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Local San Marcos tattoo artist portrays art through Buddhism


Jerry Lee sits in front of his shop, Jerry’s Tattoo Shop, Thursday, March 30, 2023.

From the age of seven, Jerry Lee, owner of Jerry’s Tattoo Shop in San Marcos, knew what he was destined to do. By 22, he was working as a tattoo artist under manager Jason Pool at Black Point Tattoos in San Antonio.
In 2015, Lee took a break from tattooing to fix the luxury car he had bought his girlfriend that she damaged by driving it into a telephone pole. His attempt to not lose thousands of dollars on the car resulted in arguments with Pool about Lee’s absence from work.
Lee ultimately lost his job, he and his girlfriend broke up and she left with his dog. He didn’t know where to turn, so he went to a place he least expected to patch his problems: a Buddhist Temple.
An old client had called Lee about another tattoo, but he declined as he was wary of revisiting the negative experiences associated with rejoining the industry from which he was terminated.
The client suggested Lee go to the Rissho Kosei-Kai Buddhist Center of San Antonio (RKSA). Instead, Lee went to a mental health clinic where he said he did not find the help he was looking for. That’s when he turned to Rissho Kosei-Kai.
“The lady evaluates me and she goes ‘well, there’s nothing wrong with you; you’re just stressed because you lost your girlfriend and your job,’ and she didn’t think I needed medicine or anything and I just needed to find peace,” Lee said. “That was a waste of my time. I get in my truck; I go up to the stop sign and it’s either left to go home or right to continue to the temple. I really don’t like not doing what I said and I told my client that I was going to check it out, so I did.”
Lee grew up on the West Side of San Antonio and learned the ropes of tattooing from a prison inmate at the age of 15. Starting off with a rough childhood surrounded by motorcyclists and drugs, Lee already didn’t have a strong faith in spirituality or religion, especially after going through a long line of bad luck in 2015.
Lee had no idea that a tiny home on a big acre of land would be the place of his turning point. At RKSA, Lee listened to sermons, analyzed stories from the sutra and participated in Hoza, a circle group that gathers to resolve personal struggles.
What started as Lee visiting at 10 a.m. Sunday mornings, observing every lesson with a sense of confusion, turned into a seven-year-long commitment to Buddhism and a new sense of hope.
“Once you understand what’s going on, they stopped and took their time to help you out, so now you’re expected to stop and help the next poor unfortunate soul that’s walking through the door,” Lee said. “Then when you start to meet one really hurt person after another, the things that are in your life that are bothering you really don’t seem as bad as they do.”
Lee was starting to heal. He opened Jerry’s Tattoo Shop in the fall of 2019 and began making amends with distanced friends, including Pool who began working at Lee’s shop last year. He now works at Jerry’s Tattoo Shop and Calaveras Tattoos in San Antonio.
Pool said he saw a major change in Lee’s attitude and determination to become a better tattoo artist after his involvement in Rissho Kosei-Kai.
“He has always had a good work ethic, but I really saw him applying a lot of stuff to tattooing that I had never seen,” Pool said. “I really saw him learn a bunch of stuff on his own about that, I really saw him develop in that way and I just saw him become a lot more mature and more insightful. Self-awareness is a hard thing to come by sometimes and I really saw a lot of that really grow in him.”
At RKSA, Lee also developed a love for traditional Japanese art. He had been interested in it before but found a new appreciation for the mythical figures that represented things like hope and protection. Tattooing these creatures also gave him the opportunity to foster his spirituality in his art.
At the end of March, Lee curated an exhibit in his studio of personal paintings including art that encapsulates his time at RKSA. Lee is still a member but has not been able to visit as much as he wants due to his commitment to his shop.
He said he is still doing what he was inspired to do at the temple: teach.
“The Temple told me over and over that I was an amazing teacher and I should be teaching people how to do things,” Lee said. “I have now taught six or seven people how to tattoo now. I have also shown them a different way to their life than they had prior to meeting me. I try to make sure that every time I show them something like that, there’s a really deep-rooted lesson involved.”
Clint Porter, a former tattoo artist at Jerry’s Tattoo Shop, became inspired by Lee’s passion for using skin and spirituality as a medium for art and felt that Lee’s passion for tattoo artistry spread throughout the shop.
“One of the things that I admire about Jerry is that he claims real estate on the skin,” Porter said. “He’s not afraid to take up a whole arm, leg or body for that matter. I’m not a big Japanese tattooer, but just seeing how he puts on his passion in the culture of tattooing is really contagious.”
In the future, Lee hopes to be able to leave the shop to his colleagues to revisit RKSA more often. For now, he remains optimistic about the changes that come his way.
He believes the most important lesson he has learned is that change will happen regardless, and it is important to keep turning the pages rather than fear the next chapter.
“Things are going to change, you don’t know which way they’re going to change, who you’re going to meet or where you’re going to go,” Lee said. “I could not have told you when I lost my job with Jason seven years ago that I would be owning my own tattoo shop and employing him. You never know which way the cookie is going to crumble.”
To view Lee’s print and tattoo art, visit his Instagram @jerry_tattoos.

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  • Jerry Lee stands alongside his traditional Japanese artwork, Thursday, March 30, 2023, at Jerry’s Tattoo Shop.

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