At a certain point, if you asked a successful New York creative person where he or she got their tattoo, the answer would be Scott Campbell. He was needle-deep in everyone from celebrities like Heath Ledger, Josh Hartnett, Orlando Bloom, Helena Christensen and Penelope Cruz, to artists such as the late Dash Snow, Nate Lowman and Dan Colen, whom he befriended. At a certain point, those artists rubbed off on Campbell, and he began to paint. Though he’s only been showing for a few years, Campbell has already had several solo shows around the world, and is now debuting an exhibit called Things Get Better at West Hollywood’s flourishing OHWOW Gallery. Things Get Better opened last night and runs through June 22. Campbell took a moment to show me around the gallery, which is full of large watercolor paintings depicting what turn out to be handmade tattoo machines Macgyver might be proud of. Fashioned together from telephone cords, plastic spoons, and even a Ken doll leg, the tattoo machines were the result of Campbell’s impromptu visit to a prison in Mexico, where he used the creations to ink inmates. We chatted about transitioning from tattoo artist to fine artist, how to gain access to a Mexican prison, and what his fiancée, actress Lake Bell, thinks about his time among gangsters and murderers.
The Hollywood Reporter: Maybe a good jumping off point would be the transformation period from tattooing to fine art, because obviously it’s an important period of your life. Was it something that you were always an artist and you fell into tattooing, or was it something that you were tattooing and you realized it wasn’t as fulfilling as you wanted it to be?
Scott Campbell: I was just a teenager running around with a bunch of punk rock kids, and I knew I didn’t want a job. I got into tattooing, because it was a way for me to draw pictures and still feed myself. It was really satisfying, and I did it for years, and I still really love tattooing. But I’ve always been into art. I remember when I was a kid going to the Cy Twombly Museum in Houston, and being blown away. It was the first time I was emotionally moved by something that I didn’t understand. I was intimidated for a long time, because I felt the art world was a community of people that were more academic and had better posture than I do. It wasn’t until I got to New York, and I started tattooing a lot of artists and people that I had a lot of respect for and looked up to, that I realized artists are just a bunch of screw-ups like me. We were all just fuck-ups that couldn’t get real jobs and had this restlessness in us to make things. We were going to do that whether it fed us or not.
THR: You achieved a certain amount of -- I don’t want to say the word ‘fame.’ But you did achieve a certain amount of recognition for your tattooing. Did it help you transition into being an artist?
Campbell: Having the acclaim as a tattoo artist definitely gave me access to a lot of artists and stuff that I looked up to. It was my ticket into that community. When those guys wanted to get tattooed, they would call me. Tattooing is such an intimate thing, and a leap of faith, having important art collectors and museum curators coming to me and getting tattooed, I feel like that was inspiring that they trust me. Their discriminating taste is what they based their career on, and for them to be revered for that, and still choose me and trust me so completely gave me a lot of confidence.
THR: You were the tattoo artist to the art world stars.
Campbell: Totally. Also, Marc Jacobs is not an artist in the sense that he paints, but he’s one of the most powerful creative forces I’ve ever met. He’s brilliant. So inspiring. And he also has an incredible collection. His confidence in me, and his encouragement, has been really significant in just figuring out a reason to get out of bed each morning.
THR: Helmut Lang transitioned from fashion design to art, but I feel like people didn’t take him as seriously as if he had just become an artist. His work wasn’t any better or worse than other artists, but I feel like people were hypercritical of him, because he was well known and stepping into another field. Do people look at you as the tattoo artist who turned into an artist?
Campbell: Am I obliged to sever my life as a tattoo artist and move forward as an artist, and redefine myself that way? At the beginning, I really did struggle with that, and I didn’t want to do artwork that referenced tattooing, but it’s like, that’s what my hands have done for 15 years, and anything that’s filtered through me will reflect that in some way. I think my goal is to produce the most honest work possible, and it would be dishonest if I didn’t acknowledge that. I do roll my eyes when people associate what I do with street art. But I’m at peace with both my identity as a tattoo artist and my identity as an artist.
THR: It must have been gratifying when you had your first show (Make It Rain at OHWOW Gallery, Miami, 2009)?
Campbell: It was gratifying and terrifying, because I know I can accomplish what I want to if I just have to give you a tattoo. I can do that, but all of a sudden to be judged in the context of everyone else. I did my first solo show in 2009, the worst year for art ever. My level of success was just pulling it off.
THR: Let’s step back a little bit. Where did you grow up?
Campbell: I’m from New Orleans originally. I lived there until I was 16, and then I was in Texas for a little bit, and then San Francisco was where I started tattooing. I’ve been all over.
THR: Did you leave home early?
Campbell: Yeah. My mom died when I was 16, and my dad and I didn’t get along, so after she died, I left and went to go live with some friends in Texas, and finished school there, and then realized I wasn’t very good at school, and ran off to California. Literally because that’s where the Dead Kennedys were from.
THR: So you started tattooing in San Francisco?
Campbell: And I was traveling. Tattooing was really amazing in that I just made cash wherever I went. I could work wherever I wanted. My whole life would fit in a suitcase. When you’re young, that’s a pretty romantic possibility. But getting back the transition from tattooing into fine art: it’s interesting because your purpose changes. I love tattooing because it has a spontaneity to it and a passion and an intimacy. It’s almost like a folk art more than an art form.
THR: What is the biggest difference between tattooing and making art?
Campbell: If I give you a tattoo, that tattoo only has to satisfy your needs, nothing else. It’s not judged in the context of art history. It literally has to just satisfy your emotional situation. And I love that, and I love the narratives that come with that, and I think, having been involved with so many personal stories like that, that’s the kind of thing that I like. Obviously a lot of my work doesn’t necessarily have a direct tie-in to tattooing, but I think that sense of narrative is something that I will always be fond of.
THR: But these current paintings are about tattooing.
Campbell: Literally, they’re tattoo machines that were made in prison, but in working with them, I realized what I’m attracted to doesn’t really have a lot to do with prison or tattooing as much as that I like having parameters. I like the idea that limitations can be inspiring. Prison and tattooing just happens to be what I know in my world, but I feel like, a lot of times when people talk about inspiration, it’s referenced as this kind of expansion of awareness and this lofty gesture, but in reality, for me anyways, I’m more inspired by confines. I like watercolor painting because oil painting is almost too much freedom. I don’t know when to stop. With tattooing, it’s so instinctual. I like the commitment. When you put a mark down, that mark is in the final product and you have to build around that. Watercoloring and tattooing are definitely very similar. You can only add, you can never subtract, whereas with oil or acrylic, you can layer and layer and give and take and work with it. But there’s that confidence in watercolor that I really relate to.
THR: To make this work, you spent some time as a visitor in a Mexican prison. Can you tell me specifically a little about this project?
Campbell: Tattooing is something that I’ve loved my whole life, and I feel like in the past few years, it’s been hijacked by reality TV and mall culture, and so I just wanted to fall in love with tattooing again. Tattoo culture in prison is something that I’ve always been impressed by, because you have a population of people who are all given an orange suit and all given a number and homogenized into this population. Tattooing becomes this last ditch effort to claim any sort of individuality or humanity. They would risk going to solitary confinement for 30 days to get one. Tattoos in that environment have a gravity to them, and I just wanted to be around significant tattoos again instead of the cheeseball reality shows.
So, I went down there just with the intention of photographing tattoos, but after being there for even just a couple days, the guys wanted me to do tattoos on them. Obviously they wouldn’t let me bring in tattoo equipment, so we made them out of whatever was available. The motors were the hardest thing to come by in there, so I would go and buy old VCRs and cassette players and guitars and I would donate them to the prison for the recreation center, and I would go in the next day, and the prisoners and I would take them all apart and then use the motors.
THR: And the motor ran off batteries?
Campbell: Yeah, we would use batteries or cell phone chargers. The ones with a cord were wired into a phone charger and then into a light socket. Because there weren’t that many outlets, we used light sockets.
THR: How did you hear about the prison? Is it famous for tattoos?
Campbell: No. I love Mexico. I tattooed in Spain for almost a year, so I speak Spanish. I looked into it a little bit in the United States, but the bureaucracy and regulations are much stricter. I could have never done it here.
THR: Right. You would have never been able to do the bait and switch with the donated motors. How did you end up getting access to the prison?
Campbell: I just photoshopped some fake MTV press passes and told them I was from MTV. I bought the warden a bottle of scotch and the secretary some flowers. By the way, in Mexico, if you showed up with National Geographic credentials, they don’t care. MTV? Anything you want. It’s amazing.
THR: So you never ran into any problems while you were tattooing these guys?
Campbell: Prisons in Mexico are like a little city. It’s a whole community. It’s a hierarchy inside. A lot of the more powerful or influential prisoners in there were actually gang members from L.A. who got arrested, deported, and sent there for murder or whatever. And so a lot of them spoke English. So, on day one, I was just taken in by a few guys. There were definitely people that they had issues with that were on the other end of things, but I had a group of people. I would walk in and they were like, ‘Alright, let’s go,’ and I was flanked by the prisoners that adopted me as theirs.
THR: Flanked is better than shanked.
Campbell: Totally. And I would bring them gifts, buy them stuff, and bring it in there for their help. They were really cooperative. The guy who did all the tattoos, I later on hired him to do all this amazing signage for my tattoo shop, the ‘Must Be Over 18’ on notebook paper and handkerchiefs. He was super grateful just to have some money.
THR: Don’t you have a girlfriend? Isn’t that a problem? Doesn’t she worry?
Campbell: At the time I didn’t have a girlfriend. I’m actually getting married next weekend.
Campbell: Thanks. I’m excited about it. But, actually, Lake [Bell], my fiancée, she’s so supportive and understanding.
THR: But she wouldn’t let you do it now.
Campbell: She probably would. I don’t know. She has to go off and make movies where she makes out with Eric Twinklebutt. I’m just going to hang out with prisoners. If anybody should have a problem, it’s me.
THR: It’s dangerous though, right?
Campbell: Yeah. It is and it isn’t. I never felt unsafe. That might be my lack of insight or awareness, but I never felt unsafe.
THR: Because from an outsider’s perspective, sidling up with a gang in Mexican prison with no supervision and smuggling things into the prison seems a little bit dangerous.
Campbell: It does, but for some reason it never felt dangerous. Walking around on the streets, in some of the neighborhoods—like Tepito—it felt more dangerous. Because at the prison, I stood out, but I had a reason for being there, and the warden knew I was there, and the people who were walking me around had everything under control.
THR: How did these makeshift tattoo machines compare with legit ones?
Campbell: It’s pretty efficient, but it’s a little bit slower than a regular machine. The first time I tattooed somebody with it: I’m tattooing this guy, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know what he’s in here for. He could be a murderer.’ It wasn’t until that moment where I had his arm in my hand, where I’m like, ‘Oh, I hope this looks good. This might not work.’ But it came out okay. We were still friends.
THR: It begs the question: you were making these homemade tattoo equipment—is that something you had done before?
Campbell: I had played with it a little bit when I was a kid, but being in prison and seeing what they built out of necessity, reconnected me with that. The whole experience after that, the machines were my favorite thing that I took away from it, because they are these amazing little improvised mechanisms that do become a metaphor -- they reflect those confines and the idea of having very limited resources to accomplish a goal with. In prison, the goal is obviously to tattoo people, but then once I started making them with the intention of painting, there is an aesthetic goal as well. Building these machines, but treating them as compositions was really fun.
THR: You don’t think of watercolor as having a stained softness, rather than a hardness to it. How did you achieve that hard look?
Campbell: If you’ve spent 40 hours on a painting building up the values, and then you have a brush with black ink on it, and you’re just going in there, it’s commitment. Definitely, when you hear the word ‘watercolor,’ you most often associate it with landscape, beach scenes.
THR: It’s apparent that they’re paintings if you go closer, but from a distance these are very photorealistic. Did you find watercolor to be a good medium for photorealism?
Campbell: It’s not the right medium at all. If you’re trying to achieve photorealism, it’s probably the poorest choice of mediums you could have, but because it has a little bit of chaos and organic texture to it, I like it. It’s a little bit unpredictable. I paint them all flat, and what I’ll do is, for each shape, I’ll create a little puddle, a little area of water in a shape that I want to do, and then as it dries, I’ll drop pigment into it, and then I’ll push it around, so it dries into this shape. When you get up close, there’s a lot that’s really organic.
THR: These paintings are really different in person than on the computer screen I first encountered them on. I had this same phenomenon with Robert Bechtle, who does these photorealistic family portraits.
Campbell: There’s that balance when you do photorealistic stuff, where it needs to be real enough that you believe it, but also you need to see the process enough that it feels like a painting. It’s really delicate, because if it’s too real, then why not just make a photograph. And if it’s not technical enough, then you can’t believe the image.