Q&A WITH SCOTT CAMPBELL
Scott Campbell is obsessed with money. So obsessed that he cuts stacks and stacks of one dollar bills with a laser, creating images of skulls and curtains the move in perfect fluidity. As a resident tattoo artist, Campbell has taken his talent of precision to the next level, opening his first ever solo exhibition in Hong Kong on December 14. The exhibition titled, Using All The Freedoms We Have, showcases these monumental money makings that question the human dependency of currency.
Flaunt got the chance to sit down with the artist from Bumfuck Louisiana who got his first tattoo with a fake ID at age 16.
Talk to me about this body of work, the cut money. Where did that come from?
I started out playing with cutting different things. Everyone correlates tattooing to drawing, but it’s a lot more like carving. That kind of intuition of carving is really something I’m very familiar with. I played with carving in different things like books and layers of paper and then one day I carved a stack of money and it caught me off guard as to how much I was affected by it. My punk rock upbringing, rebelliousness - I fancied myself more evolved than having a deep emotional attachment to money, but there was something really powerful about destroying a bunch of money. I was just intrigued at how I had an emotional reaction to it.
What was that emotional reaction?
I don’t know. It really felt like you were crossing a line. You were defacing something that was deemed sacred by all of us, just by the act of getting up every morning and going to work, that we’ve all agreed, “This is important.” The notion of destroying that substance to communicate an idea or to create something beautiful, I like that. It’s that act of saying, “fuck it” and making something visually, conceptually, and texturally engaging is more interesting to me than the face value of that substrate. I’ve worked with money as a medium for a number of years and coming back to it now, I really feel like it’s the next evolution of me working and it’s been really fascinating seeing the world’s reaction to it. It becomes this Trojan horse where the medium itself is unignorable and you can use people’s emotional attachment with that to plant ideas or concepts to take what you’re doing seriously. So when you see the works, they’re done with so much time and energy and effort and money, that like, okay, wait I have to stop and listen to what this person is saying because there’s obviously real intent behind it. It’s interesting that power and taking the moral stance of making beauty a priority over money.
I’ve seen a lot of your artwork has skull imagery. There’s also one with a teddy bear in it and there’s one that says, “ass, gas, or grass.” The thought process behind all three of those is completely different, can you explain that to me?
My background is tattooing and I think that anything that comes out of my hands will in some ways reflect those experiences. With tattooing I’m exposed to so many human stories and it’s my job to interpret those stories and summarize them; hear someone’s emotional situation and think about what symbol or phrase or what line of poetry best reflects what they’re going through. Because of all those thousands of people that I’ve worked with in that capacity, I really love the power of symbols and playing with different symbols and different text pieces. It’s the suggestion of a larger narrative but you don’t get the whole story. It’s the same way when you see tattoos walking down the street or sitting in a bar, you know something happened there but your mind gets to fill in the rest.
Would you call yourself a storyteller?
I feel like I’m a translator. When I started doing fine arts, so many people assumed I would quit tattooing, and to me they’re two sides of the same coin. Tattooing has its obvious obstructions where you never have true freedom as an art form because your canvas as an opinion of what you do. To get weird or pull things into a different direction, you have to ask for permission; no artist likes to ask permission. But at the same time, in the fine art world and working with other mediums, each piece you have this blank canvas where you have to build something from nothing. It’s nice with tattooing that you never have a blank canvas. You have this person’s story to react to and I love that. People come in and will say, “Do whatever,” but it won’t be whatever because it will be a reaction to you and whoever you are sitting in front of me. A lot of the stories and the emotional dilemma and emotional energy that I get from tattooing, I carry over into the fine arts because I like those human stories. I’m constantly fascinated at how powerful symbols can be to people.
With tattooing are you telling other people’s stories but with fine arts it’s your own story?
I think it’s an acknowledgement that we all have similar stories. Obviously I repeat a lot of imagery such as skulls and flowers but it really is all about our mortality and love. When I try to distill my tattoo experience down to the absolute truths, you really come down to the four or five emotions that people are ascending or descending.
I was tattooing one time in San Francisco at this grimey shop and I was the low guy on the totem pole who had to open and close every day. But I opened up and walked into the shop and turned on the lights, grabbing a broom to start sweeping the floor and I heard the footsteps behind me coming in the door. I turn around and there’s this guy standing in the middle of the waiting room, just very put together, and I asked, “Can I help you?” He said, “I want a butterfly.” I got the butterfly folder and told him to flip through and find something he liked and he didn’t even look at the binder and said, “you pick one, I’m sure whatever you pick will be fine.” I was confused but then I realized that he was blind and long story short I ended up tattooing a butterfly on his chest that I chose and was talking to him about it. He read this book in braille about a man who had a tattoo and overcame his imprisonment. My biggest takeaway was holy-fucking-shit, that’s how powerful the idea of a symbol can be. Here’s a person who has never seen tattoo and who has never seen a butterfly, but the idea that those two things carry meant enough for him to go through this. I though, Holy Fuck, this is an important thing that I’m doing. And tattooing can be really powerful if you give it that reverence and you honor those symbols for what they mean to other people. I’ve collected in the back of my heart somewhere these different stories and try to illustrate them in one little visual thing.
When most people hear the name, Scott Campbell, they’ll think of the tattoo artist who’s done X, Y, and Z artist. Because you are moving toward finer arts but still are a tattoo artist, how do you feel that that’s your title?
To be honest, it really rides the line. I’ll meet people now they don’t know I’m a tattoo artist and vice versa, people who just know me through tattooing. I’m almost more comfortable with tattooing and the responsibility of it and is it hard to navigate? I feel like tattooing is the irresponsible fuck up side of me and then making art work is the “now i’m going to take myself seriously.” People think about tattooing and attach the word permanent to it and I understand that tendency, but tattooing is the most ephemeral medium I work in. In pieces like this, they’ll go live in collections or museums indefinitely, I’ll always have to answer to them. But with tattoos, I’ll put a tattoo on somebody and it’ll go off and get sunburnt or run over by a bus; it lives a life just for that. I really like the relationship with the two because doing tattoos helps remind me that all of this should be fun and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
Looking into the future, where do you see your art evolving?
Oh, I don’t know. I really just feel so grateful that the momentum of my art career is such that I get to keep making things. I feel incredibly privileged and grateful that I have the time and resources to pursue curiosity and let that instruct what I do each day because that’s the dream.
How do you deal with certain reactions that are taboo against having tattoos or cutting up money?
Historically I do have a complicated relationship with authority. You can ask my wife, if you want me to do something, tell me I’m not allowed to do it and she will roll her eyes in agreement. I don’t think tattoos are taboo anymore, it’s become so commonplace which is good. There’s definitely old school tattoo guys who will grumble and moan that now we have to share this craft with the whole world and has been embraced by reality shows and mall culture. It used to be this place where there was a line in the sand and there were people who had tattoos and people who didn’t have tattoos and now it’s more, everybody has tattoos so it’s the question of what do you get tattooed and that’s much more interesting than do you or don’t you. It’s like, how do you choose to represent yourself, given the opportunity to, like really, control your physical identity, what do you do with that? I definitely got into it being a contrary, suburban asshole, but now it’s a craft, another medium just like anyone else.
What would you say to someone who is scared to get a tattoo?
Don’t! I’m the last person who will sell you a tattoo. If you wake up in the morning and you feel uncomfortable in your skin as it is and you feel a need to alter it, then get tattooed, but if you’re comfortable in the skin you have then go with it. When I first got tattooed, I was sixteen and had a fake ID and wanted to revolt against my conservative surroundings. I went into this shitty shop called Dragon Mikes and Tiger Johns and did a skull on my leg with 20 bucks. I just wanted a tattoo and didn’t care what it was. But now, it’s not like that. People put a lot of thought into it and it’s really evolved as an art form and as a medium and it’s not do you or don’t you paint, it’s what do you paint?
Photographed by Sam Bashaw
Art images courtesy of Scott Campbell