Paul Booth

Published: 05 November, 2009 - Featured in Skin Deep 173, June, 2009

No one even vaguely familiar with tattooing needs an introduction to this legendary custom shop. Headed by Paul Booth, the reigning master of dark and horror imagery, with his trademark black and grey style, this tattoo shop is a NYC institution. Despite his cult fan base, a legendary waiting list, and a lengthy list of celebrity clientele, Paul Booth himself is disarmingly polite and down to earth.


He is also famed for being the first tattoo artist to be accepted into the elitist National Arts club, having an exquisite talent for both skin and canvas as surfaces. He is also responsible for the arts collaboration project Art Fusion experiment, alongside Filip Leu and Guy Aitchison. His website has a loyal gathering of followers, and has a community where members can mingle with “like-minded people”.

    The studio has to be seen to be believed, looking like a 4500 foot crypt, and housing a theatre, as well as an expansive art gallery filled with “outsider” art such as Geiger, Michael Hussar amongst others, it is an impressive converted loft space that lives up to its macabre image.

“We present art from the heavy hitters of the outsider art world, and showcase a lot of work that is inaccessible to a lot of people.” explains Booth of his gallery; “The outsider art genre is growing into a movement, artists that were previously getting a thousand dollars for art are now getting 15 thousand, over the past several years, this is what is happening”

Whilst the line-up at Last Rites has changed, with a new roster of talent, the shop remains true to its reputation with top tier artists who revel in the nebulous. Flipping through his portfolio, his ability to delve into the most macabre depths of the human psyche, coupled with his sheer technical prowess, have made him the king of stygian tattoo imagery, copied by many, but outdone by none.


So you’ve had major changes with the shop, and with most of the staff changing, how is  that doing?

It’s going much better now; I feel freedom that I haven’t felt in a long time. There are always two sides to every story, and I have honestly been yet to tell mine. It’s low class to share most of it, but honestly it’s begun a new chapter in my life, I’m in a much better place than I have been in, artistically and otherwise, the friends that I have, I know are friends.

    The only thing that is difficult for me now is, for one, having the whole shop walk out on the same day doesn’t look that good in the public eye, talk about juicy rumours! And help “Paul Booth must be an asshole!” I don’t actually mind at all, my friends know the truth and so do I so who the fuck cares?

    But from a business point of view, I have been building a shop clientele for ten years, and the general clientele usually sticks to the artist that they are with. They lock into an artist and stick with them. I’m not talking about collectors, but the local clientele. So if an artist leaves a shop and stays in the area, his clients generally follow.

    To have everyone in the shop stay in the area when they leave - it is like having ten years of clientele pulled out from under you. In that respect, it took a while to rebuild. I’m still happier than before, even with all that stress. The new crew that I’m building, I’m much happier with, in the sense of the way we get a long and the vibe of the shop, it was getting tense before on both sides of the fence. I’m a bit insane so I can be a bit hard to deal with sometimes, and that can be stressful for people around me, and I don’t deal so well with certain attitudes that I find are hard to be around.

    So I think there are a lot of mutual areas. But you know, you move on. I’m an old salty dog, I’ve seen it all, been everywhere and done everything, it would take a hell of a lot more than what happened last year to stop me, and if anything it made me a hell of a lot stronger!

It must be hard to find artists that meet your criteria, and your standard when
you were looking for artists.

Yeah it’s the strangest thing, I got literally over a hundred portfolios when I put the word out that I was looking for artists. And most of them were, and see I don’t want to insult anyone, but I got a lot of people that were tattooing a year.  It’s curious to me, as to know when I was tattooing a year, -I guess it doesn’t hurt to try, -but if you are really a hack, why would you even apply? I don’t mean to be a cocksucker, but I mean; I don’t know! I know I sound like a jerk.

    The guys who were good enough for the reputation of this shop, ‘cos we have every other day, someone from somewhere in the world, - whether they be a tourist buying shirt, or someone looking to get work while they are in New York. I owe it to them to have the best calibre artists; I’m renowned for that quality, so my customer base always feels safe here.

    But the guys that are really good enough are generally busy running around the world doing what I used to do. Plus NY is so damn expensive to live, it’s hard to pick up everything, and move here, so it’s taken me longer to find the right people. A lot of the hotshots don’t even have a home shop, they just do guest spots - it’s great, you learn so much and meet so many people. I’m trying to work myself into getting to be a NY home base for these people.

    I’m getting more versatile, I’m still looking for a good colour portrait artist, but not to rehash, part of it is that whole reputation thing, the whole idea of a walkout in your shop, generally hurts your reputation, and there are a number of people who credit rumours more than they should.

OK, and then moving onto your work, you are renowned for horror tattoos, what is the most popular theme or motif that you get requested over and over again?

I don’t know, I guess the leaf man! That is the most mainstream subject in my repertoire, but ‘cos it’s the most palatable for the majority of people, y’know it’s not the head of Christ on a stick!! The leaf man made it so more females could wear my work, and made it more accessible.

And the demon heads...

In the beginning it was shrunken heads with the mouth sewn shut, but not to discredit anyone that I have worked on, there are only so many ways you can draw a demon head! Especially when your style is very much, I don’t know what the right word is - distinct? I only use one light source for the image, the horror movie vibe and the dimension that it gives the white out in the eyes, the way I draw my noses and the way I draw my mouths. That is all freehand stuff. If I’m getting into stuff where I can draw my material ahead of time, then I have more exploration I can do.

Do you get do whatever” clients- how much direction and input do your clients give you on your initial consultation?

The majority are like that. I have the freedom to do pretty much what I want on the people I tattoo. However that’s difficult, how can you really know what that person wants to wear for the rest of their life? So what I enjoy is the consultation and the psychological aspect of the art - getting in their head and finding out what they like. Judging their reaction to ideas I throw at them, getting a feel for what is right for them, and developing an image from that experience.

    That for me is what tattooing is all about, personally that is what keeps it creative and inventive and y’know, making tattoo art that is designed for one specific person. Regardless of the fact that my style is distinct; and that it may look the same to a lot of people, the trademark thing - but that is a result of travelling, and when I go to shows they want a “Paul Booth” tattoo, but at home I can get more experimental.

    So for a while all you saw from me was demon heads, but now that I’m home more I can go in all sorts of directions.

How does it feel knowing the days when it was illegal and then seeing tattooing now so phenomenally popular?

This November, I’m in 20 years. I always said that when I hit twenty years, will officially be an old timer, and I’ll be allowed to bitch and moan. I seem to have started bitching and moaning a little early, but I’ve noticed big changes in the industry in that period of time. The changes that have happened in the last ten years are so much more dramatic than they were ever before.

    More kids getting out of art school and going straight into tattooing, upping the bar artistically, all the glamorizing with the celebrities getting tattooed, and all the outsider edgy art thing that everyone grabs onto, has made tattooing much closer to the mainstream than it ever has been.

    And like anything there is a good side and bad side, greater public awareness means more crap to filter out. Say the industry is a group of a hundred people, and it gets popularized and then it’s a thousand, and half of them fall away, that aren’t legitimate or valued, or have no depth to them, and then you are left with five hundred that are welcome members of this world.

    It is this weird growth thing, it has to mainstream in order to grow, but all the bullshit that goes with mainstreaming falls off after a period of time, and left with the shit that sticks to the wall. I think it’s a pulse, a wave of good and bad, y’know?

    It’s pulling people into tattooing that are amazing artists, becoming a good credit to the industry. They are coming ‘cos of the attention tattooing is receiving, but then you have all the scratcher hacks that want to be rock stars and tattooing their friends, probably not clean. The shallowness that is brought to it by the trendy factor, but that all fades away and be replaced with something eventually.

When will that eventually come?

I think it’s a flow that ebbs and flows, I’ve always seen in my 20 years there is a constant growth and evolution, at the same time y’know, there was a time when the trend was tribal, then biomechanical, and resurgence of traditional, then Asian, and  now it’s colour portraits.

    I’m not taking anything from any of these, but you see these tattoo trends, and it’s kind of fun to anticipate what the next one is going to be, but I’m not quite sure what that will be. Of course I would love it to go back to black and grey, but how soon that will be, I don’t know!

At the moment how much time do you devote to your tattooing as opposed to your fine arts?

A little more on the tattooing than the painting right now. The goal is to achieve a harmonic balance between the two ‘cos I think they complement one another. I’m tattooing what seems to be five days a week, four to six I suppose, which is good for me right now.

    It’s not like the old days when I was travelling a lot and I would tattoo ten - twelve hours a day. Now I’m getting older and pacing myself and having other business ventures to deal with and all this bullshit, I’ll tattoo actual 6 hours of tattoo time a day.

How do you stay motivated?

Right now it’s mostly about facing a new chapter in my life. There is a growth growing inside of me creatively that I feel, to reinvent myself more than I have before. I’m working on bigger projects and getting experimental with a lot of things. Some things might not be noticeable to a lot of people, but...

Can you give us an example of your experimental directions?

Playing with something, for example playing with opaque greys as opposed to grey wash, and kind of how they settle in and relate to each other. The approach in playing with more photo shop than I used to, various graphic programs; incorporating different types of reference material.

    I’m starting to play with a tighter liner than I have in a little while ‘cos my line work is generally, if even it is existent, is only where it needs to be. I am more a renderer than I am a graphic bold line kind of guy. But I’m starting to play with a tighter outline on certain things, and it’s a cleaner detail, just playing, just trying to find my next level.

    I just started a new body suit a couple of days ago, and I’m really excited about it. So I’m really excited about the bigger work I do.

Do you find that people tend to lean towards bigger works nowadays?

Oh yeah, every generation is more extreme than the last, so you see a younger generation with bigger pieces. As far as the size of the work, there is a lot more collectors out there that like to get pieces from several artists, ‘cos there are a lot more touring artists, with the conventions.

    Devoting sections of their body to certain artists that they like so they are saving room for people, keeping people from getting full body suits from one artist. That isn’t necessarily bad thing...I think what is ultimately important is how the little pieces fit together.

With the art fusion how did that start? And also how does it feel to see it take
off like that?

It’s a trip!

    The very beginning for me was with Aaron Cain, years ago. I was visiting San Francisco when he had a shop there, and he was involved in collaborative drawing, and sharing sketches back and forth. I loved it ‘cos I learnt so much from him that it inspired me to see the benefit of sharing art.

    I’ve always been a loner so I haven’t shared my art with anybody, not out of any other reason than it not being an option, and it opened up a whole new mentality for me. It kind of simmered inside, it wasn’t like I ran right out and started collaborating with everybody, and then Guy Aitchison was also always involved in that kind of thing.

    Filip Leu and I talked about playing with different things and ideas ‘cos we were always drawing together. Filip, Titine and I were always on the same vein and we were on the music tour, Tattoo the Earth. I was one of the producers on it years ago. We brought tattoo artists out and dragged them around on a tour bus; it was really the first official music tour/tattoo tour, that had ever happened, and it was a bit problematic, but it gave me the opportunity to live on a bus with artists that I could pick myself. So it was like, oh cool, I get to hang with Filip and Titine, what a great opportunity!

    We were just in art mode the whole time we were hanging out; we were sitting around talking about playing around with a tattoo, doing something together.

    Honestly we had some venues that would not allow us to tattoo, liability issues, and fear, whatever. But because of the promotion as artists, we felt obligated; we wanted to show people what we were about artistically, and we decided we would put some tables against the wall, put some paper up, art supplies and started drawing together. Trying to have some fun together and make it a show.

    It led to us switching was so fun. Bernie Luther, Shawn Vasquez, were all doing this rotation, and I remember turning around and saying this to Fil, there had to be fifty or seventy five people just mesmerized by what we were doing.

    Slayer was playing behind them, and they had their backs to Slayer! Shit, y’’know? I couldn’t believe it, so that inspired me to kick it up a notch. We were all excited about it, the possibilities of collaborating.

Who was your first victim?

Ryan from Mudvayne was our first victim, he just let us go off! And we just doodled on him - art for the sake of art, set ourselves free, I guess!

    It was an awesome experience, so it pushed me to share with other friends. I’m kind of like a carnival guy, I have that blood in me, making a big show out of things I do. So here I am, doing a tour next year in arenas, and I’m like, “Wow I can put this on a stage and get other artists to get involved, it will be cool for the artists; it will be cool for the public”.

    So we did it, and it everyone loved it. It was awesome, the feeling of everyone watching you drawing, the hairs on the back of your neck standing up. Being nervous and excited at the same time. And being with your peers someone draws this nice face and you go and make it into a skull, and its ok, y’know? I just thought this is pretty powerful!

If you could collaborate with someone, say tomorrow, who would it be?

I would say Filip Leu, he is my hero, but asides from Filip there are so many artists I would love to play with.

    I tattooed a collaborative with Bob Tyrell and that was fun, because Bob is a bit slower than I am, so I napped through half of it. We had fun though, and Hernandez and I have talked about doing something tougher. I guess when guest artists come through and we have the opportunity to play on someone we try and hook it up.

Who do you respect outside the tattoo world?

I’ve been getting more and more into the whole; I refer to it on the whole as outsider art, lowbrow, I’m not much into categories y’know? I like outsider ‘cos I’ve always been one. Guys like Michael Hussar, are really right up my alley, beyond that I’m mostly a fan of the old masters, Da Vinci, Rembrandt...

What would you say is the best thing about being a tattooist?

Artistically it’s probably the ultimate ‘cos your canvas is something they are going to wear for the rest of their lives. Talk about validation! I mean it’s a really cool thing to have someone wait – not that I like to make people wait - but the fact that they are willing to wait on get your art on their body and they are willing to wear it forever, it s good thing.

    It should never be taken for granted, that is the most inspiring for me as a tattoo artist. It’s a great way to make a living wherever you go, travel, meet interesting people, art is a universal language, I feel more comfortable around a crowd of tattooed people than untattooed.

What’s an ideal client?

Tied to a chair with their head wrapped in duct tape? Unconscious!! I’m not that bad, maybe close...(Laughs)

What’s been a really bizarre tattoo request?

As in subject matter? Everything in my life seems to be bizarre! I have personally seen literally seen two dozen portraits of myself on other people. That’s weird.

Ok, that would be a trip?

Ok- but what is more bizarre is when they come to you asking you to do a portrait of you on them. And then on top of that, if you say no, they are offended, they don’t understand what’s it’s like for you, well at least me, obviously I’m an artist.

    I have my issues. I could not sit there and do a portrait on myself on somebody. In that vein the most bizarre thing was this guy wanted me to do a portrait of himself, done in tribal.

What? Oh my god!

Exactly, that is what I said! I’m not going to tattoo myself on you. And number two. HOW am I possibly going to possibly do a tribal tattoo that looked like me! And he got upset and he was like, sorry dude!

    But lots of crazy experiences though, I had one guy, just to get in my chair, offered to let me chop off his pinky toe with a cleaver. I planned on doing it, and I talked to my lawyer about doing it, and he said the only way I’m going to let you do that is if you do it in Costa Rica. So I ended up not doing it ‘cos obviously the legal implications, if it was someone I knew and it was safe I would have!

    Things like that happen to me all the time. He said, “My toes don’t feel like they are mine”.  I’m like; I can’t relate to that but cool and get me the cleaver I’ll help you out! I have a jar with your name on it!

Was he your most memorable client, or have you had other calamities?

I would suffice it say, probably the weirdest, most memorable pairs of clients that don’t know each other that I have ever had, was about six or eight years ago. I had this guy come in and get a tattoo; he was really weird and really quiet, somewhat deviant in nature. And I was convinced that this guy was a serial killer, and I get a lot of people like that with the nature of the tattoos I do, the weird, dark art.

    This guy, I knew something was up with him. And at the end he gave me a tip, and it was a little velvet bag.  And I opened up the bag and it had a small crystal skull in it. And I was like, “Cool!” it was a cool detailed little piece.

    And I remember distinctly calling it Ambrosnia. And that’s cool, I have no idea what Ambrosnia is, and put it on my shelf. Couple years ago, I had this guy, a crazy dude, he escaped from a mental health clinic from the West coast and hitch hiked across the country to meet me because he had met me in an another dimension.

Oh. My. God!

One of sixteen other dimensions exactly. He needed to meet me here, and get a tattoo from me. I interviewed him, and I’m always with my camera and I had my manager at the time interview him. And he started talking about a crystal that was manufactured by the government, that came in the shape of a skull and it was a mind control experiment that would basically drive anyone who had one insane.

    There were only 16 of them on the world and I had one of them, and he called it Ambrosnia. And these two people in no possible way knew each other. I had one crazy guy give me Ambrosnia and five years later I knew that I had it, and I am insane, putting 3 and 3 together, I am kind of wierded out by the whole thing.

Do you still have it?

Yeah! That is probably my long-term weirdest tattoo experience.

And then with your travels where was a place that stands out as a good experience?

It’s like horror movies, each of them has their own flavour, and there is no one. I’ve always loved Amsterdam, Italy, Germany, Spain, China, Japan, Hawaii, all these places that are so unique to them, I don’t know what the best one is. The only place left to go is Australia and New Zealand and I’m hoping to do that in the next year. Standing on the wall at the great wall in China was pretty badass.

    Sitting in a coffee shop in Amsterdam is cool. I had an orang-utan at a zoo in Barcelona that was in love with me, and single me out year after year and start kissing me year after year...

How about conventions?

I go visit Lal Hardy when I go to London, I’m limiting my touring to one show every couple of months, this year I’m thinking of hitting a couple of key shows around the world, maybe do eight or ten shows.

    I would like to go to Australia; it would be nice to see the outback before I croak! And New Zealand as well. Maybe it’s presumptuous for me to say it, but the Maoris that I’ve met have always shown me mad respect since I’ve gotten my face tattoos. It’s this weird connection ‘cos I’m not one of those people getting a Maori tattoo on my face. I have my own thing going on, and the art on my face is done for a lot of the same reasons, I think we kind of relate to each other on that level, so I’m kind of anxious to go to new Zealand and get to know more people over there, and the people I know down there are kind of cool.

How do you feel about the NYC tattoo scene in general, or are you removed from that and in some kind of autonomous bubble?

To be honest with you, I don’t go out that much, I’m kind of a shut in, and I stay home, paint and watch horror movies so I’m not in touch with any of the scene.

    So I guess I’ve become a bit of a mystery to a lot of people, which opens up a lot in the rumour mill. I’m probably the king of the rumour mill, I’ve heard everything from being a gay heroin addict – it’s funny, I’ve gotta be the fattest heroin addict I’ve ever met!

    It’s funny, and then I’ve quit tattooing, ‘cos I haven’t been sending my work into magazines for a while. It’s hard for me to gauge anything that is going on in NYC ‘cos my studio – it’s in New York, but if you are in here for any extended period of time, you don’t know where you are.

Well it’s kind of more exclusive.

Since I’ve moved up here, people think of it as an unattainable, exclusive place which isn’t the case at all, I just moved here ‘cos I had the opportunity to have a lot more space to do crazy things with. It’s not about trying to separate myself from anybody. NY is strange in that there isn’t a lot of family unity, but actually I’m guiltier of that than anyone else.

With this actual space how long did it take to design, and develop, it’s pretty amazing!

I work pretty fast, my crew at the time pretty much cracked an iron whip and hammered through it. I couldn’t open for business until it was ready. I’m all about the details, so I hashed through the place one step at a time, the decoration, demolition, and things like that. The whole place, I think took about two, two and a half months in total.

What do you listen to you when you tattoo?

In the daytime I listen to more aggressive stuff, but at night, I tend to go towards mellow, more chilled out, creepy soundscapes and atmospheres. I pretty much like anything that has a dark vibe to it, and that can range from black metal to dark ambient, to as far as bands like Deadbolt, which is Voodoo-Billee, and Tigerlillies, which is this crazy Berlin avant-garde, cabaret that has great lyrics. I like things that are twisted in some way or has a real dark feel to it. There is no one specific genre. Although when I am creating I like things you can get lost in, and that is usually stuff that doesn’t have any real words to listen to; just soundscapes.

What are your future plans?

I’m trying to get my hooks in the upcoming settlement on the moon; I figure it needs a tattoo studio.

    And more painting time, I want to develop my paint. Cultivate that as much as I can, tattooing I think I want to go back to a balance of tattooing and staying at home.

Anything to plug?

The Last Rites gallery is now doing shows every month and a half. I am currently working hard to put together shows from the heavy hitters of the outside art world.

So you co-curate everything?

I’m the owner, so I have my own input, but, she is a pro, and I put my faith in her ability to take care of all the nuances of curating. I am definitely involved, but the day to day stuff, I don’t have as much time for. I couldn’t do it without her, she is on the right wave for what I want to do, I want to keep a dark vibe to the gallery, and showcase a lot of art that is inaccessible to a lot of people. The outsider art genre is gaining a lot of momentum, and is looking to be the next art movement...and I like to have my finger on the pulse.

OK I think that’s it but I have to ask you, what your favourite horror film is!

Oh it’s like flavours of ice cream! Um,...ah... I really like French horror, Italian horror, always been a fan of the English horror.... right now my movie of the month is called Inside, and it’s the unrated version.


Interview: Maki - Photography: Nevile Elder & Paul Booth


Skin Deep 173 1 June 2009 173