He’s inked everyone from Marc Jacobs (bull terriers, left shoulder) to Sting (labyrinth, back), but it would be reductive to call Scott Campbell a tattoo artist. Through his body art and his mixed-media creations—butterfly and skull patterns laser-etched onto stacked dollar bills—the 34-year-old New Yorker is a nomadic storyteller whose visual vernacular covers everything from Christian iconography and Asiatic birds to emblems of the American working class. Born and raised in a Louisiana fishing village, Campbell’s career took off shortly after he dropped out of the University of Texas, where he’d studied biochemistry. He started tattooing people for the same reason they sought out his services: freedom. On the heels of three solo exhibitions, including Bless This Mess, his first European show at Zurich’s Galerie Gmurzynska (on display through March), and the release of his Rizzoli monograph, If You Don’t Belong, Don’t Be Long, Campbell is eager to get back to Saved Tattoo, the Brooklyn studio he’s occupied since 2005.
BULLETT: You grew up nearby a fishing village in Louisiana. How was it like, being a teenager there?
Scott Campbell: Back in the 1950s, my grandfather had this hare-brain scheme that he was going to buy all this marshland out in the swamps, and discover oil on it. So he bought six square miles of marshland, and of course it never turned up oil. But he moved my whole family out there. I think my grandmother always kind of resented him for it, quietly. In order to support the family, my grandfather sold off plots of the land that were along this bayou to fisherman, so it ended up being this little village of 40 to 45 families. Sitting in New York City talking about it sounds really romantic, but the actual experience of growing up there was pretty frustrating. It’s small, and it’s pretty lacking in stimulants when you’re sixteen and just craving to go off and take in as much of the world as possible. Now Louisiana is one of my favorite places in the world, but it was definitely kind of a redneck childhood with a bunch of dirt bikes and BB guns.
How old were you when you first tattooed someone?
I was nineteen, almost twenty. I was running around with a bunch of little punk rock kids, just being mischievous little vagrants, and I was always kind of the kid that could draw, or bead the logo on the back of everyone’s jean jacket in our little group. When we all started getting tattoos, one of my good friends was pretty adamant about wanting me to give him a tattoo. And I was like, I’ll draw you a picture and you go get it tattooed on you by somebody who actually knows what they’re doing. Actually, he bought me my first tattoo machine and stuff as payment for it. It was just one of those instances where someone else believes in you more than you believe in yourself.
What did you actually tattoo him with?
We tattooed him with this trilobite, this weird fossil his grandfather gave him. Trilobites are like these prehistoric insect-looking things. So we tattooed one of those on him, and then went on to do a bunch of other stuff. Once I did a couple of them, the line at my door started getting longer and longer, and my landlord kept bugging me for rent every month. So I just decided to start charging money and call it my job.
Was there a time when you were teaching your friends how to tattoo themselves, like Devendra Banhart?
I mean, I didn’t formally teach him (laughs), but I’m certainly open if anybody has any questions. Devendra has been a good friend, and I know Devendra well enough that whether I help him or not, he’s gonna do it. So I might as well try and steer him in the best direction possible. There’s actually only one person that I took on as a formal apprenticeship, this really amazing guy called Beau Velasco. He was in a band and he lived downstairs from me. It wasn’t that I met him and I was like, Oh my god, This kid is gonna bring something new to the tattoo world that no one else has. He just had a real magic in him, a genius about him that he hadn’t quite figured out how to fit into the world. I think I taught him how to because I thought he was a really brilliant guy, who was never going to fit into normal society. I didn’t want to see this brilliant, creative mind waiting tables. So tattooing would hopefully be a way that he could see himself without having to go out and get a real job. He tattooed for two or three years, and was doing really well, and then died suddenly a couple of years ago.
Speaking of teaching people how to tattoo, how do you feel about prison tattoos?
Prison tattoos are definitely special, they have a certain weight and gravity to them that’s really amazing. You have this environment where all these people are kind of confined in this building, given orange suits and assigned numbers. It’s this system that does everything it can to dehumanize them. Tattoos become this last medium in which to claim any sort of individuality or identity within that. What people decide to get tattooed in prison takes on a much more important role than it does in a tattoo shop in Miami Beach during spring break. They’re in a life or death situation, wherein, what matters to you? What do you decide to document? There are so many factors to it. Like, gang tattoos, someone trying to be included in a group; or obviously, there are tattoos that exclude you from groups. It’s really amazing just the language and symbolism that evolves out of prison tattoo culture.
I’ve always been fascinated by the teardrop tattoo.
I’m generally really anti-facial tattoos. It’s a really dangerous thing getting tattoos on your face; you sacrifice a lot of anonymity. Once you have a tattoo on your face, no one really remembers your name anymore. They just remember you as the guy with the tattoo on your face.
Do you think tattoos are more of a thing of youth and inexperience, or age and experience?
Obviously getting tattooed is something that younger kids do a lot. Your teenage years is a period in your life when you’re really trying to figure out who you are, and you don’t want to be a kid anymore. You’re commanding respect as an adult. It’s that transition when you go from being a subordinate to being your own person, making your own decisions. I feel like tattoos are an avenue where you make a decision that in a small way, you will carry with you for the rest of your life. My father was super conservative, and he and I went through all the rivalry most father-son relationships go through. When I first got tattooed, I was like, Okay, my dad would never in his life get a tattoo. If I, right now, go downtown and get a tattoo, I will never be able to go down the path that my father went. Just by having a tattoo, I can’t grow up to be like my dad. If you are a child who is just going along at the whim of whatever the world sends you, tattoos can definitely be a very symbolic way of being adult, taking control and deciding who you want to be.
Your first book, If You Don’t Belong, Don’t Be Long came out on February 14. How did it actually come together?
I really liked the way OHWOW put out books of friends of mine, and I knew they have done a few really great publications. I reached out to them about that and they had the gallery space in Miami. Being introduced to them just under the prospect of doing a book together, I then started chilling with them, and we developed this really great relationship ever since. We had pretty much put the whole book together when Rizzoli contacted me about wanting to put out a book. We put the book out that I made with OHWOW through Rizzoli. It’s like the best of both worlds. The book has work from a few different shows.
Now that the book is out, and your first European exhibition opened, what are you looking forward to do in the next couple of months?
I’ve been traveling a bit the past few weeks so I’m really looking forward to getting back to my studio, hanging out with my dog and drawing pictures. As you become known, you spend much more time talking about doing things than actually doing them. I’m really trying to work on keeping the ratio of being in my studio producing work versus running around talking about making work. I need to get back to just being in my studio as much as possible.