Artists: Tim Kern
627 E 6th Street
New York NY 10009
What year did you start tattooing?
How did you get into tattooing?
After I finished art school, I was working at a day center for the homeless in Columbia, MO, and doing part-time freelance graphic design. I became friends with the artists at dreamcatcher studios. One of their artists was planning to leave the shop, and their main artist, spider, offered me an apprenticeship after he saw my artwork. I spent every evening at the tattoo shop after working at the day center, watching Spider tattoo or doing things like making needles, scrubbing tubes, drawing designs for flash, cleaning up, etc. I only did about six or eight tattoos the first year I was there, and around 300 the next—mostly small “one-point” tattoos. My brother, James, was also learning to tattoo around this time. After three years, I moved to Chicago to work with him. I spent four years in Chicago before moving to New York City in 2002. In 2008, I opened Tribulation Tattoo with Dan Marshall and Liorcifer.
Do you have any special training?
I graduated from the university of missouri–Columbia with a Bachelor of Fine arts and a minor in art history. I think going to art school improved my drawing skills a lot, but I have learned so much more through tattooing than I ever did in college. When I was younger, I never understood why anyone would use an ugly color like yellow ocher. Now I use it almost every day when I tattoo. I also have a much greater appreciation for more muted color palettes.
What conventions have you worked at? Have you won any awards? What are some of your best convention memories?
I started doing conventions about 15 years ago, so I’ve probably worked at well over 100. Conventions are a great way to meet people and get your work out there, but are not the most convenient places to tattoo. The chairs aren’t comfortable, the lighting isn’t great, and there are a lot of distractions. at this point I’m only interested in going to conventions in places I want to visit. In the last year I’ve done shows in France, Italy, Sweden, England, Japan, and Brazil. I’m hoping to visit Germany, Spain, Belgium, and Denmark in the near future. I’m doing a lot less than I used to. I got married two years ago, so I’m enjoying being home with my wife as much as I can. I have won a few awards, but my favorite part of any convention is catching up with tattoo artist friends that I don’t see very often. some of my closest friends I see only once or twice a year, but it feels like I just saw them yesterday. Last fall, I visited temples in Kyoto that were over 1,000 years old with Bob Tyrrell, Nikko Hurtado, and Genziana Cocco. I am very fortunate to have friends all over the world, and to get to explore such amazing places with them.
How do you describe your style?
I love doing portrait-style pieces as much as doing creepy cartoon girls. I like the look of mixing black-and-gray realism with red, but it only works for certain designs. I try to let the subject matter dictate the style of the tattoo as much as I can.
What inspires you as an artist?
I find inspiration all around me. I love going to museums, zoos, and art galleries. I’m always making mental notes on how things look. The shapes and textures of everyday objects, shadow patterns, the way brushstrokes look on different paintings—these are all things that get stored in my memory. I think a lot of times I get distracted by shiny objects. At home we’re surrounded by a lot of art, taxidermy, and books, which are a huge resource for me. We also recently redid the interior of the shop so that it would have a more relaxing vibe. I think surroundings are very important for making art as well as for getting tattooed. My biggest inspiration, however, is my wife, Hang. She always encourages me to try new things, and to push my art in different directions than I would normally go.
What sets you apart from other artists?
I’m a seventh-generation twin, descended from carnies. I also used to sleepwalk a lot when I was little. I think I turned out okay, though.
What other mediums do you work in?
I don’t have as much time as I would like to make art outside of tattooing, but I enjoy painting with watercolors, acrylics, and doing scratchboard.
How have you branched out from tattooing?
I’ve done a little bit of tattoo design work for films, which is pretty fun. I worked with the makeup department on Synecdoche, New York to do a very complex full-body design for Robin Weigert’s character, and a back piece design for Michelle Williams. It’s an amazing film. I also did tattoo design work for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and an episode of CSI: NY.
What tattoo artists do you admire most?
I am lucky to be friends with a lot of amazing tattoo artists, and their work is a constant inspiration. Volko [Merschky] and Simone [Pfaff] from the Buena Vista Tattoo Club, Robert Hernandez, Jeff Gogue, Shige from Yellow Blaze, and Jason Butcher are just a few of the artists whose work consistently blows me away with its inventiveness. My business partner, Dan Marshall, is probably the most inspirational to me since I have been able to see his work evolve up close every day for the last 10 years.
What kind of tattoos do you look forward to doing?
I enjoy doing tattoos that are different than what I normally get asked to do—that force me to think outside of my comfort zone. I’m not a big fan of abstract or conceptual art, but I like when clients come to me with a really strange idea to work with. I like incorporating symbolic, alchemical, and fetishistic items into designs when appropriate. I also really don’t mind doing cover-up tattoos.
Before someone gets a tattoo what advice do you give them?
With the prevalence of the Internet today, it’s very easy to research different artists and see the types of work that they do. Keep looking until you find an artist whose work speaks to you. Don’t settle for the guy down the street. I also try to only get work from artists I like as a person, since they will be forever associated with the tattoo I receive from them. I also want to discourage copying other people’s tattoos. If you like an artist’s work, get an original piece from that artist. If that isn’t possible, get a piece inspired by their work instead. Directly copying someone’s tattoo only makes their custom design less special for them, and you look like an asshole. I think that applies to both the artist who knowingly copies another tattoo as well as the client.
Is there a tattoo that you haven’t done yet that you are dying to do?
I think it would be very interesting to do photorealistic tattoos of small body parts like navels and nipples in places they don’t belong. Tom Strom has a tattoo of his own ear on his neck, which I think is pretty awesome.