Driving down Fairfax, I pull up in a shady little alleyway in West Hollywood. I park my car and at the same time receive a phone call telling me he’d be right over.
I ventured outside and while walking past his studio, I bumped into two gentlemen who just so happened to be working on the store right next door. I introduced myself, told them I was waiting to interview this tattoo artist named Norm, “have you heard of him?” And indeed both assumed they saw him walk by earlier on, but weren’t sure. They kept me company and we chatted for a bit until the man of the hour appeared.
Norm (which apparently is his full name when I asked him later in our interview), who has been tattooing for about ten years or so, is one of the older, well known artists in the tattoo industry– not just for his work, but his immaculately handmade tattoo machines. What makes his style of tattooing stand out among others are his graffiti roots and his distinct, unique lettering technique.
After exchanging greetings, he definitely wasn’t what I was expecting. I know there are always a few artists in any industry that have some type of rock star mentality, which is a very off putting trait– no matter how talented you are. However, my first impression of him was just a funny, mellow, down to earth guy.
Walking into his little studio, my eyes can’t help but wander all over the walls– admiring every inch of them covered in fantastic tattoo/graffiti style artwork. After settling in and getting comfortable, I start asking the questions I had lined up. Since this was the first time meeting him, I was slightly nervous as to how this would go. Luckily all the worrying was completely unnecessary– Norm gave off a chill, laid back vibe: two people just going back and forth, getting to know a little bit about the other.
Originally from Baltimore, he’s moved around quite a bit throughout his life. After Baltimore, they migrated towards San Francisco (after high school) and eventually to Los Angeles. His parents also moved his family to Irvine for several years, the safest city in the United States– and also where he tells me he got into a good amount of trouble. When I asked how he was growing up and as a kid in high school, it apparently involved a lot of drugs and little memory of it. I really appreciate how genuinely honest he is being with a complete stranger. Especially after hearing about his younger life, we start to joke around and swap stories about the stupid sh*t we had done as kids.
I generally assumed he had been involved in graffiti at a young age since his style of tattooing is heavily influenced by that particular art. He offers me a hit of the medicated vape pen he’s been smoking on while explaining that his graffiti style didn’t come until later– in the group of friends he acquired in LA around his early twenties. The graffiti actually played no role in his interest to pursue a career as a tattoo artist. He owned a piercing shop where he met some graffiti writers. Once Norm learned about the art, he started practicing it and fell in love. Coincidentally, that lead him to the tattoo shop next door that was home to Grimey (The Grime) and Marcus Pacheco. Eventually he became covered in tattoos and inevitably began to apprentice under those two artists that I personally admire and follow as well. He mentions the legend Jack Rudy and Bert Krak as also being important influences in his career.
I asked him about the transition from graffiti art to tattooing and whether or not it was challenging or difficult for him. He begins to explain to me how tattooing interfered with his graffiti work in a negative way because he was more focused on the tattoo aspect of his work. Once he realized that, he began to switch back and forth between the two art forms.
When I inquired if building tattoo machines was something he was always interested in as a hobby, he looks at me very seriously and tells me that it’s definitely not a hobby. Machines are not an easy task to build. Norm tells me that is his other full time job. He does have three other workers to help with his beautifully made machines, but it definitely isn’t something just anyone can do. Norm Machines are known and used by tattoo artists all around the world.
Here are a few Q&A’s from our interview:
RBC: What’s your full name?
Norm: um.. Norm.
RBC: (I laugh at that), Yeah, just Norm? Where did the Will Rise come from?
Norm: Will Rise is from Angels Will Rise– which is AWR, the graffiti crew. (Which he is a member of.)
RBC: Where are you from originally?
RBC: Did you like it out there?
Norm: Yeah, It’s cold and rainy–
I quickly interrupt him to say that I love cold, rainy weather and that the sun/heat is my enemy.
Norm: I don’t like cold. The east coast is nice anytime it’s not snowing. I don’t want to live in snow, I just like snow when I go there– for snowboarding.
I mention that I’ve never gone snowboarding, mostly because I have zero coordination whatsoever. He stares and laughs when I tell him I can ride an electric skateboard. Then he asks me if I can ride a bike, which (surprisingly), I can.
Norm: It has nothing to do with snowboarding, but if you can ride a bike, it could be possible.
We laugh about that for a second and I ask him about his family– if he was close with his parents or had any siblings; he is close with his parents and has a brother as well.
RBC: Did you have any pets growing up?
Norm: No.. Nothing exciting.
RBC: Really, not even like a dog? Cat? Rabbit? Fish?
He has no preference really when it comes to animals, besides the fact that he’d rather not wake up every morning to pick up their sh*t, which is a very logical reason not to own a pet.
Moving on, I questioned if growing up in Baltimore influenced his graffiti style or growing up here.
Norm: No, I only started writing graffiti when I moved to San Francisco.
RBC: So, from Baltimore you moved to San Francisco?
Norm: Yeah, that wasn’t until after high school. I didn’t start writing graffiti till I was old.
RBC: How old?
Norm: I was like 20… 25.
Then we get into the topic of my birthday coming up and how I refuse to turn another year older. He tells me I don’t have to, just go backwards. I’m taking his advice on this one. For his age, I state the fact that he does not look a day over 12. Lucky bastard.
RBC: Do you sort of just tattoo anything? I know you’re known for your lettering and script.
Norm: That’s the thing, I started writing so much script that when I go outside and paint outside, I can’t make anything nice anymore.. It’s difficult, everything here has to be perfect if it’s this big, so if it’s like THIS big (gesturing to a larger stature in size) and it’s not perfect I’m like freaking out about it.
Norm: I do a LOT of lettering.. A lot.
RBC: Do you ever get tired of it?
Norm: I do all this other shit, but a good challenge is nice.
RBC: What sparked your goal to become a tattoo artist?
Norm: Well I always wanted to be tattooed–
I interrupt again with a quick question: when was your first tattoo? “When I was 16?” I thought back to my first tattoo: 15 years old and in somebody’s garage. Good times.
Norm: *continuing* I got so many tattoos that I was already covered in tattoos when I started tattooing– which was 10 years, 12 years ago? Not that long ago.
We somehow land on the topic of Hawaii and find out we have one thing in common: relax is not in our vocabulary. I continue and ask about the shop he worked at/owned in Hawaii.
Norm: I had a shop in Hawaii that I built, and then I gave it to my employee so it’s there. It’s called Restless.
RBC: You’re opening the public store front Love Letters, but other than that, what’s the next step for you or your work in general?
Norm: I don’t even know– I can start working finally, probably have an opening.. and yeah.
RBC: Funny anecdotes growing up for the readers?
Norm: I don’t remember growing up, I think I did too much drugs– 16 till like 30.
RBC: I started pretty early as well, haha.
Norm: I don’t remember anything about being a kid. I was in the band when I was a kid.
RBC: You didn’t do that prom, homecoming sh*t?
Norm: No, but I went to my high school reunion.. Yeah it was really terrible.
While he starts to describe his reunion, I can’t help but crack up at how blunt, real and straightforward this guy is.
Norm: “You just bought a shitty suit and I showed up like this.” (He’s currently clad in a t-shirt, flannel, jeans, and a cap.)
RBC: How were you in high school– were you like the nerdy kid, trouble maker?
Norm: I was just small and on drugs.
Following his crazy travels all over the world on Instagram, I originally emailed to set up an appointment thinking I’d be stuck on a wait list. To my surprise, I was told he’d be in LA in April and decided to jump at the opportunity to write an article on this interesting character knowing his many followers would enjoy a little look into their artists’ life. I caught him at the perfect time because he tells me about his upcoming work travels: Greece, China, New York, Hawaii, Montreal, London and Hong Kong, just to name a few.
*Norm is currently in LA with his new public store front, “Love Letters,” tattooing and taking appointments.*