Tucson-based tattoo studio Spark Project Collective gives back

When Bryce Wilborn went to Spark Project Collective for a tattoo, he had no idea he was at a turning point in his life.

The recent transplant had no direction and was struggling with mental health and financial issues. Wilborn was working at Walmart and driving for Door Dash and Uber to pay his bills.

“I didn’t have a plan for myself, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life,” Wilborn said. He had driven from Georgia to Tucson to escape a life where he couldn’t be himself; he couldn’t be transgender.

One day he saw an advertisement for a tattoo apprenticeship at Spark Project Collective and was impressed by the organization’s nonprofit-driven mission. He decided to meet with its owner get a tattoo and talk about a job.

He saw that Spark Project Collective was a nonprofit tattoo and piercing studio donating its funding to good causes, and hoped the apprenticeship would be better than those he heard of at other tattoo shops. Wilborn said he had thought about being a tattoo apprentice before, but heard horror stories of apprenticeships often being grueling and emotionally abusive.

The day he met Johnny Vasquez, the owner of Spark Project Collective, his luck began to change.

Fast forward to today, four years after first becoming an apprentice at the Spark Project Collective, Wilborn is finally coming out of his shell. He said before now he was never a people person.

“I’m a completely different person,” he said.

Wilborn is now on the Spark Project’s governing board and leading classes on various topics for the other apprentices and artists. He is also training to help run a second tattoo studio the collective wants to open by August.

Wilborn said, like himself, most of the apprentices have a variety of struggles in their lives when they first start at Spark Project. But thanks to Vasquez, who is a father figure to them, they learn not only learn about working in the tattoo industry, but also how to thrive in life.

“It’s more than just a tattoo apprenticeship,” Vasquez said, adding that his business is different than a traditional apprenticeship, where tattoo apprentices work for free or low pay while laboring for 10 to 12 hours a day doing a lot of the chore work for their mentors with little in-depth learning.

His goal is to teach his employees the tricks of the trade while setting them up for a stable and thriving life.

What does the Spark Project Collective do?

Spark Project Collective is a tattoo and piercing studio that donates to good causes and hosts a variety of community events. They run art therapy classes for children with disabilities and do food and clothing drives for the homeless and children in foster care, as well as Reid Park Zoo visits for families with low incomes.

The collective also created a page for AskAutism.org, a resource center with autism resources, after their clients told them how difficult it was to find resources. Although it has not been updated in six months it is still online, Vasquez said.

The organization also hosts a range of community classes and events, many free to the community in their wellness and education centers, located down the block from the tattoo studio. In the same block as the centers, the collective also has a metaphysics store called Four of Wands, and hosts metaphysics fairs.

According to Vasquez, last year, Spark Project donated $73,000 for toys and goods to the foster care system, $36,0000 worth of hygiene products and $42,000 in clothing to several local nonprofits and $25,000 in college scholarships. He also said they conducted 61 zoo visits for families with low incomes.

Spark Project also offers free home repairs and housing assistance to people in need. Vasquez said last year his organization also donated $31,000 worth of home repairs and family assistance. This came about by people coming into the shop and telling them their stories.

“We have a little bit of extra funding, so I was going out and doing the repairs since I have experience in contracting,” he said. “Everyone on the board liked the concept of doing that.”

Why a nonprofit tattoo studio?

When creating the Spark Project Collective, Vasquez wondered how tattoo shops, which is a part of a billion-dollar industry, could fund community projects and services without needing to apply for grants.

“The vision originally was how can I help the community on my own,” he said.

What makes the tattoo shop unique and so successful is their offer of flash tattoos daily. These tattoos are typically smaller and cheaper than custom tattoos. Often, tattoo shops offer them as a promotion on certain days of the year like Friday the 13th.

This idea came out of Wilborn’s struggle to attract clients when he first began at the collective.

The five dollars he put towards advertising did not help bring enough customers. Vasquez suggested Wilborn try doing the little $20 dollar tattoos they typically do on Friday the 13th every day to see how many people they could get into Wilborn’s seat.

Bryce Wilborn, a tattoo artist at Spark Project Collective on January 9, 2023.

Soon, Wilborn went from doing one or two tattoos a week to 30 in a day.

“That was a huge leap of faith for him to take on me,” Wilborn said of Vasquez. “I knew that was a lot of responsibility on him.”

Wilborn also inspired Vasquez to do more than teach his apprentices about tattooing. Vasquez realized when he hired Wilborn that his new apprentice needed more guidance than just a job.

He sat down with Wilborn to lay out his goals in life and a plan to get to achieve them.

They also worked on Wilborn’s mental health illness issues, financial problems, past job anxiety and other issues Wilborn was having.

Over time, Vasquez has developed a series of courses that he teaches his protégées: from how to launch their own businesses, how to work the stock market to help build passive income.

“It’s a great feeling coming to work and knowing everybody here is of the same mindset that we want to help others,” Wilborn said. “We want to do as best as we can here so that Tucson can become a healthier community.”

Who is Johnny Vasquez?

For Johnny, this business is a conglomeration of his life’s work. Giving back to the community has been his life’s work since college.

As a psychology major at California State University San Bernardino, he had internships at nonprofit organizations and continued that work after his graduation at an autism nonprofit.

Johnny Vasquez, the owner of Spark Project Collective at his tattoo studio on Jan. 9, 2023.

Working at the nonprofit, Vasquez quickly became disappointed in how they were often run: money utilized inefficiently for marketing, heads of organizations paid too much and money wasted.

At one point he was giving so much of his time to the nonprofit world, and barely making enough to make ends meet, he ended up homeless after he lost his job and could not find another fast enough. His aunt found him, and he lived in his RV for several months until he found work.

This experience inspired him to get into entrepreneurship.

Another opportunity came out of the blue. He went to get a tattoo one day and his tattoo artist was two hours late. While he was waiting he started drawing. The owner of the studio saw his drawing and asked him if he wanted a job. Vazquez jumped at the opportunity. He gave his job his four-week notice and took work at the tattoo studio.

Spark Collective to expand to every state in the US

The collective is based on a nonprofit he began in southern California called We are the Spark Project. It functioned as a true nonprofit funded by grants. Vasquez said he tried to do the nonprofit tattoo shop model, but it did not thrive there.

When he moved to Tucson to be closer to his daughter who is now a teenager, he felt that business model jived well with Tucson’s more alternative and open-minded community.

He used his knowledge of the nonprofit sector, his love of tattooing and his ability to run businesses to get the Spark Project Collective up and running. He now has 15 apprentices — his team grows every few months — and thousands of clients.

Throughout its existence, the organization has been fully self-sufficient, never needing grant funding.

A training room at Spark Project Collective.  Photo taken on January 9, 2023.

Vasquez also follows what he preaches: he is a volunteer at his own company.

“This is about the community, not about myself, I don’t make anything from it, so I’d be considered 100% volunteer,” he said.

He said most of his personal income comes from other his businesses, primarily by selling on Amazon, the e-commerce platform. He also co-owns a skate shop, a billiards club and a couple art galleries.

As a suggestion by his mother, he opened the metaphysics shop in an effort to create a safe space for a community that has no traditional gathering place, like a church or synagogue, and receives no funding from the government. Vasquez said most of what his shop sells is items made by local vendors from salt lamps and crystals to jewelry, art and a range of other items. In the back of the room is a gathering space often used for readings and life coaching.

As he looks to expand, he said his team will start applying for grants as it is something they should be doing as a nonprofit.

By 2025, his goal is to move his current tattoo and piercing studio, along with the additional studio into one large building with the metaphysics shop and the events and wellness centers, for what he calls a “walk-in experience.”

“We’re going to be going for an Egyptian tomb-type experience,” Vasquez said.

With a children’s play area and all the collective’s businesses and centers in one location, people will be able to observe what is going on even if they are just waiting for a tattoo, he added.

Over the next decade, he wants to expand this business model to every state in the country. Each state will use the same type of business model, but each tattoo shop and “walk-in experience” will have a different theme and donate to different causes. Also connected to the collective, Vasquez is also planning on starting a publishing company, a podcast and opening an online store.

Being so busy with all his different businesses and branches of the collective, Vasquez’s daily grind includes meeting after meeting and checking in with all his teams. While he does sometimes feel worn out, he continues with his work because the Spark Project has a bigger purpose.

For Vasquez, this business is about helping his employees thrive and giving back to the community while doing what he loves: business and tattooing.

“It’s an accumulation of my life’s work and a way to leave my legacy,” he said.

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