Paul Booth - Dark Black Past (Supplement)

Published: 30 March, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 133, May, 2006

There must have been thousands of words written about this extremely talented, if some what dark and twisted tattooist over the years. Indeed, Skin Deep had a chat with the master of the macabre, but that was a long time ago and much has changed, so we thought it was time to catch up with the Black Overlord of the Art and Keeper of the Gallery of Souls.Welcome to the world of Paul Booth…

In your own words – who are you and what do you do? I ask because sometimes what people perceive you to be is often not what you think you do…

"I’m Paul Booth. I’m a tattoo artist, a sculptor, a painter, a set designer, etc. I’m primarily a tattoo artist, or that’s what I’m best known for. All of my work is focused on macabre, dark imagery."

I’m going to title the feature “Dark, Black Past”. How aptly is that applied to you?

"I think the best way that phrase applies to me is through my own past. Although I find the present to be darker than the past in some ways, I figure I must have some Dark Black Past or I wouldn’t be the way I am now. I know everyone has one, and not that I had anything extreme - just mainly dysfunctional, but my childhood memories are usually dark. I grew up depressed. In first and second grade I was drawing skulls on my notebooks; I always preferred a black crayon. When I was young I couldn’t wait to grow up because I spent most of my time being miserable. Unlike many people the last thing I would want to do is re-live my childhood. My childhood memories are not fond so all the art I made in my youth depicted my dark thoughts. In that sense, my past is a dark one."

This seems to be your whole life – you’re obviously committed to it. Is there a light side of you to balance it out – and if there is, what sort of things are in it?

"Well, for me, my dark side is my light side. I find the darker my surroundings, the more it feels like a sanctuary and the more positive I feel about what I’m doing and where I’m heading. I really don’t look at the things in my world as negative. I fully embrace this darkness. I’m fascinated, preoccupied even, with death and the dark side of human nature.

Because I embrace it, I surround myself with it. It’s something that generally makes me feel good. So again, I don’t see it as a negative thing in my life. I guess the closest I can come to a “light side” is my sarcastic humor. A prerequisite to work at my shop is to be prepared to handle heavy sarcasm and be able to dish it out as well. So even our light-hearted humor is sadistic and sarcastic, but we have fun with it. The things that society generally deems as the “light side” I find nauseating. You know, unicorns and all those happy things make me want to vomit. To me, that’s negative because it’s so pretentious and such a façade.

Nobody can possibly be that happy. Most people that embrace that stuff, to me, they are just in denial. I find it a much more negative thing to be desensitized to the point of being afraid of your own dark side. Trying to fill your world with happy symbols that are supposed to make you feel good just makes me feel sick."

What are the best and worst things about what you do?

"I guess the best thing about what I do is seeing the effect it has on people. When people are freaked out by my work, or disgusted by it, that to me is the best thing. It’s much like watching a horror movie. I think the more disturbed and unsettled it leaves you, the more successful it is. I feel the same way about my art. My goals in art are to create something that will traumatize people for a long time. If I could put someone in therapy with an image I create, that would be the ultimate accomplishment. Not that that is what all art is about, but for me, the definition of “art” is the ability to pull emotion out from someone. To me, darker emotions like fear and anger are the most powerful ones and those are the things I like to touch on. 

I also like the process of making the art. I generally don’t enjoy the final product as much as other people seem to because for me it’s more of a venting process. I’m releasing poison from my system, so to speak. I don’t have much interest in sitting there admiring my art because I don’t really find it admirable. I tend to think, “OK, I puked that up and now it’s time to move on to puke up something else.” 

The worst thing about what I do is probably the self loathing that is involved in the process. I reach the dark corners of my mind when I create and generally you have to turn and face yourself and that’s not always a pretty sight. So I spend a lot of time in the parts of my head that I don’t always enjoy visiting but I’m compelled to nonetheless.

So that’s where I enjoy releasing the toxins through the creative process. It can be a painful process at times, but like anything, it’s a double-edged sword, you know? The enjoyment and the pain are simultaneous and it’s really just a matter of jumping back and forth in a schizophrenic sort of way."

What did you used to do before this, or has it always been this way? 

"I’ve always focused on art. I think as a child, most positive attention and approval in my life came through my art and therefore I was inspired to continue. I was also the kid who stayed home and drew pictures while all the other kids were playing baseball. I was that last kid to be picked so I was kind of a loner. I was a latch-key child who preferred his imaginary friends over the pretentious school friends that always seem to let you down. 

I figured if I was going to be let down, it was going to be by myself rather than some other idiot. When I was about a sophomore in high school I started my own business doing murals and sign painting. That stuff was generally commercial work, so I wasn’t really exploring my stuff as much as I’d have liked but I was my own boss and that was what I needed. I hated when people told me what to do and I never worked well in an environment where I had to answer to other people. By the time I got out of high school I got into full-scale art work on hot-rods and bikes but the business is hit or miss. One week you’re a rich man and the next you are a poor man, and at that age I didn’t care because I used money to enjoy my hobbies. 

So, to supplement my income and do something fun, I got involved in repossessing cars. I did that for three and a half to four years, mainly for the rush more than anything. I really enjoyed the adrenaline of Grand Theft Auto. I was sneaking around alleys in Harlem at three in the morning and that’s pretty exhilarating. That was back in my “death wish” days. I enjoyed the suspense though. Then when I was about 20, my daughter was born and I got a tattoo with her name on it.

I’m watching the guy put it on and I fell in love with the idea of learning to tattoo. 

I’ve always been a big fan of learning new art forms and new mediums. I found it so intriguing I felt compelled to learn how to do it. So I bugged the guy to teach me for like 6 months and after 5 grand and a lot of persistence, I was able to become an apprentice. I started tattooing but for the first two years I was doing Tasmanian Devils, walk-in flash stuff. It was a very traditional shop so I cut my teeth in a very traditional environment with hearts and roses, and flowers and even had to do a few Christ heads against my will… but I’ve killed all of them so you won’t see them around. 

Later, I left my job tattooing in New Jersey and went to California to help my dad who was dying of cancer. With that there was a new found freedom to be able to do whatever I wanted on whoever I wanted. I was finally able to be my own boss which allowed me to explore my art and the tattoo medium with a lot more depth. So I did some larger work on some friends I made out there who let me have free reign. 

I came back six months later, I’d say, May or June of 1991, and I did a back piece on my girlfriend at the time. At that point I was doing a lot of tattoo parties in basements to make money so I did this back piece with hopes of taking it to a convention and finding a job. People ended up digging the work so much, really to my surprise, you know I thought it was decent but I didn’t expect all the attention it got. 

I remember at the time, the scariest tattoos were of flaming skulls so I kind of felt there weren’t a lot of people who would be into what I was doing because it was dealing in more extreme imagery. The back piece was a bunch of demons and stuff, my version at least, and I figured a few people would be into it enough to keep me going but it turned out to be fairly popular and the next thing I know, she’s on the cover of a magazine and I’m getting invited all over the place to do guest spots in people’s shops. I think my real, or second apprenticeship started then when I was able to travel and meet accomplished artists. It’s just kept escalating ever since. I went from traveling around the country to traveling around the world, with all kinds of crazy press and media attention and now I’ve ended up with a 2 year waiting list and I have total freedom and all the things I dreamt of as an artist. I feel very fortunate for the road that I’ve traveled.

Are you aware of the wrestler the Undertakers passion for tattooing – he’s the kind of guy I would imagine to come to you for work at some point.

"I’m fairly aware of the Undertaker’s passion for tattooing, I tattooed him quite a few years ago and he’s a pretty cool guy. He has to be, to date, the largest person I’ve ever tattooed. He had to turn sideways and duck to walk into the hotel room where I tattooed him. We happened to be in the same town for a convention and he walked up to my booth and told me he was a big fan and wanted to get some work if I had time. I’m not a big wrestling fan, but of course he was the one wrestler I did enjoy when I saw wrestling. I always enjoyed his character when I got the opportunity to watch him. 

It was nice to see that depiction of the dark side in the wrestling world. One of the few times I did see him on TV, he did this cool, kind of bottom-lit pose with his hand up near his face and it stuck in my head. When I tattooed him, I did a demon on his bicep that was based on that pose. It was funny, they came out with an Undertaker action figure that stood about a foot and a half tall and whoever did the graphics of his tattoo on the toy, took the time to get the tattoo right. I thought that was pretty cool. Once your art is immortalized on a toy, I guess that’s a step in the right direction. I really tripped on that one."

Where do you see tattooing going next It’s become a very popular culture, I hardly know anyone without one. For that matter, do you think it needs to go anywhere, maybe you think it’s fine as it is…

"I don’t think anyone really has any idea. We can speculate but I think like anything it’s been trendy, in decline, on the rise, it floats around and pulses in society at different levels and in different walks of life. The thing I really enjoy about tattooing is that it’s the ultimate congregation of cultures. Every culture in the world is represented in the tattoo culture, which is one of the things that make me enjoy it so much. I can explore so many cultures around the world but still stay with my kind of people. It’s a big twisted family in a sense. I think it’s edgy because it’s painful and it’s the ultimate commitment well beyond having a wife or husband; you can always get divorced. Tattoo is the indelible mark on your flesh and a commitment that not everybody is prepared to make. It will always be edgy and always be outsider art, but I like that about it. I mean, I’d like to see it gaining attention and being respected as an art form. That means a lot to me and I always do my part to push for that. At the same time, I wouldn’t want it to become fully mainstream. It is the one trend that will constantly gain momentum because it is constantly evolving. There are so many different facets to tattooing; it’s not like bellbottoms or a current fashion. It is a category like fashion in and of itself and will always be popular to the subcultures within it. I’ve seen trends within tattoo rise and fall. Tribal, biomechanical comes and goes. Traditional came, went and came back. So I mean it’s its own industry, its own society, its own microcosm. 

What are your influences – they’re not something I’ve really ever heard you talk about - do most of them come from childhood rather than being embraced as an adult? Looking at your work, there seems to be maybe some Giger in there mixed with someone like horror guru Lucio Fulci. How far off the mark am I?

"Not far off at all. Fulci happens to be my all-time favorite horror director. I’m a big Fulci fan. Outside of my art, horror movies are my life. I have a huge collection of horror movies and I end every day by viewing a couple. I aspire to direct some day. On my list of goals, that’s a major one. Fulci has always been an inspiration to me as has Giger. Everyone is a Giger fan one way or another. The things that are really important to me in art are textures and dimension through light and shade and Giger touches on those things so inevitably I’ll always be a fan. His landscapes are totally atmospheric and incredible to me. I’m really a fan of atmosphere; I like things that have it, I like to create it.

Joel Peter Witkin’s corpse photography is really cool. Virgil Finley is an old illustrator from the 50’s whose stuff I like and of course, Michelangelo’s sculptures and the work of the masters. The contemporary artists out there, a lot I like but there’s a lot I find pointless. Like I said earlier, I like art that moves me and a lot of this abstract stuff that leaves you to draw your own conclusions generally is just not my thing. I like art that makes a statement and smacks you in the face. So generally, the more extreme artists are the ones I really like. My inspirations are not limited to artists, though. I’m inspired by everything from the fucked up people I see on the street to the little tidbits of news I do receive."

I would also assume you were brought up on the likes of Alice Cooper. Care to comment?

"Alice Cooper taught me the significance of shock value. I remember when I was a kid, getting excited about my Alice Cooper soda cup from the convenience store. I just thought the whole concept was beautiful. The theatrics incorporated into the music, the stage performance and the shock value, you know freaking people out with beheadings in the guillotine, I just thought it was beautiful. I was probably in the midst of the KISS army generation, you know? Gene Simmons I thought was pretty cool cause he was so evil looking during the day (back in the day) but I think I really quickly went into Slayer and Venom and things like that. That’s where my heart was back then."

It has been quite a while since you chatted to Skin Deep. Can you give us a brief update into what has been going on in the world of Paul Booth?

"I always have a hundred things going on.  Somehow, that chaos keeps me sane; I guess idle hands are the Devil’s plaything.  I’ve been doing a lot of painting these days, still tattooing plenty, contrary to popular belief.  I’m working on a feature length ArtFusion documentary.  We plan on taking it to Sundance and other festivals around the world next year.  A lot more energy is devoted to the website, these days.  

Thank you for the invite to the ArtFusion Experiment held at the Old Truman Brewery prior to the London Show. I was very impressed by the collaborative art that was produced – How did you feel this went and where will the canvases be going to now the show is over?

"I thought it went pretty well, everyone seemed to have a good time.  I heard there were a lot of people that couldn’t find it or didn’t hear about it, so that was kind of a bummer.  The art is safe and sound.  The entire collection consists of about four hundred and fifty pieces of art.  After the documentary circles the world and some notoriety out side of the tattoo industry is gained, we plan on auctioning all of it for charity.  We’ve chosen ICAF (International Child Arts Foundation) as our main focus.  I want this to be a high profile event in the mainstream art world.  The proceeds will be given on behalf of all three hundred and fifty plus tattoo artists that have participated."

How did you find the London convention? 

"I was pretty sick that weekend.  My health has been a bit up and down.  It seemed like everyone else was having a blast, though.  I know I definitely would have enjoyed myself if I wasn’t feeling so bad.  A lot of killer artists at that show, definitely one to remember."

Do you plan on touring the world more or will you be concentrating on working from your studio in the future?

"I’m mostly staying home these days.  I’m only doing a small handful of conventions, mostly out of a feeling of obligation for my friends that put them on.  I’m sure I’ll start traveling again, down the road; I’m just really into staying home right now.  I’m working on a lot of bigger projects both in and outside of tattooing."

Do you find yourself painting more than tattooing these days?

"I have an art show in Berlin in May so I’m painting my ass off for it. I try to not let it get in the way of my tattooing.  I usually tattoo in the afternoons and paint until dawn.  I’m really putting everything I have into this series of paintings.  It focuses on my Demons and my internal struggle with them.  The show is called “Inner Child”."

Has your art changed as you have grown. Are you becoming darker in your art or are you starting to mellow with age?

"I feel my art has definitely changed.  I find it to be a bit more mature and to me it’s definitely getting darker.  It’s not about gore these days, it’s more about making you think.  I’m allowing the world to see into my head a bit more now.  I guess people really have to judge for themselves.  After all isn’t that what art is supposed to do?"

Other artists like Guy Aitchison have produced art/tattoo books. Can you see yourself going down this route?

"I definitely want to do an art book.  I’m still waiting to have some stronger content like the oil paintings I’m currently working on.  My early stuff was all mixed media and I can’t tell you how many times I would hear that it’s not true art because a portion of it is digital.  I’m hoping to be working on a book late this year."

Your private gallery on the web is quite incredible. How big is your collection? Do you have any plans to take it out of the USA – it would storm away in somewhere like London

"My private gallery will never leave my side. I think as far as it coming to Europe, the risk of losing my babies is too high to bring them on tour anywhere. I really prefer to show them to my guests than make a traveling museum. They are too special to me to want to exploit the collection.  I prefer human specimens over animals. That’s about all I can say about it."

So what does the future hold for Paul Booth?

"Well, in all honesty I’m told I’ll be losing my mind in the next ten years.  I’ll never quit tattooing, but I’m really committed to breaking through with my painting.  The minute art critics hear I’m a tattoo artist, they roll their eyes.  “Oh it’s another tattoo guy.” I really hate that kind of stereotyping especially since many of the tattoo artists I know can blow away much of what I see in galleries these days. I kind of feel like I’m starting a whole new career, however I definitely want to assure anyone who cares that I have no intention of leaving tattooing. I’m a tattoo artist at the core and probably couldn’t leave even if I tried!"

In closing, give us your top five ‘dark’ things of all time:

1. Christianity, for the pain and anguish it’s caused humanity since its inception.

2. Christianity, for the pain and anguish it’s caused humanity since its inception.

3. Christianity, for the pain and anguish it’s caused humanity since its inception.

4. Christianity, for the pain and anguish it’s caused humanity since its inception.

5. Christianity, for the pain and anguish it’s caused humanity since its inception.

Any last words?

“I have ninety eight more years on my ‘contract’ so I don’t expect to have any last words for a while.”