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Robert Pho: “It’s very healing”

I feel like there are too few people in the world who have turned their lives around after incarceration. Being institutionalized is real, and it’s tough for a lot of people. To be where I am today, I feel sharing my success and coming up to the world has given hope to many people. Dreams […]

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I feel like there are too few people in the world who have turned their lives around after incarceration. Being institutionalized is real, and it’s tough for a lot of people. To be where I am today, I feel sharing my success and coming up to the world has given hope to many people. Dreams can come true even when the odds are against you, and I’m living proof. I get a lot of people who tell me that they get inspired by me, including professionals. Spreading the word, I feel, brings goodness and positivity to the world. I am meeting people, sharing stories, making friends, creating art on people. It’s very healing.


As a part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist” I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Pho.

In addition to being an award-winning artist, Robert Pho is an activist who has fought for — and represented — tattoo culture, garnering him even more respect among his peers within the tattoo community. With unruly beginnings, he’s fought for everything he has achieved, and in the end, he says that “This art saved my life and so many others.” Robert’s passionate love for our culture, and our art, is more than skin deep; the most anticipated slew of upcoming projects would have to be his forthcoming autobiography because he certainly has a story to tell.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

Thank you for having me. I’ve always been into art as far as I can remember. Being a refugee from Cambodia, growing up in France at a young age, then living in L.A. during my teenage years, I’ve always drawn my whole life.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

It wasn’t until I was 16 and went to prison that I found tattooing and a real love for art. What started as a hobby tattooing inmates and gangsters led me to eventually opening a shop after I got released, and here I am today with five shops in 4 different cities. I’m very grateful to be where I am today.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Being in the game for over 30 years now and owning a shop for more than two decades, I’ve encountered many funny and interesting people and their stories. However, The most interesting one which I still trip out on to this day is when we had to battle the whole City with wealthy neighboring residents and businesses who all hired a prominent attorney to try to revoke our Business license in the City of High Point, North Carolina, in 1999 because they didn’t find us or our business to be “fit” in their area. This was by far one of the craziest things my family and I have been through. It was kind of like something out of a movie. One day I’m writing a book about this.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

My career has shifted and led me to become one of the most talked-about, respected, black and gray Tattoo Artists out there working on big projects such as bodysuits. This is my market right now. Most of my clients are serious collectors and well-to-do. The majority follow me and typically fly to me to get something big done, such as a sleeve which eventually turns into a bodysuit. With that said, I don’t have just one interesting project but multiple exciting projects. I created one award-winning bodysuit about 5–6 years ago on a client, Monte, and I feel like he started that trend with my style. Everything he has on is my work. I started with a family and gangster leg sleeves on him and eventually added a clown sleeve, then a Greek mythology theme all over his body. He is covered from head to toe. That project took one session a week, 8 hours per session, and over two and a half years to complete.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I had a female client I met about ten years ago at my old 800 Sq ft shop in Las Vegas. She found me through her boyfriend at the time, who had gotten work by me. I remember her coming into the studio with her boyfriend for the first time one day, wearing her bathing suit and clearly drunk. She was so loud and so excited to have found me and started talking about having me tattoo her entire body and showing me where she wanted it right in front of her boyfriend with big shocking eyes in disbelief. Since then, I went through an entertaining journey with this client couple who competed for years about who was getting tattooed by me next. They were the most entertaining clients I’ve had by far. Every session was full of drama, laughter, & tears. I became a shrink for years to them at every session, giving advice, listening to what they were going through, overdosing on my chair, and even offering to help hide 60k dollars cash from the boyfriend. They both trusted me, and we all became friends. I was just torn by being the middle person. But in the end, I ended up tattooing her more than him because she made the most money, and she ended up with almost a full bodysuit by me. She was on her way to finishing it. Her boyfriend ended up passing away. May he Rest In Peace. She eventually disappeared and went off on her own. May God bless them.

Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve been through a lot growing up. One of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with was being incarcerated for nearly seven years. I was just 16 years old. I didn’t know if I was going to live or die the next day. Most of my inspirations today come from that. I use that a lot whenever I go through something challenging. I always tell myself, as long as I don’t have to go through that again, I’m going to be alright. So it can’t be that bad. Lol.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I feel like there are too few people in the world who have turned their lives around after incarceration. Being institutionalized is real, and it’s tough for a lot of people. To be where I am today, I feel sharing my success and coming up to the world has given hope to many people. Dreams can come true even when the odds are against you, and I’m living proof. I get a lot of people who tell me that they get inspired by me, including professionals. Spreading the word, I feel, brings goodness and positivity to the world. I am meeting people, sharing stories, making friends, creating art on people. It’s very healing.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Oh my God, the first thing is I wished someone taught me how to tattoo. Being self-taught took way longer and going through so much trial and error. I would have gotten there a lot faster.

The second thing is learning about credit. Growing up, I had no idea what credit was. Who teaches you that? I didn’t learn that in high school. The first time I tried to get a loan to buy a car, I was asked how my credit was? My response was, WTH is that? I wish someone told me when I first started!

The third is paying taxes. Is it better to pay or not? Growing up, my parents always talked about taxes. Make sure you pay as little taxes as possible. Don’t put too much money in the bank, or you will pay a lot in taxes. Geez, Louise, you mean all of this time I couldn’t buy a house or wasn’t able to get a loan because I hardly paid any taxes? No wonder I couldn’t grow. I didn’t show I was making anything. Why did I listen? You mean I wasted all of that time? I wish somebody would have told me when I first started.

Fourth. Having the right accountant or business advisors. I’m telling you, having the right accountant, business advisors, and attorneys are the best people you can rub shoulders within business. I’ve gone through so many in my career. I’ve seeked out and worked with some who I had been told were the best. Some believed in paying all of your taxes, just to pay it. Some who believed in paying less and getting back more from the government. Lol. Geez. Who’s right or wrong? I’m confused. Neither. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s all a game. Set a 5–10 year goal. Do what it takes to achieve those goals. And pay with a purpose. Learn to design your financial portfolio in a way so you can achieve your goals and pay your taxes with a purpose. So finding the right advisor is critical. Why didn’t someone tell me this when I first started?

Fifth. Owning your own shop is not as green as you thought it would be. There are no days off or work as you please. No. Owning a shop means you have to bust your ass, and you never sleep. You work extra hours, and you never stop. You stress, you babysit, and you worry some more. And when you become successful, you will lose family members, your friends, and you will have fewer friends. I wish someone would have told me this when I first started.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

One of my goals is to share my life stories with the world to show them that anything is possible. Coming from being a refugee to being in and out of trouble growing up, to gangs, to juvenile halls and prisons, I went from negative to positive, to where I am today. Anyone can change their lives. My other goals are to create a bigger platform such as a tattoo university or academy where I can teach other people to become successful tattoo artists or help current artists better their craft and become businessmen. We have already started that movement with our company, now helping our artists establish their own entities and financially guiding them to achieve their goals such as buying their cars, their homes, fixing their credits, opening their first bank accounts, helping them establish their financial portfolios and of course helping better their craft as tattoo artists.

We have been blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.

The Tattoo industry has become a multi-billion dollar industry. Still, we need to improve our sector by establishing and funding education to better tools, equipment, furniture, and software. To this day, there are only a few tattoo artist-owned businesses, and we need more. We also need an alliance or corporation to unify the industry as one so tattoo artists can finally control and take back what tattooing has created by artists. I would love to have lunch with any big names who would love to be a part of this movement. Fortunately for me, I’m not picky about who I have lunch with. Lol. I would be honored and grateful for anyone willing to listen and help.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

My Instagram account is @robert_pho, and my company is @skindesigntattoos.

I have my Robert Pho YouTube Channel, and then there is my Skin Design Tattoo Channel.

Our website is www.skindesigntattoos.com. We currently have four locations, Las Vegas, New York, Hawaii, and SoCal. Our Fifth location is soon to open at the Ceasars Palace inside the Forum Shops in Las Vegas. This will be our second shop in Las Vegas. We have goals to open in Beverly Hills, Miami, San Francisco, San Diego, Maui, Manhattan, and major international cities.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

It was my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me and giving me this opportunity.


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