Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Downtown Tattoo Studio's Vibe is More Than Skin Deep

Staff at Death Before Dishonor gets introduced to yoga, vegan diets
and non-dualism as well as tattooing
Staff at Death Before Dishonor gets introduced to yoga, vegan diets and non-dualism as well as tattooing.

Out beyond the darkness and the light, there is a milieu of Tibetan prayer flags, cholo artwork, posters, mirrors, spiritual knickknacks and demon masks. To riff on Rumi, I will meet you there. To be more specific, I speak of Paco Excel's Death Before Dishonor tattoo studio, a fixture at the otherwise constantly changing area of Third and San Carlos in downtown San Jose.

The multi-story faded brown Victorian house first housed the legendary New Skool Tattoo shop back in 1995 until a bifurcation of historic proportion spawned an offspring, Death Before Dishonor, in 2008. One room, the separate yet related Bodhidharma Gallery, will host an art show by Joe Demaree this Sunday from noon to 5pm.

Full disclosure: Many people involved here are old, old friends of mine, but I haven't been upstairs in this building for what seems like a century. As soon as I sit down in Excel's studio and await his arrival, his apprentice gives me a can of blackberry- and cucumber-flavored sparkling water. She sits at an old wooden desk in the corner, drawing ideas for tattoos while Sinatra's "My Way" plays over the system. She started five months ago, I learn.

Upstairs and away from any sidewalk sightlines, Excel's studio is a cross between a tattoo business, a '90s San Jose rock scene archive, a Victorian antique shop and a comparative religious studies classroom. I see a collection of LPs in the corner, sandwiched between Buddhist iconography, a Sharks skateboard, a High on Fire poster, antiques, figurines, artifacts of Mexican folklore and a smattering of spiritual ephemera from around the world, including a gorgeous blue and white porcelain plate from an international Buddhist union. Many of these items are gifts that clients have brought Excel from other places.

Then Excel walks in and we talk about how his studio has evolved over the years. This is not some giddy San Jose faux-urban boosterism project. The place is a bona fide sanctuary carrying a radical sympathy for time, a site specific environment, an inseparable extension of Excel's own life philosophy. It feels like an ancient shop you'd find buried away in some back alley of Bangkok or Mexico City, like something you'd see on a travel show, replete with washed-up expats, burnt-out foreign correspondents and nefarious characters lurking in the shadows for decades, not that I'm speaking from experience.

"It's a little private and nonchalant, but that's what I like about it," Excel tells me. "I'm not really into the street shop thing with people looking in the window all the time."

With subtle precision, Excel is expanding his operation toward the spiritual realm. After tattooing for 25 years, he felt he needed something else.

"My tattoo clients, they don't come around just for tattoos anymore," he tells me. "They kind of come around for something a little bit deeper than that. I've become kind of a counselor in a sense. When we tattoo people, the conversation gets really deep, there's a release of pain, it becomes very meditative, and kind of like how acupuncture touches certain nerves, releases certain toxins. I think tattooing does that, too."

As a result, Excel introduces his crew to yoga, vegan diets and non-dualism on top of everything else. Speaking of which, the Bodhidharma Gallery in the room next door to Excel's room houses a Buddhist-inspired suite of businesses thanks to Stephanie Tate, a yoga and Vipassana meditation teacher with a deep SoCal punk rock heritage. Mom's Metta Browz is her microblading business, while Mom's Metta Balm is her brand of skin care products, metta being the Buddhist concept of loving kindness. In the same room, Demaree's art show takes place this Sunday.

Back in Excel's studio, I continue to bask in the cross-pollination of Buddhism, cholo art, punk rock and Victorian artifacts. Everything is connected, but alas, nothing in life is permanent.

"The Victorian mirrors and things like that go with the building because I was brought up in Victorian buildings," Excel says. "I was raised to move old antiques. My dad collected antiques, so I like to keep antiques around me. I don't really like new stuff all that much. I'm not an IKEA guy."