If you were to describe what you do for a living to a small child, what would you tell him or her?
I’d tell him I draw pictures.
You paint and you are a tattoo artist, how did it all start?
I fell into tattooing by accident, I just started getting tattooed and the first day I got one I thought, “I like this.” I was eighteen. I was going to school to be a shoe designer. I was going to college. I was supposed to make shoes and then I dropped out. That day I went to get my first tattoo.
What did you get?
I got a flower. No black. Just like a pretty flower, I didn’t wanna get my mom mad.
Did she get mad?
One day we were arguing about something and I was acting like a little shit and told her “I got a tattoo.” “No, you didn’t.” “Yes, I did.” She wanted to see it, I showed her and I could tell she was thinking, “You little fucker, you think you can do what you want now.” but she liked it. She knew it would get my dad mad, so she liked it more (he laughs). I started getting tattooed a lot and the guys at the shop said I should become a tattoo artist.
In Newport Beach. A totally random street shop, nothing fancy. A little place, it was really ghetto.
You were painting already.
I’ve been drawing my whole life.
How long ago was that?
Almost 14 years.
When did it become a job?
Six months after I started learning. One of the guys working there left in the middle of the night. He didn’t tell anyone that he was quitting. When the lady owning the shop came and saw that he wasn’t there, all his stuff was gone, she got mad. She came downstairs with a shotgun in her hands, “I am gonna go find Joey” that was his name, “if anyone comes, do their tattoo.” (I laugh).
Did someone come in to get a tattoo that day? Were you scared?
Yeah, fuck yeah, I sucked (we both laugh). It was a cross at the end of a heel and my old boss showed up right at the end of it. She told me, “When you get done with that tattoo, call me, I wanna see it.” so I did. She looked at it and when they left she told me, “You are hired.” (he laughs). That’s how I started. I wasn’t ready. I got thrown into it.
What was the process after that?
I worked there for another six months and since it was a little tourist destination shop I just did bullshit tattoos every day. I was doing stars, japanese symbols and stuff like that. I realized I couldn’t learn from it anymore and I was ready to move away from home. I moved to Santa Barbara. That’s another story. I was supposed to work in a shop there and then I showed up and one of the guys at that shop didn’t want me to work there anymore.
Because it’s a small town and I was young and good-looking (he laughs) and he thought I was gonna steal all his clients. He said he would quit, if I was gonna get hired. So I moved there, I lost the job immediately, but I got another one in a studio next to this college. It was Summer so the town was empty, no students were there. I had to go back south every weekend to tattoo friends and drive back to Santa Barbara.
It was rough.
But then the shop that originally didn’t want to hire me, well they saw the tattoos I was doing. I started getting good. The guy that didn’t want me calls me and tells me, “You are hired.”
You mentioned opening now a shop.
So Scott owns a shop in NYC called Saved Tattoo. He moved to LA with his wife and they are opening Saved LA. He handpicked some tattooers in town. It’s partnered with the guys that do Smile Cafe in New York.
Ah, Matt (Kliegman) and Carlos (Quirarte)! I love those guys.
Exactly. So Smile Cafe and Shinola. It’s a giant facility. It’s in the Art District in DTLA, so through Shinola there is gonna be a part to keep it in the arts and be part of the art community.
Who are the other guys besides Scott?
Sean From Texas, Derrick Snodgrass, Tati Compton.
Is there something you would never tattoo?
I don’t do racist stuff, but thankfully there is not that many people asking for that. I am pretty picky of what you are gonna get, I’m gonna make sure I do it in the right place, in a way that looks good, I am not gonna just do anything. I used to be against tattooing names and stuff, but I’ll do it now. If you wanna tattoo your girlfriend, so what?
Why were you against it?
You know it was a bit the kiss of death to me, if you did that you were for sure gonna split up. But now… I just think love is awesome. My friends are getting married: I just did their initials on each other’s fingers.
Are you in love right now?
Yeah, I am. It’s crazy being in love. It’s fun. It’s great. It stops one part of your life and opens up another. It gets rid of the darkness.
What is the most special tattoo you have ever given, the closest one to your heart?
I tattooed my grandma (I laugh). Yeah. She was in her early seventies. I gave it to her, a drawing of a thimble a long time ago as a gift. She got in touch with me “I wanna get a tattoo before I pass away, I wanna get that drawing tattooed on me.” So I tattooed it on her leg.
Was that her first one?
She has no other tattoos. She’s like the coolest lady at the Country Club (we both laugh). She lives in Palm Springs on a golf course and she is the head of the Country Club. But that day when I finished the tattoo she asked me, “How much do I owe you for this?” so I told her, “You have to tattoo me now, that is how you pay me. I am not gonna let you leave till you tattoo me.” She did three dots, which is funny because three dots mean Mi Vida Loca, my crazy life.
What’s the quality you like the most in people?
It’s hard to put it, but I’d say when people are themselves. You can see those kind of people, the ones that are genuinely themselves. They don’t act. They are natural. They don’t hide behind something. I also like people who are silly, the ones that laugh, that are not scared to chuckle. I like people that goof around.
What’s the one you like the least?
Jealousy. When people are jealous, it’s just not attractive. It just means that they are not happy with themselves.
What’s the best quality about you and what is your biggest flaw?
The best quality is that I am aware of everything and the worst quality is that I am aware of everything (we both laugh).
Why is that a drag?
Because it’s hard to relax. I am always noticing the little things around me, in the way people are feeling or acting. It can wear on me when someone is not feeling good, it can affect me. And the bad thing about it is that sometimes it doesn’t allow me to be in the moment, because I am too aware and conscious of what is going on.
What did you wanna be when you were little?
An artist. Making skateboard graphics.
Skateboarding and surfing are part of your upbringing, you are a California boy.
Born and raised in San Clemente: if you don’t skate or surf you have no friends. And that is what introduced me to tattooing.
What’s been the most influential encounter in your career?
I worked with this guy Shawn Barber, he is a painter who became a tattoo artist and he is the person who really helped push me into what I can do. We have one of the best artist relationships. There is no ego and we are not afraid to criticize one another. If I was doing a tattoo one day and I would show the drawing to him, he would say exactly what he thought was wrong. This helped me to become a better tattooer. He was super hard on me, but not in a way that affected me in any negative way. I worked for him three years and then this new shop opportunity came about and I had to leave. It was really hard when I told him. Him and his girlfriend, Kim Saigh, they were totally understanding. I’ve always loved Scott Campbell’s artwork and tattooing, he is someone I looked up to a lot, I still do. When I told them I was leaving the shop, they knew already about the new one “You are gonna work for Scott, cool.” They were happy for me, not upset. It was a good break up. I am taking a painting class from them tonight.
How is your approach different, in painting and in tattooing?
In painting I don’t have anyone directing or telling me what to do and it doesn’t have to be perfect. In my head a tattoo must be fucking perfect, and the people getting it want it to be perfect. It can really fucking drive me mad if it’s not. In my painting I get to relax and let go and just have fun with it. One is completely free, and one is completely structured. But that is good because I am a gemini so I have the two sides.
What’s the sexiest quality in a woman?
It’s hard to explain, but it’s that moment when she actually looks at you and you can tell she is looking at you. When she cancels out your physical aspect and when she actually is tuned in to you. There is a moment that clicks.
Is that your pretty boy complex?
Totally (we both laugh). Yeah, like when she’s not only “Oh my god I want a piece of that!” (we keep laughing). But I love that, and I love a girl who is silly, who is not thinking about the way she walks or the way she talks, she is just herself which is really sexy to me. The least sexy quality is someone who is way too concerned.
If you were to be able to give yourself a piece of advice to your 16 year old self what would you tell yourself?
That’s a hard one (he pauses). Just go with it (we both laugh).