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Meet the celebrity tattooist who sets his work on fire

We sit down with Scott Campbell to discuss his anarchic life of tattooing

Meet the celebrity tattooist who sets his work on fire
16 September 2016

With the rise of reality TV shows like Tattoo Fixers, it could easily be thought that the world of body art is a tame one where people discuss their work over a nice cup of tea and some lame puns.

That is not real.

No, it’s firestarting, Mexican prisoner-tattooing, Marc Jacobs-loved tattoo artists like Scott Campbell who are the proper deal.

We caught up with the man himself ahead of the launch of his new collaboration with Hennessy (he designed the art on the bottle - he’s not making it, he’s not that talented) as he reveals all about his anarchic life of tattooing.

I love skulls. You love skulls. Everyone seems to have a fascination with skulls. Why do you think that is?

I only know my relationship with skulls. It started when I was a kid growing up in suburban America, in a very conservative, religious household. Like any teenage kid, you try and push against your surroundings and establish your own identity. I was a metal head drawing skulls on my math homework in fifth grade, and skulls are just an old friend now. I don’t associate them with darkness in anyway. In the beginning I associated them with being independent from my upbringing and deciding to go my own way. We’re all going to die, and no one knows exactly what that means, so I think everyone has a fascination with mortality and I think that’s healthy. So it’s healthy to get skulls on you!

Do you think the attitude towards tattooing has drastically changed in the last decade?

For sure, it’s changed completely. It used to be such a bold statement, now everyone has tattoos. Having one is no longer a statement, and because of that there’s a lot more thought going into tattoos. Just having one is not enough, you have to get one that’s intelligent and thoughtful. There’s definitely older generation tattoo artists who grumble and complain about the exposure that tattooing gets now, but I think that more exposure brings more understanding, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually nice. When I was getting tattooed 20 years ago, if I went through customs in a short sleeve shirt they’d search all my bags, because they’d assume I was a drug dealer. Whereas now it’s not the case. You go into a bank now and the teller has green hair and arms full of tattoos. It’s nice not to feel that judgement all the time.

What was your first tattoo?

I was 15 and I had $25 and a fake ID. I went into this tattoo shop called Dragon Mike’s & Tiger John’s, and I walked in and was like, "I got $25 what can I get?" He said, "You can either have this skull or this butterfly". I honestly think if I said butterfly they would’ve beaten me up on the spot, so I got a little skull tattooed on my leg. That was the beginning of it.

Orlando Bloom, Robert Downey Jr, Courtney have a mad client list. How did it all start?

Working and living in New York for so long, you just brush shoulders with the whole spectrum of humanity. You meet people organically. Tattooing is a lot of word-of-mouth, at least it was before Instagram. So I kind of became connected just by word-of-mouth.

Tattooing another creative person like Marc Jacobs must be nerve-wracking...

It’s great. I never get nervous with those folks, I just get genuinely excited. I know the tattoos will look great, I just get excited to sit down with interesting people. In order for me to do my job well, I have to understand them. The better I know them the better I can understand them emotionally. So I’m really grateful and honoured that people let me into their lives that way. Over the course of my career I’ve had that intimate exchange with criminal bikers who murder people for a living…and Jennifer Anniston.

You've also tattooed a number of Mexican prisoners too, right?

I spent a few months down in a prison there. I didn’t know really why I was doing that. It was at the point when all these tattoo reality shows were on the rise and tattooing was being swept up by pop culture, and I was trying to reconcile what my relationship with tattooing was. It was something I really loved, but what it was being shown as on television wasn’t the tattooing that I know. I went down there for my own curiosity, I wanted to be around tattooing that served a real, visceral purpose.

Prisons are a really unique environment, you have a population of people who've all been given uniforms and assigned a number, and tattooing becomes the last way these people distinguish their selves from the people next to them. In that situation, tattoos become really meaningful, I wanted to know what people get when tattooing is all they have. That’s what led me down there and I ended up befriending a lot of people, and when they heard I was a tattoo artist they all wanted to get tattooed, so we all started building these machines out of anything we could find, like you do in prison. These little Frankenstein contraptions, like we’d take the motor out of a cassette player, for needles we’d take a guitar string and sharpen it on the bricks into a point. We also used combs, clear plastic spoons, melted pens…

What tattoos did they ask for?

There was a lot of Santa Muerte, which is the patron saint of anyone who doesn’t fit into Catholicism. This saint takes care of all these rejects and criminals. When their court dates or parole were coming up, they’d all pray and light candles to Santa Muerte.

I also did a lot of tattoos for family, trying to connect with the outside world, things that would remind them that there’s a world outside those walls. You could feel that they were really desperate to not forget.

You also had another dramatic incident in Mexico, right?

I had an exhibition there and I didn’t have a great relationship with the gallerist. We had the opening, it went really well, we sold all the work from the show on opening night. But as soon as everything sold, it just kind of became all about money. Ironically, the show was all about money. I just really felt that my artworks were being held hostage and put out into the world in a way I wasn’t comfortable with.

So the next day I went down there and took all my work out of the gallery and carried them outside. I saw a gas station across the street and I saw that as a sign that the universe agreed with what I was doing. So I put it all in a pile outside the gallery and burned it. That was that.

When I lit that match, I honestly thought my career was gone. I thought I’d be known as an artist that who didn’t get his way, threw a tantrum and burns it all down. But it was actually the opposite of that, I ended up getting a lot of high-fives from people I respect in the art world. Funnily enough, I kept two pieces from the show that were half burned that someone pulled from the pile and mailed to me, and I ended up selling those pieces for more than that show was worth anyway. The universe kind of came back around.

Do you regret any of your tattoos?

No. I just don’t see any use in regret. My whole childhood, from 15 until now, is on me. If you could somehow erase all my tattoos and start over, would I get the same things I have now? No. But I like being able to look at my arm and see something I got done when I was 16.

We all make mistakes in life, but with tattoos you kind of have to accept who you used to be, they take away the luxury of denial. I think there’s actually something healthy in that, that I don’t take my physical self that seriously. I love the experiences that I’ve had, and the visual residue isn’t pretty for some people to look at, but for me they're piles of memories.

What advice would you give to someone getting their first tattoo?

The biggest mistake I see is people putting too much pressure on it. They overthink it. People come in and think they have to summarise their whole being into one little symbol. That’s impossible and it’s too much responsibility to put onto one little design. If you want a tattoo you’ll never regret, just keep it fun and spontaneous. I feel that when people look at tattoos and regret them, I feel it’s not so much the tattoo they regret, it’s the person they were when they got that tattoo.

Did you ever think that tattooing would ever lead to working with big names such as Hennessy and Louis Vuitton? 

Of course not. I got into tattooing to run away from responsibility, and I’ve accidentally found myself a career. The same way that Tony Hawk did, he never thought skateboarding would but he did it because he loved it. I’ve just been tattooing because it’s what I loved, and I’m super grateful that the world enjoys it too.

Find out more about Scott Campbell's Hennessy collaboration