Benjamin Moss

Published: 01 August, 2008 - Featured in Skin Deep 163, August, 2008

“I started out tattooing in Detroit in the summer of 1997. I had been working at a punk/leather shop for a number of years and had dropped out of art school. I was looking for a new job that was geared more towards utilizing my artistic abilities.”

I had my doubts as to what direction this would lead, as I really wasn’t interested in designing something for someone else to sell, and had no delusions of making a living from fine art. I was looking through the newspaper, oddly enough, and found an ad for a shop seeking a tattooist. This was always something in the back of my head but I had no idea where to start and never even considered it a real possibility. I went into the shop with an art portfolio and no experience and was hired on as an apprentice. Everything just sort of lined up for me at the right time and now I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

Did you begin your career with an apprenticeship?
I did have an apprenticeship, but it mostly consisted of making needles for everyone in the shop and doing their drawings for them, taking out the trash, etc. All stuff that needs to be done, but I was pretty much in a room on my own when it was time to tattoo real humans. After a lot of frustration, I decided to spend some money and go get tattooed by a real master and figure out exactly how the hell they got tattoos to look like I saw them in the magazines. At this point, I was living in Seattle and decided to fly back to Detroit to get a tattoo from Tom Renshaw. He was really quite patient with me as I spent the entire six-hour session asking him questions and studying his whole setup and technique. I learned almost the entire foundation of the way I tattoo now in one day because of him and getting that tattoo. After that I got some similar help from Aaron Bell who showed my a lot about tattoo machines and how to tune them after I got tattooed by him. These were key factors in the beginning for me and I have continued travelling and seeking out/exchanging relevant information ever since. It is important to always keep learning and make sure that you have access to people and information that will inspire you to go further.

Did tattooing come easily to you?
Oh fuck no! I worked in a few different shops the first couple of years, faking it trying to figure out what the hell I was doing. I just wasn’t getting the right information for me, and the guidance I’d gained wasn’t sticking; I really don’t think I put out a decent tattoo until after at least two years.
I have friends that have had quality apprenticeships from artists that were technically proficient and that they respected. They didn’t have to run in circles trying to figure things out the way I did, and certainly didn’t scar up as many people! I honestly believe that this is an art form that you cannot figure out on your own no matter how talented you are. There are too many variables involved. The machines, the needles, the skin, and especially the fact that you have no idea what you are producing until after a month when it heals, and by then you forgot which factors you were adjusting when you did it!

How has your work been received at the conventions you’ve worked?
Really well I think. I got a lot of attention, clients, and awards in the beginning. Most importantly though, I managed to put my work into perspective; it is easy to be a big fish in a small pond when you’re at home. Going to conventions, you see people doing the same thing you’re doing, only twice as fast or twice as good. It lights a fire under your ass to figure out how to do things better seeing so much talent at once. I still learn and get inspired at tattoo conventions, which is one of the reasons I do so many. It also gives you an avenue to travel to new places whilst doing what you love to do, and an atmosphere of like-minded people doing the same thing with their own twist on it. I have worked conventions all over the US, Europe, and Mexico. I think that to a degree, every city or country has its own flavour to it, but I like the sense of art that goes into tattooing the best in Europe. I think in the States you have some key figures that have technically pushed the boundaries of what can be done with tattooing, and in Europe, you see some of this only with more of a global mixture of tattoo styles. As far as customers go, I am pretty specialized in what I tattoo and people expect relatively the same subject matter from me no matter where I am.

During your trips abroad, have you noticed any particular areas that are more welcoming to tattoos and tattooists than others?
I think that there are cities with larger populations of counter culture like Seattle, London, Berlin, New York, etc, where you see a lot of people with major tattoo coverage not only walking the streets but actually having them visible in the workplace. Which is how it should be; who gives a shit what you look like as long as you can do your job? It is in countries that have a major influence from the church like Mexico, Greece, Poland, and the states in the middle of the US where you don’t see as many large tattoos and might get a weird look if you have one. These places still have thriving tattoo scenes, but you don’t see tattoos crossing as many social boundaries as in less conservative areas.

Have you had any kind of formal art training?
I have. I spent the second half of the last 2 years of high school bussing to an alternative type art school. After that, I spent about 2 1/2 years at the Centre for Creative Studies in Detroit taking courses towards a fine art degree before I finally decided to drop out. I really quit applying myself in school around when I turned 16. I got a lot of decent basic art theory and history there, but institutionalized learning is not my thing. I saw many people using a lot of really profound words that they just learned to say a lot of nothing. The best way to learn something in my opinion is to keep doing it and find ways to do it better and you don’t need school for that.

Who are your main influences?
Over the years, I have had many influences, from music, thought, friends, travelling, fine artists, etc, but this interview is about tattooing! There are many tattoo artists who I draw influence from such as Guy Aitchison, and Tom Renshaw, or my friends that I am constantly travelling with and learning from like Robert Hernandez, Bob Tyrrell, Liorcifer, Shige, and Goethe. But I would say that the tattoo artist who has inspired me the most is Paul Booth. Not only does he have technical and artistic ability, but the drive to always come up with ways to push it further and apply a consistent vision to every aspect of his creative life. In one year, I saw him produce a series of oil paintings in his art studio, and spin his chair around to his computer and simultaneously produce a double CD of music, all in a physical environment crafted like a sculpture to enhance the dark and creative mood. This is why he and his tattoos have remained at the top for so many years and I think that we can all learn from him.

What is it that attracted you to realism and tattooing in that style?
I love getting inside of what you’re tattooing and figuring out what makes it come to life. In a human figure, you have layers of bones and muscle and tissue that all interact with each other under the skin. I try to take all of this into account when I’m tattooing, but in such a way that it conveys something when you look at it in the end. It is a very meditative process for me that I enjoy as much as the final outcome. I spent so much time learning to make photos look real on skin that now I am finally at a point of expanding this, merging realism with composition and making images not only fit the body, but distort in such a way that it looks like they belong there. It takes a lot of time, but I love rendering natural shapes of figures and bones, etc. paying attention to the direction of each curve and reflection of light, and altering them further into a more personalized piece of art. Some of my favourite pieces that I have tattooed, I don’t remember doing as I am in a totally different head-space when I am working smoothly - I simply like images that look real, and all that goes into them.

How do you approach each tattoo and what processes do you go through as you create it and bring it to life?
As the majority of the tattoos I do are realistic in nature, the first step in the process is photo selection. Depending on the subject matter, I can look through hundreds of photos until I find one that captures the essence of what I am going for in the tattoo. I have been leaning more towards photos that I have taken lately, unless the tattoo is of a human face or figure. The next step is putting it into Photoshop and making it a bit more dynamic for the translation into tattoo, and adjusting the size, shape, etc. to fit the person wearing it. If the tattoo is a bit more fantasy-oriented or surreal, I will stencil the photo on the skin and then take markers and draw on the skin as a guideline on how to distort or elaborate on it; if the tattoo is not based on a photo, then I just take markers and freehand the entire piece. Most background and texture usually work better if I just start tattooing and let them happen naturally.

Do you spend a lot of time with a customer during the design phase, discussing the final outcome?
That depends on what language they speak! Generally, people give me an idea and trust me to do it the way I think it will work best. Throughout the process, I will ask them questions about which way they want to go with it. I just try to see what they’re going for and then do what I think will work best as a tattoo.

How do you go about choosing the tattoos that you want to do?
The most important factor is not the subject matter, but the relationship with the client and the image. What is the reason that they are getting it? Is it something that belongs with them or is it an emotional reaction to a recent event? Where are they putting it on their body and how will this affect their future on whatever path they take in life? Every person is different and a completely stupid tattoo that may hinder one person may be a damn cool joke on another. Now I am fortunate enough to be pretty selective in what I choose to tattoo. The work that I do takes a lot of time and I am not comfortable spending six hours rendering an image that I don’t like aesthetically. I don’t like religious or political themes either. If I like the image and how it fits the person wearing it, I’ll tattoo it.

What qualities would your perfect client posses?
Removable limbs…I would definitely have to have removable limbs. It would also be pretty useful if they had some form of sculptable putty underneath their skin to either create new dimension in the tattoo, or create a flat surface for portraits. Other than that, I prefer people who have a general idea of what they want and then just trust me to do my thing with it.

What do you think the quality of work will be like in twenty years time, given the progress that we’ve seen over the past two decades?
Well first of all, I think that just basic blackwork will always stick around and improve. If you ask most people what their first tattoo was, they will usually show you a solid black symbol of some sort. It’s a bold, solid statement that looks great on skin. There is a whole new school of people taking this in amazing directions, like Xed in London.
The other progressive path that I see tattoos taking is a fusion of the styles that work today. The Japanese have pioneered a style of taking fine art and making it flow on the body. Others have damn near perfected the realistic rendering of an image on skin. A new direction that tattoos are taking is the merging of these two principles. Guy Aitchison has been doing this for years, and now you see people like Shige doing it in the east. I look forward to seeing even more realistic and surrealist images really carefully planned on large-scale tattoos, to the point of distorting the body of the wearer. Like some tattoos you see today with so many layers that it looks like you can just put your finger right in it! There are so many directions that you can take this in that I doubt we will run out of novelty in the tattoo industry anytime soon.

Do you ever collaborate with the other guys at the studio on tattoos? Do you enjoy sharing a piece of art with someone else and seeing how merging your styles creates something unique for you both?
Not yet at the studio. Bob Tyrrell and I did a collaborative piece on a girl in Mexico of a female vampire face that was really quite fun. After that, Bob, Goethe, Pedro Alvarez, and I did a larger collaborative piece on a thigh, based on a concept from Goethe. That was also pretty cool to see how all of our different styles could make up one tattoo. In Seattle we usually have collaborative drawing nights with the guys from the shop (also with friends on the road). This is really great for loosening up and generating new ideas in a format that is less restrictive than tattooing. I look forward to more collaborations in the future.

What’s Seattle like as a home to an artist? Does it feed the creative monster within and provide a lot of inspiration?
Feeding the creative monster can lead me into a lot of trouble and that’s more of what I did when I was living in Detroit! Seattle is more of a place that soothes my creative monster to a point where I can function in the real world. It is a very stable home base for me with enough inspiration to keep my senses stimulated. I have a family of close friends there. It has the urban element I need, but it is also surrounded with mountains and water. I spend at least half of my time travelling though, always seeing new things and places to help fuel my drive. I have recently split my home into two cities now, Seattle and Berlin. I am in Europe so much that it was time to find a home here and it has now become Berlin. I will be spending my time equally in both cities.

How’s your own tattoo collection coming along; is there anyone you’re hoping to get work from in the near future?
My own tattoo collection is coming along well but pretty slowly! I love all of the pieces I have and have had some great artists work on me. But I definitely need more. The artist I look forward to getting work from the most is Robert Hernandez. Shit, I think we’ve been talking about it for 6 or 7 years now, but almost every time we see each other we’re both working or just finished working and want to unwind or sightsee or whatever. I will have to plan a trip to his studio, just to focus on getting it done. He is definitely a master at combining all of the things I want in a tattoo and I really look forward to getting work from him.

What do you do to kick back and chill?
Generally I watch movies. When I’m done working it is a good way to unwind yet still keep a variety of visual concepts flowing into my head before I sleep.

Is there anybody you would like to thank for helping you over the years?
There are quite a few. I would like to thank Tom Renshaw and Aaron Bell for giving me good information in the beginning when I needed it. Gilbert Jumping Eagle for opening Apocalypse with me. Yushi Takei for being my friend and travelling partner for so many years. Catfish Carl for custom building me the best tattoo machine that I have ever used. Damon Conklin for helping me get into tattoo conventions in the beginning. Paul Booth for showing me that there is no limit to what you can do with your creativity and for the various opportunities he has given so many of us to display it. All of the tattoo convention promoters and their organization for giving us a place to work and promote our art, and basically a first class ticket to any major city in the world. The tattoo magazines for helping us reach a broader client base. All of my clients for being so patient with me. Most importantly, my family at Apocalypse Tattoo: Azure, J@ck, Bryan, Coyote, Troy, Robert, Wendy, and Peg. And of course, my parents for being so supportive.

Is there any other information that you would like to add?
I can be reached through the website www.apocalypsetattoo.com and I split my time tattooing out of my studio Apocalypse Tattoo in Seattle, and independently in Berlin by appointment only via email - benjamin@apocalypsetattoo.com

Credits

Interview: Alex Photography: Benjamin Moss & Neil

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