By brenda paiz


They say the body is a canvas that serves as an individual masterpiece for those who want to express themselves. Although the art of tattooing has become more acceptable and popular over the last 30 years, the art itself has been around for centuries. And as stigmas surrounding tattoos fade into the past, the demand and desire to express oneself through body art has increased dramatically, making it possible for tattoo artists to make fulfilling careers out of their passion.

Local tattoo artist Johnny Mac Howell, owner of True Grit Tattoo in Albuquerque, has been tattooing professionally for 15 years but admits that he has always been interested in the art. “From a young age, I was intrigued with being able to put a piece of art on yourself and wear it for the rest of your life,” he says. “I consider it a great honor to tattoo people and am always looking for new and inventive ways of looking at a tattoo.”

Native to the lands of New Mexico, Johnny Mac draws a tremendous amount of inspiration from the city of Albuquerque. “[This city] is a melting pot of culture, kind of like a watercolor painting: mixing and moving together to make a beautiful canvas.” Speaking of watercolor, it’s actually one of Johnny Mac’s specialties and preferred styles of tattooing, but the artist says that he is open to all forms and styles.

Last year, Johnny Mac added “business owner” to his long list of achievements when he opened the doors to True Grit Tattoo, on Central Ave. in Albuquerque. According to the True Grit website, Johnny Mac’s mission for having his own tattoo shop is to simply stand out in the best way. “I wanted Albuquerque to have something different, something that people would go in and say, ‘WOW! I didn’t know a tattoo shop could look like this,’” he explains. Additionally, he wanted to make a space where guests and clients feel welcomed rather than intimidated. “It’s elegant, inviting and friendly.  We are a really ‘new’ shop, so we haven’t had any real problems, plus our combined years of experience  we pretty much know the ins and outs of the business.”

Johnny Mac opens up about the importance of having a great team of artists by his side, and talks about how he hand selected the artists who now make up the True Grit Tattoo crew. “I hand picked all of my artists and I have known each of them for several years. I’ve worked with Dave when I first started tattooing in Albuquerque at Hardware. Jenny and Jacob I met at Tinta Cantina and worked with them for several years. Dominic my personal assistant/shop manager I have known for 10 years.” As Johnny Mac points out, that’s nearly 40 years of combined experience that people can count on when they go to True Grit to get a tattoo!

As previously mentioned, True Grit Tattoo aims to be the best of its kind, the same way that Johnny Mac aims to be the best tattoo artist that he can be. Beyond simply giving someone a tattoo, being a tattoo artist is a way to help people be expressive for themselves, he says. “I like to think I am their hand’s creating their ideas. It is a great honor to be a tattoo artist and should be held with respect to the client.”

It's the same genuine sincerity that separates Johnny Mac’s art and services apart from other tattoo artists; the genuine sincerity and satisfaction that he gets from doing his job. “I enjoy tattooing, I enjoy making people smile, I enjoy people feeling that void of a missing loved one via a memorial piece,” he gushes. “It’s a wonderful feeling knowing that I get to do what makes people happy. A lot of people tattoo because they want to make money, don’t get me wrong that is a part of it. A bigger part of it is that blood bond you have with that client for the rest of theirs and your life.”

Over the span of Johnny Mac’s professional career, setbacks and struggles have inevitably occurred but even as new problems arise, the key, he says, is to learn from these issues and remain positive. “I'm always facing problems. I think to grow as an artist you have to stop and reevaluate yourself constantly. And have people critique you. I think surrounding yourself with people who can give you an honest opinion is crucial.  A positive attitude will take you a long way, you have to see the light at the end of the tunnel and believe that you can get there.”

So what exactly is at the end of the tunnel for Johnny Mac? For starters, he wants to continue to grow and blossom as an artist, as he hopes to find a way to create a unique style that would integrate his two favorite forms of traditional Japanese and watercolor tattooing. “I’m not sure how I’m going to do that,” he says, “but that’s what I’m shooting for! Tattooing is continuously changing and you either have to change with it or wither away.” As for the near future, however, he simply hopes to be a well established shop here in Albuquerque where he will continue to do what he loves.

To check out more of Johnny Mac’s work, visit or stop by his shop, True Grit Tattoo which is located at 5001 Central Ave. NE.

Published March 2017, ABQ-Live