Jesse Smith - Loose Screw Tattoo

Published: 14 November, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 205, November, 2011

There are some tattoo artists that other artists look up to, but there is also a breed above this. The skin illustrators who are so good at what they do, they are influencing the here and now in more ways than they can ever imagine. I would call Jesse Smith a living legend, but he would probably be embarrassed and that wouldn’t suit him at all…

Over the beautiful August days that we shall call Tattoo Jam 2011 (because that’s what it was!), I knew I was going to be busy. Busy, as we will soon discover, is a relative term. To redefine this introduction, I was busy; Jesse Smith was rocked off his feet as my old man used to say. The last place I ever thought I’d find myself doing some preliminary work for this feature was on a chair in a hotel lobby with a loaf of bread on the floor between us.

Where we drunk? We might have had a few, but sometimes it’s only under those circumstances that both parties can get away with dispensing preliminaries and cutting to the chase. In this case… art. Not tattoo art – not yet anyway – but art that we had both accidentally discovered on our individual tours of being alive in the age of the internet.

All of that aside, there are numerous superficial interviews with Jesse in other magazines and online – he’s not hard to find these days, or at least not in print. Trying to find him in the real world is like looking for a needle in a haystack. I’m not even sure he knows where he is from one moment to the next. What I want to try and dig up is how does an artist get to this place? Every week, Jesse’s name crops up in conversation. From the client side, there appear to be hundreds desperate for a piece of original art from him. From the artist side, many are curious as to how he has figured out how to make this unique style work for him. Not that anybody wants to copy him per se, more that they want to know how to copy his methods for taking otherwise underground art so handily to the masses.

So to say that Jesse’s style could be defined as cartoon-like is somewhat obvious and pointless, but where does that train of thought and the sequence of events stem from? I suggest a thorough grounding in exposure to Disney and Warner Brothers perhaps – maybe even the golden age of animation gods such as Tex Avery and Walter Lantz. I even go so far out on a limb as to suggest some of the psyche behind his work comes from our old friend, Mad magazine, but I am wrong… well, a little wrong. What I didn’t bank on was the generation gap. It’s influence by default.

“Most of what I do has not been directly influenced by those particular artists or companies, however I’m sure a lot of the artists that I find influential have been inspired by them in one way or another. I do remember really enjoying MAD magazine though. I think I copied a couple ‘Spy vs. Spy’ strips at some point. The rest of the artwork in there was way over my head!

“I didn’t really start looking and studying Disney until they teamed up with Pixar. I remember buying the Finding Nemo concept art book and looking at it over and over before drawing up an underwater scene. The things that I think helped me build a foundation for my art when I was growing up were, Thrasher magazine, Garbage Pail Kids, Graffiti, M.C. Escher and ‘Dungeon and Dragon’ character guides, though I’m kinda embarrassed about that one! I used to copy tons of that stuff.”

There’s a key word in that response – foundation. Something a lot of otherwise very talented people don’t have enough of. The secret of doing anything original in this world is to take your influences from outside of the world you work in – otherwise, as we have seen time and again, all that happens is a reworking of something that came before. But where does this foundation lead Jesse to next? Is he tempted to (or ever been approached) to transfer his work to another medium, maybe animation for TV and other similar outlets?

“I’d love to see my characters in motion, however I’ve been too overwhelmed to go and seek out that particular outlet. I’ve been approached a couple times by a guy who puts together pilots for Pixar, but nothing has come of it yet. He keeps talking about getting tattooed by me, but I think he’s too busy to actually do what is necessary to make it happen.
“There are always things like action figures to consider and I’m always down to try something new. Unfortunately the more demand there is for my tattoos, the harder it is for me to rationalize spending time on anything else. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before I start pushing into a new direction, but I still have a lot of things I want to accomplish as a tattoo artist.”

To give us some idea on Jesse the man, rather than Jesse the artist, from an artistic point of view, it strikes me that to fully succeed in the art world, you need at least a little support and encouragement from your family and friends. I wonder if his raw talent was encouraged or came to life as a means of rebellion.

“My parents were always very supportive of my art, but they were always concerned that I wouldn’t be able to make a living doing it, so they told me to think of a backup plan. My backup plan, as of middle school, was to become a marine biologist. I really enjoyed marine life and spent a lot of time reading up on fish, sharks and various other types of aquatic wildlife. It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized that a marine biologist doesn’t really dabble in the animal side of the ocean. Luckily I didn’t choose that route because I would have been really disappointed!” he says with a smile.

Ah, the folly of youth. We’ve all been there. But back in the ‘grown-up’ world, so many up and coming artists I speak to see Jesse’s career as being the pinnacle of where they want to be, both technically and from the point of having developed their own definitive style, but how does he see it? What’s at the other end of that ladder? Does he still think in those terms about contemporaries who have that kind of influence on him – and if so, is it important that person be inside or outside of the art. I guess one way keeps it ‘true’, but the other way expands the gene pool.

“I am still heavily influenced by a ton of artists in tattooing. There are so many super talented artists in this industry; Shige, Jeff Gogue, Nikko Hurtado, Uncle Allan, Jason Stephan, Rachi Brains, Adam Barton, Turk, Steve Moore, Jeff Ensminger, Dan Hazelton, Electric Pick, Guy Aitchison, Jime Litwalk, Jimmy Lajnen, Tony Ciavarro, xEmilx, Tanane Whitfield, Lars Uwe, Markus Lehnard, Nick Baxter, Mike Devries, Scotty Munster, Scott Olive, Russ Abbott, Gunnar, Adam Hawthorn, Timmy B… shall I go on?

“You know, it seems like there’re awesome artists popping up all over the place these days. With that said, I also think it is very important that we all step outside of the tattoo world for inspiration. There is so much art out there that needs to be seen.”

I thought we were going to have a concussion for a second there as Jesse rattled off that list of artists without hardly so much as a pause. It’s obviously important for him to continue pushing buttons and boundaries though. Is he ever happy with his achievements or – as I rather suspect – is he hardest of all on himself with very little time to kick back and coast, even for five minutes?

“I always want to be pushing the boundaries. That’s the part about producing art that entertains me the most.

“I do have difficulties being 100 per cent satisfied by my work, especially with the larger pieces. By the time I actually complete a large piece, they’re usually a year or two behind my current artistic capabilities.

“I’m sure some people would be comfortable sitting back and coasting a little, but unfortunately, I can’t. I definitely have some sort of obsessive issue that I can’t seem to tame. It keeps me from ever feeling comfortable; I always feel as though I need to be pushing forward. I can’t relax until everything is done. I’m afraid that one day I’m gonna look back and realise that life just flew by because I was working so much. I envy people who are content.”

Which is probably something you never thought you’d hear, isn’t it. Is this obsessiveness planned? What am I getting at here? I’m trying to figure out if this drive to continually better yourself is a planned chain of events or a consequence of saying yes to as many things as possible, and finding things happening to you by proxy.

“Prior to being completely booked with tattoos, I could barely see a month or two in front of me. At that point in my career, I would say yes to pretty much anything. If someone invited me to do a guest spot, convention, or art show, I’d do it. My workload was tolerable back then.

“Then I got fully booked, people started inviting me to do guest spots, conventions and art shows regularly and the next thing I knew, I had the next year of my life already planned out! Good opportunities would pop up, but I couldn’t do anything with them because I already had prior commitments. I ran my business like that for almost five years.

“Just recently I decided to change stuff up a bit. I told Krissy, my assistant, that I was getting really overwhelmed and she suggested that I let her act as a buffer for me. She would only present new opportunities to me when I had cleared my plate which keeps me from seeing too far ahead. I’m still in the process of finishing up prior commitments, but I can already feel the difference.”

This is where I should be writing something like ‘our time is growing to a close’, but that’s not true. The truth of the matter is, the sun is making too valiant an attempt at coming up and both of us have to work the Sunday of Tattoo Jam tomorrow. Not impossible, but not good all the same! While we wait for our keys, I ask Jesse about Loose Screw and how all the cogs fit together. It looks like a supremely well oiled machine from the outside that’s for sure.

“I’ve always wanted to open my own shop. I’ve worked in some great shops, but I never actually felt at home at any of them. There always seemed to be something missing. Opening Loose Screw gave me the opportunity to create a space that had everything I felt a studio needs in order to create a great tattoo, and being that it’s mine I can do pretty much whatever I want with it. At other studios I could only suggest ideas, but at this studio I can make them happen.  

“When I first decided to open a shop, my plans were to open a private studio with a station for rotating guest artists, but as the idea of a opening a tattoo shop grew closer, artists started falling out of the woodwork; my best friend, Jason Stephan, decided he was moving to Richmond from Florida; Bexx was feeling stagnant at her current shop and was showing interest in working with me; and my college buddy, Daniel, was looking for a place to re-locate to from Northern Virginia.  

“I started to realise that this was a great opportunity to open something bigger than just a private studio. Although it seems as though all these artists chose to work with me, if given the chance to pick anyone else other than them, I wouldn’t have.  They really are some of my favorite people/ artists. Jason Stephan and I have been best friends for almost a decade now, Bexx and I were painting and drawing partners for almost two years and Daniel and I shared numerous classes together in college. There aren’t too many other artists out there that I know as well as I know these guys.

“My long term goal is to have a fully functional art gallery (Glitch Gallery), showcasing some of the best artists in the world, a retail store that sells ‘niche’ art prints, books, T-shirts and anything else art related that you can’t get at a normal art store. And, of course, a tattoo studio with some of the best artists in the world, not only working here full-time, but guest spotting on a regular basis. I just want to create a place where everyone can go and be involved in some great art.”

And that dear readers, is as good as it gets at five o’clock in the morning. Jesse Smith. The interview may be over but I think this journey has only just begun.

M.C. Escher

Maurits Cornelis Escher (17 June 1898 - 27 March 1972), usually referred to as M. C. Escher was a Dutch graphic artist. He was a sickly child, and was placed in a special school at the age of seven and failed the second grade. Though he excelled at drawing, his grades were generally poor. He also took carpentry and piano lessons until he was 13 years old. In 1919, Escher attended the Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts. He briefly studied architecture, but he failed a number of subjects (partly due to a persistent skin infection) and switched to decorative arts.

He worked primarily in the media of lithographs and woodcuts, though the few mezzotints he made are considered to be masterpieces of the technique. In his graphic art, he portrayed mathematical relationships among shapes, figures and space. Additionally, he explored interlocking figures using black and white to enhance different dimensions. Integrated into his prints were mirror images of cones, spheres, cubes, rings and spirals.

Although Escher did not have mathematical training – his understanding of mathematics was largely visual and intuitive – Escher’s work had a strong mathematical component, and more than a few of the worlds which he drew are built around impossible objects such as the Necker cube and the Penrose triangle. Many of Escher’s works employed repeated tilings called tessellations. Escher’s artwork is especially well liked by mathematicians and scientists, who enjoy his use of polyhedra and geometric distortions. For example, in Gravity, multi-colored turtles poke their heads out of a stellated dodecahedron.

Around 1956, Escher explored the concept of representing infinity on a two-dimensional plane. Discussions with Canadian mathematician H.S.M. Coxeter inspired Escher’s interest in hyperbolic tessellations, which are regular tilings of the hyperbolic plane. Escher’s wood engravings ‘Circle Limit I-IV’ demonstrate this concept. In 1995, Coxeter published his finding that these works were extraordinarily accurate: “Escher got it absolutely right to the millimetre.”

One of his most notable works is the piece ‘Metamorphosis III’, which is wide enough to cover all the walls in a room, and then loop back onto itself. After 1953, Escher became a lecturer at many organisations. A planned series of lectures in North America in 1962 was cancelled due to an illness, but the illustrations and text for the lectures, written out in full by Escher, were later published as part of the book Escher on Escher. In July 1969 he finished his last work, a woodcut called ‘Snakes’, in which snakes wind through a pattern of linked rings which fade to infinity toward both the centre and the edge of a circle.

Loose Screw Tattoo

3313A W.Cary St
VA 23221


Text: Sion Smith; Photography: Jesse Smith