We had the good fortune of connecting with Kal Morrison and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kal, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
Like a lot of tattooers and artists in general I guess, It has always been really hard for me to stay put. Without realizing it I could only sit still in a city for a year or so max. I have worked in a lot of different shops throughout the country from the Deep South to the small towns in the midwest, out in the Sonoran desert up into New York City and many more. I have always taken a thing or two about how a shop is run, choices the owners made and how much they put into the shop personally. After moving out to Los Angeles from Brooklyn I was working at a shop in Hollywood and then did some work out at a friends shop in Venice and I dont know if it was that point in life where I felt like it was time to stop working for other people or that I simply didn’t feel like it was the perfect fit for me to no fault of those shops of course. I wanted to hang art how I wanted and create a vibe that I felt was inviting and bright and big and open. Some of my favorite shops have walls lined with tattoo flash sheets to choose from and every surface covered with collectables and knick knacks and chachkies. While I absolutely love that look and feeling I felt like I had been there so many times and worked in that shop for years. I had stopped working any real schedule in Los Angeles and committed myself to traveling again and was back in New York at a shop I worked at when I lived there and was talking to my old boss Matthew Marcus about my struggle to fit in out in LA. I have always had so much respect for the way Matt and his Business partner Alex Mcwatt run Three Kings. They have never followed any of the traditional “rules” a lot of people lean towards when running and building a tattoo shop. After leaving New York I think a lot of my struggle to fit in was because of all of the systems and organization and hard work and thoughtfulness put into that shop and not feeling that fully elsewhere. Mine and matts conversation kinda naturally led into this wild idea I was having about opening a shop. I have never entertained the idea because I never though about staying in one place long enough to see the lease through. Los Angeles was an important move because I moved out to be closer to family and try to start to build something. As we talked downstairs over some lunch our shit talking and story telling turned into this new idea of teaming up and opening a three kings on the west coast. It was the perfect opportunity for both of us. I would have the guidance and resources of a over a decade of experience in running a very reputable high quality shop and we could grow the name and create a broader web for other artists with the similar get up and go mentality to have all of those great things I personally loved about working at Three Kings. When I got back to Los Angeles after that trip it was still kind of just this idea. I would look at retail spaces in my neighborhood of Highland Park while I was out getting coffee or grabbing some food. I would always go to Kitchen Mouse on Figueroa and sit outside and just love how this strip off Figueroa street had this wild energy like how Williamsburg Brooklyn did back in the day. Its this odd thing for LA. Theres walking traffic and multiple coffee shops and bars and restaurants and thrifting and record stores. I would sit out from of kitchen mouse and look into the record store next door called Mount Analog. I was always so blown away by this one strip in LA that feels like a completely different world separated from all the downtown and beach stuff I dont really entertain anyway. Leaving New York was to get away from all that. I mentioned my loose idea of opening a shop to my friend Laura who owns Van Leeuwen Ice Cream in New York on the same block as Three Kings. She had moved out to LA prior to me and was in the process of opening some stores out here and was generous enough to give me some numbers of commercial brokers. To me all of this was completely new and weird. I met with the broker a few times in and around highland park and some up and coming places were offered and I was shown a few places that were just way to big for what I needed or just wouldn’t work for the layout I had in my head. I kept thinking back to that small strip on Figueroa. While standing in a giant vacant liquor store that was like 10,000 square feet and way out of my budget I asked the broker about the other end of highland park. He said that he had one listing but it wasn’t on the market yet because the building was in the middle of a sale and the previous tenants are moving out. We hopped in the car and drove over and parked and as he walked me up to the spot I couldnt believe he was turning the key on the old record store. I was sad to see them leave the neighborhood bu apparently they had been moving everything to online sales and were no longer going to be needing that much space. As soon as we walked in It was on. Through the next few months I saw countless other spaces and nothing was right. I was obsessed with that little strip on Fig. I went back to New York with a phone full of photos and drawings of layout ideas. Matt and Alex came out shortly after that trip and saw the space for themselves and we all agreed that was it. Come to find out Matt was actually born in LA and lived in a house right down the street as a kid before his family moved out east. Everything had this weird serendipitous feeling. My good friend from my Chicago days tended bar a few doors down. The owners next door knew Matt and Alex from New York. I had already known the neighborhood from living in it a while now. We spent a lot of time trying to create a tattoo shop that paid respects to the New York shops while letting it kind of take its own shape to fit this neighborhood. We hit the ground running and cast a net through our community to see who would want to work here. We ended up with such an amazing crew, half of which met with me and matt for an interview in the shop while it was under construction sitting on folding chairs like some half assed AA meeting, but with no free coffee or donuts. Everyone could see what we were aiming for and had already known the name and reputation of The east coast shops.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
My tattoo journey has been an interesting one. I learned how to tattoo from an old methhead biker dude where I grew up in Georgia. The shop was to say the least fast and loose. I knew that I wasn’t going to be there forever but I saw it as my IN into the tattoo world. I grew up playing music with some older cats that had cars. I remember getting a ride home from band practice and my buddy stopped to drop a deposit at a tattoo shop and that was my first time setting foot in a shop. My mom and her husband at the time wore tattoos. There was always motorcycles parked out front and and people coming and going. I had always seen tattoos on all of their friends. I had never really thought about getting tattooed for whatever reason. When we went to drop off the deposit my buddy voiced saying I was 18 and just didn’t have my license on me cause I lost my wallet and thats why he was giving me a ride. I was definitely a couple years shy of that. I ended up getting tattooed that day and I remember going home and becoming obsessed. I wanted to be in the shop as much as possible. the place was so magical to me. the smell and the noise and the clientele was so fascinating. I remember hitching a ride out to the mall back when they used to have stores that just sold magazines and I would riffle through all the tattoo magazines half to see the art and half to see the ladies in bikinis. I ended up taking the only place that would agree to teach me which ended up being that methhead biker dude who’s name I don’t think is important to share here. I learned a lot of what to and what not to do. It allowed me to spread my wings and go down into Florida to seek out some better guidance. Once I had my foot in the door I was starting to meet people within the community. I was able to get a job at a shop called Atomic tattoos down in Tampa, Florida. I moved down there and The owner Clay was rightfully unsure about me and my ability. I believe I flubbed the amount of time I said I had been tattooing and only showed my best photos of work to him. He had me book a tattoo and tattoo it at the shop on a day he was there. I remember being so nervous. I tattooed a buddy of mine and was able to see through the sweat in my eyes to make a passable tattoo in Clay’s eyes. Atomic was great for me. They are an amazing shop with multiple locations so I was kind of a floater there and got to work with so many different people who all had different styles and backgrounds in art. I myself was always into art and music but have zero training in either. I tried to sponge all the information I could while working there and just wanted to see more. I had a friend who had recently split back out to his hometown of New Orleans. His buddy owned a shop and possibly had some room so I traded my car for my friend Jack Codys van and drove it the next day out to Louisiana. I worked out there for a good handful of months until this pattern repeated itself many many times up into Chicago and down into peoria and into Arizona and new York. Tattooing has been extreme challenging and extremely giving to me. It’s something that you can’t leave at the “office” when you leave. I came up in the area of the street shop, where you had to learn to do anything that walked in the door. This is a good way to learn but also I think has hindered my ability to shape my own style over the years. I feel like that has only recently started happening. Maybe I’m just more aware of it now. Tattooing is also a pretty sacred practice to those inside like a lot of crafts that are apprentice based. Ive had a lot of experience with not being welcomed into certain cities or circles. Its funny how a lot of people, myself included grew up as the weird kid and wanted to be able to feel comfortable in something then get into tattooing thats perfect for that then shut out the very people who are just like them before they had tattooing. I have learned so much through tattooing. At times it has been a very hand to mouth thing and other times bountiful. The thought of knowing all my heroes in tattooing work until they can’t use their hands to hold the tools or their eyes to see the lines in front of them, or simply until their backs give out from hunching over and they are set 6 feet into the dirt. there is no union or 401k in these crafts. You have that in the back of your mind as a tattooer. Its this hustle every day and some days not knowing what tomorrow holds. and thats kind of the special thing about it. It takes a certain kind of person to commit their life to this craft. Ive learned so much about patience, acceptance, kindness, expectations on myself and others, punctuality and time and money management. It’s funny to talk to some people who ask what ELSE I do not realizing that tattooing is a full time job. Tattooing is this magical exchange between two people. Every walk of life from burn outs and bikers and hippies and soccer moms and college kids and so on wear tattoos. It’s allowed me to interact with all walks of life. Tattooing has no prejudice. Its just this magic thing that connects us in this almost ritualistic, painful and sometimes expensive act to show our individuality, memorialize a loved one, romanticize a current lover with their name, simply get something that just plain looks cool or whatever the reason. It’s something that I love about Three Kings for lack of a better word, as a brand. I remember the first time walking into three kings to work in New York and on the front door in bold letters it says “ALL ARE WELCOME” and that means a lot to me. its now on my front door in Los Angeles. It’s so important to make everyone feel like they can walk into this shop to get tattooed no matter who they are. Its something I’ve seen so many sides of the coin throughout my travels. Getting a tattoo can be very intimidating for those same reasons of the pain or price or simply just being out of your element and those guys that want to keep it so secret and try to make people feel dumb for asking a question instead of educating them or pointing them in the right direction with some professional advice or guidance. I want people to know they can come into my shop or any Three Kings and have that same statement ring true while also offering the highest quality service.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
haha. the answer to this Is so much different with covid I think so ill answer in the dream world scneario before the whole world shut down. When friends visit we dont have to go far. Highland park has everything. We would get a coffee down at civil coffee then walk over to kitchen mouse for some breakfast. I like to take people into eagle rock to hike to the top of the rock because its short and an easy climb with a cool view all the way to the ocean. lunch is either tacos from one of the taco carts on fig or pizza from triple beam pizza. I like to take people on the York side of highland park. tons of good shops and stores. Also this amazing joint called Joy has awesome Taiwanese food. Back over by the tattoo shop is Hippo for dinner and drinks. Clare makes the best tequila cocktails. Then visit Steve at La cuevita for some beers. I never really leave the hood unless im leaving the state going camping. There is so much to do over here and theres too many awesome places to list. If you post up in front of the shop on a beautiful California day the people watching is insane. The hood is filled with every walk of life and tons of good dogs being walked. Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
So many people have helped to get Three Kings LA off of the ground. Its hard to shoutout just one person. Matt and Alex for having the faith in me to run a shop with their name and legacy from 3000 miles away. All the people closest to me for the constant encouragement and positivity. My good friend Jesse Boss who has been here since day one unboxing supplies and mopping the floors and climbing ladders with never asking anything in return. Kitchen Mouse next door for feeding us practically every day. Highland park is the biggest factor in all of this I think. This neighborhood is what makes this shop special. I have poured my everything into this shop and neighborhood. I live 2 blocks away. I try my best to only shop local. I frequent damn near every place on the strip. Highland park deserves most of the credit. We have been welcomed by the community as a business and residents.