Catching a Buzz With Fernando Valdez aka "Menso One"

I met up with the renowned tattoo and street artist, Menso One, to chat and catch a buzz outside of his Memory Lane studio in the famous Fairfax Village district of Los Angeles.

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What’s up, Menso! I tried doing this interview thing the other night, but we drank too many California beers and I forgot to take pictures or record our chat. It was a fun hang session though. Thanks for sitting down with me today to try again.

No problem, brother. I expected nothing less from Brewklyn Buzz.

I made you try a variety of brews from IPAs to ambers to blonde ales, but never asked you what’s your all-time favorite beer?

That was cool. I like the Stone beer we had because I grew up near their brewery. I remember being a busboy as a teenager and the owner would personally deliver kegs to the back of the restaurant before they got big. I think my all-time favorite beer is Corona with a lime. It’s classic.

Now, we’re here across the street from your Memory Lane studio at Paramount Coffee Project and I see you ordered an iced coffee with a little sugar. Is that your usual go to for coffee?

I like my own homemade coffee—grind the beans, let them simmer in my French press, and add my own flavor. If I go out for a coffee like at a Starbucks, I think I’m a caramel macchiato guy. I also might pour myself a mocha from that machine at the am/pm gas station when I’m on the road. Those are pretty good.

I love seeing your work from tattoos to murals and I’m wondering when you first started working as an artist.

We’re getting right into it. You know, I called my private studio Memory Lane for a reason because it’s always cool to reminisce and reflect. Really, I think art is my God-given talent and it’s in my blood. My dad was an artist, my grandfather was a carpenter, so I like to work with my hands and create. They also instilled in me a great work ethic.

So, you always kind of knew you wanted to be an artist?

Yeah. When I was young, I wouldn’t pay attention in class and would draw cartoons of Winnie the Pooh. As I got older it would progress into more themes of street culture. I lived in an area where there were gangs, so I was influenced by the Southern California lifestyle as far as the use of lettering, old English script, spider webs, angels, and stuff like that. All the gang members had nicknames and everyone wanted to have their stuff decorated. I was pretty much the artist for people who couldn’t do it themselves. They would get me to go into the alleys and write the gangs’ names. My dad caught me and moved the family away to Temecula. He didn’t like the route I was going down.

That must’ve been a culture shock, but maybe in a good way?

I didn’t like it there at first. I was in 7th grade thinking, “this place sucks, who are these skaters and punks.” But, I began to realize that art was my universal language to communicate with everyone. I could hang out with the kids that were Mexican, the Cholos and Cholas and they would understand my writing. I would hang out with the skaters and help them tag on the skate ramps and underneath the bridges and on the skateboards.

I also was introduced to hip hop and graffiti art coming from the NY subway systems, which I fell in love with and wanted to master spray cans to do my art. It was its own style and own culture, and like nothing else out there. It was like a secret society. We would say, “real recognize real.” It means someone that has credibility or a street etiquette. They were able to take what they learned from hardship and utilize it with a talent and creativity to make something of it.

Is that when you got your nickname “Menso One?”

Menso is actually a derogatory name for “stupid” or like a name for a troublemaker or class clown. I’d hear my grandmother often say, “¡Ay, Menso!” I decided to make the negative a positive like they did in the NY hip hop scene, you know, stupid fresh. You always had to add the number “one” after your name to know that you’re the number one.

When did you start making art your full-time gig?

I had an older friend that influenced me with the hip hop graffiti style and he would bring me up to LA at 16 years old. Doing graffiti was all that I cared about basically from 16 to 25. I was a graffiti artist and a starving artist. There was no social media, so you had to get your name and fame out there in every city. We were just traveling and being nomads. We went from San Diego, to North County (where I was from originally from), to Temecula, Murrieta, San Bernandino, then Los Angeles, Orange County, Anaheim, North Hollywood, then conquered San Francisco.

We would shoot out from San Francisco to Oregon, Seattle, Utah. Made my way to New York a few times. It’s the best feeling ever to create a mural in another city and have it last forever. I want to keep infiltrating and leaving my mark.

When did you add tattoo art to your skill set?

You know, I was a starving graffiti artist, barely making $300 a month. I would stay at friends’ houses and overstay my welcome. There would be times when I would finish a mural and riding high, then after the money ran out, I’d be cold and hungry at a park thinking, “What am I doing with myself?” In 2005, I was in San Francisco, on the street with nowhere to go in the most expensive city in the world. I only had a quarter to my name and used that to call me dad. I had to swallow my pride and he sent me a bus ticket back to Temecula.

I reconnected with some of my old friends who had an art studio called “Us Versus Them.” They had me curate art shows and I could sell my own work. I was making good money and had some stability with enough to have a small car and apartment. Things were looking great until the economy started going down and they had close the shop. It was literally the last day when I was cleaning out the shop when a local tattoo shop owner came in who would buy all kinds of art for her studio. She suggested that I come by to see if one of the artists would take me as an apprentice.

Did you ever think about being a tattoo artist before then?

At that point I never thought about being a tattoo artist and didn’t even have any tattoos. I once curated a tattoo art show at the store, but that was the closest thing.

What was the name of the shop?

Heritage Tattoo and the owner is Cindy Holmes—beautiful lady with a beautiful heart—who is like a mom to me. Her husband Geronimo is like a dad. They’re like my parents in the tattoo world. I would do everything they wanted, sweeping and making the floors sparkly. I didn’t have a dollar to my name but would still go out and get them coffees and sandwiches. Anything I could do for them. I needed to show them that I wanted it very bad. They were introducing me to a whole other culture and I wanted them to accept me because they put their blood, sweat, and tears into their work. Again it was “real recognize real” because they noticed that I had heart and potential and I was a good kid. They were good to me, but were also hard on me because I was still an apprentice.

My friend Kenny Tats was in charge of running the shop and he set me up with the other OG in the shop, Cody Iverson. He was rocker from desert with long hair, black metal, tatting dark looking stuff, like skulls and zombies. He was the silent type, but also people were scared to talk to him.

Is it really tough to tattoo compared to other art mediums?

Dude, it is super, super tough. That’s why I was excited about it. I watched over Cody Iverson to soak up everything that he was doing. After a year of apprenticeship, they let you actually touch some real skin. At that point I had to recruit buddies down the street to come in and let me tattoo them.

What was your first tattoo you inked on someone’s body?

The first tattoo was on my friend and it was a disaster. I’m supposed to be the lettering master, it was my specialty as a street artist, and I do the shittiest handwriting script on my friend. It looked like a little kid did it. He was an apprentice at the same time and he did his first tattoo on me too. That was my first tattoo on my body, and he fucked that one up, it fell out. It was a playboy bunny with a skull face and it fell completely out.

Wow, that’s crazy.

It was rough. I thought to myself, “Boom, I can’t tattoo.” It really took a lot of hustling and convincing people to come in and get tattooed by me so I could get better. I was broke and barely making ends. So, what I would do was go next door to a burger shop and I convinced the guys in the back who are Mexican like me to let me tattoo them in exchange for burgers. All the cooks, 4 or 5 guys, came from the Chicano lifestyle and they didn’t care how good that tattoos were and let me practice on them. Slowly but surely—it took me about six months to a year—I finally smoothed out my shading and found my touch.

As I got better, I learned to invest in myself and get the right tools. At first I was using the knockoff stuff, but once I picked up some quality equipment, I started to get good. I had a true tattoo apprenticeship, getting down and dirty in the trenches. I didn’t just read a book and call myself an artist. I got knocked down, so to speak, and kept getting back up. I got fired and fired again and kept coming back.

When did you open Memory Lane?

I was at Heritage for 10 years. I gave them a good decade of my life and learned everything I could and it was time to spread my wings and start fresh. Like when I first graduated high school, I did every job I could think of from busboy, to auto mechanic, to street twirler. None of them worked out and I’m glad because it forced me to focus on my art. You have to struggle through that to get to top. I’m where I am today from my struggle.

What is your specialty?

I’m definitely known for my lettering. I’ve won awards for lettering and am considered a lettering master. I also specialize in portrait art and realism. My dad was a portrait artist and I got it from him. I can do faces, family members, icons, and even animals in the black and gray Southern California style.

How do you like being a tattoo artist?

It’s a really cool thing to be able to do as a profession. I can glorify a newborn baby, or celebrate someone after they pass. Sometimes you see people reborn with a tattoo and it can be like a fountain of youth.

How do you like living and working in LA?

I love LA and its people. There are musicians, artists, other creators, professional BMX riders, you name it. I’m able to work with them and create tattoos, murals, album covers, graphic designs, pop up shops. It’s never-ending and I’m able to spread my wings a little bit more. I felt I was more than just a single tattoo artist. I feel my art has become more authentic and has a realness behind it instead of like a production line deal. It’s something that is classic that can have some longevity to it.

So what’s next?

As an artist, I’m creating my story. I’m about halfway through the movie where things are turning around for the character, stuff is looking up, stars are aligning. I found that energy where everything unfolding in a great way. It’s a cool feeling to know that my hands are able to find who I am as a person while also contributing something to the world.

It’s a bonus being part of the LA scene. It’s cool to just open my door every day, step out of my office, and meet all these great people like celebrities, athletes, movie stars, and radio personalities. I tattooed Michael Crabtree after he won the Super Bowl and had tattoo party. I’ve tattooed R&B guys like Omarion and old school gangsta rappers like MC Eiht, to modern artists like Dom Kennedy and Jay 305. You may recognize some of my work on singers like Rita Ora, Jhene Aiko, Iggy Azalea just to name a few. It’s a great time. They inspire me and I hope I inspire them.