While his tattoo shop, Saved Tattoos, is located in the trendy territory of Williamsburg, Scott Campbell's fine art studio is tucked away in just one of many unassuming warehouses of the up-and-coming Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. His dog, Texas, barrels out on to the sidewalk to greet (and size-up) newcomers, as Campbell, complete with blue dress shoes, slicked back hair and a smile, coaxes him from the door. Though Campbell’s now more accustomed to big city living, his warmth suggests that southern hospitality still comes easily to this Louisiana native.
mb! magazine spent a Saturday morning with Campbell to talk about the differences he’s found between tattoo art and fine art, and his time spent building jury-rigged tattoo guns for prisoners in Mexico City.
Campbell's transition from a successful tattoo artist into fine art and design happened pretty organically. He feels like New York City was a big catalyst for that. He has been tattooing there for a while, and through tattooing came the opportunity to work and collaborate with some of his favorite artists such as Dash Snow, Dan Colen, Nate Lowman. Campbell got an art education through them, through exposure to this town. So he started by doing a couple of group shows with friends and artists and it evolved naturally.
When he first approached the idea of hanging something on a wall and calling it an artwork, he was terrifyed 'because all of a sudden you’re being brazen enough to say that what I do is valid in the context of all art history'. But he found people in the art world whom he really respected and were enthusiastic about his work, so he didn’t have to sweep his former identity under a rug in order to have a valid voice in the art world. His work is coming from a different place than art students from Yale. 'It was really encouraging making that realization. The art world needs more dirty tattoo kids, and I can be one of those.' For Campbell tattooing is only as permanent as we are: 'tattoos are the most ephemeral medium I work in because I’ll do a tattoo and it will walk out the door and it will get a sunburn, or hit by a bus, it changes. With artwork, you hang it on a wall and it’s permanent, or if you send it to a museum, it’s going to be there forever.'
For his latest work 'Frankengun', he spent two months in a prison in Mexico City. Together with the prisoners, he built various tattoo machines to draw on their bodies. 'That’s how you tattoo in jail, you just use whatever you have.' The objects became such an amazing symbol of that environment, of the ingenuity and human perseverance in very extreme limitations, so that he created a series of watercolor paintings from them. Learn more about Scott Campbell, his work and his life in New York City here.