Tattooing as a Fine Art

School of Illustration alumnus Mario Delgado runs successful San Francisco tattoo studio Moth and Dagger


Academy of Art University instructor Nick Ross getting a tattoo done by alumnus Mario Delgado at Moth & Dagger, Delgado’s tattoo studio in San Francisco. Photo by Miguel Elias.

Tattoo artists aren’t especially known for their Samaritan ways, but acts of kindness come naturally for Mario Delgado. From offering free pink ribbon tattoos during breast cancer awareness month, and free nipple tattoos to mastectomy patients, to donating posters to San Francisco Women Against Rape and running a holiday toy drive, the proprietor of Moth and Dagger Tattoo continually proves that he’s a tattoo artist with a humanitarian heart.

“It’s just something I like to do. It’s my way to give back,” said the Academy of Art University alumnus, who graduated from the School of Illustration in 2009—the same year he opened his own shop not far from his old stomping grounds at the Academy.

“That Moth and Dagger is a two block walk from 540 Powell is serendipitous,” said Director of the School of Illustration Chuck Pyle. “It means that anyone with a desire to get into the trade can go see Mario and get advice. Mario has been a source of guidance to aspiring tattoo artists, and I hold him in high regard as an outstanding practitioner of the ancient craft of tattoo.”

It’s a craft that Delgado upholds with the highest integrity. He sketches out every design before he puts ink to skin, and his portfolio reveals a mastery of shading and anatomical detail that gives life-like form to warrior mermaids, forlorn angels, beastly maidens and sophisticated skull drawings. Sure, his team will do the occasional peace sign or tribal symbol (a favorite of the international techie set), but Delgado explains that Moth and Dagger is a full custom shop and the ultimate goal is to attract a dedicated clientele who comes for the art.

“I’ve worked at places where whatever comes in the door you gotta do, and I don’t want to do that anymore,” he said. “We tell people to bring in reference photos. Don’t bring in pictures of tattoos, bring in photographs, bring in drawings and we take it to the next level. That’s where that illustration part comes in. We draw it.”

Bottles of colorful ink line the shelf above a trio of shiny black chairs at the shop where Delgado works with fellow artists Justin Davis, who specializes in American traditional and Japanese work, and Joe Kelly, a fellow Academy alumnus, who is building a portfolio steeped in pointillism. Delgado says it’s important for tattoo artists to develop their own style. “You have to get your style up, build a portfolio and get a following for people who want to get tattooed by you,” he explained.

Delgado first felt the allure of tattoo artistry as a high school student in Sonoma County. Attracted to art since childhood, he fell into the tattoo scene as a teen, and after volunteering to help one local tattoo artist with a big move, he landed himself an apprenticeship. Soon after, he qualified for financial aid and enrolled at the Academy—a goal he had set for himself after attending the Academy’s Summer Art Experience for high school students. 

“I thought I was really good at drawing when I was in high school,” Delgado said. “I was like the best one at school. But then you get to the college level and you realize you’re not that good. The Academy gave me all the foundations I needed to draw.”


Photo by Miguel Elias.

During his time at the Academy, Delgado sharpened his skills in classes like analysis of form, color and design, and figure drawing—foundations courses that helped him master the rendering and shading techniques that give his drawings such depth and vibrancy. He gives a lot of credit to instructors like David Ball, Stephen Player, Bill Sanchez, Gordon Silveria, Henry Yan, Chuck Pyle and Terryl Whitlatch, who Delgado credits with teaching him how to draw fast.

“Reference books are valuable,” Delgado said. “But being there with an instructor showing you how to do it—especially since I had one of the best figure drawing teachers, one of the best anatomy teachers, one of the best illustrators, one of the best creature designers—that is amazing. Instead of a jack of all trades, you have all these people who are specialized and you take what you need from it.”


For more info on Mario Delgado, please visit For additional info on Moth and Dagger, please visit or call 415-834-5127. Follow him on Instagram at @mariod1979.