Rising from Humbling Beginnings
People entrust you to do something that’s going to be permanent on their bodies, so you’ve got to not take that for granted—do your homework and draw…
Though various designs now cover large swaths of his body, Orly Locquiao still remembers his first tattoo. Right after he turned 18, he walked into a shop near Notre Dame High School with $60 in his pocket and asked what he could get. He decided on a tribal band, though he was only able to get an outline. For another 50 bucks, the tattoo artist said, he could come back and get it filled in. Orly quickly showed off his new ink, but the response was far from what he had hoped for from his friends.
“They looked at me and said, ‘That is the stupidest tattoo I’ve ever seen,’” he recalls. “I kept on telling them, ‘Just wait until it’s done. It’s gonna be dope,’ [but] I never filled it in.” The band has since been covered up by a dragon that wraps around his entire leg.
The humorous moment—one of teenage impulsiveness gone awry—captures who Orly once was. Though at 18 he just stepped into a shop and pointed to something on a wall, he and his Humble Beginnings tattoo shop are now known for crafting detailed, thoughtful pieces tailored to each individual who walks through their doors. But he’ll be the first to admit that the person he was in that shop at 18 isn’t who he’s become since starting in earnest as a tattoo artist himself.
More than 20 years later, he’s grown through two apprenticeships and tattooed everyone from neurosurgeons to professional athletes, including San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Orly’s notoriety now means his sessions are booked out months in advance.
Out of Orly’s discipline came Cukui, a streetwear brand that began as a platform for Orly to showcase tattoo ideas that never made it to skin. The brand recently concluded a pop-up shop run on San Francisco’s famed Haight Street, exceeding the expectations he had when the company started. He says it felt like a milestone when they opened their flagship shop in Japantown five years ago. Much has changed, but his success has been built through learning from his mistakes and always being mindful of his humble beginnings.
Well before getting into tattoos, Orly became fascinated with art through tagging. He remembers the first moment that creative bulb went off: he was in the boy’s locker room at Sheppard Middle School, and he saw a friend of his write his name in Sharpie on a wall.
He loved the simplicity of the expression, and that night he came up with his first tagging name, inspired by a WWF wrestler: Genius. He says the tag he created with that name was one of the ugliest things he’s ever written, but he also admits he remembers how to recreate it.
After graduating from Independence High School, Orly enrolled at several community colleges but never ended up staying past his first term. He was caught up in the party life, “hanging out, smoking, drinking, just having a ball and having no responsibility, living at home,” he says. But when his ways finally started to get him in trouble, his mother suggested he move in with an uncle in Schaumburg, a suburb of Chicago. It was there he found his footing at the Illinois Institute of Art, where he studied graphic design.
He also began driving an hour and a half several times a week to apprentice at a tattoo shop called Trial by Ink on Chicago’s rough West Side. Under the tutelage of Mike Cruz, he began to refine his skillset. “That was a turning point in my life,” Orly says, noting that his time in and around Chicago was “when everything came into focus. I grew up a lot there. I became a man.”
Four years later, Orly returned home to San Jose and began tattooing out of his house, but he felt he lacked a niche. While studying up on the art of Polynesian tattooing, he came across Po’oino Yrondi, the man who later tattooed the expansive sleeve and chest piece on Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. After locating his new mentor, he went to apprentice under Yrondi in Honolulu.
“I was there to reconnect with my culture, to reconnect with my roots and find out who I was,” he says of his second excursion away from home. “I was trying to find myself as a tattoo artist and see where I belonged in the industry.” He found his place with Polynesian tattooing, where every piece is created through an intimate, unique process. Each tattoo is meant to project a meaning translated into the style’s distinct aesthetic and to tap into its storied heritage.
With a new outlook and a specialized focus, he returned to San Jose after a few years and opened his first Humble Beginnings shop near Roosevelt Park on Santa Clara Street in November 2002. As Orly recalls, it wasn’t easy.
“I learned business day by day and client by client,” he says. “There would be days and weeks where I’d just do a couple tattoos and barely make ends meet, and there’d be points where I’d be completely broke and have to pull a loan from somebody just because I didn’t want to shut down.” Six years later, he had expanded his clientele enough to move the shop to its current midtown location at the corner of Meridian Avenue and San Carlos Street.
With Humble Beginnings growing, Orly looked to expand his creative endeavors. His old graffiti buddy Sam Rodriguez convinced him to design T-shirts. Since then, the two have spearheaded the designs that have come to define Cukui, a brand “rooted from a melting pot of Chicanos, South Pacific Islanders, tattoo artists, and graffiti heads,” as their site proudly declares. “All the ideas, all the motivation, it came from a tattooing foundation,” he says of Cukui. “I wanted to mix California and Hawai‘i—the island culture mixed with West Coast living.”
His new venture also offered a chance to start fresh with his younger brother, who handles day-to-day operations while Orly sticks to design and art direction. “After we decided to partner up to do Cukui, that’s when our brotherhood really began,” admits Orly.
In those 20 years since Orly first ventured to the chilly suburbs of Chicago, back when he says he wasn’t the best brother, things are looking much rosier for the man who just welcomed his second child into the world two months back.
“Like they say, if there’s no struggle, there’s no progression. If this takes you down, all you have to do is get back up,” he says. “It’s hard for some people to do it, but if you have the will and you have the tenacity, you can do whatever you want. I have that drive where I keep trying to succeed. If it doesn’t work, I get back up and look at it as a learning curve in my life.”
During the course of our conversations, Orly certainly wasn’t afraid to admit his errors. It seems that he almost embraces them, recognizing that they always lead to a choice: recognize defeat or fight on, for we all rise from our own humble beginnings.
Written by Brandon Roos
Photography by Mark Chua
Article originally appeared in Issue 7.5 Serve