The master of macabre imagery shares his dark secrets
In Hell’s Kitchen, on the sidewalk in front of the tattoo studio-art gallery Last Rites Tattoo Theatre, a young woman in shiny black latex is introduced to Paul Booth. Her mascara starts to run, she falls to the ground, and she begins dragging herself on her belly toward him. Wrapping her thin body around his leg, she kisses his foot, still crying. That’s what it’s like to be one of the original tattoo rock stars, even if he doesn’t want to be. Renowned for his rich black and grey macabre tattoos, Booth’s fame began in the early ‘90s as heavy metal gods lined up for work and even brought him on tour with them. Today, Booth still reigns as one of the most influential tattooers in the world, inspiring new generations of artists (and groupies) in the industry.
Let’s go back to 1988, when you were a punk rock kid from New Jersey just starting out in tattooing. What was the big hook that pulled you into the industry?
There were two things that got me into tattooing: One was getting my daughter’s name tattooed on me. I was 19 years old and a new father and kind of freaking out about it, so I went upon a suggestion by my friend to get her name tattooed on me, thinking that it would help me cope better. And it worked for sure in that department. It helped me realize this was a lifelong commitment—the tattoo just like the child. Not only did it work for that but it also intrigued me to no end. I just had to learn how to tattoo. It was perfect for me.
Tattooing wasn’t trendy then. It was really more about individuality and rebellion, especially for me. Having punk rock roots, it was really a no-brainer. I loved the idea of my art becoming permanent and wearing it for life. For some reason I found myself attracted to the responsibility of it all. It made me feel like my art would have some sense of purpose beyond airbrushing murals on hot rods and bikes. The pain factor intrigued me as well; it seems to be such a necessary part of the process. I guess it always struck me as some sort of ritual.
“Trendy” doesn’t even begin to describe tattooing today. How do you feel about the direction the industry is going?
Of course, with the glorification and inevitable trendiness, how could this industry go in any other direction than it has? Just like anything, you have to take the bad with the good. I see great things happening and I see sad things happening. But keep in mind, I’m the consummate pessimist by nature so most of what I do is complain. Everything out there is like a double-edged sword to me these days. On one hand, you have some super talented artists out there more than ever, which is very exciting to see as a tattoo artist who loves tattoos. On the other hand, a good chunk of what you see on the internet is not really truth. And honestly, sometimes that work is not so wonderful after it’s a few years old. That’s something that seems to be losing importance these days. Unfortunately, the public is not so aware of the technical side that defines longevity. With the increased popularity of tattooing, there also comes a greater awareness amongst people that end up becoming the next generation or a new credit to the industry. So, like I said, you just have to take the bad with the good.
Are you mentally preparing for the moment when you’ll be considered “an old-timer?”
I thought I was already an old-timer! I mean, when I was new, somebody tattooing 27 years was one for sure. They had been tattooing longer than I had been alive. At this point, I feel that, if you learned on acetate stencils, then you’re probably an old-timer.
When you’re asked by newbies to impart some tattoo advice, what do you usually offer—or do you just fuck with them?
Sometimes I like to fuck with the new kids, but usually it’ll be more about teaching them something—sometimes subtle, sometimes in their face. You know, we old-timers can tell when a kid is sincere or there to truly get my full attention. Just a cocky little prick. But the sincere kids who have the spark, they’re always fun and inspiring to me. I love to teach, actually. I just hate wasting my time. Done enough of that. You gotta be more than just a good artist. You gotta have some integrity and ethics laced in there to truly get my full attention.
In 2002, Rolling Stone deemed you “The New King of Rock Tattoos,” as you were tattooing and touring with bands including Slayer, Pantera, Biohazard and a long list of others. Are you still indulging in that tattoo rock star lifestyle?
Oh, I’m just a weekend warrior now! The thought of living on a tour bus again for a month or two at a time—no, I’m OK now. I’m happy visiting my friends when they pass through town or we cross paths somewhere in the world. I am kind of a recluse when I’m home these days, but when I creep out of my lair, it’s their shows I’m usually found at. Otherwise, I just stay home and try and create some weird thing. But yeah… those rock star days.
There seems to be a lot of tattoo rock stars these days. Someone tattooing just a couple of years could have tens of thousands of Instagram followers. How does a tattooer stay above the din?
You know, I actually posed that same question amongst some friends a while back, and the best advice I got was from Filip Leu. He reminded me to just stay on my own path and stop giving a fuck. Of course, these days, I really can’t ignore social media due to business, unfortunately, but I find my fun in it, so I cope OK. Like broadcasting a live ArtFusion [painting collaboration] video session from the top of Machu Picchu. OK, that was cool. But, in my opinion, I think it’s as much about developing your own style as how good you are. Standing out in the crowd means being unique, therefore, it seems to be the only way to go. Tattooers are the new rock stars. Gill Montie saw it coming. He once told me the only people rock stars look up to are tattoo artists. And now here we are with more rock stars than we can handle. Amidst that chaos, some uniques are going to stand out. The question is “One hit wonder” or “Staying power”?
Recently, a face and neck tattoo you did caused some controversy on social media, and it’s also interesting because you broke your “facial tattoo taboo” with it. Tell us about that piece and why you agreed to do it.
It was quite an experience for both of us. Camilo came to me, like a student looking to help him with a certain rite of passage some tattooers seek, such as I once did myself. It’s about an ultimate commitment to your craft, extending complete trust in your chosen mentor, suffering through the pain in one sitting. Now just add a spritz of rebellion and there ya go. He was 30-years-old and a tattoo artist with the exact same intent as I had when I approached Felix and Filip Leu for my face. The kid had me dead to rights. So here I find myself committed to a face and neck for the first time in my career. OK, life-changing tattoo, here we go. It was very surreal to experience that catharsis from both points of view. I’m very fortunate for Camilo to have given me so much trust. And the only real backlash was just an onslaught of “can’t get a job” comments, but…duh.
What’s going on at your studio—what changes has your Last Rites Tattoo Theatre seen recently?
Our current roster of resident artists includes Logan Aguilar, Darwin Enriquez and Yomico Moreno. Then we have Stefano Alcantara, Jose Perez Jr, Megan Jean Morris, and quite a few other friends that can be found here when in town. I’m also open for another residency at the moment as well. The studio continues to evolve. I just added some gallery lighting to the east wall to showcase art from my tattoo artists and our guests. Pretty excited about that. I’m getting ready to build some chandeliers for the stations too, so I’m psyched to be making additions. Gotta keep those creative vibes fresh.
You mentioned your art gallery. Do you think the fine art world is taking the fine art work of tattooers more seriously these days?
Well, the “lowbrow” scene certainly is. Or the “new contemporary” or whatever they are calling it now. But the more mainstream contemporary art world, I don’t think so much really. All I can do is try and represent this kind of art to the best of my ability knowing that eventually the right eyes will see it.
There’s a lot of myth and lore that surrounds you. We’ve heard fantastic rumors about your alleged child slavery ring. Oh, and the gay heroin addict thing! Where do you think that derives from?
Oh yeah, the child slavery ring. Oh, the money I saved on my shirt printing operation those days! [laughs] I think my dark sense of humor gets taken too seriously sometimes. I have been getting a lot of “Is it true?” questions more so lately. Just human nature really. I’m just fun to hate. Hell, I even used to get death threats back in the early days for my work, and for shit I said in interviews regarding the church and such. Now, the baby-eating Satanist thing… that’s a whole other story.