From Mexican Prison To Milk Gallery: The Tattoos of Scott Campbell
The weather in New York this morning is shit. It’s cold and dreary and simultaneously kind of humid. Fall seems to be turning into a weird, sticky winter, and being outside is not too pleasant. But as of 8:15 AM, there’s a substantial line outside of Milk Studios. That’s what happens when Scott Campbell, possibly the most famous tattoo artist in the city-if not the country-offers to tattoo people for free. It’s sort of like the grungy equivalent of waiting for SNL tickets.
There is a catch though; Campbell isn’t just setting up a free shop (although he also owns a regular parlor, Saved Tattoo, where payment is required). Instead, he’s doing something like performance art. As we announced yesterday, as part of his exhibition in the Milk Gallery, titled Whole Glory, Campbell will be seated behind a large painting with a hole in it. A tattoo recipient, selected via a lottery, will be seated on the other side, and he won’t be able to see them. The client will stick their arm through what Gothamist aptly called a “glory hole,” and Campbell will proceed to tattoo whatever he wants. He told us that he won’t be talking to any of his willing victims. “There won’t be communication,” he said. “I think I’ll just have my headphones in all day.” Thus people will become pure canvases.
Scott Campbell is not an insane person, and he knows that this is kind of a scary concept. We talked in his big, gorgeous studio near the Brooklyn Navy Yards, close to the home he shares with his wife, actress and director Lake Bell, and their young daughter Nova. Campbell seemed confident, but thankfully not arrogant, a quality that I would personally find terrifying in a tattoo artist. “As I get closer and closer I realize I’m just as nervous that people won’t like it, as probably they are that they won’t like it,” he said. “I don’t want people to be bummed.”
“I feel like it’s impossible to do tattoos without being aware of the receiver’s opinion of what you’re doing,” he continued. “And so I’ve always loved the idea of having real freedom in tattooing, really being able to do whatever I want, without being led or influenced by the person’s input. It’s kind of an experiment to see what happens when you go down that road. Is it more freeing?”
Campbell is probably the only person in the world who could present this idea and make it sound simultaneously sentimental and rational. His goal is to experiment with both his own work and the client/artist relationship. “I want to use the freedom that I have,” he said. “If I’m cautious about it and everything’s very safe, it’s inevitably less interesting. Maybe people will come with me. Maybe they won’t.”
“I thought the art world was for people who had better posture and used bigger words than me.”
Judging by the ever-increasing line outside the Milk Gallery’s window, it seems like they will. After just a half hour with the gentle, dryly funny Campbell, I’m convinced, and I don’t think I’m a sucker. Not only is his work beautiful—he is, after all, the tattoo artist to major celebrities like Marc Jacobs, Penelope Cruz, and close friend Justin Theroux—but Whole Glory is gorgeously thought out. It consists of the tattooing, the large painting installation, done on a white picket fence for what he calls a “suburban, mischievous feel,” and 100 wooden boxes containing homemade tattoo kits. Each represents a portion of a very unique career.
For a long time, Campbell didn’t present himself as a fine artist. Despite friendships with major artists like Dash Snow and Wes Lang, he thought the art world was for “people who had better posture and used bigger words than me.” But for the past few years, Scott has been showing as a painter and sculptor, and thus this show combines all of his preferred mediums.
The aforementioned picket fence slash glory hole painting relates to a conservative childhood in Louisiana, where he spent a lot of time “carving skulls in the desk at school.” While Campbell’s family is proud, growing up, his late mother was extremely opposed to tattoos. “She sat me down one time and said, ‘Scotty, you can murder and I will still be proud to be your mother. You can rape. But if you ever come home with a tattoo, I will shoot you myself.’”
Scott has not, to my knowledge, ever been shot. And he is completely covered in tattoos, most with great stories behind them. After dropping out of college, where he was studying to be a biochemist—“I didn’t have the patience to be like my professor and wait twelve years to get published,” he said–Campbell moved to San Francisco and began tattooing. He then made his way to New York, where he met the artists he had admired. He was shocked to find out that Snow “a scumbag I was running around with” came from an extremely prominent artistic family, the de Menils. Scott eventually developed more casual relationships with previously distant artists. Lang gave him a stick n’ poke of a chicken in Edward Albee’s barn in Montauk, and he was so embarrassed that he scrawled the words “I’m sorry” underneath it.
Showing me a recent tattoo, a kiss with “Nova” written underneath, Scott seems to be in pretty mellow dad mode. But one section of Whole Glory, the homemade tattoo kits, also connects with one of Campbell’s wildest undertakings: a 2013 journey to a Mexican prison, where he tattooed inmates and painted their homespun tattoo machines. He got in by giving flowers to the prison receptionist and a bottle of scotch to the warden.
“I think the guys I worked with were so thrilled to have someone take interest in them,” he said. “Prison is a place where everyone is wearing an orange suit, and everyone is given a number, and it really dehumanizes a population. Tattoos become this last-ditch effort to distinguish yourself from the people around you, and that’s where tattoos have power, where they have real meaning.”
Campbell has faith in tattooing–and perhaps faith in general; astrologist Susan Miller did give him and Bell an exact time and date at which to marry, which was convenient for getting rid of annoying guests. His belief in the power of tattooing makes me want to leave the office and try to snag one from him. “There’s definitely old timers who get bitter about tattoos being in the spotlight, or losing their street cred, but I could never fault someone for being interested in something that I’m interested in,” he said. “I feel like there is real magic in them, so I feel like I have an obligation to focus on what is magic about tattooing.” I think his mystery clients will be happy to hear it.
Whole Glory will be open to the public at from November 12-15 at the Milk Gallery, 450 West 15th Street. A limited number of people will be selected each day via an in-person lottery. Sign-up will be in the Gallery 9 AM to approx. 2:30 PM. Drawings will take place at 10 AM and 3 PM.
All Photography by Andrew Boyle.