Tattooing in the West has long been connected to the dark side. Macabre imagery—grim reapers, tombstones, skulls, etc.—is the bread-and-butter of tattoo designs. While a simple skull and crossbones was good enough for grandpa, today people are looking to crank the creep factor to the max. Toronto’s Brian Kennedy, also known as Sewp, can deliver the tattoo your dark hearts have been dreaming of. His haunting designs have quickly earned him a reputation as a master of the macabre. We sat down with Kennedy to hear about how tattooing found him and what he’s dying to tattoo next.
What was your upbringing like and how did it lead you to become a tattooer?
My mom had me when she was 21 in a weird city called Brampton, Ontario, and she hustled like an absolute queen to give me a good childhood. I was a shit student because I was constantly distracted and doodling. I just figured everyone doodled all the time. Any time I watched a sick movie or heard a new band I liked, I always felt compelled to draw. It was like something had to get out, and the only way to do that was to draw. I was diagnosed with ADD as a teen and given Adderall to curb my tendency to get distracted easily. That shit turned me into a fucking zombie and my friends and I would usually pop them like ecstasy when we were bored, so ultimately not a very bueno situation. Sure, I didn’t get distracted and I got a lot done, but I got a lot of mediocre shit done. At least off the drugs I was making art I was proud of, albeit at a slower pace. I worked shit labor jobs all through my teens and drew all night, for like eight years and into my 20s. Eventually I moved to Toronto for university, dropped out twice and landed an apprenticeship at a small shop in the East End called Elevated Ink when I was 24.
How did you create your current style of tattooing and which artists helped inform that decision?
I have a weird issue with the term “style.” It implies an artist has landed on one consistent way of making art and will forever be that way. For me, that isn’t the case. Some of my main artistic influences getting into tattooing were illustrators like Ralph Steadman, Gerald Scarfe, Mcbess and especially Stephen Gammell—he’s the dude who illustrated the “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” books. Apparently those are banned in schools in the UK because of the illustrations, but we had them in Canada and I would steal them from the library.
I was also influenced a lot by graffiti artists. At first, I was really into street art, but quickly I felt like it was the lamest, most pretentious version of vandalism on the fucking planet. Proper street and train graff, raw fuck you vandalism is king. Seeing fire extinguisher tags on designer store fronts gets me fully torqued. Something about the perfect cocktail of adrenaline rush and creativity really kicked it off for me and I still catch tags to this day. In my early 20s, I spent a lot of sleepless nights in the deep Canadian winter painting trains and walls in -20 degree weather with hand warmers packed under the paint.
What appeals to you about bats, spiders, dark ladies and other macabre images?
I’m really not sure why I’m drawn to subject matter like that, but I’ve always equated creepy to cool. Something about sharp and dramatic graphic features in designs always caught my eye. Nowadays, I’m drawn to a whole range of stylistic approaches, but within my own work, I like to maintain a consistency while also allowing myself to experiment.
How do you go about recreating similar images in an original way for new clients?
There are literally millions of reference photos out there that lend themselves to great tattoo compositions. It’s really a matter of using the graphic tools to lay out a new approach every time, such as using heavy black somewhere different, adding pattern work, incorporating animals, warping, or melting aspects of the design.
What do you hope to tattoo more of in the future?
I’m really leaning into more pattern-based work that dresses the body. Less of a focus on the imagery within the tattoo and more of a focus on the body of my client being the artwork.
What else should our readers know about you?
I love to collaborate. You (the client) and I, we’re on the same playing field here. We’re a team and we’re gonna smash this shit outta the park.