Scott Campbell - NY King

Published: 01 November, 2008 - Featured in Skin Deep 166, November, 2008

Scott Campbell is renowned for his clean tattoos that have a timeless aesthetic and are executed with technical perfection. His lettering, ornamental work and Dia de los Muertos motifs are simply exquisite. This Brooklyn shop stands out for its chic boutique atmosphere, so much so that the space looks like a Haute Couture fitting room.

Scott Campbell has a brilliant eye for design, and has a fantastic portfolio of products ranging from Mac laptop etchings to furniture; with Saved, Campbell has fully explored the potential of tattoo art in contemporary culture, and coupled with his laid back attitude, it's no wonder that Campbell has such a sought after clientele list of collectors through to celebrities.

Can you tell us about your tattooing history?
I started tattooing in San Francisco about ten years ago. All I wanted to do was draw pictures all day, and my landlord buggered me for money, so I had to figure out a way to draw pictures all day and keep my landlord satisfied!

So, you are also known for your fantastic design work…did that come after tattooing?
Yeah for sure, tattooing definitely turned me into more of a disciplined artist and illustrator. Before I started tattooing, I started drawing, and then I would get dissatisfied and then throw it away, and start maybe twenty drawings and never really finish anything. When I started tattooing, you can't just stop a tattoo halfway through when you get a different idea; I had attention span problems before I started tattooing. Once I started tattooing, you have someone sitting there waiting for you to do it, so you can't start it and then move onto something else, you have to finish it and see it through and make it look good, so tattooing really helped me, confidence-wise, with my artwork.

With your design clients, do they want something influenced by tattoo culture?
In the beginning, I guess I got a foothold in the design world just because tattoos are a much stronger presence in the mainstream media now, and people came to me looking for tattoo-style illustration, but now it's a little bit of everything. It's definitely broadened out; I don't want to be the tattoo guy in the art world.

What is the shop concept of Saved?
We are probably the most private studio…you can walk by a hundred times and not know we are here, it’s appointment-only, a little more exclusive clientele.

What celebrity clientele have you seen here?
Marc Jacobs gets tattooed here a lot, Helena Christiansen, Josh Hartnett, Penelope Cruise, Heath Ledger got all his tattoos here.

How many artists do you have here?
Nine, most of them I have worked with before, or know of their work from around town. Obviously we have to maintain a certain calibre of artist to make sure the quality of the product that walks out of here, but also these are good people. You can be the best tattoo artist in the world, but if you aren't good for moral and mental environment…I don't know, it’s…

No, I totally understand, from a client perspective, I don't want to get tattooed by an asshole either!
Yeah, well it’s more like it's the experience. It's fine if it looks good and it's technically perfect, but it's a souvenir from that moment, and you don't want to look down at it and go, 'Oh man, that was a terrible day!' You want to be like, "Fuck! That was so much fun!"

Who do you respect in terms of tattooing mentors?
My favourite tattoo artists don't tattoo anymore…like Dan Higgs and Chris Conn. Higgs is probably my tattoo artist, and then kids like Grime, Marcus Pacheco, all the SF kids…Jeff Raiser, the usual roster, the pioneers, but Dan Higgs is my favourite. It’s raw, sincere, there is no icing on it, there is no sugar coating, and they’re very efficient designs, just the information.

What to you is the essence of great tattoo work?
There’s a lot of things…it’s important for it have longevity, for it to look good the day you get it, and y’know, twenty years from now when it's a weird silhouette on your arm, it’s gotta be a nice looking silhouette. There are always the tattoos that have stories behind them that have more depth than purely aesthetic; it's nice when there is a little heart in there, some soul.

How would describe the NY tattoo scene?
It's great. I started tattooing in California, where all the little shops, there is kind of like, hmm…there was more rivalry if you worked in one shop; you couldn't really hang with the guys from the other shop, whereas in NY it's really open, which is nice. You go out to dinner, and there is you, and then there are artists from four different shops hanging out together. No one even thinks to be competitive or closed - it's really open, which I like. I think that helps everybody, in the sharing of information and inspiration.

What's the most ridiculous request you have HAD?
That's hard to say; ridiculous can go in so many different directions. There was this one time in SF, and I argued with this 19-year-old girl for about an hour - I listened to her try and convince me that I should try and tattoo the Wu Tang symbol on her cheek! Of course I said, “No, there is no way I'm going to do that!”

What is a good client to you- i.e. what should people be doing when they get a tattoo by you?
Someone that comes in and tells me what they want, but not how they want it, like they come in with adjectives, and don't try to art direct. They like the stuff that I have done before and have faith in my ability. A lot of the time if the person doesn't have a lot of tattoos, they might get anxious and try and be really controlling about what the design is. They have this picture in their head, and they are trying to get me to draw the picture that is in their head which is never going to happen, so rather than the final result being my clear concise vision of what is should be, it’s like a melding of both of them, which a lot of the time doesn't really work as well, I guess. It’s usually better with any tattoo artist to have faith in their abilities and trust their judgment.

In regards to the tattoos going mainstream, which side of the argument do you sit on?
There is a certain romance that is lost, a certain kind of old school sentiment that gets lost with so much exposure, but at the same time, educating people about tattoos isn't a bad thing, because it raises the standard of tattooing. If there are four reality shows that have people getting tattoo on TV, I would kind of hope that people appreciate the craftsmanship of a tattoo, and they wouldn't go to a shop in the back of a sunglasses hut. They are at least aware there is a better option. Educating the customer isn't a bad thing. I hope they are a little more respectful of tattoo artists.

What do you do to chill out and get inspired?
I get inspiration from anywhere from Basquiat to Slayer album covers, it’s the whole spectrum; I try not to get stuck in one genre ‘cause there is so much out there. I guess it’s hard to look at my work objectively but antique ornament, repeated patterns and textures. Anything really…

What have been the biggest job perks?
I guess the freedom that allows for travelling, it's really easy to travel and go somewhere and make cash and live and really experience the city. If you go to Paris as a tourist, you see the Eiffel tower and get some postcards and go home, say that you've seen Paris, but if you go and sit in a tattoo shop for a month, and you have your hands on Parisian people, it's such an intimate experience. You really get a sense of the culture when you travel and do tattoos. The freedom to travel, all over Europe, France, Spain, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo.


Interview: Maki Photography: Neville Elder


Skin Deep 166 1 November 2008 166