Tim Kern

Published: 01 September, 2008 - Featured in Skin Deep 164, September, 2008

Tim Kern is an artist known for his realistic horror tattoos, and macabre designs - in his words, “The more fucked up the better”. One of the most popular artists of the New York tattooing scene and formerly of the legendary shop Last Rites, he now has his own shop, Tribulation, in Manhattan’s East Village which will no doubt be an instant success with its A-class line up of talent.

We catch up with him in his Brooklyn home; a Bates Motel-style abode on a leafy street in Brooklyn, in between a hectic schedule. Seemingly constantly on the road, it was a pleasure to interview the maestro with an invariable ability to execute stunning pieces with absolutely breathtaking detail and skill, although at the end of the day, he says his favourite tattoos are those that “seem like a ridiculous idea, but will look good when tattooed!”

What was your first recollection of seeing a tattoo?
Ah shit, I hate questions like this!

OK then, what’s the weirdest thing anyone has asked you to tattoo?
Probably the strangest thing I’ve been asked to do was to tattoo someone’s entire cock and balls with biomechanical designs...I didn’t end up doing it though! One of the strangest tattoos I’ve ever done, however, was a lion in a tuxedo, playing a piano with a bird holding a laurel leaf on his shoulder, and the whole thing on top of a fancy marble column...4” X 4”. That one was truly 50 pounds of shit in a 5 pound bag...I think I have a picture of it somewhere still.

What’s your favourite tattoo you’ve done?
I don’t really have one favourite tattoo, but I really like doing horror imagery/realism...I enjoy most things that I don’t get asked for a lot. I also like doing things, which really seem like ridiculous ideas at first, but will look good when tattooed - the more fucked up the idea, the better.

And that someone else has done?
There are so many good artists out there it’s hard to narrow it down. I really like Robert Hernandez’ work and have a lot of tattoos from him. Also, Nikko Hurtado in California has been doing really amazing work. I could go on and on with names, but I’m afraid you probably don’t have enough space.

What designs are popular now?
I can’t think of any specific designs that are popular, but I frequently get asked for the same kinds of things over and over, like the bloody roses, or torn flesh designs, though I do make an effort to make each one unique.

Is there anything that’s taboo (tattoos on face, certain symbols)?
Yeah, I don’t do things that go against my personal ethics, like racist stuff - it just doesn’t do it for me. If someone asks for tattoos on their hands and they have no other visible tattoos, I try and talk them out of it as well. I don’t want to be responsible for someone becoming instantaneously unemployable without them knowing what they’re getting into.

What single piece of advice would you offer to anyone getting a tattoo?
Make sure you look at the artist’s portfolio, and make sure you are comfortable with them as a person too. You are potentially going to be spending a lot of time with them, depending on what you’re getting. It would suck if your artist was an ass hat, and you had to be reminded of it every time you look at your tattoo. A person’s artwork might be fantastic, but I wouldn’t get tattooed by someone I don’t like as a person as well.

What made you want to start tattooing?
I just knew that I wanted to do something art-related, like illustration or graphic design, or something. I was hanging out with some tattoo artists from the town where I went to school, and they encouraged me to learn. My brother had started learning how to tattoo on his own around that time, and I thought “Well, maybe I should, sounds like a fun way to make a living.”  I never looked back.

So your brother started how far before you?
Oh, he started six or eight months before me. He was teaching himself out of his kitchen basically - he had a lot of great people giving him advice and stuff. And once I stated learning, I shared information with him too.

How about you?
I learned to tattoo by a guy who went by the name of  “Spider”, in Columbia, Missouri. He was a Navajo punk rocker.  He was really cool and I’m grateful for the chance he gave me - he taught me to like Jägermeister early on as part of my apprenticeship as well, ha, ha!

Who did you look up to when you were starting?
Probably the big list of people I really admired when I first learned how to tattoo isn’t too different from who I’m into now... Guy Aitchison, Paul Booth, Marcus Pacheco, Aaron Cain. Basically, all the people whose work I saw that were doing something really different - stuff outside of what your perception of what a typical tattoo was. I saw Robert Hernandez’ work pretty early on, when he was first breaking through with his style. Timothy Hoyer did some pretty cool stuff, Mike Ledger too. All these guys were filling up the early issues of Skin Art and International Tattoo Art with amazing stuff.

When did you start getting your own style?
I don’t know! People tell me all the time that they want something in my style, but it’s really just how I draw. Over the years, it became easier making tattoos that look how I would paint them or draw them, just out of my head. Also, there were more clients that were willing to experiment with something different, that was more ‘me’.

When was this?
I would say that I was tattooing about 6 years before I was doing stuff that I really liked to do. I felt pretty confident about doing tattoos after about 4 years, but then I started doing stuff that was more individual after 5 or 6 years.

So what was the first shop you were working out of?
A place called Dreamcatcher Studios, in Columbia, Missouri; I was there for 3 years during my apprenticeship. After that I moved to Chicago, and worked with my brother at Milio’s, which is a hair salon. We had a tattoo area in the back of the salon. Then we opened up our own place. We bought No Hope, No Fear in Chicago from David Kotker, who had moved to Amsterdam, and that became our shop.

So did you go through a classic apprenticeship?
I did. Fairly traditional; I mean, he didn’t make me scrub the floor with a toothbrush or anything, but I learnt how to make needles, scrub tubes and do everything the way he wanted it done. Over time, I modified what I learned in a way I felt worked better for me. But I did a pretty traditional apprenticeship.

What artists do you like?
I’m a big fan of Trevor Brown, Mark Ryden, Sas Christian, Alex Grey, Lori Earley, Travis Louie, Audrey Kawasaki.... there’s a bunch of artists whose work I follow.

With your clients, what artist do they ask you to replicate the most?
Mark Ryden. I’ve had people say they want to get Trevor Brown tattoos, but I’ve never done one. I’ve been working on a sleeve based on two pieces by the Stuntkid. I’ve done a few pieces based on Gustave Dore, and one recently based on Albrecht Schenck’s “Anguish”.

What’s an ideal client?
I like clients that have a good idea of the direction they want to go in, but are open to new ideas. I don’t really like so much when someone says ‘Do whatever you want’ because if I don’t really know the person, and I do whatever I want, they might not be into it... I tend to draw pretty fucked up stuff when people give me free reign.

How many Suicide Girls have you tattooed?
24 or 25 of them. I was an anonymous member for a while, then my friend Mike said, ‘You should get a public profile, you can make friends, find people to hang out with in NY’, so I did. I started posting my tattoo work on there, and naturally got to know some of the members and the Girls. Twwly and Fractal are my best friends now, and they were my first favourite girls on there. I love getting to tattoo them and hang out. They’re really great.

How about memorable clients?
I tattooed Dicky Barret from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Joey Z from Life of Agony back in my early days, so that was kind of fun. Joey came directly to the shop after being on stage, and I worked on him ‘til 8 in the morning! Most recently, I tattooed Kid Yamamoto, a mixed martial arts Champion in Japan. In Japan, the toughest guys will wear flowers, because they are tough enough that they can. Kid was really cool, super nice guy, but I wouldn’t want to get hit by him. Ever. I watched some of his fights and they are brutal. I wouldn’t want to piss him off.

Where do you like to go guest spotting?
I don’t know; I really like going to Japan. As for specific shops I enjoyed working at Yellow Blaze with Shige. He’s very inspiring. I also really enjoy working at Tokyo Hardcore Tattoo; they’re great guys, and the neighbourhood (Koenji) is cool, it’s like a working class punk rock hangout. Always fun stuff to do.

Favourite motifs?
I like doing things that I don’t do all the time. I like to change it up a little bit. I get really excited when people ask me for things I haven’t done in a year or two. I don’t do a whole lot of realistic tattoos, portraits and stuff like that, so I enjoy it quite a bit. I would like to do something really large scale, like someone’s entire bodysuit as one design, but I also like to do little tattoos sometimes since most of my work is half sleeves or sleeves, things like that.

Is there trend towards bigger though?
Um, maybe for more serious tattoo clients I think it is. We kind of encourage that they try not to squeeze too much into a little space, so it looks better on the body. It’s more important that the design flows with the body part that it’s on. When I was in Japan, I did a lot of smaller work that I finished in one day. It was refreshing for me, since a lot of the pieces I do here I don’t finish for a year, sometimes more.

What kind of stuff were you doing over there?
Bigheaded girls, dolls and skulls, that’s mostly what I was asked for. When I was at Yellow Blaze, I got a list of what the clients wanted, and it was pretty much “doll, skull, doll, skull, whatever you want... Buddha”. The people there are pretty open to what they get actually. It seems more important that they are getting something from that specific artist, whatever he feels like doing.

What would you tattoo on me?
Sushi. I’ve tattooed sushi before, it’s kind of fun.

What do you do to chill out?
I mostly watch movies and draw. Or just watch movies if I’m tired. I’m pretty chilled, I don’t go out much. I don’t drink anymore, so the bar scene kind of irritates me. I would much rather spending an evening relaxing at home, and hanging out with friends.

What’s a good tattoo to you?
Something with a good concept, and good flow. Not too small.

What’s the best thing about being a tattoo artist?
I get to meet lots of people, but I get to deal with them on a one-to one-basis. I often become good friends with a lot of my clients, since I spend a lot of time with them. I love being able to travel and see places that I probably wouldn’t have had the chance otherwise to go see. Through tattooing I’ve made friends all over the world. I’ve been to only a few different countries, mostly Japan, England, Italy and Canada, but I plan to visit a lot more - I only started travelling internationally in the last 3 years or so.

So you are AWOL for how long?
I can’t seem to stay home very much. In the next few months I’m going to Canada, Ohio, California, Georgia, Paris, London, Barcelona, St. Louis and then back to Tokyo. So I’m kind of all over the place, but hopefully it will become a bit less frequent since we’ve opened our shop. We didn’t get to travel this much when we were at Last Rites, so we are travelling a lot more now that we are able.
We have this great job where you see the world, so you have to take advantage of it. Besides, if I’m away enough, I really like coming back home...

Are you aware of what’s going on in the NY tattoo scene?
There are some really good artists in NYC. It’s a huge city so you kind of expect that. Chris O’Donnell, Troy Denning, The guys at East Side Ink, and of course the guys I work with, Dan Marshall and Liorcifer. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of really bad ones in the city too. You kind of have to do your research to find the right artist...

What’s the biggest success of your career?
I kind of see where life takes me. Moving to NY and working at Last Rites did a lot for my career; it exposed me to a lot more people working for Paul Booth. I’m not really a publicity hound though. I do a lot of conventions, but I’m really lazy about sending photos to magazines; I’m too disorganised in the head to do that every month, but for some reason people are aware of my work, so that’s kind of gratifying. As far success goes, I just work hard, and I’m glad people like my stuff. That’s success to me.

Asides from NY where else can you recommend in America?
San Francisco has a really amazing tattoo scene, Chicago does as well, I’d like to say LA, but I can only think of a couple of artists there that are really, really good. SF is teeming with them. Also Portland, Oregon; my brother James works there. Seattle also has a good tattoo scene.

What do you listen to when tattooing?
It really ranges according to my mood- sometimes I’ll listen to Johnny Cash, sometimes death metal or Japanese punk rock. Even Ice-T!

How do you feel about tattooing going mainstream?
As far as things going mainstream, I don’t think tattooing will go THAT mainstream. There are just far too many fundamentalist Christians out there who are against it. I think it’s good that the public has a bit more education about tattoos, even though it takes a little bit of the mystery away from it. With some education they don’t fear it, they don’t think every tattooed person is a criminal. I think it’s good for the public to see that “normal” people get tattooed. But I think a lot of tattoo artists enjoy the outlaw status of it, and will fight the mainstreaming every inch of the way.

Future goals?
I just want to keep doing what I’m doing; tattooing, making artwork...I’d like to do more painting, and make the best of the life I have.

Oh yeah, I worked on a movie last summer called “Synecdoche, New York”, which was directed by Charlie Kaufman. I designed and helped paint a pretty extensive fake tattoo; a full body design, as well as another back piece design. They have a small but important role in the movie, which is supposed to come out in the US in October. It was a pretty awesome experience and I’d love to do it again. The best part for me was getting a tattoo from Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays one of the characters in the film. I’ll never forget it.


Text: Maki - Photography: Neville Elder


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