At a certain point, if you asked a successful New York creative person where he or she got their tattoo, the answer would be Scott Campbell. Campbell: Having the acclaim as a tattoo artist definitely gave me access to a lot of artists and stuff that I looked up to.
Campbell: Am I obliged to sever my life as a tattoo artist and move forward as an artist, and redefine myself that way? THR: It must have been gratifying when you had your first show (Make It Rain at OHWOW Gallery, Miami, 2009)? Campbell: It was gratifying and terrifying, because I know I can accomplish what I want to if I just have to give you a tattoo. Campbell: If I give you a tattoo, that tattoo only has to satisfy your needs, nothing else. So, I went down there just with the intention of photographing tattoos, but after being there for even just a couple days, the guys wanted me to do tattoos on them. Campbell: I had played with it a little bit when I was a kid, but being in prison and seeing what they built out of necessity, reconnected me with that. THR: These paintings are really different in person than on the computer screen I first encountered them on. During Louis Vuitton spring ’11 menswear show in Paris some models got temporary tattoo, designed by New York based artist Scott Campbell. Famous Tattoo artist Scott Campbell, also well know for a series of laser-cut etchings, each on a stack of $1 bills. After Chanel, Louis-Vuitton is the second fashion house to use temporary tattoo during fashion week.
Was it something that you were always an artist and you fell into tattooing, or was it something that you were tattooing and you realized it wasn’t as fulfilling as you wanted it to be? His work wasn’t any better or worse than other artists, but I feel like people were hypercritical of him, because he was well known and stepping into another field. I lived there until I was 16, and then I was in Texas for a little bit, and then San Francisco was where I started tattooing. Tattoo culture in prison is something that I’ve always been impressed by, because you have a population of people who are all given an orange suit and all given a number and homogenized into this population.

Obviously they wouldn’t let me bring in tattoo equipment, so we made them out of whatever was available. The whole experience after that, the machines were my favorite thing that I took away from it, because they are these amazing little improvised mechanisms that do become a metaphor -- they reflect those confines and the idea of having very limited resources to accomplish a goal with. I had this same phenomenon with Robert Bechtle, who does these photorealistic family portraits. I think my goal is to produce the most honest work possible, and it would be dishonest if I didn’t acknowledge that. The motors were the hardest thing to come by in there, so I would go and buy old VCRs and cassette players and guitars and I would donate them to the prison for the recreation center, and I would go in the next day, and the prisoners and I would take them all apart and then use the motors. By the way, in Mexico, if you showed up with National Geographic credentials, they don’t care. Because at the prison, I stood out, but I had a reason for being there, and the warden knew I was there, and the people who were walking me around had everything under control.
In prison, the goal is obviously to tattoo people, but then once I started making them with the intention of painting, there is an aesthetic goal as well. The New York-based tattoo artist opened a new exhibition at London’s Shop at Lazarides gallery featuring more laser-cut hundred dollar stacks among other less destructive creative works.
Tattooing is such an intimate thing, and a leap of faith, having important art collectors and museum curators coming to me and getting tattooed, I feel like that was inspiring that they trust me. And I love that, and I love the narratives that come with that, and I think, having been involved with so many personal stories like that, that’s the kind of thing that I like. I looked into it a little bit in the United States, but the bureaucracy and regulations are much stricter.
A lot of the more powerful or influential prisoners in there were actually gang members from L.A. I remember when I was a kid going to the Cy Twombly Museum in Houston, and being blown away. Their discriminating taste is what they based their career on, and for them to be revered for that, and still choose me and trust me so completely gave me a lot of confidence.
But I’m at peace with both my identity as a tattoo artist and my identity as an artist.

Obviously a lot of my work doesn’t necessarily have a direct tie-in to tattooing, but I think that sense of narrative is something that I will always be fond of. Tattoos in that environment have a gravity to them, and I just wanted to be around significant tattoos again instead of the cheeseball reality shows. Campbell took a moment to show me around the gallery, which is full of large watercolor paintings depicting what turn out to be handmade tattoo machines Macgyver might be proud of. His confidence in me, and his encouragement, has been really significant in just figuring out a reason to get out of bed each morning. Fashioned together from telephone cords, plastic spoons, and even a Ken doll leg, the tattoo machines were the result of Campbell’s impromptu visit to a prison in Mexico, where he used the creations to ink inmates.
I was intimidated for a long time, because I felt the art world was a community of people that were more academic and had better posture than I do.
We chatted about transitioning from tattoo artist to fine artist, how to gain access to a Mexican prison, and what his fiancée, actress Lake Bell, thinks about his time among gangsters and murderers. It wasn’t until I got to New York, and I started tattooing a lot of artists and people that I had a lot of respect for and looked up to, that I realized artists are just a bunch of screw-ups like me. When you put a mark down, that mark is in the final product and you have to build around that. There were definitely people that they had issues with that were on the other end of things, but I had a group of people. We were all just fuck-ups that couldn’t get real jobs and had this restlessness in us to make things.
You can only add, you can never subtract, whereas with oil or acrylic, you can layer and layer and give and take and work with it.

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