Leo Zulueta is one of the most renowned living tribal artists in the world today. His neo-tribal tattooing style has been massively influential for generations of tattooists.

Today Zulueta lives on and continues to inspire many artists with his amazing designs.

Leo Zulueta, Riccione tattoo convention, 1996
Photo by Elvia Iannaccone

The Beginning

Leo Zulueta was born in a Roman Catholic Filipino-American family in 1952, in the Naval hospital in the town of Bethesda, Maryland.

Leo Zulueta spent most of his early years on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. He also lived in San Diego, California. There he studied arts and crafts in the San Diego State College during the 1970s. While in college he showed interest in Bornean traditional tattooing. By the end of the 70s, Leo started to explore the exciting practice of Bornean tribal tattooing himself.

Grand Rapids Art Museum's exhibit Black Waves The Tattoo Art of Leo Zulueta
Source: GRAM

The Most Meaningful Experience

Later in his life, he traveled the world looking for the first-hand experience of different forms of tribal tattoo practice. This leads him to places such as Samoa, and Tahiti. Zulueta met tribal leaders, healers, shamans, walked on hot coals on sacred temple grounds. He then described all this as probably the most meaningful experiences of his own life.

In 1976 he met the legendary tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy. He encouraged him to become a tattooist himself. Zulueta followed his advice and started tattooing professionally a few year later – in 1981.

Leo Zulueta’s Neo-Tribal

Leo followed his own vision and interests in the world of tattooing – namely tribal practices and large scale tattooing. As early as 1989, he was featured in the RE/Search publication named “Modern Primitives”, which researched the rising interest of island culture and the body modification and customs of the tribes.

During the early 90’s, Leo Zulueta published a booklet with his tribal tattoo works. This sparked the revival of the so-called “neo-tribal” tattoo practice. Zulueta’s designs created a lasting influence on numerous other tattoo artists up to this day.

Zulueta founded Black Wave Tattoo in Los Angeles, California in 1992. He worked there for 8 years until he sold the business in 2000. Today, Zulueta lives and works in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He operates the Spiral Tattoo shop there.

Black Waves

Leo Zulueta’s own and adapted traditional tribal designs are cited as an inspiration for many tattoo artists. His work is also represented at the Grand Rapids museum. The exhibition, called Black Waves, is a visual biography of the man largely responsible for the popularization of modern “tribal” tattooing.

The Grand Rapids Museum exhibition’s narrative format draws on Zulueta’s own personal and cultural history. “Black Waves” presents a wide range of personal imagery and ongoing projects, as well as personal photographs, texts, hand-drawn tattoo flash, drawings, as well as a large-scale mural.


When asked about his style and major inspiration, Zulueta says that he tends to follow the musculature of the body. He finds this much more important than the actual tattoo design that the client wants. This radically different point of view is the beginning of a whole process of fitting a tattoo onto someone’s body. Following the natural shape of the muscles, Leo Zulueta masterfully creates a piece that flows freely with the body shape, fitting perfectly into its’ structure.

See more of his outstanding designs in the following gallery!

Back piece
Leo Zulueta Official
Zulueta Tattoo Design
Photo: Pinterest
Leo Zulueta at his studio
Leg tattoo
Leo Zulueta Official
Leo Zulueta back piece
Source: Neon Magazine

Leo Zulueta at Spiral Tattoo. Ann Arbor, Michigan, August 2011

Legendary Tattooist Leo Zulueta at Spiral Tattoo. Ann Arbor, Michigan, August 2011
Legendary Tattooist Leo Zulueta at Spiral Tattoo, Ann Arbor, Michigan, August 2011; Source: Wikipedia
Back tattoo by Leo Zulueta
Photo: Derek Baker
Custom tribal piece by Leo Zulueta
Custom tribal piece by Leo Zulueta, Source: BMEzine


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