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Kobe Bryant tattoos decorate his faithful fans. Artists are booked up for months

Jose Guijosa works on a tattoo commemorating Kobe Bryant
Jose Guijosa, owner of Killer Tattoos in Montclair, works on a piece commemorating Kobe Bryant for customer Anthony Lozano.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The new tattoo sprawls across the customer’s shoulder and toward his chest — a Los Angeles Lakers championship ring adorned with a vivid purple 8, Kobe Bryant’s first jersey number, and words Bryant had uttered on a day of triumph: “Mamba out.”

It’s far from the first Bryant-themed tattoo Jose Guijosa produced in his Montclair studio, Killer Tattoos, since the basketball great died in a helicopter crash less than two weeks ago. And it certainly won’t be the last. There’s not much time for Guijosa to rest these days. The customers keep pouring in. He is booked up through August.

Most of those appointments are for Bryant tattoos, he said, and some people who had booked him with other plans are now changing their designs to Bryant-themed ones. They’re coming from all over. Guijosa said a client from Australia will soon fly to him.

Throughout Southern California, tattoo artists have reported booming demand for ink memorializing Bryant — from intricate, original designs like Guijosa’s to quick classics: Bryant’s jersey number, his shoe logo, his signature. One shop said its business has tripled. Another artist said he is booked for the rest of the year, and the fervor far outweighs any other cultural moment he has seen in his nine-year career.

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Jose Guijosa designs a Kobe Bryant-themed tattoo
Jose Guijosa of Killer Tattoos designs Anthony Lozano’s Kobe Bryant championship-ring tattoo.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

For Anthony Lozano, an EMT from Pomona, news of the tragedy hit doubly hard. The 33-year-old had grown up a Lakers fan, and his 5-year-old daughter Gianna shares a name with Bryant’s 13-year-old, who also died in the crash.

“It really didn’t take long for me to decide” to get a tattoo, Lozano said. “It’s a token of respect for how he affected me and so many other people. It’s an honor to put this on my body.”

He called Guijosa and set up the appointment that would end with the championship ring on his shoulder.

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The five other artists in Guijosa’s shop also received a flurry of calls and emails from people seeking Bryant tattoos. Some were simple. A pair of women received matching “Mambacita” tattoos on their chests. Bryant’s jersey number and shoe logo were also common. But others wanted larger pieces.

The day after the crash, Guijosa, who specializes in portraits, tackled an intricate lower-leg tattoo showing Bryant with the shoe logo and a championship ring. It took 10 hours. He finished at 3:30 a.m.

Jose Guijosa with photos of a Kobe Bryant-themed tattoo
Jose Guijosa, owner of Killer Tattoos in Montclair, holds a tablet showing photos of a Kobe Bryant tattoo that wraps around a customer’s calf. Guijosa spent 10 hours on the piece.
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

With pieces that large, Guijosa usually spreads the work out over two days. But with Bryant tattoos, he feels motivated to finish them in one sitting.

“These are so meaningful, so we have to do it right,” Guijosa said. “We can’t leave it halfway. I was going to stay there until I finished it.”

After that session, he said, he slept briefly and then went back to the shop to meet another client.

Guijosa posted images of the piece on social media, and it went viral. His phone started ringing even more.

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Bryant loved tattoos. In 2003, after a woman accused him of rape, he placed a butterfly crown tattoo on his right upper arm along with his wife’s name, Vanessa, above a halo and wings near his triceps.

A reference to the Bible’s 27th Psalm was under the wings. His first daughter’s name, Natalia, who had just been born months prior, was near his right wrist.

“I got this because she’s my angel, man,” Bryant told The Times in 2003, referring to his wife, who he called “my queen.” “She’s a blessing to me, her and Natalia both.”

Vanessa’s name means butterfly, he said. Psalm 27 was Bryant’s favorite passage — he grew up Catholic.

Kobe Bryant’s arm tattoos
Kobe Bryant displays a tattoo he described as a tribute to wife, Vanessa, in October 2003.
(Douglas C. Pizac / Associated Press)

Bryant’s right forearm later collected the names of his two younger daughters: Gianna, who was born in 2006, and Bianka, born in 2017.

His tattoo artist for the last decade was the famous Mister Cartoon. When Bryant was in the chair, Cartoon said, he was always enjoyable to talk to.

“For a minute, he probably gets to be normal,” Cartoon said. “He’s always going to be Kobe, no matter where he goes. But when he’s in the tattoo shop, he’s just one of the fellas getting a tattoo.”

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Bryant’s appointment to add the name of his baby daughter Capri, who was born last June, was scheduled for Feb. 5, Cartoon said.

“It’s been extra heartbreaking,” he said. “The last time I saw him, he told me, ‘I have to save room for her.’ In our world, that’s the best tattoo you can give someone — their kid’s name.”

Kobe Bryant tattoos
Kobe Bryant showed off tattoos of his daughters’ names in an Instagram photo.
(Instagram)

At least some artists have been honoring Bryant and his fans by keeping their prices steady despite the soaring demand.

The Pushing Ink studio in El Monte ran a $32 special for 2-by-2-inch Bryant-themed tattoos. Robert Robles, the shop’s co-owner, said that price covers only the supplies needed for that tattoo, not the artists’ labor. Typically a tattoo that size starts at at least $100, he said.

But the shop’s artists collectively decided to do it. And customers have flowed in — about three times as many as during an average week — paying at least $3,200 to the studio, Robles said.

“If we would be able to do them for free, I guarantee you we would be,” he said. “We all love Kobe.”

And it has had a side benefit, he said: Artists who typically aren’t very busy now have a slew of customers.

Steve Butcher, a popular tattoo artist in Corona, said that until recently, he had inked maybe 12 Bryant-themed pieces during his nine-year career. Then, this week, he posted a photo on Instagram of a calf tattoo that, when finished, will show a timeline of Bryant’s career starting from his high school days in Pennsylvania.

It went viral.

He has received nearly 300 emails from potential clients, he said Friday afternoon.

Butcher said he has done commemorative tattoos when other celebrities have died, such as rapper Nipsey Hussle. But “nothing has come close to the reception Kobe has had,” he said. He expects to do at least one Bryant-themed tattoo every week this year.

Butcher has long charged $3,000 per day of work on detailed pieces, he said, and doesn’t plan to raise the price even though business is booming.

“That would be taking advantage of people, man,” he said. “I’m just trying to help these people out in trying to remember him.”

As a Bryant fan, Butcher said he feels some pressure to make these pieces perfect. He doesn’t seem upset about that. Bryant was a hard-driving perfectionist, too, and Butcher said this is his way to live out Bryant’s high-performance “Mamba mentality.”

“I can feel him watching me every time I do a tattoo,” Butcher said.


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