Scott Campbell is one of the most respected and well-known tattoo artists in the business and loved by some of Hollywood’s brightest stars. He is also known as the “world’s most expensive tattoo artist”. He has since gone on to work in fine art, as well as making sculptures and drawings. Now with his collaboration with Hennessy for their limited edition bottle, designed by Scott, he says that all of his work somehow connects back to tattooing.
Read our exclusive interview below:
How would you sum up your background as a tattoo artist?
I started tattooing when I was nineteen, really because I wasn’t good at anything other than drawing pictures and my landlord kept bugging me for money every month, so I had to figure out a way to feed myself with what I had at hand. I was a little punk rock kid in San Fransisco and I was the one who would always paint on the back of everyone’s denim or leather jackets, and it kind of just evolved from drawing up people’s jackets to carving into their arms. I had been getting a lot of tattoos growing up and I was always fascinated with the lifestyle and the freedom that tattoo artists seemed to have. For me, it was a way to go anywhere in the world, not even have to speak the language, just know a few people at a tattoo shop and then I could start a life from there.
For me, it was a way to go anywhere in the world, not even have to speak the language, just know a few people at a tattoo shop and then I could start a life from there. So I travelled a lot, I lived in Japan for a while, then in Spain, in France and you know for a kid in his early twenties that was the dream! I could just reinvent myself every six months in a whole new place, and all I had to do was to draw pictures. It was great! I had a lot of fun, I thought I would travel forever and I was like “I’m a gypsy, I’m never going to stop” and then I got to New York City and New York is one of those places where you can sit still but still feel like you’re moving. It’s such a river of stimulus that you could just stop there and have a decade go by before you realise it.
You were originally set for a career as a medical illustrator, and kind of inadvertently started tattooing. How did that happen?
I went to school for biochemistry in Texas. It’s pretty safe to say today that I made a better tattoo artist than I am a biochemist, I’ll give you that! (laughs) But I love science, I’ve always really been into science and I still try to follow what’s going on in that world as much as possible these days. But the revelation that I wasn’t really going to pursue science happened while I was in college. I was basically working under this professor who was trying to define what was happening in a certain reaction in this specific bacteria’s metabolism. He had been focusing on this single problem for twelve years, trying to isolate this one little protein. And it just so happened that while I was going to school there he solved the problem. He published papers on it, received kudos and kind of had his moment. And as I saw it unfolding in front of me, I was like “I don’t have a twelve-year attention span! I can’t do this!”.
You know, I need to do something every day and at the end of the day be able to look and be like “this is what I made today”. I need gratification. And so I didn’t know I was going to end up tattooing, but I just knew I was in the wrong place. It was a brutal revelation, and I dropped out. I started tattooing not long after that, as a way to support myself. And that was the first time I ever made a living. The fist time I stopped panicking about where my next meal would come from is once I started tattooing, and started having cash in my pocket every day. At the time, all I hoped for was to be able to support myself without having to get a job. Of course, the irony of me sitting here now is realising that for twenty years I’ve been avoiding a job and accidentally found myself with a career.
What was the very first tattoo you put on someone?
I had been getting a lot of tattoos, so I knew a couple of tattoo artists around town and I had seen it done on myself a lot. I had a good buddy who was haunting me to tattoo him, he was like “I want you to tattoo me!” and I was like “This is ridiculous, man!”. I told him “I’ll draw you a picture, you can take it to somebody who knows what they’re doing and then have them do it.” and he was like “No, I want your hands to do it. I want you to make it for me.” And finally one day, he showed up at my house with a tattoo machine and he was like “Look, I bought this for you, it’s a gift. But to pay me back, you have to tattoo me with it.” And it was just one of these moments in your life when someone else believes in you more than you believe in yourself, and it inspires you to be the person they think you are. So he kind of pushed me off that edge to actually start doing tattoos and people just started showing up at my house pretty quickly after that… Granted these were just a bunch of little punk rock kids whose skin is not very precious.
How would you define your approach to tattooing?
I love tattooing. Nowadays my life gets pulled into different directions because I work on a lot of art projects and work in mediums other than just people’s arms and legs, but tattooing is still what I know. That’s my home base, that’s what my hands know how to do. I think that, even with that first guy who was adamant about me tattooing him, I really try and stay loyal to the idea that it’s more about the ritual and it’s more about the experience, that what you’re left with afterwards. If the experience is positive, then you’ll have positive associations with that tattoo. He obviously pushed me towards that because he knew the first tattoo I did was going to look terrible, but it wasn’t about that. We were really good friends and he wanted something from me.
You’ve said that one of your ambitions as a tattoo artist was to take tattoo art away from “mall culture” and reality shows and bring back “the true art of tattooing”. What to you is the true art of tattooing about?
I do feel like there is a lot of reality shows and “sensationalised” tattoo culture out there. Me saying this was less about me starting a crusade to take back tattooing than it was about me having spent twenty years doing this and getting good at it, and not accepting the fact that mall culture could steal it from me. Of course, now there’s countless reality shows about tattooing, you see tattoos everywhere, it’s a part of mainstream culture and I think that has changed it, but it’s not necessarily in such a bad way. I think it’s brought new awareness to tattooing, which is nice.
When I first started getting tattooed, there was like a line in the sand: you had people who had tattoos and people who didn’t have tattoos, and you were either one or the other. Whereas now, everyone has tattoos, so the question is more “What do you have tattooed” and there’s a lot more thought that goes into it. Just having a tattoo isn’t that big of a deal anymore so, if you get a tattoo, whatever the design is, the idea needs to be powerful in order for that tattoo to be powerful. I’m all about the real magic in the ritual of tattooing, what’s really personal and spontaneous. That idea has kind of glazed over a lot of what I do, and a lot of my energy is put into seeking out and kind of distilling what is genuinely magic about tattooing, and focusing on that, and entirely skipping over the mall culture version of tattooing.
What’s special to you about working on Skin?
It’s funny because people assume that working on skin, there’s more pressure than working on canvas or on paper, but I feel much freer working on people sometimes than other mediums. When people talk about tattoos, they often think about the word “permanent”, but in reality, skin is the most ephemeral medium I work on. Paintings and drawings will hang on people’s walls or go to museums and live forever whereas someone’s arm only has a certain lifespan. It’ll get sunburnt, wrinkled or permanently damaged, you know. Once they’re inked on skin, tattoos have a life of their own and I like that about the art form. I like the fact there’s no resale value to tattoos. You know, none of my tattoos will ever end up at auction.
How did you become the “tattoo artist to the stars” and “world’s most expensive tattoo artist” that mainstream media has often pictured you as?
I think it was just being a tattoo artist in downtown New York at a moment when there was a really exciting community of people that were doing cool stuff and have since made their mark on the world. I don’t really know how it happened or why they came to me. You’d have to ask them! (Laughs)
You’ve created your own Tattoo parlour in New York, “Saved Tattoo”. What to you was different and utterly unique about this endeavour?
I opened “Saved Tattoo” about 12 years ago. It just started off as me in a room doing tattoos. I just was kind of frustrated with what tattoo shops were at the time, and I wanted to kind of have my own space to really have control of the whole experience. A couple of other tattoo artists really liked it there, and they came and really just started working with me and then we got a bigger space and it just turned into this really great family of artists. A lot of people hear the name “Saved” and they always ask if it’s there’s a religious connotation behind it, but in reality, it was just a way of saying that we were saved from having to get real jobs and to interact with “the real world”.
You often equate tattooing to folk art. Can you elaborate on that?
I really do feel like tattooing is more a folk art because each one is made for a person, by hand. There’s no school for tattooing, there’s no college degree in tattooing, there’s just an oral tradition that’s passed on from one person to another. There’s a real specialness in that. Tattoos will never be mass-produced. It’s like this last trade that can’t be modernised. Maybe in 10 years there’ll be vending machines in malls that laser etch tattoos onto your arm, but for now, it’s still pretty analogue. Tattoos inevitably have the hand of the person making them in it, and even the most perfect tattoos have imperfections. And I think it’s better that way, it’s good to get a little sense of the process, so it’s not just a sticker. To me, a good tattoo is 20% aesthetics and 80% the experience, and the juju that went into getting it.
What to you is powerful about the act of getting tattooed?
The act of getting tattooed is powerful because, in a small kind of symbolic way, it’s a way for someone to decide to change who they are for the rest of their life. You know, like “I’m going to make this spider on my forearm and for the rest of my life, I will be a person that has a spider on the forearm”. And I think it’s an amazing capacity to be able to change yourself and take control of your life path in that way. I’ve done different projects experimenting with that gesture and that leap of faith and this particular moment when people let go of taking their physical selves as precious and let themselves have an amazing experience that just might leave a residue on them for the rest of their lives.
You’ve done a lot of interesting work using tattooing or a certain approach to tattooing to engage people with cool ideas in unprecedented ways, like the mentorship concept you recently developed with Free Arts NYC. How can tattoos be used to get ideas and messages across?
I think the power of a tattoo is that it holds stories. I think with tattoos, it does command a little more attention than a bumper sticker or a T-shirt because, whatever the idea is, people have given some of their physical selves to put it out there. So it commands a little more consideration. I recently got a bunch of people together who were all willing to get some anonymous kid’s name tattooed on them just for the sake of making that kid’s day, or week, or year. I always want to encourage people to give more, like “Don’t take yourself so seriously. If you can give a couple square inches of your skin, and it could change a kid’s life, you should give that up with enthusiasm!”