Tattoo Expo

Syracuse tattoo artist shares his skin deep story

Raymond Vazquez of Carmelo's Ink City struggled to find a purpose, but tattooing saved him from a life of trouble.

The 31st annual Am-Jam Tattoo Expo in Syracuse maintained the hallmarks of American freedom: chicken wings, beer and of course, tattoos. Large men with denim jackets showcased their sleeves. Eric Sprague, famously known as the Lizard Man, chatted with expo-goers. The passion for ink was hard to miss, but for one artist, tattooing was more than a hobby. It was the only escape from a life of structure and order.

Photo: Shuran Huang
Local tattoo artist, Raymond Vazquez from Carmelo's Ink City, showcased his art at Am-Jam Tattoo Expo this past weekend.

As one of the only artists in the room with a tattoo on his face, Raymond Vazquez stands out in the crowd of ink-covered bodies.

In his own words, Vazquez was never a troublemaker, but he was always in trouble. Vazquez, 24, blames this on his aversion to being “bossed” around.

“I’ve always had a hard time with bosses—or any situation that involved me being bossed around. So obviously parents too, they boss you around, and they tell you what to do. I always had a problem with that, so I decided to do my own thing, and not have anyone tell me anything,” Vazquez said.

Without a job, a home or much credibility to his name, Vazquez bought a one-way ticket to Syracuse. Originally from the Bronx, Vazquez always wanted to live by his own rules.

For Vazquez, freedom started with a tattoo craze. At age 16, inspired by Rihanna, he got his first tattoo: three little stars. It was the first declaration of freedom for Vazquez. Soon after turning 18 years old, Vazquez moved out and eventually went to nursing school. He later discovered that tattoos and medicine were not combinable.

When he graduated, he worked for a private cardiologist, which restricted visible body art. “There was still a stigma about them [tattoos] in the professional world. During this time, I had one foot in the nursing field and the other in the tattoo world,” Vazquez said.

Determined to be his own boss, Vazquez sought out an apprenticeship. In the tattoo world, it is the main way artists learn their craft. After being scammed out of $1,000 when an artist promised to teach him the basics, he traded his professional camera for tattoo supplies and began to practice on friends. He eventually left his job as a nurse practitioner, and New York City altogether.

“I’m a New Yorker, that’s part of who I am. I see something, I want it, and I get it. At the time I was still a scrub in the tattoo world. I didn’t really know how to tattoo well, and like I said I just literally packed all of my things, and took a bus to Syracuse,” Vazquez said. “All I knew about Syracuse was Destiny USA, so my plan was to find a job at the mall and live near it so I could walk to it. That was just my whole idea.”

After the day he arrived, the mall hosted a job fair. Vazquez got the position as a manager in a new shoe store. He found an apartment and settled into his new community, but still felt he lacked the autonomy he was originally looking for. Racial tensions and discrimination against his tattoos at the shoe store pushed Vazquez to look for an apprenticeship in Syracuse.

Vazquez worked closely with artists for three months before an artist allowed him to tattoo people. Vazquez showed up at his old job with a new neck tattoo and informed his boss he was quitting to be a full-time tattoo artist.

Vazquez currently works for Carmelo’s Ink City on 419 Hiawatha Blvd., where he has established his career and reputation in Syracuse. Since the first star tattoo, he has lost count after 30 tattoos. Now he only gets inked once a year due to dwindling canvas space on his body.

“The ‘P’ on my face is my most meaningful tattoo. I actually got watery eyes when I got it. The ‘P’ stands for Pandora, my daughter,” said Vazquez. “I got it to show my dedication to my daughter, and the tattoo world, which is also why I got it on my face. I can’t get a ‘normal’ job now that I have this, but my daughter is best thing that ever happened to me.”

Becoming a father is the only restriction of freedom that Vazquez has had no problem with. Although he can no longer just pack his bags and leave like he once did, he insisted that the lessons fatherhood has instilled has added greater meaning to his life.

“It’s about sacrifice and patience. It’s not about me anymore. When I’m with my daughter, I eat on her schedule. Everything revolves around her."

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