Humble Beginnings Tattoo Studio

Orly Locquiao | Humble Beginnings Tattoo Studio
San Jose, California

Growing up, Orly was always drawing. He became fascinated with art through tagging. He loved the simplicity of it and how graffiti allowed him to express himself. In a rough neighborhood, graffiti became his release from reality.

Tattooing was more of a fluke. On a dare, he created a crude machine in his family’s garage made from a Bic pen and leftover parts and gadgets from Radio Shack and Home Depot. Orly’s Filipino parents watched as he inked his first customer — a friend from church who made them all promise not to tell his parents. To this day, they still don’t know about his tattoos.

Orly got caught up in the party life, hanging out, smoking, and drinking. When his partying ways finally started to get him in trouble, his mother suggested he move in with an uncle in a suburb of Chicago. It was there he found his footing at the Illinois Institute of Art, where he studied graphic design. He returned to San Jose and started working at a tattoo shop.

HB was the nickname of Orly’s original graffiti crew. It has a lot of meaning to him so, when he decided to leave the tattoo shop where was working and strike out on his own, he knew he wanted to use those initials somehow. He also wanted his shop to be different. He wanted it to be more laid back, no ego, just artists doing good work. He chose the name Humble Beginnings because it represented him and what he was trying to accomplish — a minority trying to overcome his humble background and live the American Dream. Orly knew it would take hard work, hustle, and a lot of humility to make it work. He was ready. In November 2002, he opened the first Humble Beginnings shop near Roosevelt Park on Santa Clara Street.

Orly put his head down and worked hard, from a place of humility. As he recalls, it wasn’t easy. Orly learned business day by day and client by client. There would be weeks where he might only do a few tattoos and he barely made ends meet. There would be times when he was completely broke, and he would have to borrow money from friends and family just to keep the shop open. But he kept working and refining his skillset. He took his craft seriously — people were entrusting him to create something meaningful and permanent, and he did not take that for granted. It was around this time that he started to get interested in the history of tattooing, especially the tribal tattoos of his ancestors. To reconnect with his roots, he studied under several masters of Polynesian tattooing and learned the intimate, unique process of designing tribal patterns that represented the life of a person and what they’d gone through. It became his niche and he soon had a following.

As his notoriety grew, his sessions were often booked months in advance. Eventually, he had to move and add a new location to handle the growth. Today, more than 20 years later, Orly is considered one of the most successful tattoo artists in the state and he’s tattooed everyone from professional athletes to neurosurgeons to Silicon Valley’s tech titans. He’s also expanded his creative endeavors. An old graffiti buddy convinced him to design T-shirts and the two banded together to launch Cukui Clothing, a Polynesian-themed streetwear line and boutique. His t-shirt designs are based on his tattooing foundation, with a little Polynesian island culture and California cool mixed in to help further his overall mission of helping to get people interested in tattoo culture. Tattooing is his passion and he wants to share that with everyone.

Orly’s brother, who now runs Cukui clothing, introduced him to Opportunity Fund. At the time, Orly needed financing to buy new equipment. His local bank — who he had been banking with for years — wouldn’t give him a loan, but Opportunity Fund did. The loan helped him grow his business and bring a little art and culture to a neighborhood dotted with other small businesses. The business is now a family affair. His wife is part of his crew — she has a thriving business tattooing permanent eyebrows — and his mother does his taxes and bookkeeping.

Orly says that being a small business owner was tough at first, and he spent most of his time learning. There were many times that he wanted to quit and find a regular job with a steady paycheck, health benefits, and a 401k. But the tough times molded his character and made him stronger. Much has changed since Orly opened his first shop in 2002, but he has achieved success by always learning and always being mindful of his humble beginnings.

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