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Marc Jacobs Scott Campbell WWD
Marc Jacobs being tattooed by Scott CampbellPhotography Craig McDean, via WWD

Why Scott Campbell is the tattoo world’s anti-hero

‘I've tattooed murderous bikers who kill people for a living and Jennifer Aniston – and everything in between’

As I walk into Sang Bleu’s tattoo/art space on Dalston Lane to interview tattooist, Scott Campbell, there’s a familiar buzz of a tattoo gun but no sign of Scott. “He’s just downstairs finishing off a tattoo”, the PR tells me. I’m in no rush, but given he’s here to celebrate a collaboration with Hennessy – with whom he’s designed a limited edition bottle for its artist series – you’d think he’d want to take a breather from the blood, the ink, and the gun.

A few moments later, an enthusiastic man comes upstairs nursing an arm wrapped in a black bandage. Beaming, he passes around an iPhone with a photo of the new addition to his bicep as everyone nods in approval. The client is one of the lucky few who the tattooist will ink while in London until he returns for Frieze in October to re-stage “Whole Glory”. An exhibition of sorts, “Whole Glory” – a play on the glory hole – is where people place their arm through a hole in the wall to a waiting Campbell who tattoos whatever is on his mind – for free. The punter has no idea what they’re getting until it’s done. It’s this level of trust that marks his reputation as one of the world’s most sought after tattooists. People don’t care what they get, they just want to get something from him.

Born into a conservative household in Louisiana, after dropping out of a degree in biochemistry, a teenage Campbell left for California and found his way into a tattoo studio called Picture Machine where the manager was moonlighting as a meth dealer. Campbell didn’t care – he was busy soaking up everything he could about the art of tattooing. Five years later he would cross the country to open his own shop in New York, Saved Tattoo. Clients such as Marc Jacobs, Jennifer Aniston, Vera Wang, and the late Heath Ledger began to roll through the door and the label ‘celebrity tattooist’ began to be thrown around. But labels don’t faze him and instead, he puts his success down to an ability to mix the insider worlds of art and fashion with the outsider one of tattooing – “it’s like the stripper of the art world”, he quips. Clearly, his worth is made up of more than a few celeb co-signs.

Alongside taking bookings in his shop, Campbell has found the time to collaborate on Louis Vuitton’s SS11 menswear collection, turn art shows into tattoo conventions, and spend time in a Mexican prison making DIY tattoo guns with inmates. In 2009, he found himself inside the white cube, hosting his first solo art show at Miami’s OHWOW Gallery. As he hits London for a few days to launch the collaboration, we get to know the polymath.

“In my work, and in what I’ve done, there is a real magic in the ritual of tattooing” – Scott Campbell

You opened your own shop after tattooing for just five years. Is that a natural progression?

Scott Campbell: I don't know if it's that I picked up on things really fast or I just got frustrated with what tattoo shops were really fast. I was working in other shops and I realised that I'm really sensitive to my environment. And in order to be creative, it's important to be in a creative environment. I opened my own shop just so that I could control it and immerse myself in things that inspire me.

How did you do things differently?

Scott Campbell: In New York, I think there wasn't anybody taking tattooing really seriously, and being there, I was exposed to a lot of the art scene in New York. I was doing tattoos but at the same time, I was very aware of participating in the fine art community. I had a really good relationship with seeing outside of the little tattoo bubble. Whatever success or anything that I've had, I'm the last person that would claim to be able to tattoo better than anybody else. I think if there's anything that set me apart, the ritual of doing tattoos and the relationship with the client is really, really important to me. Whatever kind of emotional situation people were going through that brought them into the shop, I wanted to make sure what I did honoured that; respectful of it.

How did working with Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton come about?

Scott Campbell: I would attribute most of it to New York, and just the machine that is New York. I feel like anyone who pops up on the radar in New York for any reason is sucked into the fashion world somehow. I don't know because I don't shop for clothes. It's funny that I'm a big fan of Marc Jacobs' clothes but I arrived at that through being really good friends with Marc, and really appreciating him as an artist and a person. And just loving the clothes because it comes from a good friend of mine.

How did you meet him?

Scott Campbell: I met Marc because I had tattooed a couple of models that were in his show and he saw my tattoos on the models and asked them who did it. Then called me up and wanted to get tattooed, so he came by the studio. I didn't really know what to expect, I didn't know anything about Marc Jacobs other than that I saw the shopping bags walking around Soho all the time. And I was expecting this big fashion-y entourage and he came in there and was just so humble and respectful. It caught me off-guard as for how a genuine person he is. So I did one tattoo on him and over the course of the next few years, I've probably done 30 on him.

There's this whole celebrity tattoo thing – TV names and shows like Kat Von Dee, Miami Ink etc., how do you feel about this rise in the celebrity tattooist?

Scott Campbell: Tattooing's changed a lot. When I started getting tattooed, it was a much different thing. There's a lot of the older generation tattooers who grumble and groan at what it's become. I love tattooing, I really do, and I can't complain that anyone else would love tattooing also. With all the exposure that tattooing has now comes a better understanding of tattooing, and that's never a bad thing.

When I first was getting tattooed, anytime I'd go through customs with a short-sleeved shirt on, they would search all my bags. And now it's not the case. It's nice. Now you go into a bank and everyone has green hair and tattoos, and it's no big deal. That side of it is nice. When all those reality shows started coming along, tattooing itself was kind of shocking and something that people didn't understand. Whereas now, I feel it's no big deal. It's not shocking, so people put a lot more thought and energy into what they get tattooed.

In my work, and in what I've done, there is a real magic in the ritual of tattooing. There's a real special exchange. I try to be loyal to that and have that be the core of my work, which is why I've done a lot of projects in prisons in Mexico or in Afghanistan with the soldiers there. I'm inspired when I do tattoos that have a real powerful purpose. When people are going through emotional situations that are extreme; tattooing can really help them process what they've been going through, and give them the opportunity to sit down and really distil? Like, what can I give you on your body that you can draw strength from? Or draw comfort from? Like that kind of tattooing is what I get excited about.

I've tattooed murderous bikers who kill people for a living and Jennifer Aniston – and everything in between.

Tell us about going into a Mexico prison for six months.

I didn't really know why I was there, I just knew I was really interested in prison tattoo culture because you have this environment where everyone is given a uniform and a number and so tattoos become a really important way to communicate and have some sort of identity. I just went there out of my own curiosity and ended up becoming friendly with a lot of the inmates and when they heard I was a tattooer, they all wanted to get tattooed so we started building these little Frankenstein tattooing machines out of whatever we could find.

Did they allow you to do that as well?

Scott Campbell: No. I mean, it's Mexico, so I bought the receptionist some flowers and kept friendly with the warden down there so they turned their head. But they still wouldn't let me bring any equipment in there. It's funny... the best motors we could find inside there came out of VCRs and so, I went to the flea market there and bought ten VCRs and donated it to the prison recreation centre. And then went in the next day, we took them all apart and made tattoo machines out of them. Yeah, it was fun.

Afterwards, I did these big 6 x 8 ft watercolour paintings of machines, so they became just these weird, vague architectural structures – it's me pulling elements out of the tattoo world. The machines really became beautiful symbols of the ingenuity and humanity that you find in a place that's that oppressive.

Why did you decide to start making artwork?

Scott Campbell: Tattooing is amazing and special; it's almost like a folk art than an actual art form. But tattooers are the strippers of the art world. You get into it when you're young because it's the freedom of the lifestyle but there's no retirement plan; it's really hard on you physically and at the end of the day, no matter how famous a tattoo artist you are, it's still a service industry. You're still taking requests.

Crossing over into the fine art world was really exciting because I could take the manual skills I learned in tattooing and the sense of narrative, the symbols, and storytelling that you need to have to be a good tattooer and render that in mediums that can resonate further and reach a broader audience. That was really exciting – that I could make things that thousands of people would see instead of just a handful. And yeah, it was really interesting. It's incredibly fulfilling but at the same time, I'll never let go of tattooing completely. I do really love it.

So you didn't go into the prison thinking that this was going to be an art exhibition?

Scott Campbell: No, I went in there just because it was when all those tattoo reality shows were coming online and becoming really popular. I had to reconcile that this was something that I'd done for a long time and was really passionate about. I just wanted to take a step back and really connect with tattooing that was visceral, and real, and not superficial. I really was there to just find myself again, to reintroduce myself to tattooing.

What was your first tattoo?

Scott Campbell: My first tattoo was this little skull on my leg. I mean, I was 15 years old and I went into this grimy biker shop and I had 25 dollars and a fake id. And I literally walked in there and went, "What can I get for 25 bucks?" And he was like, "You can get this skull or you can get this butterfly". It was the kind of place where I probably would have gotten beaten up if I got a butterfly and so I got a little skull on my leg. I was young and at that age where you're pushing against your surroundings and trying to figure out who you are. It was the most economical way of upsetting my parents with 25 dollars – the most efficient way possible.

Your mother has passed now but you recalled in another interview that she once said if you came home with a tattoo that she'd shoot you herself.

Scott Campbell: Yep. She came from a really lower class family and married my father who was a little more upper class, and I think she always tried to insulate my sister and I from her upbringing, like she really tried to push it away and protect us from it. Obviously, I have to believe that she would be proud of me for today. But I understand her reasons for really being opposed to it. It's okay.

What can we expect to see at your upcoming show at Frieze London?

Scott Campbell: I did a project called “Whole Glory” so I'm doing one of those and I'm showing a new body of work that I'm really excited about. I'm doing these tattooed pig skin, almost quilts. It's all little scraps of actual skin that are tattooed and are stitched together. They're encased in formaldehyde in frames and it hangs on the wall, so they're like these tapestries.

I'm excited because my hands can tattoo better than they can do anything else. I'm more comfortable tattooing than drawing on paper, and it's the first time that I've been able to capture the skills of that craft in a way that I can hang on a wall.

You’ve said that tattooing is not the most permanent form of doing art, but working with canvas is.

Scott Campbell: Totally, yeah. It goes to museums and it'll live forever. But this is archival tattoos, so I'm excited about that. I'm really excited to show it. It's not in the main fair; we got this space in Covent Garden, so I'm having an opening for the artwork and then for three days, I'll be doing tattoos in the space and the “Whole Glory” thing as well.

Tell us about the collaboration with Hennessy – Ryan McGinness nominated you.

Scott Campbell: Hennessy work with a different artist each year to do a limited edition bottle and they have a really great programme where each artist they work with then nominates the next artist. I want to protect the integrity of this tradition so I'm going to nominate an artist that I really respect because it makes the whole lineage of people who've done bottles better. It's been really fun.

What was the inspiration behind the design?

Scott Campbell: I went to France and toured their facilities. At first, we were trying to find where our worlds overlapped and then I realised a collaboration is more interesting because of people's differences not because of their similarities. If you have two people that think alike it's a boring collaboration. We have to emphasise our differences – that's what makes something new.

The Hennessy Very Special Limited Edition series is an ongoing collaboration between Hennessy and renowned artists from all over the world. Scott Campbell’s collaboration is now available for purchase

From 7 – 9 October, Campbell will be tattooing people during Frieze London as part of “Whole Glory”. For more information, click here