By Stephen Ostrowski | July 28, 2016 | People
“I would be a terrible oil painter, because I would just work on one painting for 20 years and keep layering and layering it,” Scott Campbell reasons. But that fastidious attention to detail has launched the Louisiana-born creative to the upper stratosphere of the tattoo world, with celebrity clients including Marc Jacobs and Penelope Cruz.
Tapped by Hennessy to design the latest iteration of its V.S Limited Edition bottle, the ink impresario—who helms the exalted Saved Tattoo parlor in Brooklyn, New York—waxed on his tattoo travails with Michigan Avenue.
In this project, you kind of had carte blanche to undo, or press ‘Control+Z,’ on something, which is a liberty you normally don’t have with tattoos. Was that an interesting situation to find yourself in?
SCOTT CAMPBELL: I think that I’ve thrived at tattooing because you can never change your mind and you can never stop halfway. You’re carving it into someone’s arm or leg or chest, so once it’s set into motion, you just have to go forward and follow through. I think definitely doing thousands and thousands of tattoos over the years has helped me learn how to follow through on other things.
I was redrawing things on that [Hennessy] label until they were like “You have to send it to print in ten minutes. You have to.” Because I will redo things and redo it until the whistle blows and [it’s] “pencils down.” This was no different. But it’s just because I enjoy it and I get excited, and it’s like, “Oh wait! I can change this one little tiny curlicue and make it a little bit more like this.”
And on the back of the bottle you wrote, “Love without hesitation.” And I saw that the logic or the rationale behind that was, to borrow your words, “Once you love without hesitation, you become invincible.” What do you mean by that and why do you think that ethos was appropriate for this project?
SC: I’ve worked in a lot of different tattoo shops and whenever somebody comes in and they’re like, “Oh, I want my boyfriend’s name,” or, “I want my girlfriend’s name,” I feel like there’s this textbook speech that all tattoo artists give, where it’s like, “Are you sure this is the one? You know this is forever?”
I always go the opposite route. I’m just like, “Yeah, screw it.” If you’re feeling it today, do it with everything you’ve got. Get their name tattooed on you. Because at the end of the day, having a couple of ex-lovers’ names tattooed on you is much less tragic than being 60 years old and having never allowed yourself to really give yourself wholly. That ability to love something and be uncomfortable in that unknown state, and not need absolutes and not need guarantees is a really powerful thing. It’s a really amazing ability to learn.
Scott Campbell's design in progress for the Hennessy V.S Limited Edition bottle.
And then, with the wings, it sounds like you had this transitory young adult experience, so it seems like a personal touch, or a visual that there’s another shared ground there.
SC: Part of the romance that tattooing holds that pulled me in was the freedom of it. It provided me with an opportunity to just draw pictures and still have the ability to travel and wander around and go to all these different places and reinvent myself in each one, and all I needed was my hands and a couple of tools. I didn’t have to speak the language or anything.
I spent the first half of my 20s traveling and tattooing people, the majority of whom spoke different languages. And I’m so grateful for that experience and it’s—yeah, that type of freedom is something that I think everyone needs to experience at some point.
Obviously what preceded that was you leaving school to go after and realize your dreams. What would you say to anyone that’s at that push-and-pull intersection of doing what’s expected of them versus what they’re attracted to?
SC: You have to do what makes your heart excited. Because you’re going to get pulled in that direction anyway. I love drawing pictures and I was a shitty waiter, because the whole time I was waiting tables, I was just thinking about drawing pictures. So you have to do what you fantasize about doing, because that’s the only thing that you’ll do completely.
I’m lucky that I still get to feed myself and my family doing that. I’m so grateful in making that decision when I was 19 and running away from school and what I was supposed to be doing; it was definitely a moment where I had to accept the consequences and just be like, “I’m going to go do this. I’m going to draw pictures, and if I have to panhandle all day and then draw pictures at night, that’s what I’m going to do.” And then I happened upon tattooing, and it was a way for me to draw pictures and still keep my landlord happy the first of each month. I think you have to accept that you’re going on a path and the world might not follow you there. You might be the only one going that direction. But if that’s where you’re pulled, you have to go.
What were those original drawings that you were doing as a kid? Was it graphic novels or comic strips or what was influencing you?
SC: It was a lot of like metal-head, like I was just copying stuff. I just copied all the Metallica t-shirts and all those Pushead skull drawings and Danzig album covers and it was all music-inspired stuff. And then I was the kid who—in my little punk rock kid friends—I was the one that would always paint the band logos on the back of everyone’s jean jacket. So it kind of evolved from me doing that to me carving it into their arms.
How do you either consciously synthesize or consciously avoid synthesizing other visual cues to keep your work authentic to your experience?
SC: There’s definitely pros and cons to living in an age with Google Image searching and Instagram. I definitely kind of go back and forth, and like up and down, and through a cycle of just thinking [that] Instagram’s the coolest thing ever and how amazing is it that I can see what some kid in Malaysia is tattooing on his cousin right now—and then a week later I’ll just be like, “OK, I need to get lost in my own world,” and I’ll like stop following everyone except for my wife and then kind of get lost in my own world.
I mean to be honest, in my studio I have, on my computer, a file of images that I like and I print books of them. I go online and I print these 200-page volumes of just visual reference. Some of it’s pictures I’ve taken, some of it’s old tattoo flash that I’ve scanned, some of it’s old album covers, and so whenever I get to a place where I’m kind of like, “What next?” I go through these volumes of analog tangible books of pictures. I do think there’s something special about holding it in your hand and turning the pages that, I don’t know, I just connect with it better than on a screen.
You talk about the tactility of it, tattooing as an art form is all about literally the physicality and the tactility of the experience.
SC: I’m very much a believer that the power of a tattoo is maybe like 20% aesthetic and 80% the experience and kind of the juju that goes into it. You can have a tattoo that is perfectly executed but if you have a miserable experience getting it, then it’s a shitty tattoo, and every time you look at it you’ll remember that experience—whereas I have tattoos that technically are terrible, but I look at them and I have the fondest memories just because the experience of getting them was so great.
I think with whatever momentum or notoriety I’ve gained as a tattoo artist it’s not because I’m a better tattooer than anyone else. I think it’s primarily because I really try to honor the ritual of tattooing and really try to make sure each one is honest and sincere to the person that’s wearing it.
Like, one of my favorite tattoos ever was this one, [do] you know an artist named Wes Lang by chance?
Yeah, absolutely, he did—
SC: —the Kanye stuff. So he’s like one of my oldest friends. When we were 19 we did these little stick-and-poke tattoos on each other [unfurls pant leg] and he did this on me and it came out so shitty that he tattooed the word “Sorry” underneath it as an apology [laughs]. And that’s, like, one of my greatest tattoos ever, and it’s arguably the worst as well.
What onus does that put on you as a creator to develop your craft in a way where you play a better part in the experience?
SC: I found out that the tattoos come out really well when I really put the energy in to be curious about the person getting them. And so our conversations about the tattoo are not aesthetic. It’s not like what color or that, it’s really like, “Why are you here? What is this idea that you have that is so motivating and so powerful to you that the t-shirt isn’t enough, the bumper sticker isn’t enough? Like, why are you here?” And sometimes it takes a little bit of a conversation to even get them to realize why they’re there.
Hennessy V.S Limited Edition bottle.
I don’t have any tattoos, and my justification—at least in my paradigm—is that I don’t feel like I have anything that’s significant enough to me that I would want to commemorate. But I think that that’s a really short-sighted way to of looking at it, because that’s not the only criteria through which you can look at getting a tattoo.
SC: You’re never going to find a symbol that summarizes your whole being. That’s never going to exist. Just keep it fun. Because life is long. And you’re going to have so many days in your life. And on one of those days, you might go get a tattoo, and that tattoo reflects who you were on that day. And it doesn’t trap you in that moment. If you get a tattoo right now of something that made you smile, it’s not going to trap you in the person you are. You’re still going to grow and evolve as a person, you’re just going to have that one day documented on you. And there’s an honesty in that.
Having a lot of tattoos, it just takes away the luxury of denial. If you erased all my tattoos right now and said “OK, now start over again” would I get the same things? Of course not. Because I’m not the same person I was when I was 17, but that doesn’t mean I regret them. I think as long as you have fun getting it, you’ll never, ever regret it. Just don’t too put much pressure on it.
Conversely, is there any tattoo you regret giving to anyone?
SC: It’s an interesting question because it’s not that I think no one should ever regret a tattoo, I think you just have to respect their honesty. My head automatically goes to like facial tattoos because obviously they have such an enormous potential for regret because they take away your anonymity—like you have a lizard tattooed on the side of the face, nobody’s ever going to remember your name, they’re just going to know you as the guy that has this lizard tattooed to the side of his face.
I don’t think regret’s a healthy thing. I really do think that acceptance is the healthier path to take. Like I said, I’ve done things in my life that, knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t do. But, I had to do them to get to where I am. You, with no tattoos, have done things in your life that, knowing what you do now, you wouldn’t do again, but mine just left marks and yours didn’t. We can’t change the past. I don’t know, maybe having tattoos helps you accept that [laughs].
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY HENNESSY
January 4, 2019