“Now it’s all about everyone waving their fucking dick in the air, ‘Look what I did!’ Everyone is showing off. I think that comes from fear. They crave other people’s approval.” — Spider Webb
The tattooer who looks at his craft as performance art regales us with tales from the weird old days.
Spider Webb, born Joseph O’Sullivan, is considered one of the most important people in contemporary tattoo history. With more than 50 years in the industry, he has legitimized tattooing as an art form, helping to bring it into galleries, museums, and even Christie’s auction house, where a tattoo by Spider Webb was deemed “priceless.” He fought to legalize tattooing in New York City after it was banned in the ’60s by tattooing on the steps of museums. He expanded what some viewed as the limitations of tattooing through his conceptual art pieces and tattoo performances. And he’s done all this with humor, flair, and mischief. Spider Webb, who holds a master’s degree in fine arts, continues to create art, tattoos, tattoo machines,and trouble at his tattoo museum in Charlotte, NC. You’ll also find him at tattoo shows and galleries around the world.
INKED: Let’s start at the beginning. What was it like getting your first tattoo at Coney Island in the ’50s?
SPIDER WEBB: It was almost a religious experience. I was 14, and at that time, it was one of the coolest things I could do with my whole life and my body. I grew up in the Bronx. My mother was working. My father was dead. I was like a street kid. All the big guys had tattoos, and, of course, all of us kids wanted to have them. I remember this one fucking guy, Jerry; he had a bunch of tattoos on him. He would tell these horror stories about how the ink would mix with the blood, and all that. So I was expecting the worst but I didn’t give a shit because the end result justified anything.
What did you get?
I didn’t get what I wanted because I didn’t have enough money. What I wanted was a big skull with a snake going through it, but what I ended up with was a scroll and I had “Mom” tattooed in it.
And what did your mom say when you got home?
I guess it was better than finding us kids dead. She wasn’t too thrilled, but at the same time it said “Mom.” Anyway, she had more pressing problems than making a big fucking deal about that. But she said not to do it again, and, of course, the next week, I had another fucking tattoo—the big snake and the skull.
What was it like, seeing that first tattoo?
I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. It had a bandage on it, but that lasted about 10 minutes after I walked away because I wanted to stare at it. It took quite a while to heal; it took two weeks until the scabs were completely off, and every time a scab flaked off there was that magic color under there. It would be like reliving it all over again because it would be all fresh and new and smooth to the touch. That waiting period was pretty fucking magic.
The word magic comes up a lot when talking about tattoos. Do you think there’s still magic?
I think that still holds true. It kind of brings people back to reality—to do something that humans have always done. Then again, now when people are getting tattooed they have a fucking telephone stuck in the tattoo artist’s face. It’s all about everyone waving their fucking dick in the air, “Look what I did!” Everyone is showing off, but I don’t know what they’re showing off. I think that comes from fear. They crave other people’s approval.
Back in the day, tattoos weren’t about approval; they were about saying fuck you to society.
Well, you got approval from a gang or something, approval of your fellow sailors. But I think it’s a different mind- set with acceptance today. It’s all good. You see people walking around with all these great pictures on them, and you think back that, years ago, they wanted to do this, but they were afraid. Now they’re not afraid. The peer pressure has shifted.
You’ve fought very hard for tattoo acceptance and to legalize tattooing after the tattoo ban was put in place in New York City in the ’60s. Tell us more about that.
Well, I learned to tattoo in New York City when it was legal, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t. Life goes on. I went to college. I was in the Navy. Then I said that I was going to open a tattoo parlor, and of course, I couldn’t open in New York City, so I had to go two steps out into Mount Vernon to do it. That bothered me—that I couldn’t do what I wanted in New York City. So I decided to challenge the law. I got busted for tattooing on the steps of the Museum of Modern Art, and they gave me some tickets. I went to the Lawyers for the Arts, but they told me that tattooing was not an art. I went to others who wouldn’t help, and then, finally, Bill Kunstler turned me on to a lawyer who would handle it cheap. But that lawyer got what he wanted—he made the front page of the law journal. A tattoo fund was set up for people to contribute money to fight the case. It was in the newspapers and all over the world. We raised 50 fucking dollars. Bev Robinson, better known as Cindy Ray, sent $25 from Australia, and one of her friends in the States sent $25, and that was the end of who gives a fucking shit about it.
Then you fought it again.
Yeah, so almost 10 years later, I did it again with [porn star] Annie Sprinkle on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They wouldn’t arrest me. The police knew about it. The day before there was a giant picture of me and Annie in the centerfold of the New York Post saying that I would get busted the next day. One of the higher-ups had said to leave me alone because they didn’t want to open up a can of worms. So here I am tattooing Annie on the steps, and reporters are going over to the cop cars and saying, “C’mon, let’s get this on. Are you going to bust this guy?” And they never did. At that time, I was tattooing illegally in the city then anyway. There were a lot of people who were tattooing illegally. Then they changed the law. Big fucking deal. Follow the money.
You were at City Hall when tattooing was legalized in New York in 1997, right?
Yeah, it was great. I did a vampire tattoo at City Hall. That day, [Rudolph] Giuliani came down to sign the bill and I’m waiting with a big feather with a needle in it and a beautiful woman, and I’m going to stab her neck. A lot of people from the tattoo community were there, but there was some kind of glitch, and they wouldn’t be signing the bill for a couple of days. So I thought, Big fucking deal, here I am. So I started jabbing this girl’s neck. I wanted to be the first legal tattoo, but I stayed in the gutter where I belong.
You’ve been bringing tattoo art into fine art galleries since the ’70s. You’re particularly known for your conceptual art pieces. How did that get started?
How it all happened was a girl was interviewing me for a magazine, and she said, “Spider, what are the limitations of tattooing?” Being a big fucking know-it-all, I said that it’s the size of the human body; that’s the limitation. Then after I saw the interview in print, I thought, What kind of bullshit is this? What limitations? We have to get rid of limitations. So I thought to use a whole bunch of people in X 1000. I tattooed one X on 1,000 people, with a big X on the last person made up of 999 Xs to complete a conceptual piece. … Then I started to do the Tattoo Vampire. It’s a conceptual piece with just two simple dots on your neck. I’ve been doing that act for 30 years all over the world, from Studio 54 to the sewers of Paris, in Gracie Mansion, and in museums and galleries. It’s a great show because there’s sex, blood, kiss- ing, and you get to live forever. It’s a very beautiful performance. Then I thought to myself that what would be real cool is if I become cupid and just tattoo one dot. So it’s the same as the vampire act except I use an arrow and I make one dot for love, usually on a girl, but on men too— and there’ll be the fake blood and a breast exposed. That’s what every- one wants, and I give it to them.
What other conceptual pieces have you done?
Do you remember Pulsating Paula? She was one of the photographers when they first started tattoo magazines. She’s a biker girl. She’s great. I tattooed her clitoris one time with a monkey tooth I pulled out of an alligator’s skull. She was one of the first people I did the cupid tattoo on. Now I’m thinking to myself, What am I going to do next? I know what I’ll do. I’ll become the Invisible Man. And that’s what I did. So I started to do the Unwanted Tattoo. I would be invisible. I wouldn’t even be there. The first fucking thing I did was I took my doorbell apart, and I took out the black piece that you push to ring the bell, and I put in a piece of an ink pad and a thumb tack. Then the mailman of all people rings my bell and he tattoos his thumb. I said, “Oh shit, that’s fucking cool.” Then I started to make other ones. I made the unwanted tattoo toilet seat. Then I did the greatest one of all: the gas pump. A guy tattoos his hand when he squeezes the thing. A lot of these things I had to rig up a video camera because I don’t want to be there when the guy or girl freaks out. They think they can wash it off but they can’t. There’s a lot of humor in tattooing—people who don’t want it, not wanting what I’m giving that day. Isn’t that cool? [Laughs.] Children laugh about 2,000 times a day, and most adults laugh about 40 or 50. People are so afraid. I think tattoos take a little bit of fear away. Makes them a little stronger.
You should put these videos online.
I wish I had someone here to do that for me, but I have a computer that I don’t look at. I’m looking for an intern.
I’m sure there are plenty of people in Charlotte who would want to work on that. So when did you move to North Carolina?
About eight years ago. I got really fucked up and needed operations on my back and I couldn’t shovel snow or anything so I had to get out of Dodge. So I put my house up for sale, sold it the day after, and threw all my shit in one of those pod things. I didn’t know where the fuck I was going. A guy I used to work with had moved to North Carolina, so I called him and he told me to stay at his house until I figured out what I was doing. So I stayed in his house for a month. I didn’t even know where the fuck I was. Then I just walked the streets, I saw a house for sale, and I bought the fucking thing. Then I found out where I was. And here I am.
Tell us about the American Tattoo Museum you set up.
Well, Lyle [Tuttle] was out visiting and he said, “What’s in that?” pointing to books with my artwork in them. I told him they were just flash I had drawn through the years. He grabbed the books, flips out, and says, “Holy shit, you have enough art in here for 10 fucking museums.” I said, “Okay, Lyle, maybe I’ll open one in my fucking garage.” And I did. That’s the extent of my fucking museum. [Laughs.]
So if someone wants to visit the American Tattoo Museum, they could just knock on your door and go in your garage?
If they have a gun, yeah. And their gun better be bigger than mine.
What’s kept you going all these years?
Doing drugs! Sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll! I can’t say Jesus. [Laughs.] It sounds funny but now that I think about it, that’s the truth.
You have so many amazing stories. What do you want to be known for most? How do you want to be remembered?
I don’t know. Maybe that I had a good time. Let me tell you something: People are obsessed with money. I’m not. I’m free. I’ve watched people chase money, and it’s sad and wasted talent. There’s so much more to do with your life. I just try to do the best I can, make a painting or a drawing or a tattoo. I’ve been building these tattoo chess sets. Just try to be happy. You don’t need to be remembered. I don’t think being remembered is important at all. I think living is important. You got to do that crap now, not tomorrow.