Adrian Lee

Artist Status: 
Working Tattoo Artist

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About Me

It is indeed rare to find in a single individual both incredible talent AND immense humility. It is my pleasure to call Adrian Lee my friend and I am deeply indebted to him for the inspiration he has provided me over the last several years, artistically and otherwise. Co-founder of the NewSkool Tattoo Collective in San Jose, California, Adrian has successfully carved out a unique niche for himself in the tattoo community. Known for his incredible understanding and use of color theory, his artwork, both within and outside of the tattoo genre, is a marvel to see. Whether it's indelible ink on a living canvas or spray painted on brick wall, Adrian's unsurpassed skill and passion are easily recognizable. Though he would, and probably does, feel most uncomfortable with this introduction, it's all true.

The great dreadlocked mystery man - Adrian Lee (laughter). How long have you been tattooing?

I guess about 8 years.

How did it all begin?

My life's always had a specific direction, it seems like. It's weird how it's always been going one way and this was just along the path. I never had much of a choice. I guess I really started getting interested in [tattooing] at an early age. My earliest recollections would be seeing the Illustrated Man with my mom.

How old were you?

uhhh... I don't know... maybe 8 or 9. But it really fascinated me; from then on I was always looking for tattoos on people. Let's skip to when I was a teenager and the counter culture, I guess... became more accessible to me...and I started reaching into [tattooing]. I guess even more directly, a friend of mine named Justin Bell had started tattooing. We grew up in this town called Redding, CA skateboarding. He started tattooing and I got really interested in it then. He did an official apprenticeship, and I did not. He helped me a lot and was definitely one of my first teachers. From there I just worked with my friends. Hooked up a job in the bay area, where I met Paco and started NewSkool.

Were you working in a shop before that?

Yeah, I was working at Darkside Tattoo in Redding. And I think I only got the job because everyone else was in jail... (laughter). Regardless, I'll always be indepted to them. But the Bay area was really attractive to me, as it is to a lot of tattooers, y'know. So I was offered a job in San Jose and took it and met Paco, who had just started working there. Eventually that studio left town and we were left without jobs. So we had to make a decision whether we wanted to go work for someone else, and potentially be in the same situation, or make our own place in a mutually creative environment with the opportunity we had.

What year did you start NewSkool?

'95

As far as your work goes, I am totally blown away by all the new stuff, and I really can't even put my finger on exactly what has been the progression or how it's evolved over the last year or two...

That's easy. I put 'em in Photoshop, and I make 'em look...

(laughter)... You got a Mac. That's the secret, huh? Now you can manipulate the whole thing...

Right!

Do you have any formal art training?

No. But, like I said, it's always been the way I've gone, sorry I don't mean to sound pious. My mother's an artist and my father's an artist and a craftsman in his own right; he's a musician. Fortunately, that's how I was always encouraged to go on.

That's great. I don't think too many people get that kind of artistic encouragement early on in their childhood.

At the same time, it can set you back. I guess it happens to a lot of people with an artistic background, when they get into tattooing they have stars in their eyes, and then they realize that they're not much more than a pile of.... feces compared to everyone else. You really have to start over again, you have to learn to draw completely again, you have to really humble yourself, which is really hard to do; but if you don't, you'll never cross the mediums.

Can you name any particular thing that clicked for you over the last year or two in your work? It was always great, but, I'll say it again, the new stuff is just incredible...so was there something tangible that you can think of that helped that or was it always just a steady progression with no significant breakthroughs?

Well, it's two steps forward and one step back the whole time. You get stuck and then eventually you jump. I guess one thing is, instead of trying to tattoo like I paint, which is impossible, I might try to paint like I tattoo and then tattoo like I paint. That way they create like a mutual understanding with each other instead of trying to fight one another, and just trying to create effects that aren't going to happen. A tattoo needle has it's own inherent charecteristics and creates it's own textures; so I started trying to create those textures with the needle instead of trying to act like it's a brush...I think that was a big step for me. And I'm also just building on a lot of people too, past and contemporary artists, building on tattooers I really admire.

Like who? Who were your big inspirations?

Lot's of people. Marcus Pacheco had a huge effect on me in my career, and I think, I'm guessing, that it can probably be seen in my tattooing.

It can, but I think that your work completely stands on it's own. Visible influences may be apparent, but the work is unique in it's own right. Who else?

There are so many. Ed Hardy's Tattoo Time books had a great impact. Uhhh, Paco was a big influence on my stuff when we met, just from the standpoint of graffitti. He was a way for me to get my foot in the door, before that it was really hard and our approach to tattooing at the time. When Grime came to NS that really put us on a good track. He brought a really strong passion and helped b-line us in a certain direction. And I like to look to the predecessors, to look at what they did and what they built upon. I could sit here and name tattooers all day, but I think that anyone interested in my influences should look at my tattooing and you could probably see it.

You do a lot of graffiti stuff, at least that's what you're known for, but you're certainly not limited to that type of imagery and your newer work demonstrates that. Are you trying to break away from that stuff or how much of that style do you do in your tattooing?

No, it was never something that we were exclusively doing. We got kind of pigeon-holed into it. Which is, you know... you create that with your own devices. But it's not something I didn't enjoy doing or I'm trying to get away from, it's just a base, y'know? Like say, traditional American tattooing is a base, graffitti is also a base. In comparison, I might do one graffiti piece a year in SJ, but every time I go to a convention I do graffiti pieces.

And that's due to the influence of the magazines. That's where I first saw your stuff, and it was showcasing graffiti styled tattoos.

Yeah, Zephyr did that, they hooked that up. That whole article was a lot of fun, but even in that article, in the text, we tried to show that this was a small part of what we do. We're not trying to push it away. It helped us a lot and we didn't try to ride it and then discard it like some people do.

What about artistic influences outside the tattoo industry?

I started college for a semester, and I was learning a lot, but I realized that all they were really offering me was the facility and interaction... and I was getting plenty of that already in the circles I was in. And I was getting mostly negative reaction in school about the other side, which was tattooing. I wasn't allowed to cross those barriers in the college environment, they weren't into it. So I just decided, I don't need to do this... and I don't remember what the question was...

Artistic influences outside of tattooing

Right. Directly... when I was 15 my mom bought me a Byrne Hogarth book.

One of my favorites...

Yeah, he's kind of the unsung guy... within tattooing, though he was never involved in tattoing... every tattooer knows who Byrne Hogarth is, but a lot of their clientele don't and they keep it under wraps and to try to take credit for it.

(laughing) Right... "look what I drew"...

Yeah... along the same graphic figure drawing line: Andrew Loomis and George Bridgman...I think if you're going to look at Hogarth you also have to look at them.

And that's what we're talking about here: masters of anatomy.

Yes. And those are more contemporary ones too...uhhh... Other artists would be Bernini's sculpture work, Caravaggio, Impressionists... Monet, Van Gogh. Chuck Close and Richard Avedon... the way they worked with faces kind of pushed me to try to approach that on skin. I could go on all day, and I hate it because I always forget so many.

Your color theory is what I think sets you apart. Why is that?

Impressionism helped a lot, and then just researching color theory, reading about the technical side of it, which is not a lot of fun, even though you never actually think color while you're doing it, you need to have a foundational understanding of it. From there, if you want to manipulate the colors better you have to have a better understanding of it specifically - like mixing your own pigments I think is important; in that you have a feel for it from the very base. That way as you learn to use them, you have a better understanding of what's happening and what's going into them, too.

OK, tell me about the art show you guys just did.

We just did a NS show at The Works gallery here in San Jose. It started out as some some body suit studies Ron [Earhart] and I were doing, and we had a chance to show at a gallery called 706 , the show was titled "Ron vs. Adrian" ... (laughter) ... From there the entire collective became involved and we approached Works about dispalying the completed project which involved quite a lot of networking... and we didn't expect them to just because we're tattooers and it's hard to gain any legitimacy in the art community...but we had a lot of friends in that community who took the right people out to dinner and stuff. We spent a year building up to it, and the last three months were the toughest. The idea was just to get a better understanding of that type of tattooing and not appraoch it haphazardly on skin, so we needed to do the research. And if we were going to do that much work we might as well show it; so we did.

So, it's an art show of body suit studies. Who all was involved?

The NS Collective - guys that have worked with us over years: myself, Paco, Adam Barton, Ron Earhart, Mike Giant, Phil Holt, Jason Kundell, Craig Toth, Tyson Johnston, Wrath, Grime, Horitaka. These are people who worked at NS in the past or still do. And near the end, a lot of other artists started expressing an interest in doing it, but we had already signed the contracts and stuff, so we decided to use our studio space to have an annex show and a lot of artists outside of NS participated: Chris Trevino, Mike Dorsey, Jason Freeman, Kevin LaBlanc, Went, Joel Long, Juan Puente, Matt Shammah, Nate Banuelos, Klem, and Craig Driscoll. In the NS show we also did iconic tattoo images on the walls above all of our paintings using images from Ed Hardy, Sailor Jerry and Pinky, verbatim, to show the foundations of where it all came from.

I've talked to a lot of folks who went and asked them this question, but I want to ask you: Was it a sucess?

Way beyond our expectations! It was the best art show I've ever been to. It just happened to be ours. All in all there was a lot of positive energy, a lot of people came out, a lot of interaction... and I'll never do it again!

How many people showed up?

I don't know, maybe 300 or more.

Was the gallery happy with the response?

The Gallery was stuned!! They had no idea what to expect, and they didn't take us at all serious until the last few months of preparation. It was rewarding to show how the tattoo community can come together.

Now you have self-published a book of the artwork and included in the packaging, what, a CD, a print, what else?

Yeah, two books, one of the NS show, one of the annex show, a catalog of all the art, an interactive CD-rom of the show and the opening night party, a print of the Rock of Ages sculpture that Tyson did, stickers by some of the tattooers, and a hard-pressed board box for the whole thing with a dragon printed on it. It's really nice. So, basically, we're broke! (laughter)...

And there are under 1000 of those available. How much is the set?

The whole package is $60... 80 pages in the NS book, 20 in the annex book, and the CD-rom is about half an hour.

How can people get it? Is it on the website?

Yeah, on our website, or call the studio. It will also be available at Lucky's Tattoo Supply and a few distributers in Japan.

Thanks for the time, Adrian.

Be sure to check out the NewSkool website at: www.newskooltattoo.com

Adrian works with several awesome artists, including: Paco Excel, Adam Barton, Phil Holt, Jason Kundell, and Ron Earhart. Adrian will be attending several conventions this year, check the website for updates and look for a few guest spots around the country, including a few days at 3rd Eye Tattoo this summer.

You can reach him via email at: NSredrum@aol.com
Or phone him up at the studio: (408) 279-0927