Tattoo artist Scott Campbell: ‘People talk about tattoos being permanent, but skin is the most ephemeral medium I work on’

For one of the most famous tattoo artists in the world (his ink adorns the skin of Robert Downey Jr., Courtney Love, Orlando Bloom, Marc Jacobs and more), Scott Campbell’s studio - just a couple of blocks from L.A.’s Skid Row - is pretty humble. It’s not all polished surfaces and expensive fittings, just simple concrete, scattered artworks and Jenga-like stacks of art books on Dada and Picabia. An artwork based on a crumpled dollar bill hangs on the wall and a dope plant sits by the window overlooking the industrial landscape of L.A.’s Arts District. Tattooing may be exploding on Instagram and attracting more and more celebrities, but for Scott it remains a resolutely blue collar practice.

“It’s part of the magic for sure,” he tells me. “Tattooing’s one of the last things you can’t mass produce, each one is made for a person by hand and I think that’s why it’s so exciting. In a world where so many things only exist digitally or are manufactured by machines, there’s not that many things left that really have the romance of being handmade and tattoos are one of them.”

The 39-year-old’s at a point in his career now where he could easily have appointments 24/7 (and you won’t be getting a tat by him for less than $1000), but he prefers to pick and choose people and designs he finds interesting and still inks friends spontaneously.

“I enjoy people’s stories - for me, it’s an opportunity to get to know people who are from different situations, people who I would, like, enjoy having a drink with otherwise, because it’s a real intimate exchange. It’s like walking onto a subway and sleeping with every person in the car, some of them will be great some of them will be pretty miserable.”

Hennessy VS and Scott Campbell (short)

“With tattoo artists there’s kind of like a big dick competition to see who has the longest waiting list, you know where it’s like ‘Oh i’m booked up for six months’ or ‘I’m booked up for two years’. For me having two years worth of appointments on my calendar would give me panic attacks, I don’t really book anything more than two weeks in advance.”

Being a ‘notable’ tattoo artist is a strange thing as there is no obvious route to success. There’s no label or studio or publisher to give you a deal and talent really spreads by word of mouth. Scott still hasn’t got his head around his success.

“I think I'm still kind of in denial that I’ve reached that turning point. I think New York had a lot to do with it - I moved there and opened up a shop at a time when there was a really exciting movement of Downtown artists and I got to be a part of that community which I think definitely helped a lot.

“I think also we’re living in a time when tattoos themselves are pretty prominent in mainstream culture. When I started tattooing it was just criminals and sailors and now it’s everywhere you look. You can go to a bank and, like, the bank teller has green hair and tattoos. Being in LA and New York I forget that I have tattoos, it’s only when I travel to more conservative places and there’s some little old lady staring at my arms on the train and I’m like ‘What are you…Oh right I'm the tattooed guy, I forgot.’”

Scott made headlines last year with his Whole Glory project, which saw people queue up to stick their arm through a hole in the wall and have him tattoo whatever he desired on them, for free.

“It had almost like a palm reading or fortune telling dynamic to it,” he recalls, “because even though I didn’t know anything about this person I would make up these stories and imagine who this person was based on whatever I can gather from their arm and choose a design based on that.”

Skin is Scott’s favourite canvas, but not because it’s permanent - quite the opposite.

“It’s funny because people assume that working on skin, there’s more pressure than working on canvas or on paper, but I feel much freer working on people sometimes than other mediums.

“When people talk about tattoos, they often think about the word “permanent”, but, in reality, skin is the most ephemeral medium I work on. Paintings and drawings will hang on people’s walls or go to museums and live forever, whereas someone’s arm only has a certain lifespan. It’ll get sun burnt, wrinkled or permanently damaged.

“Once they’re inked on skin, tattoos have a life of their own and I like that about the art form. I like the fact there’s no resale value to tattoos. You know, none of my tattoos will ever end up at auction.

The Louisiana-born artist’s work extends beyond tattooing, and in his studio he shows me a sculpture of a reclining woman he made entirely out of dollar bills (below). He also works with paint and stencils and was recently asked to design a limited edition bottle for Hennessy.

“They’re a very distinguished, very prestigious company and I’m kind of the grimy tattooed guy that snuck into the party!” he jokes, but “I treated the Hennessy Very Special bottle like I would treat somebody’s arm: I just put tracing paper over it and started drawing!”

To embellish a set of wings on the bottle, he chose the quote “Love without hesitation” for it. I initially thought this was a little cliché, but his explanation won me over.

“My thing is ‘Always err on the side of being compassionate, and you’ll never go wrong.’ Say somebody walks into a tattoo shop and they want to get their boyfriend or girlfriend’s name tattooed on them. There’s a standard-issue disclaimer that the tattoo artist usually gives like “Are you sure you want to do this? Are you sure this is the one?” I always went the opposite direction and said: “Do it! Of course it’s a terrible idea, of course the odds are against you. But if you’re going to fall in love, fall in love as hard as you can.”

“There’s this annoying habit of associating stoicism with strength that a lot of people got into. I feel like it’s actually so much more powerful if you can fall in love without being afraid. My thing is “Love without hesitation”. If you can do that, you’re invincible. That’s my message.”

Hennessy VS and Scott Campbell (long)

To that end, I declare crappy, impulsive tattoos some of my favourites, and tell him about the time my friend and I got drunk in New York, found a lousy Times Square parlour and he chose a skull design right out of the book.

“That's great! Like, that’s that moment,” Scott enthuses. “I don’t think those tattoos are any less valid than the ones that you plan.”

Showing him my questionable first tattoo and him showing me his 25-buck one he got with a fake I.D. when he was 16, we agree that the concept of regret doesn’t apply to tattoos either; they remind you of a certain point in your life.

“Right, it’s still honest to that moment,” Scott says. “Tattoos take away the luxury of denial.

“Obviously if you erased all my tattoos right now and I started over tomorrow would I have the same things? No, because I’m a different person than I was when I was 17 but I still accept that person and I’m not trying to pretend that I wasn’t him.”

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