Angela Zapata is the proud owner of Uptown Tattoo Gallery in Phoenix. Originally from Mexico, she and her family immigrated to the Valley of the Sun when Zapata was very young, and she’s been based here ever since. The magic in Zapata’s work lies in her ability to build connections with the community members she tattoos. She spends hours designing, researching, and perfecting her craft to ensure every tattoo she creates is not just beautiful but meaningful, not just a work of art but a permanent marker commemorating important—if not life-changing—moments, realizations, and relationships.
In addition to her career as a tattoo artist, Zapata is a painter and co-founder of Lil Artists Club, a non-profit organization that provides free art classes for the youngest members of our community. We spoke with the artist to learn more about her journey to becoming the creative she is today and what’s next on the horizon.
Here’s Angela Zapata, in her own words.
“Art has always been a part of my life, just like struggles and pain were also part of my life really early on. I expressed all of my negative feelings and healed through art, and I still do. I can look at a painting of mine and know exactly how I felt in every brushstroke.”
Angela Zapata, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: When did you know you wanted to be a tattoo artist? What was your first inspiration, and what motivates you to keep creating?
Angela Zapata: Art has always been a part of my life, especially since most of my family is artistically inclined, but as a kid and teenager, I always wanted to study psychology because I did not think I could make a comfortable living and help my community just working as an artist.
After graduating from high school and realizing further education was out of reach due to my financial circumstances, I decided to learn tattooing with the encouragement of my older brother. I instantly fell in love with the craft but always thought I would move on to something else based on my own insecurities and the negative reinforcement and lack of support from others. But when my first client cried after looking in the mirror at a piece I created for her—actually both she and her mom cried—I learned in that moment the power of a tattoo. That was the spark of inspiration for me, when I finally knew this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to help people heal and empower them through tattooing.
Recently, I fought back tears after a client told me, “When you go home at night, think about how much you help people with your art.” We were finishing up a memorial sleeve that we had been working on for over a year. That moment and others like the moment with my first client are what continue to inspire me. For my clients, I’ve spent many long hours up at night designing tattoos and practicing certain styles, I’ve spent money on the best equipment, and I live and breathe art to create the best tattoos I possibly can for them. Even a simple semicolon can mean so much.
Angela Zapata, ’Pollita’ Portrait, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: Tell us about your journey of how you’ve gotten to where you are today.
Zapata: I started tattooing in 2010 and trust me—it was not easy! I had to take a three-hour bus ride from the south side of Phoenix to the shop I was apprenticing at. I worked for free and did not always having supportive people around me. It was all worth it though. I met some of the best people in my life through that experience and learned a lot about what I wanted for my future as an artist. Now, I own my own shop and have a couple of artists working with me. I’m also a mentor to aspiring tattoo artists.
PhxArt: What styles and work do you specialize in?
Zapata: As a tattoo artist, I specialize in cover-ups, both in color and black and gray, and I can do the most popular styles from traditional Americana to realism.
Angela Zapata, Rotten Sal n Jack, 2020. Tattoo. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: Aside from tattooing, what other forms of art do you practice?
Zapata: Although I stay pretty busy, I try to make time for my original love—painting. I usually paint with oil but am always exploring other media. Most of my original art is a little on the dark or macabre side. I am very inspired by my Mexican culture and its love of death imagery to celebrate life. I’m also a body piercer and mixed-media artist, and outside of art, I’m co-owner of a small commercial cleaning company in the Phoenix area.
PhxArt: Who are your greatest artistic influences?
Zapata: One of my biggest influences may sound like a cliché because of her popularity at the moment, but Frida Kahlo and her art have always had a special place in my heart. Art has always been a part of my life, just like struggles and pain were also part of my life really early on. I expressed all of my negative feelings and healed through art, and I still do. I can look at a painting of mine and know exactly how I felt in every brushstroke. My paintings are dreamlike, colorful, and dark, yet full of life and, at times, with hidden messages. I admire Kahlo’s work and how she became a well-respected artist without following social norms. I respect that she embraced her culture unapologetically. I’ll never fill a shadow of her, but I hope my art inspires people to heal and enjoy life.
Angela Zapata, Dolores, 2020. Spray Paint. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: In addition to working as an artist, you also run a non-profit that offers free art training for young children. Tell us about when and why you started this organization. What is its mission?
Zapata: When I was a kid, I had a crazy idea that I wanted to start a non-profit to help children grow into amazing adults. As an adult, I realized the main thing that helped me with depression, anxiety, and pretty much any other negative emotion was art. I wanted to create a space that would feel very relaxed—not like a class with lessons or tests—so the art club concept was born.
In February 2018, Lil Artist Club had our first club meeting completely free of charge, and we’ve been operating ever since. Due to COVID, we have been on pause from gathering in person but have kept the club going with instructional videos. We’ve also supplied some of our members with art materials to keep them busy.
The club’s mission is to teach and inspire kids to learn artistic skills while at the same time helping to grow confidence, self-acceptance, and a passion for art. We are very lucky to have great community members who are always helping us continue to function. One of our goals is to continue to operate completely for free with donations from the community, and so far we have accomplished that. It still amazes me how much love and support we have received even from those who aren’t members, including my tattoo clients who were the first people to make donations toward the club. In the short time we’ve been operating, I have already noticed a change in most of our Lil Artists, and some of them have already started selling their artwork. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for our Lil club and our members.
Lil Angie and Big Bro Jaime, Chihuahua, Mexico, 1993. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What is something you’re currently working on that we can expect to see from you next?
Zapata: Recently, I started my first spray-paint mural of an alien tattoo chick that’ll be on view at my shop. I was so scared to try this new skill, but the mural is turning out okay and is my next project to finish. I have been on this alien vibe for some time now. It’s symbolic of a little hidden message of mine—“ni de aqui, ni de alla pero aqui estoy”*—that makes me smile every time. I also just finished a commissioned piece for a band. I painted the lead singers as aliens, and they loved it.
My biggest project, though, is really to continue tattooing and keep my businesses going through these interesting times. Uptown Tattoo Gallery just celebrated its one-year anniversary in August, and I couldn’t feel more blessed to have such amazing people in my life supporting my businesses and my craft. I also hope to officially start up Lil Artist Club in person again.
PhxArt: If you were approached by a creative just beginning their own practice, what advice would you give them?
Zapata: I like to tell my Lil Artists that there will always be someone better or worse than you are at a certain thing, especially when it comes to art. So just focus on your art and who you want to be as an artist. Do not look at another person’s skills to put yourself down. Also, don’t forget—nos quitaron tanto que nos quitaron el miedo, pero nunca nuestros sueños.**
Angela Zapata, Rosas, 2020. Cover-up tattoo. Courtesy of the artist.
We’re curious how creatives are navigating the time of coronavirus. Angela Zapata shares what’s giving her life as a creative during quarantine.
Zapata: My parents always instilled in me “en trabajo no se niega,” which translates to “never deny work.” So never once in my life have I ever denied work. Uptown Tattoo Gallery shut down due to COVID-19 and the Arizona shelter-in-place mandate, and when we re-opened our doors, we only had a select number of clients per day. Although people asked me to tattoo them on the down low, I took the time to relax and stay home and opted for booking them for appointments later on. One thing I do appreciate that COVID has brought us is the sense of slowing down. I feel more of a connection with my clients these days because with fewer people in the shop at one time, we get more one-on-one time with clients and have shared more tears and laughs than usual.
*Translation: ‘Not from here nor there, but here I am.’
**Translation: ‘They took so much, they took our fear, but never our dreams.’