Not to be overshadowed by a client list that includes Helena Christensen, Orlando Bloom, and Courtney Love, Scott Campbell has become a star in his own right. Campbell forged his own path in the tattoo world; instead of studying under one tattoo artist in particular, he traveled the world, picking up skills and inspiration as he went. Tattoo enthusiasts aren’t the only ones who have taken notice: Campbell’s work has ended up everywhere from the Louis Vuitton runway to the world’s top galleries. But he hasn’t gone all red carpet—Campbell keeps his edge by inking everyone from Special Forces in Afghanistan to Mexican prisoners. INKED: Your family was completely against tattoos. How did you get into it?
Scott Campbell: My family is a bunch of Southern Baptists, really conservative. And like most nerdy kids, getting tattooed was a way to look cool and piss off your parents. It was the most efficient way to irritate my father I could find.
Every time you talk about your first tattoo you say something different. What’s the real story?
My first tattoo was really just a little skull on my leg. I walked into this biker shop called Dragon Mike’s and Tiger John’s down in Houston. I had $25 in my pocket and an ID from this waiter that looked like me, and I remember memorizing his name and address and birthday so I could prove it was me, and they just didn’t care. It was pretty funny. They gave me two options: You can get a butterfly or you can get a skull. I picked the skull.
So how did you get started tattooing?
I was in San Francisco working for this publishing company and running around with a bunch of punk rock kids, and I was always the one who could draw. People would always bring me their leather jackets to draw the Danzig logo on the back, or Slayer on their jean jackets. The first guy I tattooed was my buddy Jeff, who was really insistent. I had been getting a lot of tattoos at that point so I knew a little bit about it, but I was terrified at the idea of actually doing them. I said I would draw it for him and he could bring it to a tattoo shop but he was like, “I really want you to do it. I want it to be from you.” He was insistent to the point where he said he would buy me the tattoo machine and I’d tattoo him as payment for the equipment, and I finally said I’d do that. It was kind of amazing in that it was someone who believed in me more than I believed in me. And then once I tattooed him, his friends wanted to get tattooed, and more and more people. I had to find a way to put food on the table so I just called it my job.
So was there anyone you were learning from?
I didn’t have an apprenticeship, but Juan Puente helped me out. He knew I was tattooing out of my house but he was like, “Okay, kid, if you’re going to be doing it I might as well give you a couple pointers so you don’t screw people up too bad.” He does super-clean, perfect classic Americana and a lot of cholo Mexican stuff. He was a real inspiration.
Where was the first shop you worked?
The first shop I worked at was Picture Machine [in San Francisco], which was in a weird residential neighborhood next to this dirty biker bar. We had the craziest wing nuts coming through there, from Asian gangster kids to weird old Russian guys to sweaty bikers from next door and all the Mission skater kids.
Not exactly the mainstream crowd that comes through your shop today.
Well, they didn’t have tattoo reality shows back then. It still had that bite to it, that edge. You still weren’t supposed to do it, which obviously makes it more fun. We got the whole spectrum of humanity, which was great. That’s where all my best tattooing stories are from.
I was really young and this crazy meth-head came in, and I knew I didn’t want to work on him. And he had some old tattoo he got in jail and he was really unhappy. And I looked at it and it was probably 45 minutes of work, but I didn’t want to work on him so I said, “Sure, man. You’re looking at about $700,” which is preposterous. I expected him to be like, “That’s crazy. I’ll get Jimmy Two Shoes to do it for 40 bucks and some beef jerky.” But instead he pulls out a toilet paper roll of hundred-dollar bills, peels off seven, and says let’s go. By the end he loves it and I’m his new best friend and he leaves. About three months later I’m about to tattoo this sweet little collegiate girl. She was getting the Sagittarius symbol on the back of her neck. And I was just about to tattoo her when I hear, “I’m going to fucking kill you. You put dicks on my arm!” And this chair goes flying through the window, I hit the silent alarm, and grab the pistol.
… Essentially, someone had convinced him I put subliminal dicks on his arm and he had a knife and wanted to cut my throat. So I have a gun behind my back and I tell him, “You can do whatever you want to me, but I just started a tattoo and I can’t stop right now. So you can cut my throat but it’s going to be about 30 minutes.” And he sits down in the waiting room with a knife in his hand until the cops come in and drag him off kicking and screaming.
Did you move to a different shop afterward?
No. I was at Picture Machine for a couple years and then I traveled for four years or so. I set up camp in Madrid for a few months, and then Singapore or Tokyo or Paris. I just took advantage of the fact that with tattooing you can go wherever you want. The freedom of that lifestyle was the most exciting thing. I used that to go and work with as many people as I could.
Did each place influence your tattooing?
You absorb a little bit from everywhere. I’d read or hear about some guy in Tokyo that I really wanted to work with, so I’d go there. I got passionate about learning as much as I could.
So how would you describe your style?
You’d be better off asking someone else. I guess a lot of what I enjoy is really technical tattooing. I really like making things perfect. And I do a lot of ornamental patterns and textures. I do a lot of lettering and typography. I love lettering.
You can affect the meaning of a word or phrase so much depending on how you draw it out. One of the guys that worked at Picture Machine with me when I first started was an old sign painter, and he was out of work so he picked up tattooing because it was a way to use everything he learned in sign painting. And watching him draw letters was amazing. There was such a poetry to it.
You might be best known for being tattoo artist to the stars. Heath Ledger, Lady Gaga—huge names. How did you end up with that role?
I think it’s just geography. New York is such a crazy town. There are celebrities of all genres. When I first opened shop here I naturally developed a clientele of creative industry people and it just evolved, which is great. I’d rather people come to me because they saw work that they liked rather than they heard I tattooed some movie star last week. I think it’s mostly just living in New York that perpetuated that. It’s such an exciting town and everyone comes through here, and it’s one of those cities that if you’re really passionate about what you do and you’re passionate about it, [the city] recognizes that.”
So when did you set up shop in New York?
I moved to New York in 2001 and worked at a couple shops here in town and ended up opening Saved in 2003. Now I’ve partnered up with Chris O’Donnell and he’s part owner of the tattoo shop and helps me out. In the last couple of years I’ve taken on all of these other crazy art projects and collaborations and I’m not here as much as I should be. Chris is someone I’ve always looked up to, so we tag team. When I’m not here he is, and vice versa.
You’ve developed a strong relationship with the fashion industry. Where did that start?
I started tattooing Marc Jacobs early on, not too long after I opened the shop.
He has some pretty famous tattoos.
Sponge Bob. Him as a Simpsons character. The red M&M. It’s funny how many people I run into and it doesn’t take long for them to be like, “So what the hell was Marc thinking?” They’re everywhere. Now there’s some ad campaign for cologne and I see him naked all over.
But back to the beginning.
Before Marc, I tattooed a bunch of models and supermodels around town and I think that’s how I got hooked up with Marc, actually. I tattooed a few of the models in his show and he liked the work. And Olivier Zahm from Purple is a good friend and he’s all over fashion these days. And now I’m getting a lot of fashion industry attention for the whole Louis Vuitton collaboration.
Louis Vuitton is quite a departure from most tattoo-fashion collaborations.
It’s funny. I’ve had whatever degree of success with my fine artwork and I was really excited and had a couple of solo shows that sold out and got good reviews. And I really appreciate how rare that is and what an amazing opportunity I have to have the attention of the art world that I do. I really want to make sure I don’t waste that and make sure I devote myself to putting good work out there. And I literally said I’m not doing any more commercial work—no collaborations, nothing. As soon as those words came out of my mouth the phone rang and it was Marc. That’s the one you have to do. They have such an amazing history of collaborations with Murakami and Richard Prince and Stephen Sprouse. They don’t do that many collaborations and the ones they do, they do right.
So what was the concept behind what you did for Louis Vuitton bags?
They already had a concept in mind. They were focusing on this travel story so we ended up going two different directions. One was a lot of Asian themes, so it was traditional Asian tattoo imagery but with a sense of antiquity to it. And the other one was this military, almost jungle ornamental pattern. And then we did variations of those.
And then you did the models for the show.
I did true tattoos on all the models for the runway show. That was fun. I’d done a lot of fake tattoos for film and photo shoots and stuff. It was fun to rough up all those pretty boy models for the day and give them a little bit of street cred.
This is about as far from tattooing next to a biker bar as you can get. What do you prefer?
I miss the sweaty biker bar sometimes. I am toying with the idea of doing one day a week at some street shop under a different name just to get some more good stories. It’s pretty surreal. There was a day two weeks ago I was in Afghanistan tattooing these Special Forces guys, and there was a day when I literally woke up on an Air Force base in Afghanistan, hitched a helicopter ride to the main base, and that evening was in a tuxedo at the Ritz Carlton in Moscow having dinner with Karl Lagerfeld. I really do try to still stay in touch with what I love about tattooing, though. Last year I spent a month down in Mexico tattooing a bunch of prisoners down in this Mexican prison, sitting in a jail cell with a bunch of guys making tattoo machines out of toothbrushes and guitar strings and Walkman motors. I try to get my hands dirty as much as possible to keep it real.
What do you get out of fine art that’s different from tattooing?
I’ve done art outside of tattooing for a while now, and it has exploded. Right now I’m just trying to keep up with it and not screw it up. When people think about tattoos the first thing that comes to mind is permanence. But now working in so many mediums, tattooing is the most ephemeral. As soon as you’re done it walks out the door and it can get hit by a bus, it can go get a sunburn. So it’s satisfying to take the vocabulary of tattoos and everything I’ve learned and carry it over to mediums that resonate a bit further and are a bit more archival than somebody’s arm. But that’s what makes tattoos amazing. There’s no retail value and there’s a sincerity there that makes them special.