Dirty White Boy - Kirk Alley

Published: 22 June, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 200, June, 2011

I like my art tinged with a little bit of craziness. Nothing makes a painting, or a tattoo for that matter, stand out more than when there is a little bit of surrealism thrown in for good measure. One of those artists who is able to do this effortlessly is, Kirk Alley.

And you only have to step foot inside Kirk’s house to see that this craziness is not confined to his art. 

Kirk shares his home with Knuckles, a HUGE stuffed grizzly bear, an old time fortune telling machine and lots and lots of other very strange and macabre pieces. Not to mention his studio, which could be straight out of Sweeney Todd or maybe even an early 1900s brothel?

I really wanted to catch up with Kirk and have a good old chat with him and see if I could have a little look inside his head. I wanted to see where all of this was coming from and hopefully discover along the way, that the man behind the madness is just as interesting as his work. As it turns out, he is! Maybe even more so!

“I have been into visual art since around the age of seven. I started young because my Dad was also an artist and always had his sketch book out and like a lot of kids I wanted to be just like him. I still do! In the beginning I drew stupid shit, like mimicking Charlie Brown and the Peanuts comics, and then I moved onto full-on battle scenes from WWII. I loved to blow shit up on paper; tanks rolling over soldiers and blood everywhere. Stuff like that! My early teens are when I really got into the works of Roger Dean who did all the early Yes album covers back when everything was on vinyl. Trippy star ships and floating chunks of planets. Surrealism. Then of course I found my brother from another mother, the amazing Mr S. Dali and I was in love with art for real from then on. Now my tastes run the gamut of art genres. I'm really into the darkness and high contrast realism of the Dutch masters and still like to keep my images heavily shadowed.”

So was this where the desire to tattoo came about, to not only make art but to make it a permanent form of art?

“It’s funny but tattooing was never even a thought in my head as to being an art form before I started in the business. I was ignorant to it as was most of the world 19 years ago when I fell into to business by accident. I was into music most of my life, well up until the end of my band run in the early '90s.”

Ok, let’s have a little diversion here. Before Kirk decided to pick up a tattoo machine and lay down some ink, he played bass in Dirty White Boys, a bluesy sleaze rock band. 

“Yeah, I became distracted from drawing and painting for most of my mid to late twenties as I was also doing music. I had landed a record deal with Polygram Records, in 1989, with guitarist Earl Slick from John Lennon and David Bowie fame. We had a pretty good run, especially overseas and did extensive touring over there playing medium to huge venues such as Wembley Stadium in London and NEC Arena in Birmingham. We also toured all over Europe.”

“Well as most music careers are iffy at best, I decided after that project fizzled out to see what I could do with my art. And in 1991 I got lucky. Not two weeks after that career crash, I received a call from a local tattoo shop owner in LA who had seen my drawings before. He asked if I'd be into coming and learning under him. So I decided I would. All I had to do in trade for training was draw a set of ten sheets of flash. That's where I started. The shop was really dirty and unkempt place that catered mostly to meth heads and ex cons... but what a great place to practice on skin without guilt! I worked my ass off right away to the point of swollen wrists and horrible back pain but I loved it! The apprenticeship didn't last more than two months as the guy was kind of…well let's just say he disappeared for about a year… so me and my other newbie tattoo artist friend had a shop of our own for a year!”

“I took to tattooing fast and I was doing all original work right from the get go. I knew then that I'd never have to starve again. And I felt it. I knew that I stood a good chance in the tattoo business. Tattooing was my primary artistic way of expressing myself through visual art and because I was doing all custom work, there were countless hours, days, months spent alone at the drawing table. I still have nearly every drawing I did for my clients. I think I'm going to lay every one of them out on the floor and take a photo. It'll look like the Sunset Strip in the eighties at one in the morning, after all the local band’s promo flyers have littered the sidewalk and streets in front of the Roxy, Rainbow and Whiskey. I have close to 1,000 drawings of larger pieces and books full of smaller ones. Quickly I became fascinated by the works of artists like Guy Aitchison, Paul Booth and Mario Barth. I made it my new outlet for my art and, thankfully, had a following right away. I was a lucky bastard in this business as it wasn't that easy to get into back then… actually I'm still a lucky dude now! I lasted only four years in street shops before I decided to go full on private in my own little one man studio and that's how I've been tattooing ever since.”

Slightly shaky and crazy beginnings there for Kirk but obviously his creative talent and love of art shone through as it wasn’t long before he was making a name for himself in the industry. Jump ahead a fair few years and Kirk’s appointment book is filled solid.

“Yeah, these days I've got a huge clientele base that keeps me going seven days a week. I’m nuckin futts I know but I just love to work and LOVE art. Everything about it; looking at it, watching others create, grabbing techniques from them. I have no fear. I'll do anything no matter how impossible it may seem to others. I say, ‘Hell yeah my friend, sit down and let me get out my Sharpie! I'll show you right now what can be done to cover up that big black tribal armband. Stick with me and I'll have you farting through silk!’ Of course I never say that to the girls and truth be told, I have to get to know them before I let them see my true side. I don’t want to scare off new clients now do I?”

In an effort to get Kirk back onto the straight and narrow (well as far as this interview goes), I get him onto art and why it means so much to him.

“So let's talk about art. I don't know. I think it's an addiction of mine. I can’t go a day, without creating something that makes me laugh…or at least put a sneaky grin on my face. When I'm drawing, painting, whatever,  it feels like I'm sneaking away from a world outside and painting pictures of how I see the world or would like it to be. I have a house with an art studio that looks like the caboose in the Wild Wild West TV series way back when. Kind of Victorian, kind of bordello, kind of old wood sailing vessel. All put together so I can live in my own private Disneyland. Yeah, I do leave the house but it's all just so I can come back and escape into my head away from all the crowds, trying to manipulate their way onto the freeway or into the market parking lot. This is Los Angeles, we have too many of us here! It sucks! So I paint to forget. I get my ideas from out there though. Out there in the hellish city but at least I have peace in my studio. Music cranking and a pack of Camels and a bottle of cab from Napa. That's how I like to work. My ideas are strange to most and I guess kind of un-sellable, or not very popular. But that's okay because the one person that gets it, usually is someone I'd like to be friends with, you know? I consider my work surrealistically campy. Humor is a must in my life. Always has been. I need to be able to look at my work when it's done and laugh or I'm taking myself too seriously. I don't think I'm a great artist by any means.

“For my off skin art, I do it when I have energy. Tattooing takes a lot out of me having a bad back and all that, so I do most of my drawings in bed; kind of like Frida (Kahlo). When it comes to painting, I'm working hard on my oil on canvas skills right now. I'm working with an amazing artist/teacher by the name of Kristin Bauer who started as a client of mine – I did white orchids starting on her right arm and pouring over onto her back. Not only is she an amazing painter but she's also a regular cast member of HBO's, True Blood. She plays Pam on the show. We've since become friends and I go over to her house a lot and sit and watch her paint. It's taught me a lot and has really induced a brand new enthusiasm for painting with me. I also love working in charcoals for quick pieces. They're very dramatic and easy and fast for me. I like mixing up other mediums like charcoal, prizma markers, watercolors, colored pencil, etc.”

“I'll try anything to keep myself re-inventing. I have a strange sense of humor that comes through in some of my work and that's usually the stuff that people look at and say, ‘WTF?’ – I like that, even if it doesn't sell right away. I'd rather hold on to most of it anyway, so I can build up a pile of work suitable for my first ever solo art show that I'm shooting for in the next two years – I think I should be ready by then. It's really great to have gotten my artistic energy back after years of just tattooing and doing nothing on paper or canvas. I still get anxiety every time I start a new piece of art which is weird because I never have a second guess about tattooing and that stuff is permanent and on people! But starting something just for me means I really have to please just me… and that is the hardest thing in the world to do.”

While putting this together, Kirk painted a surreal monkey in a spacesuit; and it has been one of his best so far, so it seems there is definitely no slowing down for Kirk. If anything, he is speeding up; getting more and more focused on his painting and honing his tattoo skills daily. Which is all great really as the man’s work is a pleasure to watch unfold.

Kirk on Roger Dean

Roger Dean was my first real inspiration in art at around age 11. Dean was a huge influence on me because he was so ahead of his time. His paintings led me to appreciate visionary artists. His art heavily influenced the movie Avatar, which he wasn't even mentioned or thanked for. His claim to fame was the design work for most early Yes album covers. I've always dreamed of living on a different planet and his art always transported me to another world. A little funny story is that at 15, I used to live in a room used for hatching eggs on a ranch. I used to get stoned and turn on a black light and recreate Dean's works on the walls.

Kirk on Salvador Dali

Dali is an unbelievable influence because of his ability to combine the beauty of nightmares and fantasies. He lived in a world that I have always wished I could live in permanently and call home. He pushed boundaries and made the common man question his surroundings. I'm all about pushing boundaries and making people feel something. I admire his personality even more so than his art work. He was almost like a made up character in one of his own paintings. Also I love his cocky quote, “I don't do drugs, I am drugs.”

Kirk on George Carlin

This man keeps humor in my life. He represents the perfect example of what the ideal human being should be; intelligent, talented and whose religion is to have a sense of humor. His way of thinking forces me to keep it light and to not take life so seriously. There are some days that I think, ‘Hey, I wonder if George Carlin would've liked this painting?’ In a weird way, he keeps me from straying into the land of McDonald's breakfasts and bumper to bumper traffic on the freeway. Man, it would've been so cool to tattoo good old George. I wonder what he would have wanted…and in the words of Herman Melville: "Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian."

Eleven Eleven Studios




Text: Trent Aitken-Smith; Photography: Kirk Alley