Meet your merchant: Nevada City artist’s mission to ‘awaken a remembrance of the ancient connection to our ancestors and the origin of humanity’
As a child growing up in France, art had always been an integral part of Judicael Vales’ life.
But as he approached adulthood, a second passion emerged: exploring the world. At age 23 he set off for India and was eventually drawn in by the coastal village of Anjuna, Goa, a region formerly under Portuguese rule and famous for its beauty and melding of European and Indian culture.
It was there that Vales met renowned English tattoo artist Andy Smith, who agreed to tutor him. Smith saw potential in Vales, but felt he wasn’t quite ready for an official apprenticeship.
“He told me to come back in two years with drawings and he would consider taking me on for a two-year apprenticeship,” said Vales. “Maybe he was testing my commitment, but I couldn’t wait that long — I was too eager.”
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Clearly Smith was impressed with Vales’ skill and passion, so when he returned far short of the two year mark, Smith agreed to become his mentor. Upon completion of his intensive apprenticeship two years later, Vales’ natural talent, attention to detail, artistic knowledge and top-notch training meant his work as a tattoo artist quickly gained recognition.
In 2003, he set off on what he called a “nomadic quest,” where he tattooed people throughout Mexico, France, England, North America, Nepal and Bali, Indonesia. He eventually returned to Goa, where he opened his own tattoo studio.
Deeply moved and influenced by his exploration of various cultures, Vales became known for his unique artistic style, which combines four elements: “sacred geometry,” the exploration of perfect balance, natural movement and flow. Another key component is developing an intuitive relationship with his clients, many of whom trust him enough to give him free rein.
“I’m very influenced by the ‘Golden Ratio,’ which is a mathematical formula that appears in nature,” said Vales. “Leonardo da Vinci used it — it’s all about proportion. It creates harmony and beauty.”
Studied by mathematicians as far back as Euclid, two quantities are considered to be in the golden ratio if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities.
Like all true artists, over the years Vales’ creative endeavors began to expand and grow. Inspired by the sophistication of Mayan cosmology and the pyramids of Mexico, Vales began handcrafting “sacred skull pendants.” His work branched out to include influences from other tribal cultures, such as those originating in Egypt and the Incan Empire.
Today, his profound commitment to keeping the lost art of intricate handcrafting alive is evident in every piece. His talismans have now garnered attention in the worlds of art and jewelry design — not to mention a few celebrities. Recently, “Game of Thrones” actor Jason Momoa was photographed wearing one of Vales’ skulls, “The Dweller of Unal,” made of ebony wood, gold, diamonds, spersatite garnet, fire opal, red sapphire and fire agate.
“The skulls are not meant to be scary or evil — I see them as representing the hidden history of people, the ancestors,” said Vales. “In the future, I may be transitioning solely into making skulls. This has become my deepest purpose.”
In 2010, Vales moved with his wife, his “muse,” to Nevada City. When he initially came to visit friends he’d met overseas while on his way to Burning Man, he was drawn to the area’s creative culture, people, food and the beauty of the Yuba River. He opened a private tattoo studio in his home. But after the birth of his son — not to mention a growing client list — it was time to expand outside the home.
Three years ago, Vales opened Sacred Skulls Tattoo Studio & Gallery on Broad Street in Nevada City. Situated in an historic building, today the space features a selection of Vales’ art pieces as well as rotating work by other artists. The space in back is devoted to tattooing, where Vales shares space with three other tattoo artists, who work as independent contractors, and one apprentice.
On Wednesday, Vales was in his shop with a new tattoo client, Thao Hill, who had driven up from Oakland for his first appointment.
“I wanted the work done here, with Judicael,” said Hill. “With other tattoo artists I was very specific about what I wanted. But after giving Judicael a sense of who I am, my Vietnamese roots and my spirituality, I trust his intuition and his creative process. I’m excited to see what he comes up with.”
“It’s all about feelings, a person’s body and their personality,” said Vales, as he mapped out a mandala around Hall’s elbow. “It just comes to me — I never prepare.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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