JOSH HOMME: Most of what I know of your work is Japanese-influenced. Are the origins of tattooing Eastern?
CLAY DECKER: Well, it’s a funny thing you mention that because a lot of people tend to feel that or think that, or think that it originated in the South Pacific. But the fact is that going back to the oldest remains of man found on the planet—
Tattooing existed then?
It’s sort of a mystery as to when and where. But going way back, it’s a fundamental artistic form of body expression in every culture.
You excel in the old Japanese style.
Do you have a lot of training in it? Or is that just where your passion is?
I think my intense curiosity for that facet of tattooing—that history—stems from the fact that I was raised in Hawaii and there was a lot of Japanese influence there. As a kid, my favorite superheroes were Japanese because we had an influx of that kind of stuff in Hawaii. So that initially got me very comfortable—
It was just present.
Yes—I was immersed in the culture. Then, for the first five or six years that I was tattooing, I never really lent much credibility to the Japanese stuff because I didn’t really know anything about it. I was pretty much learning as I went, on my own terms. After my apprenticeship and in my initial stages of being a journeyman, I was still sorting out all the different styles I could use in my journey.
You were finding your area of expertise.
Yeah. And up until 1996, I didn’t even have a passport and couldn’t leave the country, so all the invitations I had to go overseas—and I had a lot of ’em—were on hold until I was actually able to get a passport and go.
It seems that there’s a more rigid rule, a little bit more structured apprenticeship or teaching method in Japan.
Well, let’s just sum it all up with: There’s a way higher understanding of appreciation.
Did you have that same appreciation, that it needs to be taken seriously to develop that kind of skill?
Well, I can only speak for myself, and I feel that, yes, for me it took that personal understanding to really dig into my fundamental tattooing passion.
There’s plenty of daisies tattooed on ankles, but that doesn’t truly reflect the art form, right?
Well, let’s just say that it is of a grander scale of fascination of the same medium. Out of all the cultures on the planet, speaking of tattoo tradition, the Japanese one is the grandest for the most part. There are Polynesian bodysuits that go way back too, but as far as the grandest visual depictions of imagery and stuff that you can relate with—actual illustrations, not just decorative stuff—Japan and the Japanese history has it beat completely.
In America it used to be sailors and our types. But in Japan tattoos sort of seemed to span different socioeconomic classes, from the rich man down to sailors.
Ironically, it’s always been that way here too. Going back, like, a hundred years ago, and before that even, in Europe a lot of royalty got tattooed. It was a sign of being cultured in a lot of respects. You know, they weren’t flaunting it to the public by any means because that’s how the class separation is maintained.
It seems like the flaunting of tattoos is a relatively new experience.
In fact, the importance of keeping them to yourself, in a way, seems to have been more the case for a longer period of time.
Yeah. Up until the more recent past, the integration of cultures and the appreciation for other cultures and people in other, different parts of society was incredibly at bay. It wasn’t until this most recent exploitation of tattooing in a global world that people became fascinated with each other’s tattoos. Every man, woman, child, black, white, green, purple, whatever, whatever religion, whoever you worship—tattooing is a human fascination and yet some people are still offended by it.
They find it taboo.
Or people find it gross, or don’t know how to deal with seeing them. Those who freak out are at the peak of fascination with tattoos. That’s why their response is so extreme. But it’s a human fundamental fascination. It’s something that everybody wonders about: Someone making permanent marks of their own choice in an artistic medium, on their own body that stays forever. To some, it’s a mysterious and bizarre thing.
Well, in that respect, there is very much a judging a book by its cover facet to it, where you’re explaining something about yourself without speaking, you know?
Like even how I might judge a guy wearing Ed Hardy. It’s a real shame, you know?
Well, considering what Ed Hardy did for tattooing, it is a real shame because Ed Hardy did extraordinary things for tattooing. I would never, ever be able to, or want to, in any way take away the incredible, prolific, monumental things Ed Hardy has given to tattooing. Now, can [we] candidly talk about that?
I’m not sure if that’s a touchy subject or not.
Well, it’s funny you say that because I have no problems separating my personal feelings from my reverence to him as a craftsman. I personally don’t like Ed Hardy. We’ve had our differences and he doesn’t like me either. But that has nothing to do with his body of work and what he’s done for tattooing. Which is unparalleled in a lot of ways. For years everybody would be like, “Oh, Sailor Jerry’s rolling over in his grave.” “Sailor Jerry this and Sailor Jerry that.” Man, Sailor Jerry is rolling over in his grave, fucking farting and going back to sleep after fucking seeing what’s happening to Ed Hardy, you know? It’s crazy.
What I find fascinating on the merchandising of the Ed Hardy stuff is that it seems unreal compared to the tattooing. I mean, you’re talking about understated, cool [art]. It’s overstated versions of understated work.
Well, I guess there’s a fine line between doing well and doing almost too well, which is kind of a tricky path to walk, you know?
That all depends on your definition of [doing well]. It’s all subjective. I mean, I personally feel like I’ve done well. I don’t own my own house. I don’t even own my own car. I have no desire to attempt to own either at the moment. I mean, I’m sure that I could attain those things if I really focused on them, but they’re not important to me.
But you shouldn’t lose the reins on your own art. You’re doing tattoos of your artwork—
Well, I’m doing tattoos of other people’s artwork too—or my translation of it into the medium.
But that must go through your filter, you know?
Absolutely. And it’s up to my judgment and my abilities as to whether or not it’s going to be delivered and leave a positive memory for someone, or a negative one. One negative tattoo experience can put people off into never getting tattooed again or even indulging in the topic socially. So consequently…
A negative tattoo has the same ripple effect as a positive one.
Exactly. It has a way more powerful one. Like, 50 great tattoos can’t redeem one horrible one.
And I carry a lot of guilt for my learning curve. I really do. I didn’t do good tattoos as quickly as a lot of guys were able to do good tattoos in my generation. It took me longer and harder for some reason. I think it was probably my own initial ego that kept me from getting better quicker, maybe in my first early years.
At least you have to be willing to admit when you’re incorrect, so to speak.
Yeah, and I was, like, 17 when I started my apprenticeship. And at that age, I had already been recognized as an artist amongst all my friends in the punk rock scene or whatever. I was young enough and dumb enough to really have an ego about it.
You mean, as an apprentice you had an ego?
Well, immediately I was like, “I’m a tattoo artist.” I was fooling myself to a certain degree. I mean … it would be hard for me to look back and really remember clearly being as arrogant and as full of myself as some of the people I see today. But maybe I was? I don’t know. I do know that one of the guys that I respect the most—and he’s an old friend of mine now, and I had him tattoo my whole back—he influenced me greatly and I learned a lot from him …
What’s his name?
Eddy Deutsche. He lives here in L.A. now.
Are you influenced by having people guest at your shop too?
Absolutely. It’s incredible. It’s wonderful. And that’s why I really like to have this shop serve as an embassy for tattoo artisans. If someone approaches me and I haven’t met them before but they genuinely have something to bring to the table and they need a place to do their appointments when they’re in Los Angeles, I encourage them to approach me.
Once again, it comes back to reputation, you know? I think the reputations for musicians and tattoo artists alike have a lot in common. That reputation is sort of your introduction. And you have to rely on reputation as well when you don’t know somebody. Respect is the gift you give yourself, so the respect of your peers can only come when you respect yourself as well. That must have a huge importance in all of this, you know?
I would not be where I’m at—in any facet, mind-set, geographic or otherwise—if it wasn’t for that. And at this point, I’ve been tattooing long enough to where it’s—
Over 20 years now.
And you’re only 15 years old.
Yeah, it’s crazy.
That brings me to another thing. Even though there’s a mainstream element to tattooing now, is it important to you to be a renegade within that?
It’s important for me to vocalize my opinion even if it’s not a popular one—to say what I feel is right and wrong in the tattoo world. I’m morally bound by those choices. So by default, yes is the answer to the question.
There are people who are outsiders in this outside community. Not outsiders per se, but not the Disney version either. Do you feel a part of that minority?
Oh, absolutely. I’ve embraced my position completely. And I feel that I have to vocally protect my position. Like, once I got into a verbal argument with a guy at the first New York Roseland Convention. He was pushing for the legislation about the legalizing of tattooing in Massachusetts. And I tried to tell him, “Man, all you’re doing is bringing the system in. Giving opportunity to a bunch of people who … just want to regulate it for their own economic reasons. You’re inviting a bunch of aphids to the rosebush.” And his argument was, “Well, it’s my right. I was raised in Martha’s Vineyard”—go figure, Martha’s Vineyard—“and it’s my right to legitimately be able to open a shop.” And I was thinking to myself, Just because it’s your right to do something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.
Well, yeah. I think in that respect, that’s why I wonder if being an outsider’s outsider is part of the goal.
Our generation is basically going to be held responsible for the historical value and preservation of a lot of important facets of the craft. I mean the important facets, not just the ego of the artist and the naive flattery they get from whatever customer base they isolate themselves with.
But it also feels good to be respected in your time.
It’s something to have peers’ [respect] … whether that’s with infamy or a certain amount of notoriety matters not to me.
Well, notably, infamy is a form of notoriety.
It is. It’s just that I reckon you have a certain amount of notoriety. You know, “There’s Clay. Let’s go say hi to him.” And infamy would be more like, “There’s Clay. Let’s stay here.” [Laughs.]
That’s been the bane of my existence.