Jeremy 'MF' Justice

Published: 01 March, 2009 - Featured in Skin Deep 169, February, 2009

Take one look at Jeremy MF Justice’s work and you can see where his influences and interests lie. Jeremy has been fixated by Japanese inspired art since looking at a book full of Japanese bodysuits at the age of eleven. From that day on he has strived to be the best tattooist he can, working on large, custom pieces to great effect.

We caught up with Jeremy whilst he was over in the UK doing a few guest spots at Octopus Tattoos in Derby and Thou Art in Sheffield. Jeremy was an unfortunate victim of the New Orleans hurricane Katrina disaster. Not being one to sit on his hands for long, he has set himself up in Seattle and is working his unique blend of tattooing magic once again.

How did you get your name, did your mum not like you?
(Laughs) It was just a thing that evolved from being involved in the bar scene in New Orleans from a young age. Everyone there starts drinking early but it worked out well for me meeting folks that were involved in the tattoo scene.

So you were born and raised in New Orleans then?
Born and raised.

You must be sad to leave?
It is. It’s a little bit hard to talk about even still. New Orleans is definitely where my home is, it’s where my heart is but just right now it’s too heartbreaking to live there. All of a sudden everything around you is gone, all the people around you, your friends, family are just instantly scattered all over the country. It’s very tough.

Do you think you will go back?
Eventually I want to move back to New Orleans but I will be away for a few years I would think. The rebuilding is just so slow. Everything is different there now, the people the place and the attitudes, everything I grew up with and loved is gone. New Orleans will always remain but it’s a different city now, its heart has been ripped out. It may get some of what made it so special back somewhere down the line but I think it is a long way off. New Orleans was the cultural centre of the South, it was the soul of the real America and even though the government and big business may not think so, now that it has gone America is poorer for its loss.

Did you lose a lot?
Yeah we lost a lot of stuff but when you lose it you realise that you don’t need it. It was very liberating losing all the shit that you collect and build up around you. It was cathartic to no small extent.

One thing about the tattoo industry is that it usually comes together at times like these.
Yeah man the tattoo industry was unbelievable for us, so supportive; so many companies sent us free stuff and equipment because we lost stuff. Every studio gave me shifts to cover after the storm.

How long you been involved in the industry?
About 11 years now, not long in the big scheme of things but I am now at a stage where I feel I am beginning to fulfil my capabilities, I think it is a hard medium to work in and feel you are good enough to be marking people for the rest of their days.

How did you first come into contact with tattooing?
My first encounter with tattooing was from my uncle who had sleeves and when I was about 10 years old; he showed me the book ‘The Japanese Tattoo’ – seeing those Japanese bodysuits especially at that age was like ‘whoa this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen’, and I guess I have been in love with tattoos ever since and always knew I would get tattooed even from that young age.

I assume you got your first tattoo fairly early on then?
I got my first tattoo at 18 and still have it, some kanji.

Did this love of tattooing lead you to get a traditional apprenticeship?
As soon as I was 18 I started to hang out at a studio; Randy Muller was a really big influence on me and I started hanging out with him. Those guys showed me that this was what I needed to be doing; I worked with another guy on the outskirts of New Orleans and got an apprenticeship there. It was a real traditional and tough apprenticeship and I worked my ass off for a long time but I truly feel I’m a better artist and I appreciate it a lot more. If something comes too easy you just don’t value it the same, whether that be tattooing or anything else.

You had an apprenticeship – in your eyes is this best way to do it?
For sure, you need someone to show you the ropes, show you all sorts of stuff. If it’s easy you don’t appreciate it as much. Some artists picked up a machine and just started doing it but I feel the average person benefits hugely by having someone show them. The availability of equipment is getting scary. It makes getting into the industry easier, 100 machines for 1000 bucks is crazy. If you pay $10 for a machine and make it so widely available you devalue the industry and make it disposable and tattooing is one of the last things we have that is not a disposable commodity – it’s serious and important to get it right. It’s a little bit upsetting that people no longer see tattooing as permanent, tattooing is a serious profession. You are making a mark on your body and it will be there ‘til the day you die and you should treat it with the respect it deserves. Some people just don’t respect it, its history or where it is going.

Is that, in your opinion, because of all the media coverage?
I’m sure that has something to do with it, but also the coverage and TV shows do help the industry, tattooing is becoming more acceptable and now it bridges the generation gap by being on T.V. I think a lot of people in their 40s and 50s watch these shows, probably more than kids do so you get more people across a broader demographic range interested in tattooing. It has just become a lot more acceptable, especially to people who would have found it distasteful prior to the massive media presence in the industry.

Have you noticed the industry changing recently?
I think that the industry is becoming saturated; a lot of people coming into it that maybe shouldn’t be. Tattooing is not to be taken lightly and if you are not 100% committed to it then why bother? It seems that it’s a ‘Plan B’ for a lot of folks.

Plan B?
A lot of people went to art school, realised their degree was not worth that much and they were going to spend the rest of their days in front of a computer terminal. So plan b, become a tattooist; fuck it, can’t be that hard, can it? If you get a tattoo, you want it from someone who is 100% committed to their art form, not someone who does it because they had nothing else to do or someone who couldn’t give a shit. Of course you can get stuff covered or removed but surely the idea is to get it right first time?

You have moved to Seattle, is it your own place?
Nah I work for someone, the shop is called Hidden Hand Tattoo; I worked with the owner Jeff at Super Genius when I did a guest spot there. We met and hit it off straight away when I moved up there and he offered me a permanent space. I started there at the beginning of ‘08, it’s a really great artistic atmosphere, everyone in the studio paints and that’s so encouraging, it’s an amazing place to be and I get on with all my co-workers, I couldn’t really ask for more.

How does Seattle compare to New Orleans?
It’s really bizarre; it’s like the polar opposite of New Orleans. Seattle is a very wealthy city, there are a lot of computing industries based outta there and when people have money everything is different, they take more care of the city and there are more things going on, there’s more money spent on all different kinds of culture that poor cities just don’t have. But on the flipside people from New Orleans are intensively creative – when you are poor you cannot always just go buy something, you have to create it out of nothing. I appreciate that aspect of it a lot, growing up poor you can sometimes feel at a disadvantage but it’s not always like that. I realised you are given a different tool kit to deal with life, you can work your way round stuff. From a tattooing point of view the extra affluence in Seattle means more people can afford larger tattoos and it has allowed me to concentrate on larger custom work. There seems to be a much larger tattooing community in Seattle and it also has one of the best conventions in the country.

Do you work many conventions in the States?
I work as many as I can but not as many as I would like, maybe 5 or 6 a year but I intend to do a lot more. I was booked up 6 – 8 months ahead in New Orleans so it was really hard to get away so moving to Seattle has freed me up to travel a bit more, and I’m trying to get out and see as much as I can, I plan on coming back to Europe soon. This trip is just the first step, dipping my toe in the water. I want to travel the world and the U.K was the easiest logical first step, everyone speaks the same language and it’s the gateway to the rest of Europe. I’m worked at the Evian convention with Gerry (Carnelly) and I’m going to Cape Town later this year. I love working conventions; it is great fun, the challenge of working outside your comfort zone appeals to me a lot. The stuff I do has been really well received at conventions, which is a bonus.

What conventions have you got lined up?
Seattle, Evian, Cape Town, Calgary and Brighton at the start of the New Year. Hopefully in 2009 I can work something out for a couple more UK conventions and line up a guest spot or two along the way.

When I first spoke to you I looked through your online portfolio and thought, this is pretty good but when you came over and I thumbed my way through your portfolio I was like – how come no one has heard of you before – fuck this is shit hot.
I’ve, been keeping a real low profile, keeping my nose to the grindstone, a lot of people do one good tattoo and start sending stuff into magazines but I wanted to be able to have something worthwhile to contribute and make sure all my stuff was right. I don’t want to have just one home run to show the world. I hope that people see I am more than a one trick pony.

Talk me through the process.
I talk to my clients as much as I can to get an idea of the main elements of what they want from the tattoo. A lot of my clients give me a broad scope to work in and just a basic idea and I just build on that. I feel that if I get really excited by it then some of the enthusiasm and energy I have for it will be passed to the customer and they too will be excited by it. I do a lot of work and see so many tattoos that it would be easy to just churn out the same stuff all the time so I am conscious that I need to make each piece a bit different, a little more unique and special for that customer. I am not looking at everyone else’s work and trying to copy it, I am trying to create something unique on my own. I like the central or main image to be as large as possible; I don’t want to clutter up my designs with too many little pieces, as I want the tattoo to have a lot of visual impact. If you see it 10ft away you should still know what it is. I realise that I am so lucky that most of my clients are so open minded to go with my ideas.

What is your favourite part of being a tattooist?
There is more than one thing that I love about this life but for sure the camaraderie and working with other artists, the flexibility of work, the travelling, shit I love it all, I love tattooing. It’s great you can go anywhere, I have been here for a week (Thou Art, Sheffield) and everyone treats you like a brother, it’s an awesome feeling. I guess that Katrina (the hurricane that struck New Orleans in 2005) showed me that I could go anywhere in the world and tattoo, there are not many jobs that you can do that in, just pitch up on someone’s door and start work straight away. Of course there are some shitty parts to the industry but they just make the good bits all the more enjoyable.

We were chatting about the long hours the other day and you mentioned that you hurt a little more these days than ever before.
Yeah, Tattooing is intensely physical, your back hurts, your wrists eventually go to shit and I get carpal tunnel. A lot of people think that it’s easy, just sit there doodling all day but the level of concentration required can be exhausting. You work through it and it is worth it, no doubts about that. I have looked at different machines to see if I can get a bit of relief but I always come back to my coils.

Do you find that tattooing comes easy to you?
Hell no, I don’t think that tattooing is easy at all, it’s a very unforgiving medium. It is not something that you can just paint over and start again. I haven’t found it easy at all. I work my ass off and try to do it the best I can.

What about the artistic side of it, have you always been artistic?
I’ve always been artistic but I never took it seriously until I started tattooing. I was always drawing and doodled. Most of it was tattoo-inspired and even now my art is tattoo-related. Growing up the idea of being an artist for a living was like living on Mars, totally alien, just because New Orleans is a poor place and when it comes down to it if you grow up poor you have a more realistic view on things, Doing art for a living was not really an option or something that entered your head.

I notice you seem to be an avid painter.
I really enjoy painting. I try to paint as much as I can, although I don’t do it as much as much as I would like to but that’s just the way it is; when you are drawing or tattooing all day it’s hard to go home and sit down and paint but I really try to do it as much as I can. I need to spend some time with my girl, and even though I don’t have much of an outside life, I need to have just a little something going on.

Did you have any formal art training?
No, I didn’t go to art school or anything like that but I have drawn most of my life and once tattooing came into my life seriously I started to sit down and draw everyday as much as I possibly could. Tattooing has opened the gateway to the rest of the art world. I am sort of glad that I didn’t end up at art school, being told ‘this is great, this is great’, is not a good way to learn how to deal with real life. In New Orleans it wasn’t like that; if stuff wasn’t right I knew about it pretty fucking quickly, so I don’t think art school would have worked for me. My path has made me the artist I am today so I am happy with that, who knows what I’d be doing today without tattooing?

Do you do much work in other mediums?
I have done a little in ceramics but I mostly like to paint, I am always doing something with my hands though, making stuff or breaking stuff depending on how you look at it, often just figuring out how things work.

There is an obvious Japanese influence in you portfolio.
Again I think this is just because I was exposed to Japanese tattoos at a young age. I really like doing Japanese-style tattoos but anything large scale and colourful. Full body suits, sleeves, just big strong colourful pieces.

So who are you main influences?
Randy Muller – by far the most influential person in my professional life but I get inspired from everyone I work with, I learn stuff from everyone, even those with less experience than me, everyone has something to offer. As for big names, the obvious ones such as Fillip Leu, Shige and Horiyoshi, who isn’t inspired by those guys? Mick Tattoo and Tin Tin are amazing. How can anyone look at a Shige tattoo and not be blown away?

So is it work, work, work, or do you have other interests?
Spare time? Hmmm. I draw and paint when I can and I hang out with my beautiful girlfriend. I skate when I can. Seattle has some great scenery so I like to walk around when I can and spend time outdoors, not that I get to do it too often mind you. I have a mutt called Sally, she is a bit crazy but sweet, so I have to get out and walk her every day for a bit.

You have mentioned that you want travel, anything set in stone for the future?
I would love to move to Europe, just being around cultures that are that old, the architecture is unbelievable over here and it blows me away. If I get the chance I want to go to Germany and the rest of continental Europe and of course Japan, I would love to get the chance to work there but it is such a hard country to break into. There is a definite void in my soul that won’t be filled till I get there. And as for getting ink, whom do you choose, Shige, Horiyoshi, Sabado, Genko, Three Tides, Ink Rat, Knock over Decorate? The list just gets bigger and bigger so many amazing artists to choose from.

Is there anyone you would like to thank for helping you out over the years?
Randy Muller and Donn Davis at Eye Candy Tattoo in New Orleans, Jeff at Super Genius, Lucky’s Supplies for the help after the hurricane, to know that people gave a shit meant a lot. My customers for their trust and Gerry Carnelly, Andy Barber and the guys at Thou Art for giving me the opportunity to work out here and make this trip possible.

Credits

Interview: Graham @ myspace.com/thouartsheffield

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