Up till now, Scott Campbell was best known as the Brooklyn tattoo artist to stars such as Marc Jacobs, Heath Ledger, and Courtney Love. But lately he's turned his eye to fine art, using an array of canvases more unconventional than celebrity skin, including burnt tortillas and ostrich-egg shells. The new book If You Don't Belong, Don't Be Long (Rizzoli, $40) collects all of the 35-year-old Campbell's work so far—including a signature series of sculptural pieces made by carving stacked sheets of uncut U.S. currency. Here, he talks about money, tattoos, and how he figured out he was an artist.
DETAILS: What's the difference between tattooing and making other kinds of art?
Scott Campbell: Obviously, it's technically different, but it draws from the same sensibility. Good tattoos reflect an emotional situation or have some sense of narrative. Doing tattoos, my job was to take a person's emotional situation and translate it into an image or a phrase that I could carve into their body. That process carries into my other work. I think it's a lot more romantic when what the artwork on the wall feels an artifact of a happening or an action. It's not a picture of something—it's the actual something.
DETAILS: It has a vernacular, folk-art quality.
Scott Campbell: Yeah. And it's like that with tattoos. You still can't mass-produce tattoos. When it comes down to it, it's one person creating something for another person. That exchange can never be bought online. It is this folk art because it has that spontaneity. It's some drunk guy walking in and getting his girlfriend's name tattooed on his arm. I like that.
DETAILS: Ever refuse to do a tattoo?
Scott Campbell: There was this 19-year-old girl who came in with her friend. I was like, "Okay, what are we doing?" And she pulls out this piece of paper. It was on the back of her homework—the Wu-Tang W. Just big, solid, black. I clean it up and make a stencil. She's like, "That's great. How much is it?" I'm like, "Eighty bucks." So she pulls out $80 worth of crumpled up bills and a couple of quarters. And I was like, "So where are we putting this?" And she points to her cheek. And I was like, "No. Absolutely not. We aren't even gonna talk about putting it on your face." And she was like, "Such and such tattoo shop will do it. My friend got it." And this poor girl with her turned around with a day-old, still-pink-around-the-edges, big black Wu Tang W. It just broke my heart. I was like, "I'm sorry. I can't help you." Then I immediately picked up the phone and just started screaming at that other tattoo stop: "You just ruined a girl's life for $80!" . . . I don't want to sound like a hypocrite, because I have tons of terrible tattoos on me. When I'm in a bathing suit I look like the bathroom wall at Max Fish. It's just a mishmash of God knows how many drunken evenings. But I love that. I love not taking myself too seriously. I like that my body isn't that precious, that those moments and emotions are more important to me than keeping everything pretty. But facial tattoos are dangerous. I can still button up put on my normal-guy costume when I want to. But once you have a tattoo on your face, people don't remember your name anymore. You're just that guy with a tattoo on his face.
Photo by Terry Richardson.
DETAILS: In your artwork, you like to use unexpected canvases like burnt tortillas and ostrich-egg shells, but money is more . . . expensive. How'd you get into using currency as a medium?
Scott Campbell: I was playing around, carving into the pages of books. Then one day I had a lot of cash in my pocket and I carved into it the same way. Even with all my tattooed punk-rock rebellion, there was a sense of blasphemy that was really exciting. I started doing stacks of out-of-circulation $1 bills I got from the bank. After the first show I did with money pieces, the gallery got a call from someone who said, "This is Such-and-such Johnson from the Department of the Treasury. I want you to know that what he's doing is illegal. But I'm not calling to scare you. I actually think it's cool, and there are some loopholes I wanted to make you aware of." He's a money nerd—he even bought a piece from the show! He ended up helping me get big sheets of printed currency right off the press. I was like, "Send that guy a Christmas card! Send him flowers for his birthday!"