The article was originally published in Issue #272 “The Life And Times Of Tupac Shakur”. Words by Michael Lasalle. Interview by Marvin Lucien.
With over 40 years in the game, Dennis “Dago” Coelho, the tattoo artist responsible for some of Tupac’s most iconic tattoos, reflects on how his work will live forever as part of the Hip-Hop legend’s legacy.
It wasn’t until the late 90’s that tattoos became wildly popular within the Hip-Hop culture. Once labeled as taboo associated with sailors, bikers and gang members, studies now show three in ten Americans have ink with nearly half the millennial generation having at least one tattoo. Tupac Shakur started a trend by showcasing his body art to the world, with pieces such as “THUGLIFE” written across his abs. Unlike what many considered a “gangster” piece, it ironically defines the acronym “The Hate U Give Little Infants F**k Everybody”; a twist on the social issues affecting oppressed minorities is recognized as one of the most iconic tattoos in pop culture.
How long have you been a tattoo artist and how did you get started? I’ve been a tattoo artist for about 44 years, starting around 1974. I started tattooing because I enjoyed art.
Which tattoos did you do for Tupac? I put a lot of tattoos on this gentleman. I did the “THUG LIFE” tattoo on his belly, the Nefertiti on one side of his chest, “50 NIGGAZ” in the middle, “2PAC” on the other side of his chest; “OUTLAW” on his arm; and the comedy and tragedy symbols on his back. He asked for a symbol on his back that he could take with him the rest of his life. I said, “Well, you can either get a big panther on your back, your zodiac or how about a cross?” So I drew up a cross for him and put it on his whole back. We call it the Tupac Cross.
Is there any tattoo that’s most significant to you? I still admire the Tupac Cross. It’s something I respect because of its meaning and we designed it together.
Who came up with the ideas for his ink? We always sat down together and talked about it. It had to have a meaning and be something nobody had. Every tattoo meant something to him.
Can you share your fondest memory of Tupac? Just seeing him look at his tattoos saying, “That’s what I wanted”. I was glad I made him happy and he respected my work. Also, he kept this little pad and pencil with him, always writing something down to make a song.
Tupac’s tattoos are iconic in pop culture. Tell us how this makes you feel knowing you are the artist behind them. My life is my art so I enjoyed being a part of his life with the art I put on him. I really feel honored knowing how he wanted it to mean something to society. Back in the day, everybody downed me, mocked me, and blackballed me for associating my business with the African-American community. Having the opportunity to work with him really made everything worth it.
For the rest of this exclusive interview with “Dago”, go get your copy of Issue#272 of The Source Magazine available on newsstands now!