We recently had the pleasure of meeting with multidisciplinary and single-needle tattoo artist Anthony “TonyDots” Medrano at his private studio. Despite the heavy summer heat, Tony greeted us with a weightless smile, a handshake each, and immediately offered to help carry our gear up to his studio.
Tony’s studio holds a trove of eclectic decor, art, and objects. To say that the space is colorful would be an understatement, but it is not the slightest bit overwhelming, and instead gives the impression that it was decorated with an attention to detail that is in every bit as playful as it is precise. Tony’s bench sits in the back corner, and as he set up his tattoo equipment, we had the chance to chat about his journey as an artist, finding the beauty in the little things, and waking up to watch the sunrise.
Now that we are getting things started, tell me about yourself.
I grew up on the Westside of Chicago until I was about 12 or 13 years old when my family moved to the suburbs. I know that they were just trying to do what was best for us, trying to keep me out of trouble, but the suburbs were really boring for me. I moved out of the house and back to the city as soon as I could and I’ve been here for about 10 years now. The city is home for me.
I’ve been tattooing since I was around 17. I think what was so interesting to me about tattoos was that they sit at this intersection of hard and soft. They have a reputation for being tough and gritty, but the artform itself is so delicate and soft. Especially when you consider how many tattoos are about love and memorials.
When I first started tattooing, I only tattooed myself for like the first year that I ever picked up a machine. Mostly because if I messed up on myself it was all good, but if I messed up on someone else I was gonna be pressed. My dad was already well into his fifties, didn’t have a single tattoo, and he was like “Man, you got all the room right here. Practice on me.” So, my dad was the first person I tattooed for a while before I tattooed anyone else. He would always say “One day I’m going to have your originals, and that’s going to mean something.” And now when he comes here he is so proud, like “I told you. I told you this was going to be special.” And now he has hella tattoos, all from me. He’s my number one guy.
You’ve been doing art from a young age. You tattoo, paint, write poetry, design. Do you see it as an all encompassing practice?
100%. I feel like it’s under the umbrella of art, and the different facets of it. And they all feed each other. I’ve always loved writing so much and all of my art actually starts as written pieces first. Even when I do flash tattoos, they always start as a written piece and then I elaborate on what I wrote visually. Through tattooing, through painting, through ceramics. Just the way my brain works. It’s always written first, and then I extract imagery from what I wrote.
“I think the way that I decorate, the way that I dress, it’s all just joy triggers.”
This theme of love seems to run through your work. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
For me personally, I feel growing up in a household where softness and vulnerability was seen as a weakness instead of a strength, it led me to live a life—maybe the first half of my life—very much like a closet artist. I was scared to share my work. I think what ultimately broke that was my own discovery of self-love and therapy. So it’s something that I push heavy in my work ‘cause I hope the same for everyone I meet. I hope that everyone finds love in themselves enough to operate at their most authentic frequency. That’s just a message that I always want to push.
I feel like a lot of people who come in here and get their first tattoo are always saying something like “Oh, you’ll probably gonna see me again. I hear tattoos are addicting.” I don’t think it’s the tattoo, it’s the individualism that comes with tattooing. If you lived in a hotel room for ten years, and then you get your own room and you can decorate it, you can hang art, pick your couch, pick the T.V. Once you do it, you might be like “I’m addicted to decorating!” But nah, you’re coming into your own individualism. I don’t think it’s the tattoo. People become addicted to being different and being themselves. It’s dope.
I think it definitely shows in how you are doing things. It also seems like you have a lot of fun with your personal style, you just like to play with things. Is that influenced by some of the same things you think about when you’re making art?
Definitely. I think the way that I decorate, the way that I dress, it’s all just like joy triggers. If it makes me happy, if it makes me feel cute, then I’m with it.
“I think what was so interesting to me about tattoos was that they sit at this intersection of hard and soft.”
I like that. What are some other things that trigger joy for you?
One of my homies put me onto this, going on a walk around your neighborhood. Just for inspiration. Seeing things, like little mundane things, like a dad and his daughter learning to ride a bike, or someone giving their dog a treat because they went potty outside, or, I don’t know, just the way a plant is laying on the ground. Looking for little mundane things, I think, is really beautiful. It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant. In fact, the more mundane they are, the cooler the thing is sometimes. Just something sustainable that you can find in life everyday.
On a bigger scale, tattooing people that are talking about their partner or their grandparents. Beautiful stories. I love storytelling.
What other things do you like to do when you’re not making art?
I love collecting vintage, I love cooking, I love traveling, and I love spending time with friends and family. I would say those are the biggest things.
Also, I love taking long walks on the beach. Sunsets, sunrises. Have you ever gone to the beach in Chicago to see the sunrise? It’s literally my favorite thing in the world. My homie and his partner were recently in from California, and I was like “You guys are gonna hate me for this because you have a baby and you’re two hours behind, but we have to wake up at five and go see the sunrise.” And they said it was the favorite part of their trip. There’s really nothing like it.
“I hope that everyone finds love in themselves enough to operate at their most authentic frequency. That’s just a message that I always want to push.”
What are some daily practices that you have to show love to yourself?
I think it starts with nighttime. I put my phone in a different room when I go to bed, and I try not to look at it for at least an hour or two when I get up. Immediately I try to meditate, go for a walk in the neighborhood, and take a cold shower. My last one is gratitude journaling. That’s an everyday practice where I just try and take five minutes to write down what I’m grateful for that day, even if it’s just three small things.