Ink Different: Master Artist Scott Campbell on Getting Your First Tattoo

Getting a tattoo is a serious decision, and Scott Campbell takes tattoos particularly seriously. He's an artist of both the ink and gallery trades, and his Williamsburg, Brooklyn studio—Saved Tattoo—is headquarters to some of the most innovative tattoo artists working today. A self-professed punk-rock kid who started out drawing Misfits logos on the backs of jean jackets, Campbell now inks clients like Marc Jacobs (and even collaborated with him on a Louis Vuitton collection) and travels the world tending to private clients. We caught up with him in Los Angeles and he gave us 60 Seconds on his personal ink history, how to prep for the needle, and tattooing for the senior set.

What was the first tattoo you ever got?
I was 16 and I went to this really cheeseball biker tattoo shop in Houston, Dragon Mike's and Tiger John's. I walked in with $25, the guy pointed to this little skull and to this little butterfly and said, "You can get this or this." So I went with the skull.

How many tattoos do you have now?
It's hard to say. It eventually turns into one big one. I look like the bathroom wall at Max Fish or CBGB's.

When did you know that this was something that you wanted to try out on other people? Was it a natural progression?
It was because of a buddy of mine I hung out with in San Francisco. I was always drawing, and he said, "I want you to do a tattoo on me." I was like, I'll draw a picture and you can take it to someone who knows what they're doing, but you don't want me to tattoo you. He kept bugging me, and finally one day he bought this tattoo equipment and said, "Here, I'll give this to you if you tattoo me with it." Have you ever had one of those moments in your life where someone else believes in you so much more than you believe in yourself? I was really humbled.

And how did you move forward from there?
It snowballed. I was really into tattoo culture at the time, so it wasn't completely foreign to me. As soon as I started getting confidence, I fell in love with the freedom of it. I could draw pictures all day and feed myself doing it. For the first half of my twenties, it was this amazing, cash-based, almost criminal lifestyle where I could just show up in a city and tattoo for six months. I could go to Tokyo for six months! It was amazing. It was nice to reinvent myself and work with people I think are really incredible artists.

What's the hardest and most painful area to tattoo on someone?
I tell people, yes, it's going to hurt, but get it where you're going to be proud to have it afterward. Think about where you want to have it for the rest of your life, because the pain's not going to last that long. If tattoos were that traumatizing, you'd never see somebody with two tattoos. In actuality, it's the reverse of that. Getting that first tattoo is an intimidating line to cross, but when you do, the second and third come easily.

What should a customer look for when choosing an artist?
Obviously, there's technical ability to do a good tattoo, so it's important to look through the books and photos and make sure the person's done it before. But it's also important that you get a good feeling from the person. There are people who are incredible technical tattoo artists who are kind of assholes. What you want to walk out of there with is an artifact of that experience. If it looks good and you had a miserable experience getting it done, that's what you're going associate it with. If you have a genuinely good experience and feeling from the person, that's what you'll carry with you.

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What should someone do to prepare before his appointment?
The best way to prepare is to not overthink it. My favorite tattoos were done on a whim with very little forethought at all. When people don't have that many tattoos, they feel like they have to summarize their entire identity into one symbol, which is way too much responsibility for one design. Just take a deep breath, clear your mind, and get what feels good. People think Marc Jacobs—who I'm dear friends with and have tattooed a bunch—is off his rocker because he gets these crazy, weirdo cartoon characters. But he's got such a great approach to it. He's got SpongeBob on his arm because when he looks at it, it makes him smile. He's not trying to summarize his ancestry into one tattoo—it's simple, primal.

Have you ever talked someone out of a request?
I don't want to tell anybody how to live their life or tell them what's good for them, but there have definitely been tattoos I don't want on my conscience. I try to keep it positive and stay away from anything hateful or self-destructive. But if someone's coming to me with an idea, it's my responsibility to give them the best tattoo possible and find a way to communicate what they're trying to say.

What's your favorite kind of tattoo to do?
I enjoy the technical stuff, the ornamental and beautifully rendered lettering. The way that you write a word can affect the meaning when done right. But that being said, I have a special place in my heart for fucked-up, two-in-the-morning, drunken tattoos. I feel like a lot of people come to me for my technical ability, but I appreciate the emotion and passion that goes into spur-of-the-moment tattoos. Maybe it's trying to take the passion and the spontaneity of the drunken, enamored moment and render it in a way that you're not embarrassed to show your mother.

What would you say is the main reason people want tattoos?
I first started getting tattooed because I grew up in this really conservative, southern, suburban environment. It was a way of promising myself that I wouldn't grow up to be like my parents. I don't know if tattoos hold that much rebellion anymore. A lot of times people will get tattooed based on what's going on in their lives—someone close to them dies and they get a memorial tattoo, they fall in love or they have children and want to commemorate that. Anytime they're feeling things so strongly that a T-shirt or bumper sticker doesn't quite do it, or they want that idea or feeling to be physical and a part of them, that's when you get it tattooed. It can be really cathartic. Getting tattooed can be a way of taking control of things and affecting who you are in a symbolic way.

So, I have a question for you from my mom. She wants to know where you can get a tattoo that won't sag later in life.
The quick answer is to get it on your wrist, ankle, or back of your neck. But I love old, ugly tattoos! When I'm old, I'm going to have saggy tattoos because I'm going to be a saggy old man. That's it. There's an honesty to it that's awesome. But as far as older folks getting tattooed, just get it where you feel it. I might be an exception because I place more emphasis on the emotion and feeling that goes into tattoos, the juju more than just the aesthetic. Any artist can make something look good. Tattoos that have the most feeling are going to be the most special.

What is your advice to the person who is ready for the commitment of his first tattoo?
Don't force anything. Get it if you feel like you need it. Get tattooed if you sit there and you have an idea or a feeling that won't let you sit still until you get it carved into your body. That's your first tattoo. Make sure you feel it 100 percent and then get it like you mean it.

By Andi Teran

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