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50 Wards in 50 Weekdays: 25th Ward's 'Nuco' Villanueva paints Pilsen one tattoo at a time

Jose Villanueva (call him “Nuco”) lives a  block – literally one block - from his tattoo parlor in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.

“When I decided I want to open up my own business… I really wanted to stay in the neighborhood, and I just kind of looked around and I just got really lucky that I found a place a block away from where I live.”

Studio One Chicago opened in 2009, but Villanueva has been tattooing since the mid-1990s. The tough economy hasn’t been kind on the profession, he says. But he’s doing alright.

“I don’t worry about it because I’ve been tattooing for 16 years, so I do have a line of clientele that keeps me busy,” Villanueva says. “But things could be a lot better for sure….Things are slow and people are not spending money. They’re on a budget, so this is more like a luxury, you know, and it’s not a cheap luxury, too. Tattoos can get expensive.”

Like $100 per hour expensive, so we’re talking a couple hundred bucks for your average tattoo.

Okay, so how many does he have?


“Not enough. Not enough tattoos,” Villanueva says laughing. “I got most of my sleeves are done, and I got a rib-cage piece.”

“These are my, the newest tattoos I’ve got done – maybe like 3 months ago, 4 months ago,” he says, pointing to both sides of his neck. “Just a cowboy and cowgirl…just kind of [commemorating] my mom and my dad. They both grew up on a farm.”

Villanueva lived in Mexico until he was 9 or 10 and moved to Chicago. Now 37, he’s spent much of his life in Pilsen.


“I love to come out and see people selling corn and…knickknacks and on Sunday everybody comes out,” he says. “Even when I’m out of town, you know, a week, and I’m already missing home. I’m not necessarily missing my house, my bed or whatever, but I’m missing the neighborhood. You know, I love to walk around, walk my dog around the neighborhood. And murals – I mean, there’s a lot to see and to take in that, I don’t know. I love it.”

Public art is a big deal to him. He thinks there needs to be more opportunities for young artists to get a start – especially graffiti artists.

“There’s plenty of walls. There’s plenty of space.”

There’s also plenty of hassle, Villanueva says. The established graffiti artists tend to score the limited authorized space.

“Kids in this neighborhood don’t have a lot of money. And art supplies or supplies in general are expensive,” he says. “Kids are a little bit more lucky whose…parents [are] like, ‘Oh yeah, you know, I want to support you, what you’re doing, so I’ll give you money.’”

“You know, I didn’t really have that. My parents were like, ‘What are you talking about? You’ve got food on the table and a roof over your head, more than enough.’ So I was like, ‘Alright.’ So what did I do? I just kind of found ways to create an outlet for me.”

That outlet was plywood he found around the house. Or old, used canvas he’d buy from the thrift store.

Now, in his own tattoo shop, he has a different kind of canvas.

Tattoo parlors must get licensed, but Villanueva has no complaints. He feels the city government has been supportive of his business.

And like so many of the Chicagoans I’ve interviewed for this series, Villanueva says he doesn’t have much to say about elected officials, or politics at all.


“I am really involved and busy with my business, that it’s hard for me to keep up with…politics, not necessarily that I’m not interested, but at the same time I don’t let that consume my life.”

“I’m one of those guys that feel like – at the end – things are going to stay the same,” he says. “You know, there’s going to be a few changes, I’m sure, but nothing drastic ever happens.”

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