This past Spring, the award-winning Afro-American/Korean artist Phillip Spearman paid a rare visit to Europe attending conventions in both Breda and Amsterdam to show the world once more that Korean art should – and could - sit shoulder to shoulder with the more well known Japanese and Chinese styles. With his ‘home’ normally being Inkworks Tattoo, a private studio in Artesia, California, Spearman frequently treads the boards as a true pioneer as we discovered.
I first met Spearman during the Needle Art Convention in Breda, at the end of May. Baltimore born Spearman, moved to L.A. at the age of three where he grew up and started to draw at an early age. “One of my friends said ‘If you know how to draw, you know how to tattoo’,” he tells me at the first day of the convention. “I said: ‘No way, I don’t even know what a tattoo machine looks like’ so he went out and bought a machine and equipment for me! I tried it and have loved it ever since. Back then, I kept trying to get an apprenticeship anywhere I could. They were hard to get - it was 1995, it’s a lot easier now.”
Spearman started tattooing at the age of 21. He is self taught but enhanced his skills by visiting studios in and around L.A. “I always went to studios, even if they didn’t give me an opportunity. I always wanted to learn. It wasn’t that I wanted to tattoo for the money, I just wanted to be good at it. I learned from everybody I could and took little bits of information from wherever I could - Jack Rudy, Mario Barth, Horiryu from Japan, Billy Eason, Outer Limits, Mark Mahoney, Shamrock Social Club, just to name a few. They are all great people!”
It didn’t matter to Spearman what he had to tattoo - “For me, it was important that someone was able to wear my art on them. I was intrigued by what I did on them, because it’s forever. Whatever they liked, I just did my best.” Nowadays though, he likes to travel to see what artists around the globe are contributing to the culture. To do just that, he closed his regular shop in Artesia that he ran for over eight years. “Now I am tattooing out of a private studio in Artesia by appointment only. My clients love it so much more. There are no interruptions, they can relax - it’s just me and them. More importantly, I can travel whenever I want to!”
Spearman’s Korean genes come from his mother’s side. It is partly this that makes him want to widen the concept of Asian tattoos to include Korean art, not just the more commonly acknowledged Japanese and Chinese varieties. He is the first artist to publicly do this and has brought him to work on a Korean Tattoo Art book that he is hoping to publish early in 2011.
Aside from this, one of his other projects includes compiling a DVD of work inspired by traditional Korean art: “Korean art inspires me - there’s a lot of influence from China and Japan. Back in the day, Japan had taken over Korea and there’s a lot of that Japanese tradition that got added to Korean culture but there was also a lot that was taken away. If you look on the internet, you won’t find any Korean artwork. It’s sad and unfortunate because if you look at the map of Korea, you have China here, Japan there - all these neighbouring countries have a history of tattooing, but there’s none in Korea. So I visit the temples and museums in South Korea every 2 or 3 months to do my research. There’s no tattoo art but there is a lot of cultural and traditional art. I do this because nobody outside of the country itself knows about Korean art. I am just collecting as much information as I can to draw on my own style of what I like in Korean art work. I have discovered that there’s a lot of interest from Koreans and non-Koreans all over the world. I have been looking for this all my life and now it’s here!”
Spearman talks with much enthusiasm about his search for Korean art. In L.A. he is in the right place because the city has a big Korean population: “I guess it’s the biggest Korean town in the USA because I have waited so long to get better at my craft to do it. I can work in many different styles - I can do it in portrait style, colour or Asian style. All my Asian art I do freehand. So many people see my work now, even non-Koreans love it. See how many non-Japanese people wear Japanese artwork. They’re not Japanese but they love the art. So I am at a point now, whether it’s Japanese, Chinese or not, people like what I do and they let me put anything I want on them.”
Although Spearman sees it as his mission to show the world Korean art, he is not only focused on that. “You know, I don’t want to be known for just doing Korean art. If you look at my art, I am very diverse. I do a lot of portraits, Korean artwork, Asian artwork... I always go on tour with my friend Horiryu from Japan. He is a major influence on my tattoo career as far as my Asian art is concerned. I want people to know of the quality of the work that I do and that I pay attention to a lot of details. I want everybody to know that I am a true craftsman, I take my craft very seriously. If you got tattooed by me, no matter what it is, you’ll have an excellent tattoo!”
Discipline and vision
“If you have discipline, you learn to be technical. Professionalism is also important, persevere and be serious about what you do. I see a lot of tattoo artists in magazines, saying ‘I wanna be like this’, but they don’t know what it takes to get there. I spend so much of my own money on trying to move forward and sacrifice a lot to get there. You know, without sacrifice, you’re never going to get there. You also need to have a vision about what you’re going to tattoo. That’s another reason that I like to travel
- I get influenced by so many things I see outside the USA – right now I love what I’m seeing in Holland. So everywhere I go, I take a piece
away with me.”
Spearman is also the creator of Envy Needles and co-owns TatSoul Spearman, a tattoo supply company, to create medical grade, premium needles known as the TatSoul Spearman Advantage.
Phillip Spearman and the Three-Legged Phoenix
“Koreans have a lot of similar things as in Japan,” he says, “but did you know that Japanese dragons have three claws, Korean dragons have four and Chinese five? These are the little differences that give Korean art its own place within the art world. Korean mythology has its own gods, its own creatures and entities. Like the three-legged phoenix - if you look in the temples where the kings died, you have pictures on the stone walls of a three-legged phoenix that take them to the afterlife. I came back with that nugget of information from one of my trips and drew my own version of it.
There are also kois and geishas - the Korean geishas are called kisengs and I draw them to show that kisengs have a very distinct hairstyle that only they wear in this culture. There is also Haete and many other different gods such as the turtle snake that protects the north, the south, the east. Back in those days for protection, they would have a green dragon or a white tiger. I am already tattooing those images.”
Tattooing in South Korea
Right now tattooing is a kind of taboo in South Korea, there are artists working but it’s illegal. “In my book, I also let Koreans know that –whether you love it or hate it - you have to respect it because I am sharing knowledge and information with the rest of the world. When I put it like this, people are happy about it.
I have been in South Korea and helped the artists and now they are travelling as well. There’s one guy called Yushi who is very good – he started in Korea but is now in L.A. - he does some nice Japanese