Scott Campbell On How Tattoos Reconcile Your Past
A little rain on a Saturday afternoon didn’t stop the Lobsta Truck from selling rolls outside Whole Glory, Scott Campbell’s blind tattooing installation at the Shinola store in downtown Los Angeles. Both the lobsters and Campbell traveled across the country to share their glory with LA’s Art District, in a minimal, serene space with a chilly cement floor and towering glass doors that open out onto E 3rd Street, the district’s main drag of coffee shops, boutiques, and said lobster truck staple.
As in the New York version of Whole Glory, which took place at the Milk Gallery, the focal point of the installation is a picket fence covered in Campbell’s designs, which he told us symbolize his suburban childhood in Louisiana. The fence comes equipped with a hole, through which people—or rather, human canvasses—can stick their arms through for a tattoo. The kicker? They have no idea what they’re getting. Campbell sits behind the fence and tattoos whatever he wants, like the ultimate great and powerful wizard.
When we visited Whole Glory, the scene was pretty relaxed. There wasn’t too much work for the security guard, who straight up told us “I can’t [be blind- tattooed] because I’m working.” Passers-by strolled through the fluid and uncluttered space to view Campbell’s work, inquiring about people whose appendages seem to be disappearing through a hole. But we managed to catch up with the man behind the magic, chatting about blind tattooing, traumatizing Disney characters, and advice for first-time tattooees.
I assume you want to know nothing about the person you just tattooed.
They had fancy fingernails, I know that!
Do you use the contours of the person’s arm to influence you?
Sometimes! The tattoos aren’t that large, though. On larger tattoos, you can really play with that, but I’m trying to keep it to around an hour each. So you’re not covering too much square footage. You’re mostly focusing on the patterns and the symbols, more than the actual ergonomics.
Have you ever come across any scarring or anything?
Definitely. There was a guy in New York who came through, where his whole arm—from his hand, to as far as I could see—was covered in burn scars. It was amazing. He didn’t have any tattoos, and when his arm came through here it kind of caught me off guard, and I had to figure out what to do with that. I definitely had to adjust the tattoo to accommodate that. A lot of what I do is really intricate and detailed and meticulous, but that intense scarring doesn’t hold that much resolution, so we had to keep it more simple and bold. But you really appreciate how much you can tell about somebody just from their arm.
Do you have an idea of what you want to do before the arm comes through?
I have a bunch of drawings and kind of reference stuff, but I keep it open until I see the arm. You can tell [their gender], and if there are other tattoos there’s a clue as to who they are. You know it’s funny, I sit here with this person’s arm, and in my head I create a story about who they really are. Last time I did it, once I met them at the end, it was kind of like if you went to Disneyland and all the characters all of the sudden took off their masks.
My aunt’s friend actually used to be Pluto, and she fell into some lagoon. I guess you’re really not supposed to reveal that you’re a human, because apparently you’ll freak out kids and traumatize them. But she fell into a lagoon and water started filling up in her mask, but she was like I have to keep this on, I have to keep this on. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Well, there’s definitely that dynamic of just knowing this arm, and me filling in all the blanks of who I imagine these people to be. And then you meet them and sometimes it’s like, “Oh, of course, it’s you,” and sometimes it’s completely different than I imagined.
Do you have any favorites so far?
I don’t know. I feel like I’m not allowed to pick favorites. It’s like asking someone to pick their favorite kid. They all have their own characteristics. It’s a funny dynamic when you remove the other person from the creation.
Well, they have no say, and in tattooing they’re normally dictating everything, and watching you.
Yeah, it’s nice having a canvas that doesn’t have an opinion.
Have you made any changes to the process at all?
No, it’s been pretty great. Although I did realize this time around, looking at the photos, that the tattoos are getting a bit bigger. I’m doing them a little bit larger.
Pulling people further into the hole!
Maybe it’s just me becoming more comfortable with the dynamic, and claiming a bit more square footage.
So it sounds like you’re a little less nervous?
Yeah! There’s definitely a lot of pressure. You would think the wall would take pressure off me, but… If you come to me wanting to get tattooed, and you’re like, I want a bird on my arm, I’ll tattoo that bird, and in the end, if it sucks, it’s half your fault because it was your idea. Whereas with this one, because it’s all coming from me, if it’s not amazing, it’s all my fault. So I do feel a heightened pressure because of that, and wanting to honor the enormous trust that people are giving me.
Do you feel like there are any misconceptions of blind tattooing thus far?
Everybody’s initial reaction is, “Oh, are you gonna put dicks on people’s arms?” [Laughs] I don’t know what that says about people and their assumptions that given that any opportunity, a person will fuck over someone else. It’s actually such the opposite. Every time there’s some kid with his arm through the hole and people standing around him saying “you’re crazy, you’re crazy,” I fully do each tattoo with the intention of making all those friends wish that they had put their arm through there. I want them to pull their arm out and be so happy that they took that chance.
Does anyone talk to you through the hole?
Not really. I’ve had a couple people who were a little more nervous be like “hold my hand” beforehand. I try to reassure them that everything’s ok. They’ve been pretty respectful, and let me do my thing.
Do you have any advice for people who are thinking about getting tattoos? The security guard tried to get me to sign up for this, and I was like “I don’t know…” [Laughs]
[Laughs] Ah that’s hilarious. I think, just don’t overthink it and have fun. I think the biggest mistake I see people make when getting tattooed—their first tattoo—is putting too much pressure on it, and thinking that a tattoo has the responsibility of summarizing your whole identity in one little moment, and it’s so not the case. It’s not fair to give any symbol that much pressure. As long as you keep it fun and you have a pleasant experience getting it, the aesthetic is secondary. You’ll associate it with the experience.
I always think the regret aspect of tattoos is really interesting. They’re like “oh, I like it now, but I may not like it later.” People don’t respect who they were [in the moment.]
If you erased all my tattoos, and I had the opportunity to get them all over again, would I get the same things? No, of course not, because I’m not the person I was when I got them. Having all these tattoos takes away the luxury of denial. This is who I’ve been my whole life. You’ve made mistakes when you were 17 years old and you can’t go back and change those, and I did too, but some of them might be tattooed on me. I feel like there’s a real reconciliation with your past that happens when you have a lot of tattoos.
Like mementos. And the movie.
Yeah, like I did that, and I’m totally fine with it. I still like the 17 year-old version of me, even if that’s not who I am now.
All photos by Chris Swainston.
Stay tuned to Milk for more from Scott Campbell.