Known as the home to families and immigrants, the Sunset District is filled with diners and bakeries, retaining the laid back feeling of a small town. At the corner of 20th Avenue, next to a Chinese herb store and an acupuncture clinic, Eye of the Tiger Tattoo gives the suburban style neighborhood a youthful vibe. There are currently six resident artists tattooing and among them is Oliver Kenton. The shop has an organic feel: fern-green walls covered with hand-painted decorations and flash tattoo designs sketched by the Tiger team. Young visitors come for a more permanent souvenir – authentic mandala tattoo.
On recent Sunday morning, Kenton was wearing a black T-shirt, navy blue Converse sneakers, and a messenger bag. The 25-year-old has a tribal nose ring and big black hoop earrings. He is nearly covered with tattoos: a redheaded lady on one hand, a dragon on his left, a zombie in a coffin on his leg, mandala tattoos along his neck and everywhere. In contrast, he is mild-mannered.
Among thousands of tattoo artists in San Francisco, Kenton stands out with his bewitching geometric tattoos. Kenton has more than 23,000 followers on Instagram and has been tattooing for seven years. He is famous for his detailed Tibetan-inspired tattoos, featuring bold geometric designs and painted elements of nature. His hourly rate is $180, slightly higher than the average, and there is a two-month waiting list. But for Kenton's customers, it’s worth the wait.
Tattooing dates back 5,000 years ago and was once so-called deviants or subversive subcultures. Now in the era of excessive individualism, the practice of body ink is so widespread, and the continuing appropriation makes this former taboo as a mainstream way to express personal taste. Gone is the stigmatization of drunken sailors and tattoos are no longer symbolizing rebellion, but showcasing a modern artistic movement. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that 45 million Americans at least have one tattoo.
Today, religious iconography has made its way into contemporary tattoo art, where people make a spiritual statement through body modification. “I try to incorporate sacred geometric elements, stippling, and melt them together with blackwork tattooing,” said Kenton. The results are beautiful mandala tattoos with solid line work, high contrast shading, and symmetrical precision.
A mandala, or circle in Sanskrit, has a concentric structure, creating a circular floral design. This imagery is not just visually appealing; they also represent wholeness, harmony, and balance in one’s spiritual journey. Mandala tattoos can be a meditative spiritual symbol; many believe that meditating on mandalas can give clarity.
"It is a path of life, a right of passage. From mythical animals, lotus, to the Flower of Life, each shape has a specific meaning. I look at a lot of references from older Tibetan artworks like ruins, paintings, old tapestries, as well as ancient Japanese woodblock prints," explained Kenton. "I try to research symbolism, how it changes throughout times depending on what we want them to represent."
Kenton’s ornamental work is mostly done on the arm, also known as sleeves. In addition, many tattoo-seekers are interested in solar plexus tattoos. Look closely and you will see delicate little dots forming paisley motifs, dainty henna patterns, cubism, dangling pointillism, and sacred animals. He recently did a Vajra (meaning both thunderbolt and diamond in Sanskrit) inspired mandala, a labyrinth tattoo, a Nordic compass, a heart chakra, and a Polynesian inspired piece.
Colton Long, Kenton’s assistant, shared his thoughts: “Oliver’s meticulous attention to detail brings a fresh perspective to blackwork. The accuracy in doing geometric tattoos has to be exact, and he literally can't miss a line.” Long explained why people would pay Kenton 1,500 dollars per day for his craft and a customized experience. “He is also able to connect with customers to give the tattoo that they want or maybe didn’t even know that they wanted," added Long.
Born in Durban, South Africa, Kenton always had an interest in the arts. Kenton used to do graffiti and murals before he discovered tattooing while on vacation visiting his older sister, who worked at a tattoo shop. At seventeen, he moved to Southern California two weeks after he graduated to pursue his dream as a tattoo artist.
“My brother-in-law Cameron Fuhrer has been tattooing for thirty years. I was under his wing, and he taught me how to tattoo. I helped manage three of his shops for two years,” said Kenton. “It was pretty brutal; he didn’t go easy on me by any means. First of all, learning to not to be scared to hurt people, to facilitate people's pain. Also getting used to the medium of tattooing, just learning what to do as far as cross contamination and sterilization. It takes a while to break in on those habits.”
Three years ago, he moved to San Francisco. He thinks that people in the Bay Area are more in touch with the spiritual side of life. Mandala tattoos are popular among those who follow new age practices, the modern hippy lifestyle of San Franciscans. He then started to incorporate geometric designs into traditional flash tattoos. “I was also experimenting with other things in my life, as far as DMT and hallucinations, and I brought some of that in my tattooing,” shared Kenton.
Kenton's feminine tattooing style attracts mostly young women. Jacki L. from Inner Richmond gave Kenton five stars on her Yelp review, "I could not be happier with the result. I've been looking for an artist who executes mandalas and dot work, and I have to say I feel like I carry a piece of art with me rather than just a tattoo.”
Looking forward, Kenton wants to see the evolution of sacred geometric tattoos, combining a hybrid of realistic and minimalistic linear blackwork, as well as collaborating with other artists. His goal is to continue to give his clientele a piece of art on their body through his tailor-made images.
“It’s definitely an honor to tattoo people,” he said. “They give me their trust to do something that they will carry for life.”
For more information, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (415) 753-9648
Studio: Eye of The Tiger Tattoo @EyeOfTheTigerTattoo
Location address: 1309 20th Ave San Francisco, CA 94122
Rate: 180/hours, 1500/day
@olivertattoos – www.olivertattoos.com – olivetattoos.tumblr.com