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Social media and YouTube are keys to Romeo Lacoste's success today, but he's never forgotten the tough road of tattoo apprenticeships.
Romeo Lacoste has become a go-to celebrity tattoo artist in Los Angeles. He first set off down that career path at age 17 and faced many struggles on his way up. Now at 28, and after being turned away by nearly 40 tattoo shops, he's opened his own business, The California Dream Tattoo, and has garnered more than one million followers on Instagram and 500,000 on YouTube.
Find Your Grind spoke to Lacoste about his LA lifestyle, being an independent artist and his immense success on social media.
This article has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you know you wanted to be a tattoo artist?
I got involved in the tattoo industry when I was 17 years old. I've been an artist my whole life and remember drawing cartoons and doodling when I was 10 or 11. When I was 17, I decided I wanted to become a tattoo artist. I wanted to do something that was art-related and thought, “Well you know, what's edgy and fun?” Tattoos hit me, and I decided I was going to be a tattoo artist, so I just dove headfirst into it. I got an apprenticeship and basically worked my way up from there.
What is an average day in your life like?
I basically sleep in every day, which is nice. I try to get up around 10 a.m., but sometimes I sleep in depending on how late I was up the night before. I check emails, work out a little bit, and get breakfast. I also go swimming every morning because I love to swim, and it’s nice and hot in California. I go to the tattoo shop around 2:30. My first appointment is at 3, and I tattoo until about 10. Depending on the day, I can do one big appointment, or I can do maybe five small ones. I’m usually booked, so I try to fit whatever I can in that time slot. After that, I just go home, chill, play video games, or watch movies. If there's an event or party, I try to go out and do a little bit of networking because you can never do too much networking for your brand and for yourself. Additionally, you never know who you’re going to meet, so I try to always stay on point and never stop going out and meeting people.
How does someone get a tattoo apprenticeship?
I recommend going to tattoo shops with your portfolio. You definitely don't want to have a tattoo portfolio [from] tattooing out of your house; it’s not very professional. Instead, you usually want to take really good drawings because that’s what they’re looking for. Go around to different tattoo shops, and show them what you got. I was actually turned down by almost 40 tattoo shops — I’m not even exaggerating. It took 40 tattoo shops before I got my first apprenticeship. After I got fired, I went back and did landscaping and construction for a year-and-a-half. I almost gave up tattooing but decided to keep looking for an apprenticeship. I ended up getting a second apprenticeship, finished that, and then moved to California to chase the dream.
What jobs did you have before tattoos?
I've definitely had some crazy jobs. The first job I ever had was at a dollar store when I was 17. I’ve also done delivery and register for a fast-food restaurant, frying and delivery at a Chinese fast-food place, and landscaping and construction. That was really bad! I’m a skinny guy, so it was definitely not fun for me to be doing landscaping and construction. However, that just goes to show it doesn’t matter what you want to do; anyone has a chance to be someone great. If you work hard and put in enough time, effort and sacrifice, and do those random jobs you don’t want to do, you can one day have the dream job you want.
Was it hard to open your own tattoo studio?
It was definitely challenging at first. I got my second apprenticeship and did that for a year. Then, I worked at four, five, six, maybe seven shops after that. I finally realized I was successful enough and had built enough of a reputation for myself. I was finally in a place where I could open up a tattoo studio. I saved up some money — 30 grand, give or take — and decided to do my own thing. I think having my own tattoo shop definitely has a lot of benefits compared to working for someone else. I get to make my own hours. I can decorate the shop however I want and have it in whatever location I want.
I know one issue I had working at some of the other shops was bringing in celebrities. I mean, I remember one time bringing Ariana Grande to the tattoo shop, and it was not that nice of a shop. So it was kind of embarrassing and looked bad on my part, and that's what hit me and gave me the idea [for my own place]. I was starting to tattoo a lot of celebrities and have a lot of high-end clientele, and I needed to have a nice studio to represent that.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to become a tattoo artist?
Honestly, just draw, draw, draw and draw really well. There's a lot of competition out there. In this social media age, you see a lot of artists, pencil artists, painters and graphic designers. It's going to be easier for you to learn how to tattoo when you're already a skilled artist than if you don't know how to draw in the first place. Something that is also important is to connect with the shop and the brand. You want to find a place that feels like home and has the same kind of vibe as your personality.
Do you have any advice on how to use social media in business?
In this day and age, if you don't have a social media following, you are pretty much out of business. It doesn't matter who you are or what business you have, there is pretty much no such thing as a “walk down the street” business anymore. It's pretty much all word-of-mouth and social media. You talk to a lot of people who believe they do not need social media to grow their business, but they're never going to be successful. It doesn't matter who you are; if you hate social media and you don't think it's important, I'm telling you right now, my entire career is based off of social media. I have one million followers on Instagram and about half-a-million on YouTube. The cool thing is having that many fans. I'm constantly booked out for months, and I can do a lot of stuff like tours, meet and greets, and sell merchandise. It's awesome having a lot of people love and support you and your work.
What does it mean to "Find Your Grind"?
It's actually funny that this organization is called Find Your Grind because my daily slogan that I tell myself and my friends is: “It’s grind time.” I feel like no matter how big you get, whether it's someone watching this video who's just starting out and has all these dreams, or it’s someone like me who’s established, you can never stop grinding. There is always someone better; there is always someone to beat; there's always new things to accomplish. Once I accomplish one thing, there's three more things I want to accomplish. I feel like it never ends, and as long as you have that drive and that grind, you'll get to where you want to go.
Words by Beatriz and Tania Borbon on Aug 20, 2017