With the right support, anyone can become someone special

Carl Kuo – Owner, Mission Ink Tattoo & Piercing, Christian Calinsky- Body piercer and homeless youth advocate, San Francisco, CA

Feature | San Francisco, CA | 07 October 2021
Before starting Mission Ink Tattoo & Piercing, Carl Kuo began his career as a civil engineer. Now, as a businessman he says that he finds himself applying many of his engineering skills to his current businesses. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“I started off as an engineer, but I wasn't very good at it, and I’ll be the first to admit that,” laughs Carl Kuo the owner of the Mission Ink Tattoo & Piercing shop in San Francisco’s trendy Mission District.

Despite his reservations about being a civil engineer Carl decided to stay the course and rise up the corporate ladder before eventually embarking on an MBA. “I figured I would move up the ranks a little bit, but I still didn’t like it,” he says bluntly. “I decided to stay on and get to the business and management side to see if it would get any better, so I went to business school at Santa Clara University.”

“I received my MBA and worked a couple more years until the Great Recession hit around 2007/2008 and being in the construction business our industry was hit bad, probably the worst other than banking.”

With a strong appetite for business, Kuo started researching and investing in various projects such as real estate, an automotive shop and then a tattoo and piercing shop. “Long story short, I opened my first tattoo shop in Oakland just by having a conversation with someone,” he recalls with a big grin.

“I love cars and that’s my other passion, so I ended up buying the car shop that I used to take my car to and then a year later I opened this shop in San Francisco back in 2010, and to this day I don’t even know how to turn on the machine!” he chuckles shrugging his shoulders. “But it’s a good business and you can outsource it.”

“I also do real estate on the side and have a business overseas which I took over from my dad after he passed,” Carl shares. “So, one week I’m in Shanghai and the next week I’m talking to people here in the tattoo shop and I enjoy that. I’m not just in front of the computer designing a building like I used to. I get to do something different every day and I enjoy meeting people.”

Besides the different roles he has, Carl is also a father to two young children. When asked if he enjoys the starting and juggling so many businesses, Kuo jokes, “I think I do, but I probably should get a diagnosis for being into so many different things.” He admits that many of the skills he gained in engineering are transferrable and have served him well in his various feats.

Growing up Christian had experienced homelessness and had numerous health issues. Both experiences impacted him and led him to become a professional piercer and homeless youth advocate starting his own non-profit in the San Francisco Bay area. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“In real estate for example we rehabilitate properties and because I was a structural engineer, I know what’s going on with the building.” “I enjoy being able to apply the skills I learned before into my current businesses,” Carl affirms.

Kuo’s skills coupled with his business acumen have been a winning formula for his business. But one important ingredient in the success of Mission Ink he stresses is his team of skilled and highly trained tattoo artists and body piercers such as Christian Calinsky who bring a wide array of unique characteristics to Mission Ink.

“I was punk rock when I was a teenager, and I was always piercing myself and I had an image of what I wanted to look like, and it wasn’t what my parents were. My mom was a cop, and my dad was a doctor,” Christian explains of his background and how he got into the piercing and tattoo industry.

After piercing himself and giving himself stick and poke tattoos, Christian opted to have someone pierce him, but the experience threatened his health and would prompt him to learn how to pierce professionally.

“When I was 17, I was pierced by somebody who really messed me up and I ended up having multiple surgeries due to it,” he says. “This was in Oklahoma which up until recently tattooing and piercing were illegal. So, I told myself I would start the first piercing shop and actually learn how to do it professionally. I took up an apprenticeship in Dallas, and I’ve been here ever since, but I did take some time off for a bit to work on a non- profit I started.”

The tattoo artists and body piercers at Mission Ink are all highly trained in their crafts and carry the necessary health certifications to ensure the health and safety of their clients. For many years the shop has been highly rated, and keeping their customers happy is very important to Carl and his team. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
His own experience as a homeless youth, lead Christian to start an organization called “Taking it to the Streets”, which focused on providing homeless youth with housing and workforce development. “I was homeless from the age of 12-14, and then my grandparents found me and took me in,” he recalls. “I was also homeless on and off from 20- 34, due to drug addiction and all kinds of stuff, but I got out of it.”

Given his personal experience with homelessness, Calinsky was confident that he could provide a feasible and long-term solution to the problem other than the ones he saw. “I said to myself ‘I know how to fix this. I know what it took me to get back into society and I know what it takes to be back into society, so I’m going to try this,’” he passionately emphasizes.

A combination of his own experience, his skills and strengths such as team building, public speaking and understanding how to work with and build relationships with vulnerable at-risk populations, helped Christian make the organization a success.

“It became a huge project, and the city actually adopted our program and developed a citywide model” he proudly declares. Because it got so big, Calinsky handed over his duties to someone else to manage and decided to come back to his piercing job.

“They all have potential,” he fervently says of many of the homeless youth he has met. “Even if they are destroyed and, on the street, that person could grow up to be anyone, even the next mayor of the city,” he says with profound excitement. “It warms my heart.”

Working with people, and building teams and organizations are skills both Kuo and Calinsky have in common. At Mission Ink, they both do their part in making sure that customers are satisfied with the services delivered.

“We’re in the customer service business and we are very highly rated on Google and Yelp. Seeing good reviews and knowing our customers are happy makes us happy,” Carl asserts with much enthusiasm, proof he enjoys his role in business much more than he did as an engineer.