Cambodian tattoo artist finds key to freedom

Life was not going to be easy for a South Asian family immigrating to the United States after the Vietnam War. 

It turned out to be really rough for Robert Pho, who as a young boy experienced racism simply for being Asian. 

But now with the buzz of a needle, he brings art to life on a walking canvas. 

Tattoo art was the key to freedom for Pho after he was sentenced to life behind bars. 

"When I was 16-years-old, I was in a gang. I got caught up and went to prison, for attempted murder, street terrorism, gun charges, all gang stuff," he said.

"At first I was fighting a life sentence, but then the judge felt like I was too young to be serving a life sentence, so he dropped the charge to 14 years."

As a Cambodian refugee, Pho's family fled his homeland, but found it less than welcoming here in America.

"Ever since I came to the United States, I just saw myself full of hate, I was dealing with a lot of racism in the beginning, especially in 1980 after the Vietnam War," Pho recalled.

"Anybody who was Asian would be given the slant eyes and told to ‘go back to your country,’ things like that. So I grew up dealing with that. I remember going to restaurants and sitting down and people coming up to us and telling us to leave, and we weren't welcome, and go back to our country. Those things would build my hate and anger," Pho said. 

His trouble in school and with the law would force his family to move around from city to city within Los Angeles. 

With all his personal turmoil, Pho did have one positive outlet - art.

"I've always been into art ever since I was little, and I always used that as a way to escape. Every time when my mom would beat me or send me to my room I would draw," he said.

"I kept drawing and drawing, so my art went from papers to the wall, cars, just everything."

He used that talent while serving time behind bars.

"When I went to prison, that's when I first noticed tattoos on other inmates, I was so inspired. I had never seen that before, I never knew that type of quality could be done on that type of art form," Pho said.

He learned how to tattoo with a makeshift tattoo gun made out of a guitar string, and he started inking himself and made money behind bars by tattooing other inmates. 

"Tattooing in prison was illegal, so we would have to build these tools. The motor would come from a Walkman radio we would break that apart and the guitar string, we would use that as the needle," he said. 

"So we would sharpen one end and the other end kind of bend it, and just use a mechanical pencil, linking it up there and use the motor and using the Indian ink and started tattooing just like that."

After getting out of prison, Pho was a changed man using his newfound art form to make an honest living. 

He started hustling hard to build a business, and with his talent, drive, and his specialty in realism tattooing, he is now celebrating success after a troubled past.

"This is my 34th year tattooing.  We have 8 shops in 7 different states and we are planning to open up a lot more," he said. 

Skin Design Tattoo has been around 25 years, and it wasn't an easy journey.

Now his Skin Design Tattoo team includes his eldest daughter Reena, who at 19 is aiming to carry on her father's legacy.

"I grew up in the industry, it was something I was drawn to, I was always in the shop, at conventions, I would watch him tattoo when I was young," Reena said. 

She is earning and making her mark. 

Reena said she has learned a lot more than just tattoo art from her father.

"He showed me that you can change, you can grow from your past, and you can continue to grow and there's no limit."

As for Pho, now he lives by a belief.

"There's always going to be hate no matter what race you are, I try not to pay attention to the negativity that goes out we just focus on the positivity and being grateful."

His journey is linked to ink that will last generations and is proof you can overcome racism and hate by focusing on your gifts and inner passion.