There’s an old adage about creative types that suggests that it can sometimes be difficult to separate an artist from their art. Achieving that mental distinction wasn’t much of a struggle on a Friday afternoon in June inside the studios of LifeStyle Ink Tattoo in downtown Greeley.
Reclined in a plush chair, a petite young woman sat with her slender arm outstretched — a delicate, artistic butterfly design was being inked into the skin just below the inside of her elbow. The artist expertly wielding the tattoo gun from which the feminine, winged image emerged was Steven Ortega, a grizzly bear of man in his late 30s who goes by the fittingly ironic moniker “Tiny” and has a scalp that serves as a canvas for several large tattoos — none appear at first glance to be butterflies — that extend down the sides of his head and under his baggy red T-shirt. The size of his frame was equalled only by his outsized presence, filling the tight quarters of the studio.
LifeStyle Ink, which Ortega has operated for the better part of a decade on a busy stretch of Ninth Street, is itself something of a contrast with its surroundings, emitting a rough and tumble, no-f***s-given energy from the center of a downtown district where commercial revitalization efforts in recent years have resulted in a more-cosmopolitan — some might even whisper “gentrifying” — flavor in the main plazas.
With a soundtrack of hip-hop thumping through the studio’s speakers, Ortega, between strokes of his tattoo gun, said the downtown business community is close knit, welcoming and supportive.
“I get along pretty good with everybody around here, man,” he said. “We all just keep the peace — don’t want any drama.”
Like downtowns everywhere, the COVID-19 era brought challenges to Ninth Street. But, thankfully, setbacks have been followed by comebacks.
“When the pandemic hit, a lot of businesses closed down,” said Ortega, whose tattoo specialties include script lettering and designs inspired by his Chicano heritage. “But I’m still here. Business is good.”
His prime location at 817 Ninth St. helps attract not only clients, but also aspiring tattoo professionals who seek out Ortega’s expertise and mentorship. For other tattoo lovers, the studio is simply a laid-back place to chill and talk shop for an afternoon.
LifeStyle’s high-visibility position inside a downtown storefront — which it shares with an affiliated barber shop and piercing operation — “brings in a lot more different kinds of people, a lot of people with different kinds of talent,” Ortega said. “I really like where this location’s at.”
One such up and comer drawn into LifeStyle’s orbit is Michael Castillo, an apprentice who was closely observing Oretega’s technique and attention to detail while inking the client’s butterfly tattoo.
“His work is amazing,” said Castillo, proudly showing off a recently completed but still healing, Ortega-crafted tattoo of a stylized woman’s face.
Castillo lifted his shirt to reveal several more of his favorite tattoos, along with a deep surgical scar bisecting his torso.
“I got in a motorcycle accident — hit by a drunk driver. But I’m still here!” he said with a grateful chuckle.
Ortega and Castillo met when the latter was working at Walmart. The pair got to chatting about tattoos, and Ortega invited his future apprentice to stop by the shop.
“We built our relationship over the years, and now he’s letting me get my shot,” Castillo said.
The apprenticeship program at LifeStyle Ink is demanding, yet structurally pretty informal, said Castillo, who has long been drawn to the energy and unique culture of tattoo shops.
“It’s up to this guy right here,” Castillo, gesturing in the direction of his mentor Ortega, said of the timeline for his eventual promotion from apprentice. “When he looks at my work and he’s like, ‘You know what? You’re ready to be doing it professionally,’ — then I’ll be ready.”
Castillo views the tattoo world as a potential safehaven for artistically inclined young people who may have taken a step or two down the wrong path.
“I’ve always messed around with art. I started with tagging (graffiti/street art) back in California,” Castillo said. “Got into a little bit of trouble, but I’ve turned that into a good thing.”
Ortega — who said he has “always loved to draw” — shared a similar, if more dramatic, story of his journey into tattooing.
“I used to run with gangs, bro, when I was younger,” he said. “I was involved with that life for a lot of years — had a tragic accident and got shot, almost got killed. That opened my eyes and let me know that there’s more to life than the streets.”
Tattooing “gave me a way out,” Ortega said. “So I took my talent and just ran with it.”