his neo-tribal tattooing practice.

Leo Zulueta at Spiral Tattoo, Ann Arbor, Michigan, August 2011. Photo Credit

Leo Zulueta at Spiral Tattoo, Ann Arbor, Michigan, August 2011. Photo Credit

He spent his early years on the Hawaiian island of Oahu and San Diego, California where he attended the San Diego State College studying art and crafts in the 1970s. At the time, he showed interest in Bornean traditional tattooing and started exploring the practice alone.

He has traveled the world in order to experience different forms of practice in tribal tattooing to places such as Samoa, and Tahiti, where he walked on hot coals on sacred temple grounds. He described this as one of the most meaningful experiences of his life.

At first, Leo wasn’t sure whether he wanted to start tattooing for a living, but after meeting with the tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy in 1971, he was encouraged to become a tattoo artist himself and started tattooing professionally in 1981.

Leo Zulueta at Spiral Tattoo, Ann Arbor, Michigan, August 2011. Photo Credit

Leo Zulueta at Spiral Tattoo, Ann Arbor, Michigan, August 2011. Photo Credit

Zulueta founded Black Wave Tattoo in Los Angeles in 1992 but sold the studio eight years later.

During the early 90’s, he published a booklet with his tribal tattoo works and sparked the revival of the neo-tribal tattoo practice, creating a lasting influence on other tattoo artists up to this day.

As an experienced artist, he was selected on TLC’s Tattoo War with his protégé Rory Keating in 2007.

Although he is an inspiration for many tattoo artists for his neo-tribal tattooing, Leo never imagined that his work would be represented in a museum.

People can admire his work at the Grand Rapids Museum and see why this man is known as the father of this particular practice.

Leo Zulueta at Spiral Tattoo, Ann Arbor, Michigan, August 2011. Photo Credit

Leo Zulueta at Spiral Tattoo, Ann Arbor, Michigan, August 2011. Photo Credit

When asked about his inspiration, Leo said that he tends to follow the musculature, finding this much more important than the wanted design of the tattoo itself. From this way of working, he masterfully creates a piece that flows with the body, fitting its structure perfectly.

Read another story from us: Maud Wagner, known as The Inked Woman was the first female tattoo artist in America

Today, while operating at Spiral Tattoos, the father of modern tribal tattooing lives on in Ann Arbor, Michigan.