Purple Magazine
— S/S 2009 issue 11

Scott Campell

photographed by TERRY RICHARDSON
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM

 

Once SCOTT CAMPELL began tattooing his downtown artists friends like Dash Snow, Dan Colen, Aaron Young, and Leo Fitzpatrick, THE YOUNG TATTOO ARTIST quickly became famous for his floral script, the finesse of his lettering and lines, and his personal and poetic interpretations of tattooing’s traditional themes. Then he pushed the frontier of this art form by introducing into his designs slogans and icons from popular culture, television, and fairy tales. Now this young man has less and less time, overbooked due to his sudden success, but never forgetting to give the special attention to each person whose skin he enhances.

OLIVIER ZAHM  Why did you choose tattoo art over, let’s say, painting?
SCOTT CAMPBELL  Well, I always drew and loved to draw, but I started tattooing around 1995, when I was hanging out with a bunch of punk rock kids in San Francisco. I worked out of my house at first, sometimes tattooing for just beer. Then I began working in a decent tattoo parlor. I needed to survive, and tattooing seemed like a good way to combine survival with something I liked to do. I fell in love with the history of it. It’s a real folk art. I learned to tattoo from a sign painter named Tom Slick. He painted storefront signs, with lettering and designs, but when his business slowed down with the arrival of computers he started tattooing. He was a crazy old guy, the closest thing to a pirate I’d ever seen — the romance of a criminal lifestyle with enough stability to not worry about going to jail. He lived the way he wanted to live and did whatever he wanted to do. He got paid in cash. The tattoo world back then was more or less lawless, and I found that very romantic and exciting.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you tattooed by him?
SCOTT CAMPBELL He tattooed a big crown and heart on my chest. He was such a character, with so many stories. Once when I was apprenticing with him, a big lumberjack kind of guy came into the studio. Tom told him I could tattoo him if he liked. It’d be cheaper for him. So the guy said, “OK, fuck it, I’ll do it.” So I set up my things. I was nervous. He could see it. My hands were kind of shaking a bit. So I put the stencil on and started to tattoo the guy, and he told me if I fucked it up, he’d kick my ass. I was thinking, Dude, you either trust me or you don’t. So I said, “Do you want to do this or not?” He said he was just fucking with me, and to go ahead and do it. So I get the machine going and he says, “But really, if you fuck this up I’m going to kick your ass.” So Tom says, “Listen, I’ll do the tattoo if you’re so worried about it.” Tom grabs the guy’s arm and tattoos s-h-i-t on it! He tattoos “shit” on the guy’s arm! Then he puts down the machine, pulls out a revolver, and says, “There. Now what the fuck you gonna do about it?” It was insane! But I loved that kind of environment, with all the crazy people who’d come in. Anything could happen. Anything. Some days it could be really sweet. Once a couple who had just fallen in love came in and wanted their names tattooed on each other.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s more romantic.
SCOTT CAMPBELL Then you’d get guys who’d just gotten out of jail, and that would be kind of a downer. It was up and it was down. But it was always real — always passionate. Whether it was an angry passion or a passion of love. It was just such an intense environment, and I fell in love with that side of it. It wasn’t just the medium. It’s always been like this. I want to communicate the passion and energy of the tattooing world to the art world. But when people buy a painting, it’s not just because of the way it looks; it’s because it’s an artifact of a story, a piece of a person’s life, something that’s passionate and intense. I feel like I’m bringing that reality, that weight, from the tattoo world into the art world. There are hundreds of guys like Tom Slick, blue-collar working-class tattoo artists from the ’70s and ’80s, who’ve all been forgotten.

OLIVIER ZHAM — Now tattooing is fashionable.
SCOTT CAMPBELL Yes, before it was more for bikers and criminals. Mainstream people with tattoos used to keep them a secret. Now I walk around New York covered in tattoos and don’t even think about it. It’s only when I go home in the country down south where I grew up that people look at me differently and I remember, oh yeah, I’m the guy with all the tattoos.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Tattoo artists from the ’70s and ’80s didn’t study their craft at any school…
SCOTT CAMPBELL No, it was a folk-art, a tradition. You can’t learn tattooing from a book. It’s all like an oral tradition. A lot of people learn tattooing in jail and often it’s the only thing they know how to do when they get out. So they get a job at a tattoo shop and try to build a life around that. One person teaches another person and then the second person adds his or her own personal technique, so everyone does it differently. There are no rules — the only thing that matters is the end result.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Like a one-on-one relationship, teacher to student?
SCOTT CAMPBELL Yeah, always, and I love that about tattooing. Even though it’s become very commercialized now, with reality shows featuring tattooed people. Still, you can’t mass-produce a tattoo. It has to be done by hand. No machine can do it.

OLIVIER ZAHM Why tattooing is connected to the military world?
SCOTT CAMPBELL Tattoo shops are often situated close to military bases — every two weeks all the army guys get their paychecks and go get a tattoo. Tattoo shops around Air Force bases are usually only open one week a month because Air Force guys only get paid once a month. Around Army bases they’re open one week and closed the next because the Army guys get paid every two weeks. West Coast tattooing has been influenced by sailors who always had lots of them. In Japan there’s yet another tradition, like the Yakusa, who have their whole body tattooed.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In Japan it’s part of a ritual.
SCOTT CAMPBELL That’s what I like. No matter what you have tattooed on you, you’re communicating with people about something you’re so passionate about that it’s part of your skin. It’s not like wearing a T-shirt. It’s who you are. There’s a weight to that that’s really beautiful. I love the dynamic I have with the people I tattoo.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Like a personal story?
SCOTT CAMPBELL Yes — and I have to figure out something that helps them communicate that story.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Which they’ll live with for a long time.
SCOTT CAMPBELL Oh yeah, every day.

OLIVIER ZAHM— How do you decide where to put a tattoo?
SCOTT CAMPBELL That comes just by doing it thousands of times; it’s something you begin to understand. It also depends on the message of the tattoo. If it’s a message you want to put forward and approach the world with, you don’t want it down on your leg. But some things are very personal and are better more discreetly placed, hidden even — especially if they’re not for everyone to see. But it has to work aesthetically with the body. It’s not like working on a flat canvas. It has to move and interact. So you have to learn the vocabulary of the different muscles and how they work.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you explain your success, given that you have such an aesthetic approach to tattooing?
SCOTT CAMPBELL It’s hard to say. It’s not just a question of reproducing a drawing that someone brings in and tattooing it on their arm. It’s not like using a Xerox machine. I may have had more success than some other tattoo artists because the story is so important to me, the emotion in it. I take pride in my work and take it very seriously when I put a tattoo on someone.

OLIVIER ZAHM— Are people always happy with the tattoos you give them?
SCOTT CAMPBELL So far, yes. [Laughs] By the time I draw the tattoo out on your skin you’re pretty sure what it’s going to look like. By the time I actually put a needle in your skin I make sure you understand exactly what’s happening. So I’ve never had anyone express regret about getting a tattoo from me. Except, of course, when they break up with the people whose name I’ve tattooed on them. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — My friend André was very happy with the tattoo you did for him.
SCOTT CAMPBELLWe had a great time together and the tattoo I did for him captured that moment. I love that dynamic, and to give something special to someone. It’s an emotional thing — and it can be a bit exhausting at times.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because people expect a lot from you?
SCOTT CAMBELL It’s a big responsibility. I don’t want my name linked to something I don’t agree with, something I think is negative. I don’t want to put hateful things out into the world. I don’t want to sound like a hippie, but it’s true. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — People often want specific designs that recur in the tradition of tattooing, right?
SCOTT CAMPBELL Sometimes. For example, a couple of times Marc Jacobs had very specific ideas about what he wanted, but most times it was a matter of us deciding together what was best. One of my favorite ways to work is to ask people for a list of maybe 20 words that describe who they are. Nouns, adjectives — I don’t know, “love,” or “the Eiffel Tower” — a movie, a song, something that’ll help me form an idea, a starting point for what they’re trying to say with their tattoo. The best ones usually come when people are open to where it could go. They let me interpret it. If people have too rigid an idea in their heads, it’s not going to work. It’s coming from my hands, in any case, and I’m going to interpret it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is your work becoming more personal and relying less on traditional codified imagery?
SCOTT CAMPBELL Yes, less on imagery such as that of the black rose or the girl. Often, too, people will look at designs I’ve drawn and we’ll take it from there. Right now I’m doing a series of designs for a show featuring portraits of famous people wearing 3-D glasses — Michael Jackson, JFK, Elvis, Frankenstein, Kermit The Frog, John Waters, Chairman Mao, etc. Marc Jacobs got one of Elizabeth Taylor. For the show I’ll have high-quality photos of the tattoos of the faces with the 3-D glasses. It’s showing a tattoo like you would a painting. It’s just a different medium.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you take the pictures of the tattoos yourself?
SCOTT CAMPBELL Yes. The 3-D glasses give it a common thread. It’s not a literal reference; it’s just a way to play with it, to have fun with it. I like the idea of a room filled with giant iconic heads looking back at you. There’s obviously a humor and playfulness about it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — A tattoo is anyway a three-dimensional work.
SCOTT CAMPBELL Yes, you’r right.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve taken tattooing a long way from roses. I used to think of tattoos as metaphors for love or death.
SCOTT CAMPBELL It depends on what moves you. If love and death are the forces in your life, then it’s fine to use them. Nowadays, anything goes. It used to be driven by the customer saying I want this and then I would do it. Then I began to do more drawings and paintings — and to sell more of them. People respect me for my ideas. It’s my voice speaking through tattoos. It’s changing the dynamic of tattooing. Now because my drawings and paintings and some of my sculptures are collected, some of the collectors are getting my tattoos. People are asking me what they should have tattooed on them.

OLIVIER ZAHM — When you’re so much in demand how do you decide who you’ll tattoo?
SCOTT CAMPBELL It’s about liking the person. I do tattoos for a lot of my friends and family. I do tattooing two or three days a week, and it’s mostly for other artists, people I respect, people I connect with and want to give something to. They’ll have an idea and I like to make it happen for them. I sometimes put designs up on my website and people will write and say they’d like to have one of them tattooed on them. It’s almost like the way someone would sell prints on-line. I’ll do 10 drawings for my site and I’ll announce that they’ll be up for sale at, let’s say, 12 o’clock on Monday. So at that time people can e-mail me a deposit and then they’ll own that design and I’ll tattoo it on them at a later date. It’s like an auction.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do well-known people want you to tattoo them?
SCOTT CAMPBELL Yes. I have a certain number of celebrities and high-profile people in my clientele. That’s the nice thing about New York — everyone comes here at some point.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you feel about tattoos having become so fashionable?
SCOTT CAMPBELL Because there’s so much more exposure of tattooing these days, there’s more attention given to what people are actually having tattooed on themselves. People have a better understanding of tattooing now and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I mean, now anybody can have a tattoo just like anyone can have a painting on his or her wall. It’s more respectable. You might say it’s too fashionable or too cheesy, but I think it’s become like any other medium. What’s done with that medium depends on the artist. It’s a way of communicating a message. What that message is, what the tattoos actually say — that’s the most important thing. It’s important now that tattoos are intelligent — especially now that people are desensitized to someone who is covered in tattoos. Now it’s a question of why people have tattoos.

[Table of contents]