“Where are you from?”
“Where are you going?”
That was it. And Julio Morales knew that was a problem.
Usually when you’re crossing the U.S.-Mexican border, the agents have a plethora of questions: What brought you to Mexico? How long have you been there? Did you enjoy your stay? What are you bringing back? How ’bout them Cowboys?
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Just two little questions followed by “please pull to the side of the road” should never happen.
But that’s exactly what happened that first Sunday in June 2004 to a 23-year-old Morales. His vehicle, traveling back from Mexico, was to be “routinely” inspected for contraband. Initially the dogs found nothing. But Morales was being watched. And federal authorities knew there was something, somewhere in his car.
They placed his vehicle under the Department of Homeland Security’s X-ray scan system and at last discovered what they were looking for: 22.6 kilos of cocaine. Morales would be convicted on a federal possession charge and sentenced to federal prison for eight years for a drug run that he didn’t even want to do, that he had vowed would be his last. He had given that life up. He’d just been hired at a major car dealership in Dallas as a body painter and was to start in just 24 hours, making $90,000 a year.
“I remember thinking like, ‘I’m done,’ ” Morales says. “It’s over.”
He thought his life was over at 23?
“Oh no, not my life,” Morales says. “My life wasn’t over. Just the next five years.”
And this mindset, in a nutshell, is why Julio Morales has risen from knucklehead kid and federal inmate to uber-successful tattoo artist. He has never given up, refused to succumb or be defined by his circumstances, and he fights the urge to ever wallow in the negative.
“You take the good and the bad, and you roll with it,” he says. “If you get the wrong attitude you’re not going to make it.
“And I was never not going to make it.”
Since he was a kid
For as long as he can remember, Morales has been drawing.
He’d draw his favorite designs — people, calligraphy, Aztec imagery — anywhere: on drawing pads, inside schoolbooks, on his bedroom wall (“I got screamed at a lot by my dad for that,” he says, laughing).
His father, Juan Morales, would eventually see past his graffiti-covered drywall and notice his son’s precocious talent: “He was like, ‘Keep on doing what you’re doing. If you like it, do it,’ ” Morales, 36, says from his office inside the Catalyst Arts Collective tattoo and body piercing shop alongside Missouri 291 in Independence. “My dad is my number one.”
Morales was born in Houston and raised by his father and grandmother in Monterrey, Mexico. After he graduated from middle school, his mother, Carmen, invited him to spend a summer with her in Kansas City. Though reluctant to leave his life, family and friends, he came to KC, fell in love and stayed. He bounced around among Northeast, Van Horn and Westport high schools. Had a son. Met his wife. Had a daughter. Began a career as an auto-body painter and moved with his family in 2003 to Denver.
Denver, however, brought problems. He and his wife decided to split, and Morales, in search of a place to firmly establish himself, moved to Dallas to find work at a more lucrative car dealership. It was in Dallas that Morales says he “had a bad season” and spent a few months selling drugs there and across the border.
But then came the shiny new job and near-six-figure salary. He began reconciling with his wife and made plans to move her and his daughter down to Texas with him (his son stayed in KC). Life, it seemed, was becoming perfect.
The first penal stop was county jail in Laredo, Texas. Here, Morales spent 15 months as he awaited trial and sentencing.
His first night inside, Morales remembers, he retreated to a familiar respite. With a tube of ink Morales says he “couldn’t even call a pen, really” and jailhouse inmate request slips, he began drawing. Furiously. “That first year is hard, man,” Morales says. “Art became my escape.”
Portraits, landscapes, designs. Soon, inmates began to take notice and encouraged him to take his talent to a new canvas.
“They told me I should do tattoos,” he says. But Morales was apprehensive. Drawing was one thing, painting a car another. But tattoos? On a bunch of likely hot-headed inmates he barely knew? “Nope. No way!” he says with a laugh.
It wasn’t until nearly 10 months into his sentence that his cellmate convinced him: “He’s like, ‘Come on man, we’re homies. Just do this small tattoo. If it’s bad I won’t care.’ ” Morales obliged and fashioned a tribal tattoo around his cellmate’s arm. His first customer loved his work, and word of Morales’ talents exploded around the cellblocks.
The more he tattooed the more his projects grew: Small designs turned into names. Nondescript arm or neck tattoos turned into arm sleeves and full back designs. By the time Morales got out (early, in 2010 after serving six years of his sentence), he estimates he had done more than 200 tattoos.
Once he left prison, Morales contacted Brian Galloway, an old friend who worked as a tattoo artist at Irezumi Tattoo in Waldo. He’d taken to tattooing in prison and wanted to formally hone his craft. “I decided to get the good out of a bad situation,” Morales says.
“He asked if I wanted to take a look at his tattoos, and I did,” Galloway says. “Not just because he was a friend, but because I wanted to see how good he was.” Galloway now tattoos mostly in Arizona and Philadelphia but frequently travels to Kansas City to service his Irezumi clients.
“Honestly, I didn’t really expect much to come out of jailhouse tattoos,” Galloway says. “But they looked pretty damn good. His oil paintings were amazing; his eye for photo-realism is spot-on. It just kind of blew my mind. I knew we had to get him (into Irezumi). He was going to end up somewhere else anyway. We might as well get him in here while we can.”
Morales spent five days a week working 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. as an auto-body detailer and then 6 p.m. to 11 or so as an Irezumi tattoo apprentice. He’d even come in on weekends, soaking up new techniques like freshly applied ink to skin.
“There’s a few types of people in this world,” Galloway says. “Those who are dedicated and motivated to do something with themselves and those that sit around wishing something magical is gonna happen. Julio was super-dedicated, super-focused, super-driven.”
Get in line
In 2012, after a little over a year of apprenticeship and procuring his professional tattoo license, Morales moved to Catalyst, then a newly minted shop. Business started slowly. He remembers anxiously soliciting customers, offering to do simple name tattoos or whatever for the $50 shop minimum — anything to get his name and brand out there. “I was doing like two or three tattoos a week,” he says.
Today, Morales has about two sessions a day. Want an appointment? Like Ricardo Gallardo, a 24-year-old bartender who drives the four hours from St. Louis for Morales’ tattoos, you’ll have to wait.
A friend introduced Gallardo to Morales’ work via Facebook.
Morales voraciously employs social media to market himself. His favorite (and most arresting) works are his portraits. Despite no formal artistic education, Morales shows, in tattoos ranging from Tupac Shakur and Frida Kahlo to Henry Ford and clients’ loved ones, a mastery of shading, depth of field and detailing that transforms his portraits from impressive to downright lifelike.
“I was attracted to how real the details were,” Gallardo says. “It’s why I drive hours out to get a tattoo done.”
Gallardo first contacted Morales in early July last year. “I told him I could fit him in, in late July,” Morales says.
“Yeah, but I didn’t know he meant 2016!” Gallardo says with a laugh.
This is typical for Morales now. Those three-tattoos-a-week days are long gone. Now Morales is booked nearly a year in advance.
He’s trying to squeeze as many sessions in during the next few weeks as possible as he gears up for his first international trip to the 19th Annual International Tattoo Expo in Barcelona, Spain, next weekend. The three-day expo is one of the largest and most respected in Europe, with tens of thousands attending. The expo will feature over 100 of the world’s top tattoo artists, all of whom have either been personally invited (like superstar artists Orient Ching from Taiwan, Andy Engel of Germany and Fonzy of California) or applied. Only six artists from the United States have been selected to participate this year. Julio Morales is one of them.
He has attended a dozen other tattoo expos since 2011, including Expo Tatuaje in his hometown of Monterrey, but says Barcelona will be his biggest and most prestigious. He isn’t world famous yet, so he wasn’t invited. But as one of probably hundreds of applicants, he revels in the honor of being chosen as a tattoo vendor in Barcelona — he has four clients lined up already.
At the conclusion of each of the expo sessions, artists can submit their completed tattoos for awards. Morales has already won 15 such awards at other expos. “I want an award in Barcelona,” he says. “That’s the ultimate goal.”
“I’m coming up. I just want more and more and to keep becoming a better artist and a better person,” Morales says. “Sometimes I look at things, you know. And, coming from the bottom and seeing what can be done.” His voice trails off for a moment as he leans against his work desk, cautiously thinking of his next words.
“I’m not staying down, you know?”
Where is Julio Morales from? Kansas City, by way of Monterrey, Mexico, and Houston.
Where is Julio Morales going?
Anywhere he wants.