Inked Mag Staff
January 25th, 2023
Inking the Magic City
Tatu Panda has been making his mark in Miami since he was 12, now he's one of the most sought-after tattooers in the game
By Nick Fierro
In a city like Miami, it’s not easy to stand out. The Magic City is packed with fast cars, beautiful people and steep price tags, while simultaneously existing as a cultural epicenter for art, music, street culture and a way of life unlike anywhere else in the world. It is within the confines of the 305 that Tatu Panda has not only made a name for himself but shifted the narrative of what it means to be an artist.
Panda’s style of tattooing is unmistakable—from the delicate script that graces the necks, hands and backs of rock stars and models to the hyper realistic micro tattoos that seem to jump right off of the skin—and he’s found a way to reflect the environment he came up in while carving out a look, process and philosophy that is uniquely his own.
Tattoos have been a part of Panda’s life since he was 12, when he started drawing tattoo flash, but he quickly outgrew pen and paper in favor of a machine gifted to him by a friend. By the age of 14, he had already begun tattooing members of his family and ultimately found himself tattooing among rows and rows of other artists within the walls of the infamous Miami flea markets.
“I don’t know what this is like anywhere else, but in Miami there’s a handful of these flea markets, and there was actually this whole flea market tattoo culture,” Panda says. “You could buy anything in there—bootleg DVDs, weed, grills, fake gold. Legal, illegal, it was all there inside these flea markets, so a lot of tattoo shops popped up. I was tattooing there when I was 15. Legitimately, I had a job, but I had to tell people that I was 22 and I’d been tattooing for four years. I was tattooing flames, dice, money bags. That was the flea market special. You could come in for a $300 tap-out session and leave with a whole sleeve.”
Growing up, Panda would painstakingly recreate any illustrations he could get his hands on. From Spiderman comics, to anatomy books, to DaVinci sketches. He honed his pen and steadied his hand, inevitably preparing himself for his future life as a tattooer. “I think I had a book or a DVD from Spaulding & Rogers,” he recalls. “There were these old ’90s and ’80s tattoo magazines and DVDs I got a hold of at the flea market. I even found a master class from Bob Tyrell where he broke down how to do a realistic tattoo.”
Tatu Panda had broken into the Miami tattoo scene at a very young age, inking dozens of clients a day, drawing flash, and trying to stand out, all while keeping a low profile. But it wasn’t until he met his mentor that he truly learned to hone his craft and what it meant to be a Miami artist.
“My mentor, I think he was one of the pioneers of Miami-style tattoos,” he says, “his name was Felipe ‘Pride’ Bustos. He took me in, and he was really the first person to give me a chance. It was a classic apprenticeship, at least it was in my head. He was like, ‘OK, cool, you wanna tattoo at my shop? You get to draw some designs for me, and you don’t get to look over my shoulder until you’ve been working here at least a year. Now, go ahead and clean the tubes, mop the floors, take out the trash.’”
Bustos’ style had a big impact on Panda—it was a style that stood out and drew inspiration from the world around him.
“You saw his script everywhere,” Panda says. “I can see a script done by him and immediately know that Pride did it. He had this black-and-grey style, but there was something different about it. It had a West Coast feel, but more bold, and a lot of hood-inspired imagery.”
Panda took the skills he acquired under Bustos and turned them into a style of tattooing that many artists wouldn’t dare attempt: photorealistic tattoos, grayscale portraits, wildlife and script, all smaller than a playing card. His designs are so recognizable and so consistently Panda that they have caught the attention of celebrities and tattoo collectors the world over. But how did Panda go from tattooing flash and banging out sleeves for a couple hundred bucks to focusing on delicate micro realistic pieces? Well, he just did what felt natural.
“Growing up drawing, my attention was always hyper-focused for smaller bouts of time and very detailed,” he explains. “When I started drawing, I would work on a piece and I wouldn’t finish it. I would work on one area, on a full-sized sheet, and finish one part really detailed to perfection. It looked like a photograph, and then the rest I’d rush through. I got tired of doing that, and when I found myself tattooing I wanted to work [in small scale]. I wanted to make a piece small and detailed the way I would like it. I don’t really enjoy doing large pieces.”
Tattooing in this unique style got Panda a serious amount of attention. His skillset, approach and impeccable attention to detail made him a stand-out artist in the highly competitive Miami tattoo scene. His staggering Instagram following, combined with word of mouth from the arts and music community, elevated Panda’s work to a must-have for any high roller eager to turn heads. Panda has tattooed some of the biggest stars in the world, from Lil Uzi Vert to Jake Paul to Marc Anthony. Panda’s meeting with Anthony was an especially significant one for both artists, as they bonded over their mutual love for salsa music legend Héctor Lavoe.
“What Elvis is to rock, Héctor Lavoe is to salsa music,” Panda says. “Marc actually played Héctor in a biopic, so when I finally met him I felt like [it was] an extension [of him]. I knew that he had a relationship with Héctor and there was something there. For me it was like the closest I’d ever get to meeting him.”
Panda has spent his career trotting the globe. He’s tattooed David Beckham in his palatial estate and inked 50 clients a day at Rolling Loud, the world’s largest hip-hop festival. Tatu Panda has seen the world from the balconies and backyards of the titans of sports, music and film, and he’s invited them into his studio—the House of a Thousand Roses. Hidden from street view, the by-appointment-only shop pays homage to everything that’s inspired Panda and his business partner, Matt Zingler. “I feel like it’s a reflection of us and the kind of people we attract,” Panda says, referencing the walls covered in murals and nods to the music and films that have inspired them. It’s an intimate, low-key shop where clients can feel at home.
However, Panda is not one to rest on his laurels, so when the time comes, for the right client, he’s ready to hit the road again. “I’ve done quite a few tattoos for Bad Bunny already. I’ve filled up most of his thigh,” Panda tells us, recounting the countless hours he’s spent inking one of the biggest stars in the world. “He’s actually very private about his tattoos. They seem to be very personal. Tattooing him is pretty fun, actually, it’s always a late-night last-minute gig at some hotel he’s staying at. We’ve vibed Héctor Lavoe and apparently we share the same affinity for Kung Fu Panda.”
If somebody made a movie featuring a scrappy 15-year-old kid who, in a handful of years, goes from tattooing sleeves for a pittance at a grimy flea market to inking one of the world’s most famous musicians, it would be slammed for being unrealistic. But this isn’t Hollywood, it’s Miami, and Tatu Panda has proven that with the perfect combination of hustle and determination, with a little magic thrown in, dreams can come true.
Inspired by Japanese culture and anime, MimiSama combines old school methods with modern technology in her unique style of tattooing
He fights in the UFC, fronts a punk band, runs a clothing line and does a little stand-up comedy on the side—so, yeah, Andre “Touchy” Fili is all the way alive