“The first tattoo I ever got is still one of my favourites,” recounts tattoo artist and Marc Jacobs’s latest collaborator at Louis Vuitton, Scott Campbell. “I was 16 at the time and still two years shy of the legal tattoo age. I went into the shop and was overwhelmed by the choices. The guy behind the counter got bored with my indecision and said, “If I asked you what you like, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?” And that’s how I have S-E-X on my leg.”
Growing up on the outskirts of New Orleans, Campbell’s mother died when he was 16 and he left home, “falling in with a bunch of literary punk kids in San Francisco.” A friend persuaded him to try tattooing, eventually finding the money to buy him his first tattoo machine. For Campbell, it was a revelation. “I was a 20-year old kid with a passport and a pistol, avoiding responsibility at all cost,” he says. “Tattooing was a world that I was in love with. It was this really romantic criminal lifestyle where I could draw pictures all day and make cash pretty much anywhere in the world. I moved around a lot, and I loved the anonymity. Every few months I could pack up my gear and head to the next city to find a clean slate and an opportunity to reinvent myself. Eventually the world got smaller and smaller, and I came to New York, which I fell in love with instantly.”
Opening his studio, Saved Tattoo in Williamsburg, in 2004, Campbell came to ink celebrities such as Courtney Love, his close friend, the late Heath Ledger, and it was here he formed a longstanding friendship with Marc Jacobs. “He's a constant inspiration, and a dear friend,” says Campbell of the designer. “The way he takes in things around him is amazing. I’ve never known him to judge anything prematurely, but gives his honest, emotional reaction to it.”
Joining an illustrious lineup of artists ranging from Richard Prince to Stephen Sprouse and Takashi Murakami, Jacobs recruited Campbell to work on Louis Vuitton’s S/S11 menswear collection, festooning the “digital bohemians” Jacobs and his creative director, Paul Helbers, had dreamed up with temporary tattoos based on Chinese astrology, and also rendering his intricate artwork onto exquisitely laser-cut leather bags.
Aside from fashion, Campbell has been making a name for himself in the art world, with two acclaimed solo shows at OHWOW, and an upcoming show in the works with Wes Lang based on the Mexican Day of the Dead. “I was a bit unsure at first of entering the art world,” he says. “I didn’t have much understanding of their expectations or etiquette. I had the notion that I had to adjust what I was doing to fit art history's expectations of what an innovative artist is supposed to produce, and sweep my blue-collar past under the rug. But my hands have been carving people’s stories into their hides for 11 years, and I’m sure that anything I produce will be affected by those experiences. It didn’t take long for me to realise that if I’m going to make art, it has to be as honest as possible.”
But can tattoo art retain its punk rock heritage when the likes of Samantha Cameron are papped with dolphins on their ankles? The increasing ubiquity of the tattoo is something Campbell warily acknowledges. “Tattooing was an underground folk art for so long, full of misfit craftsmen and criminals that didn't fit into the real world. It was a way for them to survive off the grid. As it’s gained more and more exposure, it's lost a bit of that seedy underbelly charm. But rather than sit around and be bitter and spiteful, I feel like it’s important to focus on the aspects of tattooing that I really love. There’s not that many things left in the world that have evaded technological advances so well.”
Naturally, working so close to the skin brings out a visceral response in Campbell. “I look down at myself even now and I don’t really see the pretty, perfect tattoos. I lean more towards the ones driven by real emotion – the scratchy drunken love stories, the tear-stained homage to dead friends and family, the fuck-the-world punk rock pledges. You sit there with good friends in the first hours of the morning with a safety pin and some ink, and the whole world is a perfect place as long as the sun never comes up. That's a recipe for an amazing tattoo. Nothing bad can come of that.”
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