When you're only one inch shorter than Michael Jordan and nearly covered in tattoos and piercings, it's difficult not to be an intimidating figure, but right now Gym Class Heroes' frontman Travis McCoy looks even more imposing than usual. It certainly isn't due to a flamboyant wardrobe; McCoy is dressed as a fashion-conscious high school student, sporting a windbreaker, crooked cap, and, yes, Air Jordans. No, it's the white contact lens McCoy is rocking—it throws off his facial symmetry and makes him appear slightly unhinged, like he could lose his cool at any moment. While the rest of the Heroes munch on pizza, McCoy ignores his vegan pie and peruses a selection of magazines before picking up a popular men's title, which wouldn't be worth mentioning if it weren't for the fact that his girlfriend, Katy Perry, is gracing the cover. In other words, it's just another day in the life of Gym Class Heroes, an unlikely group of misfits from Geneva, NY, who became one of the most beloved bands in both the pop-punk and hip-hop scenes without actively trying to achieve success in either.
"I'm not a pussy, man," McCoy responds when asked why the freshly tattooed heart on his Adam's apple is only an outline. The band's on-tour tattoo artist, Craig Beasley, started the piece after last night's show in Albany, NY, but McCoy had to stop. "My face got all hot and I was like, ‘All right, enough,'" he says. "Sometimes you gotta just know when to stop; you'll put your body into overdrive and pass out and it's all bad." Of all the band's members—drummer Matt McGinley, bassist Eric Roberts, and guitarist Disashi Lumumba-Kasongo—McCoy is by far the most inked, which makes sense when you consider that at the tender age of 15 he apprenticed as a self-described "shop bitch" at a tattoo shop in upstate New York.
"At first I was like, ‘I'm not going to spend my time in a tattoo shop not getting paid when I could be out chasing girls.' But I learned a lot from the time I spent there," McCoy explains as he chain-smokes Parliaments on the steps of the Philadelphia photo studio where the band's INKED photo shoot is taking place. Although McCoy abandoned the shop to pursue the academic route, he dropped out of art school at 20 and started tattooing a month later. "I was shadowing really good artists and it just sunk in," he explains. "I did my first tattoo on the guy I was apprenticing under, and during the first couple lines I was shaking," he recalls with a laugh. "He was like, ‘Suck it up, quit being a pussy!' He had quit smoking cigarettes, so I drew a cigarette smashing itself out, and it came out dope as fuck. Ever since then I've been at it."
In fact, McCoy has tattooed the inside of both of McGinley's arms, which the drummer later shows off with a grin. McCoy has a "gentle touch," McGinley says. "When you're a 19-year-old kid that's getting a tattoo from your friend who's maybe only done it three or four times before, you need that reassurance," he says when asked what it was like to be tattooed by his bandmate. Sporting a V-neck T-shirt that allows his enormous chest piece of a lighthouse peek out from the top, he adds, "Travis was definitely a cool dude to have tattoo me."
It was ultimately McCoy's skill with a mic—not a tattoo machine—that made him famous. Gym Class Heroes' fourth full-length album, The Quilt, debuted at number 14 on the Billboard charts this fall and features producer and guest credits ranging from Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump to hip-hop and R&B royalty like Busta Rhymes, Cool & Dre, and Estelle.
The R&B track "Live Forever (Fly With Me)" has special significance because it features a contribution from Daryl Hall, whose portrait is tattooed on the top of McCoy's right hand. (Don't worry—John Oates, the other half of Hall & Oates, is on his left.) McCoy was originally going to get his band members' faces tattooed on his shins before inspiration took hold of him. "One day I was looking at the Private Eyes cover and I was like, ‘That's really fucking awesome.' And I looked at my hands and was like, ‘Let's do it.' And so that day Craig just did it."