Imagine this: you stick your arm through a hole in a wall, and then wait patiently while a guy on the other side tattoos anything he wants on your person. Sounds insane, right? That’s the concept of Whole Glory, a travelling art project that’s flourished, most likely because the guy on the other side of the wall is world-famous tattoo artist Scott Campbell.
Born in Louisiana, Campbell has been tattooing for over two decades. Over the years he’s tattooed celebrities (like Heath Ledger and Penelope Cruz), been tattooed by Wes Lang (a Kanye collaborator), and has recently gained art world acclaim for his intricately carved sculptures made out of US currency. So far-reaching is his talent that Campbell was recently tapped to design a special limited-edition Hennessy bottle.
We sat down with the artist to talk the new bottle, Whole Glory and his favourite tattoo.
What goes into designing a bottle?
I didn’t know that much about Hennessy, so I went to France and took the tour of their facilities. I saw their whole operation and learned a lot about it. It was a little tough at first because I was trying to figure how their world and my world could come together. I just had to embrace the fact that we’re very different and that actually makes a collaboration more interesting. Then I started drawing pictures and came up with what you see here.
What were the inspirations behind the bottle?
Calligraphy and typography is something I work with a lot so it was fun to kind of reinterpret their logo. I use the number 3 a lot in my work. It’s just like my own personal superstition. You know like the number 4 is very symmetrical and closed whereas I feel like the number 3 is still very open and has a lot of potential. I associate that with creativity in general. It kind of connects with the idea of freedom.
Your installation Whole Glory has people putting their trust in you while you tattoo their arm through a hole in a wall. How do you find people willing to do that?
I work with a lot of different mediums, and obviously when you’re tattooing, it’s the only time your canvas actually has input in your art. I’ve always kind of fantasized about what would that feel like if I could tattoo with the same freedom that I would paint on a canvas. The project just started out of that curiosity. I wasn’t even sure anyone would show up for it, I kind of expected the only people that would show up would be a bunch of scum bags like me with disposable arms full of crap tattoos [laughs]. But over half the people that have participated it was their first tattoo. When the responsibility is on them to choose what they want it can be overwhelming. It really speaks to the notion that the experience and the story of how they got this tattoo is actually more important then the specific aesthetics of it.
How do you decide what to tattoo on people?
There’s no communication at all. I’m even wearing headphones on my side of the wall. They put their arm through and I shave it and have my hands on them and I can’t help but imagine who they are. A few times in the beginning I would have a design in mind ready to go, but once I’d see the arm I’d think it just wasn’t right and do something completely different. I stopped trying to predict it whatsoever.
A lot of people think that planning a tattoo and choosing what to get should be a really well thought out process.
But you can kind of ruin it that way too. One of the biggest mistakes I see in people is that they put to much pressure on a tattoo. They try to summarize their whole identity in one little thing. No image should have that much responsibility. With this project, at the end of the three days I’d host a dinner and i’d invite them all to come and meet me. It was kind of like it was like if you go to Disneyland and all those characters take off their mask. So many people would come up to me and be like “You don’t understand like this tattoo is so me, I would never have thought to get this, it’s so me.” Several people pulled me aside to say thanks for giving them the best one. I go into it with no expectations and kind of been really surprised with the outcome.
So going back, was tattooing always the thing for you?
Not getting a job was the thing, and tattooing kind of facilitated that. I didn’t want to do anything but draw pictures and I needed a way to feed myself, so I got into tattooing. Now it’s kind of accidentally turned into a career. It’s what I love doing and I’m grateful that I haven’t gone hungry doing it.
Do you have a tattoo that is really meaningful to you but was just decided on a whim?
Yeah, I have one. Wes Lang and I were in New York drinking one night and we decided it was a brilliant idea to tattoo each other. He tattooed this little chicken head on my leg and it’s terrible, it came out so bad that he tattooed the word ‘sorry’ underneath as an apology and that’s a perfect tattoo. It’s like a great experience and it’s not taken too seriously and it’s a perfect thing. It’s one of my favourites.
Since you first started in the industry, have you seen a shift in the way people treat or think about tattoos?
Definitely. Twenty years ago when I started tattooing, it was still the kind of environment where if I was going through customs with short sleeves on they would search all my bags. If I got pulled over by a cop and I didn’t have my tattoos covered, he would search my car. With all the exposure that tattooing has gone through and what it’s become in pop culture it’s nice not to feel that judgement. But at the same time I have to reconcile sharing something that has been kind of this really small underground community and not always mainstream. With more exposure comes better understanding. I just try to be loyal to the experience of it and what I think makes it special.
What are your thoughts on tattoo reality shows?
I’m not a huge fan. I saw one the other day that made me want to throw up. I was so pissed off. It had, and I’ll say this publicly, these two douchebags finding people to get coverups done. As a tattoo artist I can see that the tattoo they chose to cover was painted on the person. It was totally fake. It just felt like they were kind of sensationalizing that people were like regretting getting tattoos and I don’t support that at all.
Do you think this acceptance of tattoos is at all cyclical and something that will return to being negative?
Like it’ll go back and my kids will rebel against tattoos? [Laughs.] It’s a novelty. It used to be the question of do you or don’t you have tattoos. Now that it’s so commonplace the question has shifted to what do you have tattooed? I think tattoos have become kind of a way to communicate and what people get tattooed go through different cycles and phases. I think it’s just another form of a person defining who they want to be and I don’t think that will ever go out of style.