Q+A: Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy)

The bad boy of Hollywood—whose credits include Sons of Anarchy and Outlaw Empires—opens up about ink, the SOA gang, and being married to Peggy Bundy.

Producer, writer, director, and actor Kurt Sutter is the creator of FX’s Sons of Anarchy, a series about the lives of a close-knit outlaw motorcycle club operating in Charming, a fictional town in northern California. Sutter also produced The Shield, an Emmy- and Golden Globe–winning series that ran for seven seasons. More recently, he’s ventured into reality programming with a new documentary series on the discovery Channel called Kurt Sutter’s Outlaw Empires. Sutter has three kids with his wife and SOA costar Katey Sagal, who’s best known for her portrayal of Peggy Bundy on Married … With Children. as he geared up for season five of Sons of Anarchy, which airs this fall, Sutter sat down to talk television drama and tribal ink.

INKED: Let’s start by talking about your ink. Tell us about your first tattoo.

KURT SUTTER: My first tattoo I got was in my 20s, so it was 20, 25 years ago. And it just was a small tattoo, sort of a yin-yang, black-white thing on my shoulder. Then I went a long time without getting another piece.

What changed?

I guess about 10 or 11 years ago I was sort of intrigued by some of the tribal work that was being done. I started researching and met with Khani Zulu here in Los Angeles, who’s a tribal guy. We started dis- cussing different ideas and different patterns. We were talking about what I wanted to get and what I wanted it to represent, and he created this very cool scorpion sort of warrior tattoo that we did on my right forearm. That pretty much covered the entire forearm area, and he really did an awesome job. And that was the lower half of my right arm.

And you kept going.

About three years after that I liked the idea of exploring different tribes and different tribal approaches, and started doing research on some of the Maori work. Actually, through Zulu I met a guy called King Afa … who grew up in Tonga. He designed this whole patch—this whole upper sleeve on my right side—that actually incorporated the very first tattoo that I ever got. So without inking over it, but basically incorporating it into the piece, he tied all the Maori stuff from my upper right arm. It really flowed then into the tribal piece that Zulu did on my lower right arm. So it’s this really cool blend of Maori and African tribal stuff that really just feels very simpatico, and it kind of flows into one big piece. It’s just incredibly, incredibly detailed. And the idea of shading that he does with the light sketch and creating depth and shadows, it’s all symbols and glyphs. At one point, I knew what everything meant, but now it’s all a big blur. [Laughs.] There are so many symbols.

What’s your philosophy on tattoos: aesthetics or personal art?

I just love tattoos because, to me, they are truly pieces of personal art. I’m not a guy who will suddenly just get a name or something just tattooed arbitrarily on his body. To me—and this is just my opinion—but to me it just feels like graffiti, if you know what I mean. I like art, tattoos that actually are works of art and that have some sort of emotional or personal or spiritual connection to the person that it’s on. And that was definitely my experience.

You also have Scandinavian tribal work, right?

Yeah. I started exploring my own tribal roots, which are Scandinavian. I’m Norwegian, but I’m going back to the Scythians. … I think this is true—I don’t think I’m making this up—but I think some of the earliest mummies ever found [were] covered head- to-toe in these Scythian tribal tattoos. [The tattoos] are all these really sort of crazy, mythical-looking creatures, like half-ram, half-lion. They have a lot of ancient roots and they tie into a runic alphabet and all that stuff. So I went back to Zulu and we started bouncing around ideas to incorporate the symbols, and spent about six months kicking around ideas back and forth. And then he took these Scythian symbols that were on this mummy and incorporated them into a pattern with the tribal stuff that he does so that there’s sort of a connected flow from one arm to the other arm, because some of the symbols are similar. Between all of his African tribal stuff are these really crazy Scythian symbols and animals. And then we did a giant Helm of Awe on my elbow just to tie in the Nordic end of it. Then I have these runic letters on my fist that represent my wife and my three children, that are right below the knuckles of my left hand. So I actually took the ink down onto my fingers in his work, and I did an entire sleeve on the left-hand side.

Do you remember what the catalyst was for your interest in tribal work?

I think some of it was creatively what was going on at the time. I’m a writer, so I was working on The Shield and I writing a couple other projects that had to do with that kind of tribal mentality that happens between men. You know, how we basically try to emulate that in all our relationships— this innate need and desire to be part of a tribe, to be part of something, define common ground with other people, to represent something, to fight for something, to be fierce about something. All that was what I was dealing with creatively, and I just found that ink—what it represented emotionally to me—I found it aesthetically sort of visually compelling. They’re just incredibly fierce-looking and beautiful.

So when you were starting out with Sons of Anarchy, where were you in your tattooing?

I think at that point I had the first tribal tattoo. During the pilot process, I had started the Maori stuff, which was just very tedious, and I think I had over 10 sessions ultimately with Afa. But it was just sort of slow and tedious. I tend to go every five years before getting another piece. I literally just finished the left arm so I’ve got a few years. But I think the next piece I would do would be a back piece, and I would seek out Freddy to do that. He’s done some amazing work on people.

You mean Freddy Corbin?

Yeah. Freddy came to me through a buddy of mine who is also part of the show, and Freddy, basically for nothing, created the reaper insignia for us. Those types of tattoos were not anything that I had on me, nor is it really my style, but I really loved the idea. You know, we went to Freddy with what we wanted in terms of the reaper and the scythe and all that stuff. But it’s one thing to say, “Hey, this is what I kind of want it to look like”—and then to have some- body actually turn it around and deliver this really amazing, iconic image.

“Ink is a way that [the characters on Sons of Anarchy] express themselves, or a way they let people know what’s going on with them or the changes that they’re going through.” – KURT SUTTER

INKED MAG: Tell us about how the actors in SOA get to help decide what their characters’ tattoos look like. What’s it like giving them that kind of artistic control?

KURT SUTTER: I wanted to allow the guys to help carve out their characters and decide what pieces they might have and what they represented. Like, Ron [Perlman] ended up getting pieces that represented his time in Vietnam. [Mark] Boone [Junior] ended up getting this really crazy snake on his arm, and he had all this internal monologue about what that represented. So we had some of the guys come up with ideas, and then we had our makeup people and design people here, who then have relationships with graphic artists and tattoo artists who generate those pieces. And then once we sign off on the pieces we’ll create stencils so that they can be quickly applied for the episode. They usually last two or three days before we have to replace them. We still give people the opportunity to add tattoos in between seasons, as these guys often do—Charlie [Hunnam] adding the names of his sons over the last couple of seasons and Ron adding something this year. Our guys will have different ideas for their character. I know a lot of these guys. Ink is away that they express themselves, or a way they let people know what’s going on with them or the changes that they’re going through. So we pretty much let the guys do what they want—as long as it doesn’t fly in the face of who I think the character is.

Do a majority of the cast members have their own ink?

Yes, actually. I know Charlie has his own tattoo. Charlie has a big one on his back that we have to actually cover up every time we put the reaper tat on his back. I know Ryan [Hurst] has tats and Tommy [Flanagan] has some tats. I know Theo [Rossi] has a bunch of tats. I don’t think Ron has any tattoos. I don’t think Kim [Coates] has any tattoos. I think Dayton [Callie] has tattoos. So yeah, I would say a majority of my cast, including my wife.

What’s it like being married to Peggy Bundy?

I don’t know. Peg is dead.

Do you have a lot of fans send you photos of Sons of Anarchy tattoos they’ve gotten?

Oh my God, yes. Not so much in off-season, but while the show is running I’ll get a few a week. Some people actually go and get the back tattoo. A lot of people get the reaper. I’ve had one guy get my Sutter Ink logo done on his shoulder. Katey and Charlie tell this rather terrifying story. They’re at some bike convention where they were signing auto- graphs and this guy came and had Katey and Charlie sign his arm with a Sharpie, and then came back about three hours later and he’d had a tattoo artist permanently tattoo their signatures to his arm. For me, it’s a weird mix of being astonished and appalled and flattered. Do you know what I mean? I love the fact that people feel as part of and connected to the show as they do and they want to embrace it and remember it. And then there’s a part of me that thinks, What happens 10 years from now when we’re not on the air and people are like, What the hell is that on your arm? But yes, we have a lot of passionate fans that tend to show up with ink.

Tell us about Outlaw Empires, the new show on the Discovery Channel you’re executive producing.

I’ve always been a fan of documentary series. I had conversations with the Discovery Channel, and we went back and forth with different ideas and we came up with this idea of doing a documentary series on outlaw empires, on large criminal dynasties. I was intrigued with the idea that we would be able to tell the story through the point of view of the individual, meaning that it would be done from the outlaw’s point of view rather than from a historical or a law enforcement point of view. So that we would actually get inside and talk to these individual members and try to understand what drew them to the life—why did they become part of it? what happened? where are they now?—and really use their stories to give context to the world rather than just sort of a dry, exploitative overview of bad guys doing bad things, which is what I did not want to do. So that’s really what the premise was. I think for the most part we’ve been able to go in and tell these stories—I think probably for the first time—from some point of objectivity.

You talked about a potential back piece. What else does the future hold for your ink?

I have these two pieces on my arms that really go all the way up onto my shoulders and start to extend into my back. And my sense is that I’d try to tie them all together in some kind of a cool back piece. I like exploring different styles, and I think I’d probably want to go to a different artist to do that next piece, and have it not be tribal, and really try to explore a different genre of art. I know it’s traditional to do sort of a life story— a life history in the back piece. I think that’s probably why I’d seek out a guy like Freddy [Corbin]. That’s where my head’s going for the next piece.

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