Ray Calico: Best Tattoo Artist
Ray Calico: Best Tattoo Artist
Story by Cindy Reid | Photography by Erich Perez
Ray Calico’s art is walking all around us. While some art is found on canvas, Ray’s artwork is found on the human body.
At its essence, tattoos are how people mark their bodies with permanent declarations of faith, meaningful design, symbols of love and remembrance.
Being voted Pooler’s “Best Tattoo Artist” is a tribute to Ray’s beautiful original designs and superior technical execution. From traditional subjects, such as flowers, praying hands and sailing ships, to modern interpretations of neo traditional tattoos, Ray’s breadth of creativity and depth of skill make him a true tattoo artist.
Finding His Way to Pooler
Most days (when he’s not out fishing), Ray can be found at High Rank Tattoo— the first tattoo shop in Pooler when it opened in October 2020. Originally from East Los Angeles, Ray lived most of his life in California before moving to Georgia, where his mother had relocated a few years earlier. Ray started out in Bloomingdale but soon moved to Pooler.
“I met my wife Cammie right away after arriving in Georgia and we’ve lived in Pooler for the last eleven years. I’m here to stay,” he says. “It’s the atmosphere here, which is mostly the people, that I like. It’s slower than I am used to but that’s okay with me. I like it here.”
Always an artist, Ray has been drawing since the age of five. “I started off with X Men, and as a teenager I was into graffiti. I messed around a little with tattoos but nothing serious. In LA you can’t throw a rock without knowing somebody who does tattoos.”
After moving to Pooler, Ray continued to draw and—after watching him sketch one day—his wife was inspired to surprise him with a tattoo kit. It was a great fit, but it’s been a long trip from that first kit to full time professional tattoo artist.
He says: “I am totally self-taught. When I was first learning, I tattooed myself, for practice, and so I could know how it felt on the other side.”
For several years, Ray kept at it, practicing on his own and knocking on doors trying to get into a local tattoo shop. Finally, a shop in Savannah took him on, and from there he went to Richmond Hill where he worked at Jokerz Ink.
“That is where I met L.A Pete,” Ray says. “L.A Pete opened High Rank Tattoo in October 2020 and that’s where I am now.”
The Body Illustrator
“Tattooing has always felt natural to me,” he says. “When I am tattooing, I am not at work—I am having fun because it never feels like a job to me.”
Ray’s artistic style is well-rounded with an emphasis on neo traditional black and grey, or color; and black and grey surrealism. Essentially neo traditional black and grey tattoos are more detailed and appear more modern than traditional “old school” tattoo art. They resemble vibrant black and white photographs, with every shade of grey, although some have elements of color.
“I feel like I can execute anything, but I like to do black and grey. People tend to still like the old school look, but a lot of people are gravitating to neo realism. It originally came out of LA so I used to draw it a lot, and you can kind of adapt it to what you want.”
Ray is open to his client’s ideas and choice of styles because he says “There’s not much I can’t do. There are things I won’t do, times when I’ve said no. If a client comes to me with what I think is a bad idea I sit down with them, explain they have their whole life ahead, and tattoos are forever. We can usually talk it out.”
Ray’s clients are a mix of ages and genders because he says there is no typical client. The oldest person he’s tattooed was close to 80 years old.
“It was his very first tattoo. He wanted to share an experience with his three daughters. They all got the same tattoo. I did one right after the other. It was really awesome, really very cool.”
Creating a large tattoo can be time consuming. A very popular size is the ‘half sleeve’ which completely covers one half of the arm, either the upper arm or lower, both front and back like a sleeve. The typical half sleeve takes from four to seven hours. Ray does it in one sitting because the tattooed skin will be too sore and swollen the next day for tattooing.
“I do it at once. We take a small ten minute break every hour so the client can stretch, have a drink of water, something to eat. Then I get right back at it until it’s done.”
He says he likes creating a variety of images and does small stuff every day, including words, in addition to the larger tattoos.
For most who are tattooed, the art is a deeply personal part of their identity. “It’s mind blowing that someone lets me do this on their skin,” says Ray. “I love to see their face when it’s finished and they see it for the first time on their body.”
Grind and Grit
It may seem like tattooing is a recent phenomenon, having spread to all segments of society, but tattooing has been around for many millennia. A Bronze-Age man—”Otzi the Iceman”—from around 3300 BCE is the oldest known human to have tattoos preserved upon his mummified skin. He had 57 tattoos.
For many eons the tools were basically the same, something sharp enough to penetrate the skin, and something dark to use as ink.
Ray says the first machine he ever built had an ink pen, a Walkman motor, and a guitar string. The technology has advanced much in recent years and today a high quality machine would typically cost $1,000.
Even with the huge popularity of tattoos, Ray says “Some people still have a negative stigma. It’s just artwork. So many people have tattoos now. I have done work on judges, lawyers, and police officers.”
And he learns something new every day: “Learning this is not easy. It’s hard. You need a job while you’re learning. It takes a lot of time and effort, grind and grit. Not everyone is good, but if you are and you stick around at the end of the day, you’re in the show.”
With no plans to hang it up anytime soon, Ray says, “I want to continue to tattoo until the doctor tells me I can’t do it anymore.” After that he would like to create tattoo products, such as arm rests, inks, and other technical items.
When asked where his favorite downtime place is, Ray says, “Our porch. My wife and I sit out there, talk to each other, and just relax.”
Also fishing: “I am a big time fisherman. I enjoy fishing so much I have a fishing license that covers Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida.” Fort Pulaski is a favorite fishing spot, as is Port Royal, SC, or “anywhere where there is a decent amount of salt water. And if it’s legal to keep and is a good eating fish, it’s definitely catch and make dinner,” says Ray.
With probably 50 to 60 tattoos himself, Ray says his own favorite tattoo is the name of his grandmother. He laughs and adds, “But my next tattoo will be a fish.” ◆
www.raycalicotattoos.com | 912.272-5585 | 223 E US Hwy 80, Pooler, Ga