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Raymond Pettibon vs Scott Campbell

The outsider artists and ex-prison-buddies trade war stories in NY as acceptance beckons

Trawling the backwaters of American pop culture, Raymond Pettibon’s dark, inky drawings have come to define punk rock rebellion, in particular his album covers for Cerebral Ballzy, Sonic Youth and Black Flag. His tattooist and artist friend Scott Campbell has inked the likes of Robert Downey Jr, Courtney Love and Marc Jacobs at his cult Williamsburg shop, Saved Tattoo, and exhibited paintings and sculptures across the world. It’s all a far cry from when their paths first crossed...

Scott Campbell: When you and I first met, we were in prison out in California. You’d been there a while, and I had just got in. I was looking to find people that had been on the cell block a while to show me the ropes. I was just a scared little white kid and you helped me out a lot. 

Raymond Pettibon: They were trumped-up charges. Mine was for copyright infringement and yours was for counterfeiting. Making hearts out of c-notes. (laughs)

Scott Campbell: We were both obviously innocent.

Raymond Pettibon: California — well, the US — is just one big prison system really.

Scott Campbell: I ended up tattooing as a way to get extra Cup-a-Soups – cigarettes and Cup-a-Soups were currency — but you were definitely the most skilled artist in there. 

Raymond Pettibon: I got tired of doing all those swastikas. I would work for the Aryan gangs, the black gangs, the Mexican gangs, the Nortenos, all different variations. Not because I’m mixed race but because I’m just straight, you know, into gang violence, whatever stripe or colour it is. Growing up in LA is like growing up in a melting pot, and you can make a shank or a tattoo needle out of anything. And whatever you start with, it’s going to spit blood at the end. When you’re doing 25 to life, there’s doing 5,000 reps a day and not much else to do except push-ups with your little finger.

Growing up in LA is like growing up in a melting pot. You can make a tattoo needle out of anything. Whatever you start with, it’ll spit blood at the end

Scott Campbell: The hardest part was getting enough protein in your diet, ’cause all they had was bologna sandwiches.

Raymond Pettibon: County jail bologna sandwiches are the worst.

Scott Campbell: Nutrition was the hardest part in jail. Other than that, well, push-ups were free. Do your drawings reflect prison at all? There’s a lot of criminal activity in them.

Raymond Pettibon: Where do you draw the line? Any subject matter is fair game for my work.

Scott Campbell: I remember the last time I ran into you, you were working with kids in LA for this programme buying puppy dogs as a way of keeping kids out of trouble.

Raymond Pettibon: Well, in a way they raise the kids and the kids raise them. It’s a responsibility to have someone to take care of. Like the way people look at 14-year-old girls, especially if they’re not straight-laced white girls, who have the kid and whatever that entails. That’s another human life and that’s a lot of responsibility.

Scott Campbell: Do you want to talk about having a kid? Or is that too personal?

Raymond Pettibon: I don’t know if it’s too personal because I’m still trying to figure out who’s the father! I mean, maybe Aïda (Ruilova, wife) can help you out with that! He’s a really good kid, he’s 17 months and he’s starting to talk.

So, do you still eat Cup-a-Soup? ’Cause I know I have a hard time with that flavour. The smell brings me back to the inside

Scott Campbell: When I walked in you were doing a drawing of him. Does he pop up in your work a lot? 

Raymond Pettibon: I’ve done drawings of him — it’s hard not to because of the love I have for him. And in a few years I imagine we’ll be collaborating on art. I’ve done that already with my early work that my mother fortunately saved. Kids tend to draw if you put a crayon or a piece of paper in front of them. And that’s something I look forward to. Working together, you know.

Scott Campbell: Obviously text is a big part of your work, and its placement with different images. What comes first?

Raymond Pettibon: It’s both. There are images that pop up quite a bit. I write a lot based on certain images, but I also like to start with an image out of leftfield, like found images or improvised on the spot. You can see the stacks of work here, but I don’t think anything is finished. Some of them take a long time to congeal. 

Scott Campbell: Black ink on white paper is so unforgiving. Does that help dictate the process, because you can’t change 
your answers?

Raymond Pettibon: Instead of correcting myself I’ll work around it or through it. Watercolour, acrylic, gouache and ink are unforgiving, but if I make mistakes they can be fortuitous and make it go in an unforeseen direction. 

Scott Campbell: I really like that about your work, that there isn’t any backtracking. With tattooing, the fuck-ups just become part of it. There’s an honesty to that. You have to follow it wherever it goes and make it into something you’re happy with.

Raymond Pettibon: I can imagine the relationship with tattooing, because you’re working on someone’s skin – that’s a commitment that’s more or less lifelong. That’s one reason I’ve never been able to do commercial art, because you have this relationship with the person who’s paying for it, it’s stifling. In my art I don’t explain everything, because it’s disrespectful of the audience. I hope that people respect that I respect my audience and their commitment. At least I’m not going to put in any hidden Illuminati references.

The consequences of doing a spider web on the throat of someone who is going to die in a week are much more severe than messing up a dolphin on some girl’s ankle

Scott Campbell: I would never want to read a dissection of your work. The lasting impression doesn’t need a reason. So, do you still eat Cup-a-Soup? ’Cause I know I have a hard time with that flavour. The smell brings me back to the inside.

Raymond Pettibon: I stay away from them because they have so much salt, it’s ridiculous.

Scott Campbell: Everything I know about surviving on the inside I learned from you. You were the one who said, ‘Look kid, you gotta make yourself useful.’ And that’s how I got into tattooing. I had to make myself useful.

Raymond Pettibon: That’s hardcore. You can’t hang someone twice. That’s the crucible of tattooing. Are you a fan of prison tattooing?

Scott Campbell: It’s the real deal. The consequences of doing a spider web on the throat of someone who is going to die in a week are much more severe than messing up a dolphin on some girl’s ankle.

Raymond Pettibon: I don’t know, some of these bitches can be pretty hardcore these days.

Scott Campbell: We were on the same cell block for just a few months, weren’t we?

Raymond Pettibon: And then you broke out, I mean you got paroled. Didn’t you do a butterfly on your lawyer’s mistress?

Scott Campbell: Yeah, the guards and their girlfriends, too! Extra bologna sandwiches!