‘Pay it forward’
Local tattoo artist moves from getting a hand to giving a hand
These days, when friends think of Timothy “Lil Mex” Trujillo, many think about his talent, his heritage and his generosity.
The Grand Junction native stays busy with his tattoo shop and custom-build car shop, his work in the Piceance Basin oil fields and a continual stream of charity events for a variety of causes. He can be found helping his longtime friend and mentor John Kufahl with challenging chores or participating in Career Day at Central High School.
And as a proud member of the Yaqui and Navajo tribes, Trujillo also can be seen singing and playing a wooden flute during tribal ceremonies performed with his brother, Fred Montoya, at camps, nursing homes, libraries and elsewhere.
But it wasn’t always like this.
Trujillo, now a soft-spoken and kind-eyed 44-year-old, used to lead a far more difficult and less-reputable life.
“I come from a drug lifestyle,” he said. He grew up in a large family and has 21 siblings. Alcoholism was common among his relatives.
He was enrolled at Grand Junction High School but was rarely in class.
“I didn’t know much,” Trujillo said. “I was street smart, but I couldn’t spell or read well.”
At 18, he was caught with cocaine — he had been dealing drugs — and sent to prison, the first of two harsh eight-year stints he served, bouncing around Colorado from penitentiary to penitentiary, with only four years of freedom between.
Prison changed Trujillo’s life. Instead of allowing it to crush him, he was open to the opportunities it provided to him.
When he first got in, he “couldn’t even write a letter home,” Trujillo said. But he took school courses, got his GED, took gang awareness classes, worked as a wildland firefighter and trained service dogs.
“If you are a good person, and you better yourself, people will respect that,” he said.
Eventually, he tutored other inmates in the GED program.
While Trujillo worked on his brain, he also developed his spirit.
A group of fellow inmates who were Native American elders took Trujillo under their wings and encouraged him. They’d told him if he received his GED, they would buy him a TV, Trujillo said. They told him he ought to be “honorable” and serve as a positive example for others.
In prison, Trujillo experienced his first sweat lodge with his elders, and he said it made him cry.
“I felt like for once in my life, I was home,” he said.
He could remember his grandfather singing in Navajo when he was a child, but Trujillo never learned the language. But while he was behind bars, the elders taught him how to speak Lakota and shared tribal rituals with him, leading him to advocate for the tolerance and facilitation of American Indian practices in prison.
The traditions gave him “balance,” he said, and it felt like a new beginning.
It wouldn’t be his last new beginning.
When Trujillo got out of prison the first time, he opened his own business, a tattoo parlor in Grand Junction called Lil Mex Tattoo. He had “picked up” the skill of tattooing in prison and liked the “personal, intimate” nature of body art, he said.
As for the name “Lil Mex,” it is a nickname Trujillo was given in the penitentiary that he holds onto despite its context.
“It’s a reminder of where I don’t ever want to be again,” Trujillo said.
Trujillo took some side work while he was getting his tattoo business off the ground, and that’s how he came across an invaluable resource for his life: John Kufahl, who would become a second father to Trujillo.
Kufahl, who had lived in Grand Junction since 1993 and had spent most of his life in business management, was promoting an event where Trujillo was working as security, and the two got to talking. A meaningful friendship blossomed, and Kufahl began to talk to Trujillo about “breaking the chain,” Kufahl said, “not only for himself but for other people.”
But then Trujillo got arrested again in relation to drugs. Trujillo said a couple people were dealing outside his tattoo shop, and he wouldn’t comply with the authorities and testify against them, so they sent him back to prison.
When Trujillo got in trouble again, Kufahl said he felt “conned,” like the talks they’d had and the relationship they’d built had been lies and lip service, Kufahl said.
“I didn’t want to have anything to do with him,” Kufahl said. “I was a little pissed off.”
Kufahl, who was put up for adoption when he was 4 months old and spent a lot of time in orphanages and foster care, describes himself as naturally distrustful of others. He tends to take people at “face value,” he said.
Then Trujillo wrote Kufahl from prison, and Kufahl, believing Trujillo’s sincerity, wrote back. They continued to build a mentorship through letters, and Kufahl visited Trujillo when he was transferred to a prison in Rifle.
But Kufahl made it clear to Trujillo that he would help him as long as he felt Trujillo’s desire to change tracks and improve himself was genuine.
Soon after, Kufahl offered Trujillo a big hand.
He told Trujillo he could tell the parole committee that if he were released he had a guaranteed job working at Copy Copy, the Grand Junction print store Kufahl started and operated. Trujillo’s sentence was reduced, and he returned to Grand Junction and began working for Kufahl.
Kufahl was much more than a boss, Trujillo said. Kufahl taught him how to speak well and run a business and gave him advice about his social life and personal choices.
Kufahl also took Trujillo to Lake Powell and showed him how to fish and asked Trujillo for help whenever there was a job requiring some heavy lifting. Trujillo looked after Kufahl’s house when he went out of town.
“Tim convinced me that he was legitimately wanting to change his life,” said Kufahl, who never called Trujillo “Lil Mex” — after Trujillo left prison for the last time, Kufahl told him, “between you and me, Lil Mex is dead.”
Both men said the linchpin of their relationship is probably that Kufahl didn’t beat around the bush with Trujillo.
“I tried to treat him the same way I would treat one of my kids, but at the same time, I told him right up front, ‘You’ve been a con all your life,’ ” Kufahl said. He wanted Trujillo to take responsibility for his actions and his path.
“He didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear,” Trujillo said. “He told me what the truth was. And I respected that.”
Trujillo adopted Kufahl as a father and calls him “pops” as a sign of respect.
“We grew to develop a pretty good trust,” Kufahl said. “He said, ‘Pops, whatever you want me to do.’ “
Trujillo has been out of prison for about 10 years now. After Copy Copy, he opened another tattoo parlor, called Native American Ink, before moving to his current shop, Native Ink, off North Avenue.
He dedicates himself to philanthropic initiatives, small but meaningful ones for his hyperlocal community.
For example, throughout the year he charges $1 for soda in his shop, and then at Christmas time he gives that soda-sales money to a family in need.
He throws free barbecues for his neighborhood, has given free 3-D nipple tattoos to breast cancer survivors, and he did free tattoos to celebrate the life of Travis Carothers, who was shot in Grand Junction in June.
“I think it’s important that people pay it forward,” said Trujillo, adding that his mom always said to him, “Never give a gift with expectations of getting something back. Give with your heart.”
And about nine months ago, Trujillo and a friend, Jimmy Quintana, opened a custom-build car shop called Street Kingz in order to teach young people mechanical skills and “keep them off the street,” Quintana said.
“If we offer these kids a better choice, a lot of them would take it in order to better themselves,” said Trujillo, who thinks there are limited options for struggling youths in the Grand Valley.
“He’ll give whatever he can to anybody he can. He’s just that kind of guy,” Quintana said of Trujillo.
Trujillo was criticized earlier this summer for letting a member of Satan’s Disciples, Christopher Fafejta, rent space at Native Ink. But Trujillo said he saw himself in Fafejta, a young man out on parole who needed a little faith and a hand up.
Trujillo sees the good in everyone and he doesn’t want to judge others like he’s been judged, Kufahl said.
“He’s a good man,” he said.
Kuhfal recently moved to the Front Range to be closer to his kids and grandkids, and sometimes he and Trujillo don’t get the chance to talk as often. Nevertheless, the relationship continues strong and guiding.
“He always knew I was there, and I always knew he was there,” Kufahl said.