The Fast and the Furious - Joe Capobianco's Hope Gallery

Published: 05 March, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 209, March, 2012

It’s no secret to us ink-loving folk that tattooing is the equivalent of all other art forms, but sometimes it takes a little convincing to get others on the same page. Joe Capobianco’s Hope Gallery, which opened in 2003 in New Haven, Connecticut, recently helped solidify this message with art and tattoo lovers alike thanks to its travelling Quick and Painful art show.

With stops in L.A., New Haven, Miami and Chicago, Quick and Painful brought together flash designed by 19 of today’s best lowbrow and pop artists – including Amanda Visell, David Horvath, Frank Kozik, Huck Gee, Tara McPherson and Ron English – and the unrivaled tattoo talents of Joe Capobianco, Eric Merrill, Tim Harris, Phil Young, Dan Smith and Scott White, to name but a few who tattooed said flash on attendees for the unbelievable bargain price of $40.

“I knew a lot of fans who had tattoos from pop artists I had worked with, so I decided to ask those artists to make flash sheets,” says Nichole East, event organizer and manager of Hope Gallery. “The tattoo artists were easy. Since I work at Hope Gallery, I secured all of the artists that work here and then friends of theirs filled in the spots in other cities. All of the artists seemed excited to do the project – I don’t think they knew what they were getting themselves into!”

And although those who preach the Gospel of Custom Tattoos may frown upon flash, East says, “the tattoo trade is based on flash. People who say flash should be discouraged shouldn't be tattoo artists… flash was, and still is, used to help clients decide on what they want.

“In this day and age, with social media and the Internet, nothing is truly unique,” she adds. “If you take a photo of your tattoo and it ends up on the Internet, someone is able to duplicate it. Even in my case, I had a custom tattoo done on my neck and once it hit the Internet, multiple people now have my 'custom' tattoo on them. As long as artists’ work ends up in books and on the Internet, it can and usually is copied, just like flash would be.”

Needless to say, the art show was an incredible success or, as East puts it, “Quick and Painful was just that, a fast-paced whirlwind tour that was a lot of work… I feel this was definitely a once in a lifetime event for us.”

With so much talent involved, it was difficult to chose one artist to spotlight, but alas, Huck Gee’s extensive portfolio of art, his status as one of the most sought-after and inventive toy designers around, and of course, his personal collection of sweet tattoos made the UK native who now calls San Francisco home just the man:

What first influenced you to start making art and what was the first work you remember creating? Yes, finger painting counts!

"I think the first art I remember would be drawing army stuff on paper. Total stick figure planes, tanks, army men, the scene constantly building, all on one piece of paper, guns firing, bombs dropping, tanks rolling, until at the end you had stuff scribbled all over the paper – a complete mess. It was as much acting out a battle as it was drawing a picture. Ah, yes, good times."

Was there a particular moment when you decided you were going to pursue art full-time?

"I never planned on this crap panning out. I was just drawing for the sake of drawing. I guess the closest situation was when I quit my day job, then I jumped in feet first to see if I could make a living at this. But even then I didn’t think of myself as an artist, my job was just getting in the way of me making more stuff!"

Tell me a bit about the evolution of Huck Gee as an artist…

"I’m completely self-taught. I drew as a kid, but stopped drawing in high school after getting ridiculed one too many times for drawing dwarf-powered mechanical dragons.
In my late teens I hooked up with a bunch of graf kids in L.A. and that lit the fire under my ass again. I got caught one too many times doing that and just generally started to spend more and more time drawing characters in my sketch books than doing actual lettering or getting up. A few years later, I stumbled over the work of Jason Siu, Eric So, Michael Lau, and discovered the wealth of art, illustration and character design in Japan.

"Finally, I met Paul Budnitz of Kidrobot [the world’s premier creator of limited edition art toys and apparel] and I finally had an outlet for everything I had been working up to."

Your Skullhead design is instantly recognizable and a cult classic, did you know you had something special when you first created it?

"Nah, I was fiddling around, trying to draw a stylized Jolly Roger. I left it sitting on my drawing table for a couple months before I decided to give him a body. I don’t think I ever realized I had anything special, I just kinda dug the little fella."

You’ve called your style ‘bastardized Asian pop culture’, where does most of this Eastern influence come from?

"It’s a mash-up of everything these days. Originally, it was heavily influenced by Japanese character design, manga, anime, culture and history, but then I spent time travelling through Hong Kong, the Philippines, China, and I found myself inspired at every turn. Beautiful countries. Beautiful people."

One of your vinyl toys is actually part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, how did you react to the news? And when you’re in town, do you ever take time to go look at your accomplishment?

"It’s strange. I never strove to be in a museum or even a gallery for that matter. It’s a bit validating, but other than that, I don’t think it’s had too much of an impact on me. I went to the MOMA once, saw it on display, resisted the temptation to tell everyone in the room that that was my piece on the shelf. Never been back since. Okay, I’ll admit, I guess it is kinda cool."

How did you get involved with the Quick and Painful show, and would you get any of your flash tattooed on yourself?

"Nichole, the organizer of Quick and Painful, also happens to be my badass manager. Due to my packed schedule, I actually declined the show at first; it was a very last minute commitment. Because of the timing, the artwork on the sheet is a collection of my older illustration work. I think it laid out quite well for a flash sheet, though.

"And yup… already have. I’ve got Skullhead on my neck."

Playing devil’s advocate, some tattoo artists/ collectors might say that flash should be shunned rather than encouraged in order to prevent numerous individuals all having identical tattoos, what are your thoughts?

"That sounds almost elitist to me. Flash is good for some, others may want something more personal, to each their own."

Since we’re on the topic of tattoos, when did you get your first one and what was it?

"Shit, I got this awful prison gun tattoo of an anarchy symbol on my arm from my buddy’s older brother who had just got out of state pen – it was awful. I paid him in vodka and beer; it has since been covered."

Can you tell me about the ink you have and what each design means?

"My work is each tied to a memory much more than each having a meaning. Each piece recollects a certain time and place to me. Some I’ve outgrown the meaning, some were a spur of the moment decision, but each piece is almost a personal flashcard for a time in my life. I like that."

You released The Art of Huck Gee, your retrospective book, on January 1, why was now the right time to create such a tome? When can we expect Vol. 2?

"It felt right; I have a large enough body of work now. In fact, there’s still quite a bit that got cut from the book.

"Give me a couple of years and I’ll tackle another retrospective. Maybe go bigger next time!"

Let’s say you were forced to choose one work featured in the book to turn into a tattoo on yourself, which would it be and why?

"Probably Raku, my ninja raccoon characters. I’ve got a lot of myself in their storyline. It would be fitting."

Paul Budnitz of Kidrobot has called you ‘the greatest toy artist on the planet’, what’s your reaction to that statement? Would you agree?

"Nah, I’m flattered by the comment, but I know there’s a huge world of amazing talent out there. I just want to be the best I can be, I don’t need to be greater than anyone else."

What would Huck Gee in toy form look like?


Joe Capobianco

The man behind Hope Gallery is renowned not only for his work in the world of tattooing, but also for his expert airbrushing skills. He has been creating modernized pin-up designs inspired by the 1950s for over 19 year; and his Capo Girl and her unique style have helped him win numerous awards at various tattoo events. In addition to being an artist through and through, he is also the head judge on Oxygen Network’s Best Ink TV show.

Tara McPherson

Based in New York City, Tara McPherson is a classically trained artist, holding a BFA from the Art Center in Pasadena, California with honours in illustration and a minor in fine art. She not only creates paintings and serigraphs that are shown in galleries across the world, but also designs concert posters, toys, advertisements, and painted comics and covers for DC Vertigo.

Frank Kozik

Hailing from Madrid, Spain, but calling the States home from the age of 14, Kozik is credited with reviving the lost art of concert posters. He has produced artwork for everyone from Pearl Jam to Neil Young and Sonic Youth, but since 2001 has been devoted to the vinyl art toy movement. His Smorkin’ Labbit series is his best known and is to die for.

Google it.


Hope Gallery Tattoo

835 Woodward Ave.
New Haven, CT 06512


Text: Barbara Pavone