Luminous Beings Are We... - Josh Bodwell

Published: 09 December, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 206, December, 2011

Poor Josh Bodwell looks bleary eyed. All around him day two of Tattoo Jam is getting cranked up, but his body is still somewhere back in the US. No, we’re not getting all metaphysical – he’s been travelling for 24 hours and his body clock is all over the place.

But he’s ready for a day at the convention, right? “Sure,” he chuckles from underneath his hat. “It’s taken me a little bit to get my head on straight, but once I acclimate I’ll be alright.” Do we need to set up a coffee drip to help him prepare? “You know what, I think sometimes I don’t prepare enough! My daily warm up at the studio is usually having a laugh with the guys before we start. But here at the show it’s all about speaking to people, trying to get my head in the game.” Well, we can help with that. Let’s talk…

The studio in question is Funhouse Tattooing in Tannersville, Pennsylvania, about 90 minutes west of New York city, where he’s worked alongside owner Mike Ruocco for the last ten years. It’s a rural setting that still attracts plenty of clients from the Big Apple and New Jersey, says Josh, “I think our store is less of a street shop and more a destination shop. It’s the place where I learned and I’ve been there ever since. I think that’s to my advantage because I’ve built up a core of people, I have clients who are like lifers, you know?”

In this context, ‘lifers’ is more about loyalty than in the Shawshank Redemption sense, and having a roster of returning clients is important to Josh. “You’re creating art on people forever, you know, and it’s very personal,” he says. “I think sometimes artists lose a little of that, the person is just a canvas and that’s as far as it goes. But I really do like having clients who are friends, who I see through different stages of their life.” That might mean a tattoo for their wedding, then later on to celebrate their first child – it’s very much an ongoing thing, “and for me that’s the joy of it.

“I do see people getting really wrapped up in their work – and they should be, we’re artists after all, and we’re trying to do the best work we possibly can. But people are going to carry this around for the rest of their lives, you know, and I dig that.”

Evolving ink

Of course, we’ve all got a finite amount of skin, so ‘regulars’ in the tattoo world means something different to those you’d see in the hairdressers. But for every client Josh never sees again, there’s one who returns further down the line. “It makes me really happy when someone comes back and says ‘thanks for doing this piece for me five years ago, I’ve never stopped talking about it and I want some more’. I love that.”

The hall is getting busier around us now and as the jet lag fog clears, the question of lifers (repeat tattoo offenders?) raises an intriguing question – what’s it like to see your own artistic evolution on someone you’ve been tattooing for a number of years?

“Sometimes it’s not so pleasant!” he laughs, “I find as an artist that I can’t leave well enough alone, I’m constantly fiddling with my older stuff. But I have people who have the full evolution, right from my earliest work to the stuff I’m doing now.”

People tend to have different views on revisiting and revising their old work, but for Josh there’s no choice – he’s a natural born filler. “If I see a piece, it’s going to bother me if I don’t get to mess around with it.”

He concedes that there’s a balance to be struck, knowing he’d go mad if he never let a piece go. “Sometimes I’ll see a piece and think ‘well, I would make different choices now, but I appreciate it for what it is and I feel comfortable with it’. The fact is that people who have them, love what I did then and they love what I do now, so I couldn’t be happier about that.”

Rise of the nerd

So, here’s something you need to know about this artist: it’s all about a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. His dream piece would be The Empire Strikes Back original movie poster as a full back piece (which we’d very much like to see… volunteers, please). Comic books, sci-fi and Star Wars are the DNA of his artistic development, and even though his style began with illustrative tattooing and evolved towards realism, that comic book influence has never left him. “My love of bold, graphic colour work and fantasy art comes in, so I work with a kind of colour-blast that relates back to my original stuff. I like to do pieces that you’ll notice, that really jump off the skin; that’s what I hope to produce as an artist.”

As far as Josh is concerned, tattooing should be used for knowledge and defence – never attack… sorry, getting carried away. But he makes the point that new graphic styles inspired by fantasy or comic art can exist in parallel with more traditional art. “I have a deep love and respect for all tattoo art, that’s why I got into it in the first place. I’m not an Old Schooler by any means, but a decade ago it was still quite different, you didn’t have the TV shows or nearly as much acceptability, but I just really loved the art.” He still switches to traditional Americana occasionally for the simple love of the style, he says, “but it’s a changing culture, people want other images… and isn’t the ultimate question ‘what is art?’ and ‘what is tattoo art?’ I see stuff that the progressive artists are doing now that I would never have thought of. There’s definitely room for it all.”

Using the Force

When Josh says tattoo art led him here, he means it – a punk rock teendom spent sneaking tattoo magazines into his school books meant it was something he was always heading towards. There were detours along the way into graphic design, and before that an ambition to be a comic book artist. “But I did some classes and realised it wasn’t really for me, having deadlines to create a certain number of pages and with an editor standing over me. When I got older I met some comic book artists and I realised that it’s a grind, and it lost some its lustre for me.”

So graphic design it was, as a way of paying the bills. Meanwhile he kept drawing, working up designs for friends (including a little tribal piece that became his first ever ink) and hanging around at Funhouse until he got “really, really lucky. Mike had seen my art and he really pushed me along and said ‘you really need to be doing this’, and I was like ‘yes, I do, show me!’ and so I just fell right into it.” Taking his existing artistic and graphic design backgrounds, he channelled them “into some semblance of tattooing.”

Good against remotes is one thing though – good against the living is something else, so he took his time to complete his training. “I didn’t have to sweep the floors for a year first or anything,” he says, to clarify. “It was a slow build up of skills, it was hammered into me to be proficient at line work before doing any of the flashy imagery. So I did a year of kanji, lettering and tribal armbands to build up the technical skills, but all the time having some trusting and amazing friends who would let me experiment on them; and it went from there.”

Ah, those willing friends. Where would developing artists be without them? “I guess we’d all have trial pieces on our sides!” he laughs. “I worked in various styles growing up, charcoal realism and things like that, so artistically it was something I’d already ventured into – it was a case of showing someone a drawing and saying ‘I swear I can do this on you, just give me the chance’.”

There is no try

These forays into realism proved successful and Josh built up a client base happy to let him experiment on their skin. It’s not one-way traffic though. “I understand that I’m doing my art, but the client is still very important to me – I’m doing it for them and I’ve never forgotten that. So I like a certain amount of input and I’m usually inspired by that, it’s not a cold thing where they give me a general idea and I tell them ‘you’re getting that’. Sometimes even a simple comment can take a design in a different direction.”

An open mind is the key to being a good client in Josh’s eyes. “The worst kind of client is one who’s steadfast in their bad idea! I like someone who’s pumped about a piece, who allows me to be creative… and I guess who doesn’t move a lot.”

The clients who actually arrive in the Funhouse are a varied lot and include doctors, lawyers, parents, grandparents… “hell, I’ve even got a priest who comes in.” Really? “The first time he came in, he had his collar on and everything; he got a little Celtic cross. What a fantastic guy – it was the ultimate proof that tattooing has opened up to a whole new audience. You never know who’s got a tattoo, and who’s going to walk in through the door.”

Speaking of which, a prospective client has arrived at Josh’s booth, so it’s time to let the man work. He has come a long way, after all. We stop by later to see how things are going and find him crafting an unusual cover-up piece on the lady in question, complete with skull and flowers, to get rid of some rogue’s name who no longer deserves his skin time. He’s clearly in the zone now and the fatigue has gone, so he’s enjoying his first ever convention in England.

“I’ve just been getting into the convention circuit recently because I’ve been focused on the shop for many years. I enjoy travelling; I see so many techniques and get inspired by artists, it affects the way I tattoo.”

True to form, he’s found a giant Star Wars convention to work at next year in Florida. “I’ll be in heaven. I’m going to find that client who wants the Star Wars back piece!” Until then, and always, he’s going to be pushing forward. “I don’t think you’ll ever know everything,” he says, “and if I get to a point where I think I do, I’m going to have to hang it up. My style is constantly evolving, I have no idea where it’ll be in another five years; but right now, as long as I’ve got people willing to get Star Wars tattoos, I’m a happy camper!” Every time we pass by for the rest of the day he’s busily inking away – so keep an eye on the convention circuit, because the Force is strong with this one.

When worlds collide

In case you’re tempted to scoff at Josh’s unabashed love for Star Wars, you should know that he’s a) too enthusiastic to care, and b) has used it to unearth a niche market, which is helpful for any artist. “I don’t think there’s anything better than combining a love of tattoo art with my Star Wars nerd-dom – is that a word? – and it’s great if that’s filtering into the tattoo world alongside the more traditional images. I do a lot of conventions now that aren’t tattoo conventions, they’re comic book and entertainment shows. And nowadays the people at those shows love tattoos and want to get tattoos of their favourite characters, so it’s cool to merge those two worlds.”

Funhouse Tattooing

Pocono Peddlers Vlg
Route 611 and Stadden Road
Tannersville, PA


Text: Russ Thorne; Photography: Josh Bodwell


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