Kyle Crowell seems very similar to what your grandma probably thinks most tattooers are like: quiet, bear-size, with a substantial dark beard and sleeves full of ink. But anyone who’s spoken with Crowell knows that the veteran Torch Tattoo artist isn’t some intimidating biker or violent club bouncer-type. As shown by the many Game of Thrones and Star Wars tattoos he’s done, Crowell is really just a dude from Costa Mesa with an affinity for tattoo art and nerd culture.
“I like all kinds of dorky sci-fi stuff, and I hope [the new Star Wars movies] bring more people wanting to do that stuff,” Crowell says. “I’m into that. As long as they want to do it bold, I’m all for it. I try to be available and accommodating for whatever people want.”
The key word for Crowell is “bold.” While he may not be the gruff and grumpy tattooer of yesteryear, his artwork pulls from the best parts of old school American traditional tattoos and combines them with a more modern color palette. The end result is some of the best traditional and neotraditional tattoos out there—not just in OC but in the world.
But Crowell isn’t ocused on the tattoos he’s already done. He doesn’t consider himself anywhere near the top of the traditional or neotraditional food chains, and he’s still grateful for everyone who wants to get tattooed by him. It’s a nice sentiment considering how many tattooers of his stature wouldn’t be half as humble.
“I just think it’s cool,” Crowell says. “I’ve always been drawn to the tattoos that came off the West Coast in the ’90s. That was the stuff that opened my eyes to tattooing outside of flash.That was cool big custom stuff that would motivate me to do something bigger and different than what I was seeing. I’ve always tried to do what I think is cool, not what other people think are cool.”
Crowell’s interest in tattoos began as soon as he was legally allowed inside of a tattoo shop at the age of 18. His post-high school retail job was primarily just to pay for tattoos, and he became a regular at Steve Schultz’s Costa Mesa Tattoo before long.
“I was basically getting tattooed whenever I could afford it,” Crowell says. “I started getting tattooed regularly by Steve and eventually that rolled into a friendship, and I was kind of in the right place at the right time. He eventually hired me on as the helper and that evolved into apprenticing.”
For the first eight years of his career, Crowell worked under Schultz at Costa Mesa Tattoo. His “tattoo dad” taught him what it took to tattoo for a living, and he didn’t even have to leave his hometown to do it. For that matter, Crowell didn’t move out of Costa Mesa until last year, when he moved to Tustin to cut down his daily commute to Anaheim.
“My parents still live in the house that I was born in in Costa Mesa,” Crowell says. “My wife is from Costa Mesa too, but we’re from like opposite sides of the city. Costa Mesa is pretty special to me. It’s an important city, and it’s close to my heart.”
When he first started, Crowell used to get his tattoo information from magazines at Tower Records and the occasional OC Weekly cover when he was a teenager, but social media has totally changed how tattoo information is spread.
“I feel like an old person saying this, but technology has really changed the way people learn about everything,” Crowell says. “It’s great for business and publicity and all that. It’s definitely different, but it’s cool.”
The 19-year-old Crowell would probably be pretty excited about where he’d be in the tattoo world 15 years later, but the artist still has some strong advice he’d give his younger self if he could.
“Paint more,” Crowell says his advice would be. “And maybe go to school. I think I’d be a better artist if I went to school to discipline myself and learn some art fundamentals and art history.”
Torch Tattoo, 1755 S. Claudina Way, Anaheim, (714) 533-9200. Instagram: @kylecrowell