ICON: Chris Conn Askew
INKED sits down for a rare interview with the reclusive genius who has returned to tattooing while fighting a devastating affliction.
Chris Conn Askew is a private man. Though raised by performer parents, Askew would rather hide behind a desk and draw. His penchant for pigments led him to become one of the most revered and respected artists in the tattoo industry. And yet he remains somewhat of an enigma, shying away from the tattoo scene. After 16 years in the field, he left for six years—shocking fans of his work—and turned to a successful illustration career. It wasn’t until last year that he was able to use skin as his canvas once again, bringing with him a whole new approach to the art form. In this surprisingly revealing and introspective interview, Askew talks about his love of art, a plethora of side projects, the reason for his hiatus and return, and how he juggles his passion for tattooing with a debilitating disease.
INKED: You were born and raised in Hollywood in the ’70s. What was it about this art form that attracted you?
CHRIS CONN ASKEW: Well, I’m really not sure why, out of all the arts, I gravitated primarily toward draw- ing and painting so early. My father was an actor, and my mother was a singer, so it would have made more sense had I become a musician or performer. But I was shy, and it was the visual arts that really seemed to be my forte right off the bat. I think the real reason I became so obsessive with drawing was simple: I was very much an introvert, and didn’t much care for the world around me, so I drew to create my own. That’s still one of the driving forces behind my work, in any medium, though obviously much more so in painting. I’ve never felt like I was made for this world. I much prefer the world inside, though it definitely has its own hazards and horrors. I think that’s part of what first drew me to tattooing: to put some of what is inside of me on the outside.
What does that world look like for you?
A lot like my paintings, when I’m feeling good. Otherwise it’s pretty black and hopeless and riddled with anxiety.
When did your love of tattooing emerge?
Growing up primarily in Los Angeles and surrounding areas, the first tattoos I saw were mostly fine-line cholo style. I also saw a fair amount of bolder, more traditional tattoos, though mostly aging ones, which I have always liked. I don’t understand people who want their tattoos to look like perfect stickers forever. I love the changes that occur in tattoos over time; they are the by-product of living, and cannot be bought or faked. No hipster kid in the world can walk into a shop and get an old, slightly fuzzy, somewhat pale tattoo. You can only get that from earning it by living all of those years with it. The tattoo changes as you do, and that’s one of the beauties of the medium. I can’t wait until all of my tattoos are big, blue cow spots!
When did you get your first?
At a very early age I knew I had to get one, but it was a long time before it actually happened. The first tattoo I really wanted was the teardrop tattoo I had seen on so many veteranos. Of course, by the time I was able to start to consider getting it, I had learned the symbolism behind it— and I certainly hadn’t earned that, and had no intention of doing so in the future. It wasn’t until a few years ago that the idea came to me of doing [it] in the runny eyeliner style that I have now, which is definitely not prison-y looking at all. I finally got it! I got and did my first hand- poke tattoos when I was 13, and I got my first shop tattoo in ’87 at Tiger Jimmy’s in San Diego, back when it was behind the old Funland Arcade. It was a great, spooky little place, totally covered in tobacco- browned flash, and the tiny, dingy lobby was chock-full of merchant marines, waterfront weirdos, and hookers—all chain-smoking. It was such a wonderful experience; it was like stepping into another world, a little secret room where the normal, chafing rules of society were no longer applicable. It was a little scary and totally magical, nothing like the brightly lit, hairdresser-with-a-needle shops that are so common now.
Why do you prefer American traditional tattooing?
First off, I must admit that I really dislike it being called American traditional. They were tattooing in very similar styles at the same time in Europe and Australia, for instance. Many other places too. I think that perhaps a lot of the American traditional style was built on the British fine-line stuff that predated it, and then just simplified further and further for faster work, primarily for commercial reasons, high turnover. In my work, I feel a stronger stylistic influence now from those old Brits. Anyway, when I was old enough to start getting tattooed, my visual language was very influenced by the music I was listening to at the time, which was mostly pre-hardcore punk, post-punk, and death rock. I remember seeing the “Music and Sea Tattoos” issue of Ed Hardy’s Tattootime. It was one of the first books I had ever seen on tattooing, and it quickly became my bible, along with its sister issues. The gorgeous work that Bob Roberts was doing in L.A. in the ’70s and ’80s—a lot of very bold, dramatic punk-rock-influenced designs that had more in common with the work people would now call traditional than with the fine-line work I had been more used to—really rung my bells. It had such a strong, direct, modern style to it that was tempered with just enough fine detail. Between that and all of the crazy-sophisticated stuff Ed was turning out at the time, I was sold the minute I saw it.
How do you approach your artwork?
It’s very simple. Two things: the appropriate choice of loud music, and drugs.
Tell us about your business, SekretCity International. Why the name SekretCity?
Mainly I just liked the idea of SekretCity as this mysterious organization, something bigger than just me. I liked the anonymity of it, though that didn’t last long. Now it has become a real organization, with business partners and employees. This has allowed me to devote so much more of my time to my work and spend less time in business gear. We are all working together to get these projects done, every day. Without them I could never paint and draw, tattoo, and make jewelry simultaneously, and their input always gives me fresh ideas. It’s like a group workshop of sorts, at times. I feel like I am really hitting an exciting new period in my life, and every day that my health allows I am so thrilled to work on all of these things. I wish I had a hundred arms like a Hindu deity so I could do even more. I have so many plans for the future. SekretCity has only just begun to get started.
Where is your secret company located?
Currently our world headquarters is in Los Angeles, where I was born and where I now live again. But we do have a representative in Yokohama: Kioko, at Botan Toro, who handles sales over there, helps us find cool shows and events to be involved in, and allows us to communicate easily with Japanese customers and artists. Eventually, I would like to have further outposts in Europe and Australia, maybe elsewhere as well. It is SekretCity International, after all! We really try to make things as easy as possible for our international friends to be involved. So far I have sent some prints to every continent but Antarctica. If no one in Antarctica gets any prints from me, I’m just gonna send one randomly to someone down there, even at the risk of them just tossing it out. Any Antarcticans down there want a free one?
We’ve heard that you never thought you would be an accomplished artist or tattoo artist. Now you are one of the most highly respected and sought-after artists and tattoo artists in the industry. What are your thoughts on that?
That’s very flattering of you to say so, but I never really had any goals to be well-known or anything. I just wanted to do my work and do my best at it, to achieve the respect of those few whom I respected, and make a decent living. I’ve never been a competitive person at all, and I’m glad that there are people who enjoy my work, especially when rent is due. But though I will always love tattoos, I don’t really care much at all for the tattoo scene, to be honest—and any perceived standing in it. For better or worse it really doesn’t mean much to me. I’ll admit I’m happy that a bit of it has rubbed off on my name, because it helps keep my son in college, but I’m certainly not stupid enough to believe it myself. I’m just an incredibly immature man who can’t hold down a real job.
You tattooed from 1990 until 2006 and then essentially retired from the tattoo industry. What was the reason for your hiatus?
I was just really burnt out. I needed some time away to work on my own art. After 16 years of always drawing for other people, I just wanted to explore my own world for a while and get back to the joy I felt when I drew as a child. I really enjoyed my work, but holding a pencil had become just that: work. I wanted to get back to the freedom I felt when I first started drawing. It’s an amazing experience to take a blank sheet of paper and let your mind and your hand just flow freely, and to watch as the piece takes shape, as you mold it and let it grow and take on a life of its own. I had many very positive experiences tattooing as well; there’s no feeling quite like the one you get when you and the customer just click, and everything just flows together from the two of you properly, and the whole thing finally comes to fruition as a piece that moves and breathes as part of a living body forever. It’s amazing, and there’s nothing else quite like it at all, but even on my best days tattooing, I have never had that same feeling of freedom and true escape from the banal reality of daily life that I get from making my own art.
Did you have a specific goal in mind that you wanted to accomplish or pursue with your art when you took the hiatus from tattooing?
Just to unlearn a lot of what I had learned from tattooing, to allow myself complete freedom, and explore media and styles that I never had done before, to really stretch myself in all kinds of directions wherever my whim took me, to try and figure out more about myself by letting a bit of my deeper self come through, to play without boundaries. I am still always looking for new ways to do things, new directions, new projects.
What compelled you to dabble in these different mediums?
I just want to try everything! Keeping myself involved in multiple projects every week keeps me interested, keeps me fresh, keeps my imagination burning. It’s been very interesting to me that often, what I learn in one medium really affects how I work in other, less obviously related media. I wanted to try working with three-dimensional mediums, which has led to my interest in porcelain, and the jewelry is something I always wanted to do but just assumed was out of my reach. I looked into it, I started trying to figure out a way to make it possible for us, and now we’ve begun doing it! It’s a very interesting feeling for me to create something in metal. We will be releasing a new line of jewelry very soon that will feature hand-painted miniatures and cameos in silver settings. I’m very excited about that one.
You returned to the tattoo industry in 2012. Why?
Well, basically, it had just been long enough that I wasn’t afraid of tattooing anymore. When I quit, I felt that I had to completely separate myself from tattooing for a very long time in order to get my mind in order, to do what I felt I needed to do with my life, to find a new direction, new ways of seeing and thinking. It’s hard to just give up a career you put 16 years into that has somewhat dependably supported your family for so long, and just take that blind jump into doing your own work and nothing else, with no safety net at all. It was a real leap into thin air, a major risk. But I landed on my feet, thankfully, and I have not regretted that decision for even one moment since. I had no idea whether I’d be able to support myself and my family without it, so I was deathly afraid of getting sucked back into the tattoo world before I was ready.
You mentioned briefly on your blog that you’ve been battling a chronic illness. How has that affected your career?
Yes, unfortunately—about three years ago I was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease that causes periodic bouts of constant vomiting, very often to the point of hospitalization. Sometimes it’s only for a few days, sometimes a couple of weeks, which gets really debilitating. It’s had a profoundly negative effect on my general quality of life. Obviously that interferes with my work schedule quite a bit, and has been a major problem on many occasions. I was scheduled to do a solo show this October in Rome, but sadly, I had to cancel it, entirely due to my health problems and the issues it affects. It isn’t really lethal, so it’s not going to kill me, at least. I am trying some new treatments that I sincerely hope will help me get out from under this. Fingers crossed.
Has the illness had any impact on the subject matter you paint or tattoo?
I haven’t drawn or painted anything related to my illness yet, but I suppose it’s only a matter of time. It all shows up in there eventually, though not always obviously. How does your art serve you? Someone once said that for them, making art was like clipping their toenails: It just has to be done. I make and make or I start to succumb to the black vortex of doom. It’s the only thing in life besides my ridiculously fantastic son that gives me any real satisfaction or sense of worth. I have nothing else to offer as a sacrifice to the inner-most light that brings beauty into my life and makes it livable.
Your artwork has graced the covers of books, albums, and magazines. What has been your biggest accomplishment so far in your career?
I haven’t achieved anything. I just paint and draw and will continue to do so until I can’t anymore. Maybe then I’ll write a book or devote myself to a monastic lifestyle, or die, or something like that. It doesn’t really matter.
For inquiries on Chris Conn Askew’s tattoos, prints, and his store, visit sekretcity.com.