Tattoo artist relearns his art from the left side and thrives after losing his right arm in an accident

by in News

No nickname ever more easily stuck.

The guy people call “Southpaw” didn’t know what it meant at first. He thought people were making fun of him. He looked up the origin of the term and found that Southpaw was likely first used to describe a left-handed baseball pitcher, standing in the middle of a diamond with the line from the mound to home plate running east to west and his arm hurling fastballs from the south. Or it was a boxer with a dominant left hand who circled the ring in the opposite direction from right-handed fighters.

“Southpaw” also seems to suggest something about the owner of that nickname that is unconventional, someone who looks at the world from a different angle.

His given name is Zachary Hunter, but most people who know him only know him as Southpaw. He is a 23-year-old tattoo artist in San Clemente with a flair for drawing dramatic flowers with inky needles. He loves to work in black, white and gray. Bold, stark ideas with subtle shading, he said, make the best tattoos.

And the best lives.

He is a lefty. Not by choice.

Southpaw is the nickname that stuck after the accident.

  • Tattoo artist Zach Hunter in San Clemente. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Zach Hunter holds a tattoo machine. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

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  • Zach Hunter prepares tattoo ink before beginning his work in San Clemente. Hunter lost his right arm in a car accident in 2014 and had to teach himself to draw and tattoo with his left hand. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)



Discovering his dream

Zach Hunter remembers the trailer where he lived with his single mom in Wilmington, North Carolina. Before he was 12, they couldn’t afford a television. There were months with no heat, no lights. His mother, Shannon, was a 911 dispatch operator. She tried, but struggled to keep up with the bills.

When he wasn’t getting in trouble for fighting or breaking into cars or other “hooligan” type activities, he drew in a sketchbook. His grandfather was a motorcycle enthusiast, so Zach drew motorcycles. His mother had a garden, so Zach drew flowers.

“I didn’t have anything to do,” Zach said. “I lived in the middle of nowhere in the South … (Drawing) was just something that came easy to me.”

In the fifth grade, he remembers showing a couple of his flower and motorcycle drawings to his friends at school. A teacher looked over his shoulder and asked, “Did you do these?”

She was the art teacher, and she convinced Zach to choose drawing as an elective.

Not too long after that, Zach said he was in his mother’s car when he saw a guy ride past on a Harley. The man was covered with tattoos, and Zach’s imagination was engaged.

Tattooing became his dream.

Zach went to Laney High School, which might ring a bell if you’re a basketball fan. Laney’s most famous alumnus is Michael Jordan. Zach said he dropped out at the end of his freshman year. As a 14-year-old, tattooing in his neighbor’s garage was a more important way to spend his time.

He took apart his mother’s videocassette recorder, swiped the small engine and made a tattooing machine with a toothbrush, spoon and guitar string.

And he was horrible at the actual art of tattooing.

“It was super gnarly,” Zach said. “It was super bad.”

A tattoo artist from Wilmington saw his work and told Zach to stop immediately. The artist’s name was Drew Beavers, a talented North Carolina inker. Zach became Beavers’ apprentice, but he was never allowed to officially tattoo anyone as long as Beavers was around.

“You’re going to hurt someone,” Beavers told him. “You’re going to give someone a disease.”

Beaver saw something in Zach.

“I could see the same spark and drive that I had,” Beavers said. “He really did have a passion.”

Still, there was a market for bad, homemade tattoos. When Zach’s mom kicked him out, he slept on a friend’s couch and paid his rent in tattoos.

Beavers said Zach was being influenced by the wrong crowd.

“He was hanging with idiots,” Beavers said.

When he was 18, a SWAT team kicked in the door of a place where he was staying. They found drugs and weapons. He avoided major charges, but still, Zach needed money to pay defense attorneys.

He and his friend Brad Venticinque decided to drive to Raleigh to try to find work.

It was June 17, 2014, Zach’s 19th birthday.

Day everything changed

Venticinque was zooming west on I-40. He reached down to grab his phone.

His car veered into the center median. Venticinque jerked the wheel and over-corrected. The car hit the guardrail, spun and flipped. Zach was not wearing a seat belt. At one point, Zach’s body was halfway out of the car. He held out his right arm to brace himself.

That’s when his arm caught a wire.

His arm was severed near his shoulder.

“I remember seeing it (his arm) fly through the air, like when you throw a pencil,” Zach said.

Venticinque fled, was caught later, and eventually served three years in prison for fleeing the scene of an accident.

An off-duty police officer named Ken Walker was one of the first people at the scene. Walker ripped off his shirt and tied it around Zach’s arm to make a tourniquet.

“He saved my life,” Zach said. “He is an absolute hero.”

Zach had three surgeries in three days. His next six months were a blur of pain pills and learning how to live left-handed.

“I couldn’t write my name with my left hand,” Zach said.

Tattooing seemed to be finished for Zach. And an opioid addiction was just beginning.

Six months after the accident, he swallowed a bottle of painkillers, an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

‘He fought’

Zach didn’t turn his life around until two years later, when his friends confronted him.

“I would have been dead in a couple of weeks,” he said.

Beavers said what happened to Zach was a good thing.

“The accident was a wakeup call,” Beavers said. “You got two choices. You can give in, or you can fight your way out of that corner. He fought.”

Tattooing, or, better yet, the pursuit of tattooing brought him back to life. He got clean and he began to sketch again, the only way he could – with his left hand.

He practiced by drawing circles, squares and letters of the alphabet. He traced drawings. Slowly, his lines became cleaner.

For his 21st birthday, his friends pitched in and bought Zach $3,000 worth of tattooing equipment.

And one of his friends sat for his first left-handed tattoo. It was a candlestick with a flame.

“It looked good,” Zach said. “I was so surprised. Something clicked. Maybe I’ll be able to tattoo again.”

He got a job tattooing at Family First in North Carolina. Then another job nearby at Hardwire. He was tattooing as much as he could.

With each inking, he was improving.

A new life

In 2017, Zach went to Pennsylvania for the “Philly Tattoo Convention.” He was approached by a young woman who had been born without a hand.

She requested he tattoo a question mark on her arm because so many people asked her about what had happened. She talked about being teased for her entire life.

“When I got done, we cried together,” Zach said.

He didn’t know it then, but his life was about to change.

Attending that convention was a man named James Howard. He approached the one-armed tattoo artist and said, “There’s got to be a story behind that,” gesturing to Zach’s arm.

Howard worked for Bishop Rotary, a company that makes tattooing equipment. When he heard Zach’s story, he made a call to Bishop CEO Franco Vescovi, who lives in Orange.

It wasn’t long before Zach had a new job.

And a new home.

And a new life.

Vescovi hired Zach and asked him to move to Southern California. He first got an apartment in Long Beach, and later moved to San Clemente.

“I can’t even put into words how proud I am of him,” Beavers said. “He did a 180-degree turnaround. It’s a giant leap from where he came from.”

Today, Zach works for Renaissance Tattoos near the beach in San Clemente. He charges $150 per hour, and he’s growing his list of clientele.

“My life is now something I never pictured it would be,” Zach said.

He has the letters SP tattooed under his left eye.

SP is for Southpaw.