Artists: Stuart G. Cripwell
Stuart G. Cripwell
Spider Murphy’s Tattoo
San Rafael, California
FRESHLY INKED: What year did you start tattooing?
STUART G. CRIPWELL: I started tattooing in 2004.
How did you get into tattooing?
I was trying to get involved in tattooing whilst traveling for a while with no luck. My only exposure to tattooing at the time was through magazines, and I found that most of the artists I respected worked in the Bay Area. I wish I’d moved here 10 years earlier to see the ’90s movement in San Francisco with shops like Primal Urge, 222, and Tattoo City, to name a few, but I ended up moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2003. Spider Murphy’s was always on my list of places I wanted to work, but I didn’t think it would happen at all. It was more of a pipe dream for sure. I checked out and asked in at a lot of shops and one day I humbly went into Spider Murphy’s to meet Theo and the rest of the crew. We struck up a conversation about tattooing and were chatting, and felt like it was a great first introduction. I went back maybe a few days later and talked about getting tattooed and finally got the courage up to ask Theo Mindell if he needed any shop help. I didn’t roll into there asking for an apprenticeship, which is the mistake most people make. I basically asked him if he needed help so I could get my foot in the door. Anyway, he said “Sure,” to my amazement, and took my number. A few days later he called and offered me a job as the shoppy. I don’t think I’ve ever been so stoked in my entire life. I was kind of stuck in this weird reality of “Is this really going to happen?” I loved being the shoppy. It was just the start of it all, so it was great to learn how the shop ran and how to deal with customers, making needles and watching Theo’s every move. I also had the pleasure of working alongside Jeff Rassier, who I learned a lot from, for a year while he was at the shop. I still didn’t know if I would end up apprenticing. We never spoke about it until I had been there for eight months, so when that time rolled around I couldn’t have been happier. A few months passed and things developed and I started to apprentice under Theo.
Can you tell us about your apprenticeship?
It was a one-year apprenticeship. I had my schedule worked out for the year with weekly tasks and deadlines to meet. I did everything from tracing, drawing, trying to learn to paint and do a set of flash, and sign painting, amongst other things. It was a super challenging year. I have never been tested mentally like that ever, but I made it through the apprenticeship. I had learned so much in a year—it was crazy. So I was going into tattooing knowing what I had to do. I just had to put it into practice on myself and faithful friends, keep drawing and painting and studying and get the technical side down while gaining knowledge about machines.
Do you have any special training?
I didn’t go to art school in any major way, just through high school I would obviously do art and draw at home for fun. I would have liked to have gone to art school. I think it would have helped a lot, but it just never worked out. I just wanted to travel after high school.
What conventions have you worked at?
I’ve worked at London and Milan and Ink-N-Iron a few times, and also the State of Grace convention a few times too. I’m not a huge fan of conventions—they’re very hectic for me. I guess I have been very privileged to start tattooing at such a great and comfortable work environment, so I feel very at home at the shop. I have never skipped around shops; I have been at Spider Murphy’s for my whole career. I think this is why I find it hard to do conventions, compared to tattooers who are used to guest spotting and traveling all the time. Those things totally pre- pare you for conventions.
How do you describe your style?
My style is definitely something that I found early, after completing my apprenticeship. Obviously it has changed a little over the years, but I always knew what I wanted my tattoos to look like. I studied old tattoos and flash from Owen Jensen, Ralph Johnson, George Bigmore, Joseph Hartley, Zeis, and Amund Dietzel, amongst many others. Those old sheets show so much grit and soul, so that’s what I wanted my work to look like. Dirty, powerful, with lots of black and a limited color palette. I would describe my style as just pure traditional. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
What inspires you as an artist?
I think just looking at old flash and tattoos and books. I don’t really look at other people’s tattoos to get inspired. I mean, a lot of people are amazing, but if you reference that, everything starts to look the same. I love their work; I just try not to pull any ideas from them. I prefer to stick to what I try to do.
What sets you apart from other artists?
I think just an individual style that is recognizable to everyone. I think that’s what sets tattooers apart for sure. When you instantly know what tattooer it was done by without a second glance.
What other mediums do you work in?
I just stick to watercolors at the moment—that’s all I was ever taught during my apprenticeship. I’ve never really used oils, and have only used a little acrylic. I would love to learn to work in different mediums, and I’m sure I’ll get there someday. I definitely admire people like Mike Davis, who is without a doubt one of my favorite oil painters.
Have you branched out from tattooing?
Not really—I just try to immerse myself in what I do, and learn about traditional tattooing. I do love to paint, and I love putting together machines for myself, so maybe that will develop into something one day. There are so many great machine builders out there that it would just be a personal thing, I think, but I do admire people who make the time to do things like that. Like building and selling machines and making pigment, putting books together. Things like that. Things that help you and that don’t disrespect tattooing in any way.
What tattoo artists do you admire most?
There are so many I can’t mention them all, but the main ones that come to mind are obviously the people I work with. Theo has been the biggest influence on me, but Heather Bailey, Paul Dobleman, Matt Howse, and Bryan “I’m looking at scopes in the back” Randolph are all amazing, and I learn from them all the time. Bert Grimm, Owen Jensen, Percy Waters, Eddy Deutsche, Alex Binnie, Dan Higgs, Freddy Corbin, Chris Trevino, Scott Harrison, Chris Conn, Jef White- head, Todd Noble, Beppe Strambini, Timothy Hoyer, Jeff Rassier, Scott Sylvia, Tim Lehi, Nick Rodin, Heath Preheim, Jeremy Lynn, Robert Ryan, Steve Byrne, Thomas Hooper, Daniel Albrigo, Erick Lynch, Rob Benavides, Thomas Garcia, Lina Stigsson, Rob Admiraal, Angelique, and Job de Quay. I could go on forever but mainly these are the guys that definitely inspire me, and I admire them as artists and good friends.
What kind of tattoos do you look forward to doing?
There are so many things that I would like to do. I’m always finding ideas and seeing things on old pages of flash and in books that I have. There are a million ideas out there; you just have to put them together into your specific style.
Is there a tattoo that you haven’t done yet that you are dying to do?
I would just love to do more traditional bodysuits. I’m almost finished with one at the moment. My friend Matt has been getting tattooed for almost five years, every two weeks or so. He’s let me choose everything he has on his body, has never turned down an idea, and has trusted me to put the suit together, so it looks right and consistent throughout, which is a very challenging thing to do. He really is the best customer I have ever come across, and I hope I have more like him. It’s just extremely rare these days to have a customer who commits to a traditional circus-style bodysuit that’s just done by one artist. It’s pretty much the ultimate thing for a tattooer to be presented with, and I’m definitely very thankful for it. Thank you to Matt for everything.