Counter Culture - Gene Coffey at Tattoo Culture, NYC

Published: 07 November, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 218, November, 2012

There are tattoo artists you love, those you get along with, those you respect, and those who you’d let loose on your skin with whatever was at hand. Allow me to introduce the man who ticks all four of those boxes for me…

Actually, that’s a lie. I’m going to make no introduction whatsoever. What I’m going to do instead here is let you sit with us whilst Gene and myself shoot the shit. By the time you get to the end and soak up all it entails, you’ll understand why.

“I grew up mostly on Spider-Man comics – that’s where I started to learn how to draw. I think comic books in general have a nice continuity to them. An issue that might come out today really goes all the way back to issue one.

“I liked the art in comic books and that’s really how I learned to draw when I was seven or eight, just tracing the drawings over and over. That’s how you do it! You’re just training your hand/ eye from following the line, and then once you’ve learned how to trace the line that’s already there with your hand. And then you look away from the tracing onto a plain sheet of paper – and it’s still the same thing. Your hand is still following a line, but it’s just not pre-drawn.

“Then you don’t even think about it anymore. One day, my wife was watching me draw and she doesn’t get it at all. It’s so second nature, you just don’t even think about it anymore.”

Do you find that you have to lock into work mode, or are you inclined to get up in the night with the thought that ‘this has to be done right now’?

“Occasionally maybe. Sometimes I go on art binges. I tattoo every day, but painting I have these spurts of inspiration where I paint for six hours every day. I’ll get home from work and start painting, but that will last for maybe a month and then I dry up. Then a couple of months will go by where I’ll do maybe one little thing and all of a sudden it will come on again, but I don’t wake up in the middle of the night screaming with inspiration.”

What I find with a lot of tattoo artists, especially when they also paint, is that whilst tattooing you’re totally submerged in that world; inspiration and creativity creep in through the back door – kind of like it’s formulating while you’re doing something else. Is that the same for you?

“For me, both things simultaneously feed each other. My paintings since I started tattooing have totally changed, and the more I paint, the more my tattoos change, so each feeds the other at this point. But also, more so recently, even as close as the last couple of months, my tattooing has become more like what I paint.

“I went to a bunch of galleries a couple of days ago and sometimes that’s the spark I need. I’ll go to galleries in the city and come out thinking ‘what the fuck is this crap?’ But this week, I saw some stuff that was so freaking amazing that took some ideas that I had been using but to a whole other level. I came out with my mouth open, and tattooing is the same thing. I can do something and I’ll like it, but then a week later I can look at it and wonder what’s missing.”

This is something I understand from a writers perspective as well. The piece has to be produced – and when it’s done, it’s done. Everything has a lifespan all of it’s own, and then you need to keep moving, otherwise you’d be producing the same piece of work over and over.

“That’s exactly it man. It’s good when you do it, and then instantly my brain will start to pick it apart. I’ll see any technical flaws in it, start thinking about how I could have done the design differently, or time will have passed from when I did the tattoo – which was perfectly good and I was proud of it at the time – but a month or two later, I will have seen different things, little nuances that I could have done. Maybe the splatter could have gone slightly differently… stuff like that. So what I’m getting at here is that, yes, I’m always trying to push myself.

“I recently saw this theatre group in Manhattan – they might actually be from London – they’re doing this performance called Sleep No More. Now, I don’t really like theatre. Never been into it, but this was like this really immersive theatrical performance. I had never seen something so… well, I can hands down say it was the coolest thing I have ever seen in my entire life. Anyway, it shifted something in me. There was something so unique about it and so fucking… well, it changed something in me psychically, to the point where I start thinking to myself that I want to produce something that is of that calibre.

“I have no idea how though, so now I’m going through this process of thinking how do I push what I do, to get to the calibre of this thing.”
The business of pushing can be a tricky business. Personally, I’m all for making mistakes along the way. You simply can’t get where you’re going without making them, and if you do, you’re either a genius or not trying hard enough.

“Yeah, you have to fuck up a lot and be willing to take the risk of being wrong. Periodically, throughout my life, there’s been different influences. Jackson Pollock is one. I never liked him when I was younger, but then I saw his work again just as I hit 20 when there was a retrospective at the MOMA in the city. And to see these giant, huge paintings live – these massive things – totally changed the way I painted.

“Up until that point, my work had been very realistic, Dali crossover surrealistic/ realism stuff and that show was so powerful it shifted something in me.”

Influences are strange things. You pick them up subconsciously and wring them dry of all you need from them without ever really being aware that this is what you did – obviously, otherwise it would be called ‘copying’.

“It’s always there though isn’t it? It’s not like you trashed it. You’re not throwing it out – I don’t think you can – you take it and you build on it. Everything from when you’re a baby until now are always your building blocks. I can still see those things in everything I do but if you’re growing, the water will start to muddy as you move away from them. They won’t be so obvious anymore.

“I recently cleaned out my house and found all these old sketchbooks and paintings from when I was 18 or so. Most of which were fucking awful. So full of ‘I’m 18 and I’m an artist and I understand the world’, but in reality, it really was 18-year-old masturbatory bullshit. But every now and then, there would be that one little thing where I hit something and I could still see that what I’m doing today harkens back to that.”

I think it would be very cool to one day, hopefully when you’re very old, be able to trace some kind of spinal column throughout an artist’s work. Be able to pick out the threads of your own originality maybe…

“I would think so. One thing simply leads to another in this game. Every five years or so, it’s good to do that. Recently, I found a bunch of old pictures from when I first started tattooing and I was like ‘how did I get away with that?’ – not that they were bad or anything, but it’s a whole world removed from what I do now.”

Gene and I had a conversation before we hid ourselves away to do this interview – I don’t know about you but I love it when you ‘discover’ an artist whose work you think is out of this world and matches up with what you’ve got in mind as to where you’re going next. Throw in the fact that you become friends and there are no losers in that equation. It wasn’t always like this… still isn’t for far to big a part of the equation for my liking. Hooking up with somebody for what they can do when set free is insanely superior to hooking up with them simply because they have the tools for the job…

“That’s the direction I want to keep going in. Having people come to me because they like my style and not have them come because I can do what they want. In tattooing, you have a lot more people that are coming from a fine art background now, that are starting to become tattooists who are simultaneously in this kind of painting/ tattoo culture, and they are more emotionally attached to the tattoos that they do. I certainly am more attached now that I’m doing what I want to do and use my own style. It’s closer to the way I feel when I paint, so consequently, I get really into it. I mean, I get totally lost in a tattoo these days, as much as I do as when I paint.

“Prior to that, I was just doing a tattoo. Somebody comes along and they want, say, a heart. I would still try to do it as well as I could, but it was in a ‘tattoo style’. But now I feel that I am able to express myself, and the people who come to me connect on that level. That ‘heart’ guy? He doesn’t get me or my style – now there’s this spiritual connection with the clients who come, because they get what I get. We share something before we even begin.

“Seeing those tattoos walk away though… man, it hurts when they end up as nothing more than a photo in my portfolio. Recently though, I had a customer come back in for a new piece and the last time I saw her was five years ago. The piece I did was in this new graphic style that I was into – it was very unique to me and I was really attached. I remember at the time I was so excited to be doing it because it was so different. Now she comes in for another piece in my current style, but that one is holding up. It was great to see it again.

“From a business point of view, working in a distinct style, you mark your territory because you can’t really have anybody else work that space and have it work. You’re pretty much guaranteed repeat custom. I mean people can do whatever they want – and they do – but speaking aesthetically, it’s very hard once you’ve had people like me or Noon or Loic work on you, to make anything else work in that space. You could throw a traditional panther in there next to something I had done, but it’s gonna look weird.

“It’s not an intentional thing at all, but when you work with artists who are very singular in what they deliver, it comes with the territory. There’s this one piece I did which is an animal cruelty sleeve just on her forearm. We built that piece by piece, and the style I work in, it’s really easy to do that and build on what I’ve already done. When you’re expressionistic, you have way more options for linking pieces together.

“Actually, there’s this one piece I did of koi fish on this woman’s ribs. It’s probably one of my favourite pieces. It’s super traditional and it’s been done a thousand million times, but the way I approached it… well, I just did it my way. There are no lines in it, but it still remains very traditional in its approach even though it’s got me written all over it. You know, if you’re in a band, you’re not going to find a riff that’s not been done before – we can all trace everything back to a source – and I like that kind of history. What makes the artist is how you spin it.”

I find it strange that there are a finite number of basic themes in the world, and yet a seemingly infinite number of things you can do with them. Much is the same for words as pictures. 26 letters in the alphabet; whether you’re good or bad at what you do, all rather illogically depends on nothing more than what order you put them in. But it’s also about knowing where to draw the line with your talent – things can become unreadable, unlistenable and unartistic very quickly if you don’t know where that line is for yourself.

It also becomes apparent from this train of thought that living ‘now’, is not so easy as it would appear. So much influence and history behind us actually carries a fair amount of responsibility when it comes to what comes next. I flaunt my trashy analogy at Gene that goes something along the lines of… Hunter S Thompson never set out to be a great writer, he just wrote what he wanted. The fact that people grew to like what he did was accident and not design. You can’t manage those circumstances no matter how hard you try.

“Yes, it could have been anybody, but it was him. Anybody could have painted the Mona Lisa; anybody who had the technical expertise to do it and the fucking patience to sit there and get on with it could have painted that piece, but Da Vinci did. Anybody could have painted a Jackson Pollock painting, but Pollock did.

“There’s something different inside that person that makes them do it. That’s the difference. There’s a drive in the person that they have to work out for themselves and that is the difference between good and great, which is something I’m still trying to figure out… and that’s a problem, because I don’t think you can figure it out!”

I suspect that if you try and figure it out too much, you will likely go mad at some juncture. Start doing crazy shit like cutting off your ears, but the fact remains, those who continually push themselves to be great, will always be unhappy with their work. Always. It’s part of the deal.

“I hope I am always unhappy with my work. It’s what keeps me working this hard. It makes me really uncomfortable to have you sit there and tell me how much you love what I do. On one hand it’s great that you love it, but right now I could go pick up my portfolio and show you ten things about anything in there that I fucking hate, but I can’t.”

I get this. I really do. In any creative endeavour, only the creator will ever know all the times they changed their mind mid-flow, all the things that could have been, all the things that were self-edited out before they even had a chance to be something…

“Yep. Once you’ve filled that space with some colour, that’s the space filled – otherwise, you would never do anything. It’s a little different with music because there are multiple opportunities to change it, or if you miss a note, you just keep going. I would say that there are a million musicians that would disagree with that statement though!”

So, Mr Coffey, where are we all going next in this big old world?

“Well, what goes around always comes around. There’s a big interest right now in avant garde/ fancy art tattoo; at the same time there this incredible movement in realistic work. Look at how Jeff Gogue is twisting things – who knows really where we’re going to find ourselves in a few years? He’s like Prince in the fact that you never really know where the hell he’s going to go next, but at the same it doesn’t matter because it’s simply going to be ‘that good’ when he does it.”

So follows much lengthy discourse about The Purple One (see box copy), but it is relevant. Can we imagine a world in which somebody like Bob Tyrell came out of his already genius box and did something so totally different than was expected?

“I think the world would stand back and proclaim ‘whoa!’ But that’s kind of what I did a couple of years ago. I could show you my realism stuff from two years ago that was tight and great and everything, but I made the decision that I wanted to make the jump to what I wanted to do and that alone. I made the choice, I took everything off the internet and from my portfolio and buried it. I decided to say no to customers that would come to me and ask for anything but what I wanted to do, and that’s scary.

“But the scares didn’t come. The exact opposite happened. As soon as I started saying no to projects that weren’t part of where I was going, I went from being booked up two to three weeks in advance to being booked up four to five months in advance.  I think if you’re being true to yourself – totally true to what you believe, then it’s going to work out OK. You can’t go at it half-assed though. You’ve got to go all the way. That’s something that Noon helped me out with. There were a few things I would have liked to keep in my portfolio, but like the man said, ‘sure, it’s a great tattoo, but it’s not what you want to do, so take it out. If you keep showing that, you will keep doing that.’

“It’s all about focus. You can’t be in focus and have out of focus – it will take away from the focusing process. You’re building a vocabulary. The more you are true to yourself, the more you begin to understand it. At first, I was just making a mess, but now it’s getting more refined and I am always seeing better ways of putting a tattoo on a person.”

And right there, is where I’m going to leave you hanging by a rope. I feel we have said enough here and Mister Coffey’s work more than speaks for itself. If you’re not looking at your blank spaces right now, you weren’t reading properly…

Prince Vs Michael Jackson (Kind of...)

Best get to the end of the main interview before you read this, otherwise, you’ll wonder just how the hell we wound up talking about Prince in the first place…

“Have you ever seen the video of Prince’s first performance? You’ve got James Brown and Michael Jackson on stage, and Brown shouts down to the crew to bring Prince onstage because he wants everybody in the crowd to see how amazing he is. So Price comes to the stage on the shoulders of this big biker dude and just let’s rip. I’d like to say it was an amazing performance, but it was more like an ‘I don’t give a fuck, this might be my one shot and right now I am going to do me’ performance.”

No, I had never seen that. Now I have – and you must watch it too. You can find it here:

Tattoo Culture

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718 218 6532


Text: Sion; Photography: Gene Coffey