By DAVID LOPEZ
Rolando Betancourt’s first tattoo was made on himself using a self-made tattoo machine that he learned to make by studying a friend’s machine. Betancourt tattooed a letter “R” on his arm, all at the age of 12.
“My love for tattoos started when my dad would take us over to my cousin’s house. He was a biker who messed around with tattoos, and from then on I wanted a tattoo and I wanted to do them,” Betancourt, 37, said.
Betancourt’s shop, Underground Tattoos, is celebrating 15 years in San Benito this month. It is currently the only tattoo shop in town.
As tattoos have become more acceptable in modern culture, Betancourt has found that other professions do not discriminate his: he has tattooed teachers, law enforcement officers, doctors, and even an elementary school principal.
From its humble beginnings as a “street shop,” as Betancourt called it, to winning expos at the national level, Underground Tattoos has come a long way.
After graduating from San Benito High School in 2000, Betancourt attended community college but did not finish. He had little clue what his next step was, but he was doing tattoos on the side for free (because, he admits, they weren’t the best at the time) as he had been throughout his adolescence.
But in an instant of fate, Betancourt soon encountered an old friend who now worked at a tattoo shop and was selling an entire tattoo machine kit.
He began tattooing 3-4 tattoos a day with the new machine, tattooing whatever his friends would bring him.
As his work progressed and his craft improved, he eventually landed a full-time tattooing gig, but after the shop he worked for closed down, he decided to stop looking for work and instead begin his own studio.
So he got to work, and through the capital accumulated with the help of his brother, Betancourt opened up his own tattooing business, Underground Tattoos, in 2004.
Expos and professional growth
In 2010, Betancourt began working with Rom Rangel, a professional tattoo artist who had previously owned his own studio and had tattooed for many years. Upon beginning work with Underground Tattoos, Rangel introduced Betancourt to expos and helped Betancourt take his business and his craft to the next level. Betancourt began growing more professional, booking appointments instead of only walk-ins, charging per hour instead of by design. Unfortunately, Rangel passed away in 2014.
“I’ve met people that look all over the valley, all over San Antonio, Austin, and then they find me in San Benito and are shocked. I’m really just competing against myself,” he said.
Editor’s note: This article has been edited for length. To read the full story, click here or make sure to grab a copy of the Oct. 25, 2019 issue of the NEWS.