Inkerviews > Photographers > Ernie Bustamante: A Passion for Ink and Images


Inkerviews features the work of tattoo artists and collectors, as well as fine artists, in a series of interviews. With an exciting lineup already in place and endless more to come, I hope you will check back often to read about these incredible people and enjoy their visually stunning talents.

With a passion for photography and tattoos, it’s no wonder that Ernie Bustamante’s career has led him down an ink-and-image-inspired path. Take a peek inside his portfolio and you will find not only tattooed beauties; but a fine appreciation for the artists within the industry, and an evident focus on the creations that they permanently tattoo onto skin.

Inspired as a teenager, Ernie watched and learned from his uncle, who at the time was studying film and photography, and later went on to work as a professional in the field. His exposure to this creative environment had a lasting impression on his own dreams; and after being a part of the tattooed community himself and seeing a need in his home state of Oklahoma (where until just four years ago it was illegal to get tattooed) for documenting inked accomplishments; the dream finally came a reality when he began focusing on photography full-time in 2007.

Bustamante quickly earned the respect of artists, magazines, and ink-related companies in the field; and just three years later his work is sprinkled all over glossy pages, tattooist portfolios, and Internet sites. His work has even appeared in a previous Inkerview with tattoo artist, Waylon Rodgers.

As a husband and father to four awesome kiddos, Ernie keeps a busy schedule with his photography business and travels. Lucky for us, he kindly took time out for this Inkerview to share a bit about his life and work. It was fun to talk to Ernie and learn about his photography journey and the people and inspirations that not only led him in this direction, but continue to push him into the future. I hope you enjoy a peek behind the lens today and enjoy his fantastic photography.

When did you first get interested in photography? Was there a moment or event that was significant in your mind that led you in that direction?

It all started when I was 15 years old.  My parents had moved us to another city during the school year, but I wanted to stay behind and finish school with the friends I knew and grew up with. So I moved in with my grandparents. Two of my uncles lived at home still, and at the time, one of my uncles was in college for film and photography. But, it wasn’t until a 2007 when I decided to take my photography from a hobby to a profession.

Are you formally trained? If so, can you tell us what school you learned at or who your mentor was?

I get asked this question a lot. What is formally trained?  I never went to school for photography. There are aspects of photography that you can learn in school to help you improve - lighting, editing, Photoshop, etc.; but I always believed (and still do) that photography is an art form. You can’t teach someone to be a good artist, they just are. I have always had my own style and have always done what I wanted to do. I guess I was rebellious in that way.

Growing up, my mentor was, and still is, my uncle. He taught me everything I know about photography.  But he also taught me to be me - not to conform to what people may perceive as the right way, but to always be myself and to always ask myself “What is the vision I see in this image?  What story do I want to tell?”  He is a cameraman and photographer for a studio in Hollywood, working along some of today’s top actors and actresses. Formerly trained? No. But I feel I have learned from one of the best out there.

What different types of photography mediums do you use?

I love both film and digital photography. My very first camera was a Pentax K1000, that was given to me by my uncle. With film photography there are no second chances. You get it right or not at all. I think your images are much more vibrant and sharp, but I love digital as well. For photographers, it has been one of the best things to happen to us; but even today I feel new photographers should go back to the roots of where it all started.  There’s nothing like being in a dark room and developing your own images. 

What is your favorite genre to work within?

I consider myself to be an alternative-style photographer, but I love shooting tattooed individuals. Tattoos tell a story, and the people wearing them are just as interesting. Even today, some people think tattoos are taboo, however, more and more people are getting tattooed; from housewives to doctors. I think most people who are not in the tattoo industry would be surprised of the individuals who have artwork on them. I’ve shot housewives, teachers, radio personalities, doctors, police officers, singers, lawyers, and MMA fighters. So it’s a mix of people I get to work with and it’s great.

How do you select the models that you work with? What are your requirements for models who may want to be photographed by you and how can they get in touch with you?

I usually find models on internet sites such as Model Mayhem; however, it depends on the shoot. Whether it is for a clothing company or skin care. I work with a natural skin care line called “Zombiehart’s Little Shop of Horrors.”  They are an alternative-style skin care whose slogan is “Naturally Beautevil.”  They are geared more towards the gothic lifestyle. You can find them on myspace at:

I have been known to walk up to strangers on the streets who have a particular look I am drawn to. I don’t have specific requirements if a model wants to work with me. I will shoot anyone who wants great images and wants to have fun doing it. I can be reached at or on myspace or facebook.

Where are most of your photo shoots done? Where do you get your ideas for the background and settings?

I work out of a studio in Bixby, Oklahoma and I also shoot on location. My ideas depend on the project; whether it’s a client, model, band, promo, etc. Sometimes they just come to me. Specializing in tattooed individuals, I always focus on the artwork, as that’s what they come to me for. They want images to show off their ink, so I focus on that while trying to show the personality of the individual.

What type of camera do you shoot with?

I use a Sony Alpha 200.

Do you also do you own photo editing? How important to you think Photoshop and other editing skills are in being a top photographer?

I do 98% of my own editing, mostly because I know what I am going for in a shoot. I know the vision I had and want to accomplish. Photoshop and editing is very important to photographers, although I do believe it is just as important to have skills in film. In the digital age we all need to be on top of our game.

In the tattoo industry they are people known as scratchers. They have no idea or respect for the art - they buy tattoo machines, inks and start going at it. It can be the same with photographers - people buy a digital camera and right away they think they are professional photographers. They don’t take the time to learn about the camera, lighting, techniques, and most of all, editing.  I can’t stand it when people turn their models into plastic and for some reason think it looks good. Keep your models natural and let their beauty shine. If you want plastic, shoot a damn mannequin.

Who inspires you in the photography world?

Simple - Roy Varga. I wouldn’t be doing what I am today if it wasn’t for him. I decided to take my photography to the next level in 2007. That was the year I started seeing Roy’s work everywhere. Here is a guy with no formal training, self-taught, just doing what he loves to do.  He didn’t care what people thought; if they loved him or hated him - it was all about the art.  He does what he loves: Rockabilly/Pin-Up. 

I love tattoos.  A majority of the artists out there are not just great tattoo artist, they also paint, airbrush, do graffiti, etc. I knew from the beginning I wanted to specialize in tattooed individuals. It was an untouched market where I lived. At that time, no one  would even shoot tattooed models (or people) for that matter.  I wanted to show that tattoos are not taboo, that there is artistry involved. There is beauty in their work. The timing was perfect for me because tattoos became legal in Oklahoma in November  of 2006 - so everyone wanted to show off their work and I was there to help them.

You currently shoot for six magazines. Can you tell readers who you work for, so they can keep an eye out for your photos?

Where do I start? I have been lucky enough to have my worked published in some great tattoo magazines. My first publication was in Urban Ink Magazine.  It was made even  more special for two reasons:

1) The images were of my good friend Spanky. 
2) The artwork featured in the photos came from my other good friend, The Inkfather, from Outsiders Ink in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

The feature was a first for all three of us.

This year alone I will be shooting nine tattoo conventions for magazines. I am also the official photographer for The Immersed in Ink tattoo conventions. There are several conventions throughout the year. Immersed in Ink is a free publication and you can sign up for the magazine and check out the upcoming shows at

You can also catch my work in:

  • Tattoo /Tattoo Savage
  • Urban Ink /Rebel Ink
  • Pretty in Ink
  • Immersed in Ink

Since you shoot a lot of tattoo-related photos, do you find it helpful that you are tattooed? If so, how does it benefit you?

Most definitely. 90% of my business comes from tattoo artists and the clients they recommend. I shoot a lot of portfolio work for artist as well. I don’t want to say it is strictly because I am tattooed myself, but there is a mutual respect with me and the tattoo artists I meet. 

As I stated, my goal has always been about the artwork and their craft. Everything I shoot, whether it is a client or convention, I always have their craft in mind, and I try to let it shine through my images. The respect we have for each other is in the proof of the magazines I shoot for; especially Tattoo and Immersed in Ink.  I shoot for them because I was highly recommended by tattoo artists themselves. The editors checked up on me with artists and they liked what they heard, so they gave me my shot. That’s why I am where I am today in regards to the magazines. If I start naming names I will get in trouble for forgetting someone, but I have to thank: Inkfather, Billy Jack Gunter, Chris Thomas and his wife Jenn, George Gallindo, and the master of MC’s of tattoo conventions, MC Pimp’N.

What are your goals for the upcoming year?

I want to continue to shoot tattoo conventions and work with great artists.  Instead of nine, I want to shoot 20 or more tattoo conventions. I would like to do some more promo work for clothing lines, products, tattoo machines, etc. One of my biggest goals is to someday do a collaboration with Roy Varga. We will get there eventually, so be on the lookout. 

What one word best describes you?


What one word best describes your work?


What is your favorite sweet treat?

Banana Cream Pie.

 Be sure to check out more of Ernie's work here and here.

Last updated on July 4, 2010 by Jinxi Boo