The buzz emanating from Saved Tattoo on a rainy afternoon is enough to set a tattoo junkie’s teeth on edge. It’s a quiet sound, likely to go unnoticed or ignored by anyone who can’t identify it.
But this is Williamsburg, and here—in what is perhaps both New York’s hippest and most mocked enclave—you’d be hard pressed to find someone who would mistake the rattle of a tattoo gun for a dentist’s drill.
You wouldn’t have a much easier time finding someone who hadn’t heard of Scott Campbell. The founder of Saved Tattoo, Campbell has illustrated Camel ads and been the subject of a New York Times Consumed column. His tattoo work is like a badge of identification for New York’s downtown cognoscenti, and having his filigreed lettering etched into your skin signifies that you either know somebody who knows somebody or—as is the case with Marc Jacobs, Sting, Heath Ledger, Lily Cole and the like—that you actually are somebody. As of late, Campbell is also a growing art world star, having had solo shows at O.H.W.O.W. in Miami and Lazerides Gallery in London in the past year.
Most of this, though—the press, the celebrity, the status—is stuff that Scott Campbell himself doesn’t really care about it. What is important to him, what he lives and will probably die by, is tattooing.
As if the buzz didn’t clue you in.
Scott Campbell grew up in Louisiana, on six square miles of swampland that his grandfather owned, having bought it in the 1950s with the hopes of discovering oil. He didn’t, and that parcel of earth instead evolved into a small fishing community. “There’s nothing but dirt bikes and guns out there,” Campbell says. “And now I really romanticize my childhood, but when I was there, I was sick of it. It’s a good place to be from. I don’t know if it’s a good place to be.”
Restless, Campbell and his friends would catch rides into New Orleans, a city that he describes as a place where if you were looking for trouble, you didn’t have to look hard. It was there that he first became aware of tattoos. “There were a lot of guys who worked off shore on these oil rigs, and they had these sunburnt tattoos,” he recalls. “And just seeing these old guys in the grocery store with these big blue blotches, I would think ‘That guy’s got stories; that guys been places.’ It was the closest thing to pirates that actually existed.”
In addition to Saved Tattoo, Campbell also runs Mama Tried Studios, the umbrella under which he works as an illustrator, art director and fine artist, and the name is in part a homage to his own mother, a woman who really, really hated tattoos. “She grew up out there on that bayou in a really rural, working-class blue collar conditions,” Campbell says. “And she was beautiful, she was like the hot girl on the bayou, and when she met my dad, who was in the oil business and from a wealthy family, he was her ticket out of there. I think she associated tattoos with where she grew up and she wasn’t very proud of that. She didn’t want her kids to grow up to be what she was running away from.” Campbell smiles. “And then I based a career on that. Like the one thing she tried to keep me away from is the one thing that I’m now kind of proud of.”
Campbell’s mother died when he was 16, and as he and his father didn’t get along, he left Louisiana and finished high school in Houston. From there, he went to Austin and spent two years studying biochemistry. This is maybe the chapter that doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of Campbell’s story. It’s not easy to picture him as a nebbish in a lab coat, but Campbell explains this passage as an attempt to make his father proud. “My dad was in oil, then dropped out and went to medical school and became a physician. His father was a paleontologist. It was a big science family, and I love the sciences, I really do, but I remember the day when I was like, ‘I can’t do this,’” he recalls. “I was interning in this bacteriology lab, and my best friend was this professor, Sloane Nelson, who was in his 50s, and he had spent 12 years researching this one bacteria that lived on the surface of leaves. At some point in the bacteria’s metabolism, it released a lot of nitrogen and that was detrimental to plants, so he was trying to figure out where in the metabolic process this happened.
“And he finally did it. So that was 12 years of his life and he achieved it and published his paper and got his kudos and it was amazing,” Campbell says. “And he did it in blind faith, without ever knowing whether or not he would get there. But I was like, ‘I can’t do that, I can’t wait 12 years.’ And I realized then that I need to do something every day that I am proud of to be able to maintain my self-esteem and not shoot myself.”
Shortly after this realization, Campbell decamped Texas for San Francisco, where he learned to tattoo, and then he spent four years traveling, living in Spain, Paris and Tokyo. In 2001, he stepped off a plane in New York and has hasn’t left, at least not permanently.
Saved looks more than an art gallery than a tattoo shop. Its walls are flash-free and white and, in fact, when the tattoo chairs are moved out, it is a gallery. Campbell and I sit in a small back room that cluttered with computers, tracing paper, photos, milagros and a snake in a jar. By his own admission, Campbell has the attention span of a gerbil, but the fact that he’s able to sit in one chair and talk for an hour and a half, without getting up to get a drink, change the music, or take a phone call, brings to mind a focus taught to him by his chosen profession. “I was a classic ADD kid, I would start drawings all the time and never finish them,” he says. “But you start a tattoo and even if you're not into it and there's this part of your brain that says, ‘Dude, this sucks, you're screwing up,’ you have to finish it and make it work. I don’t know if I ever would have had the discipline to make other art if I hadn’t done that thousands of times.”
A few years ago, after doing a job for Nike that got him interested in laser etching, Campbell bought his own laser. It sits in the office next to him, and looks unimpressive—kind of like a copy machine. Campbell has used it to etch books, ostrich eggs, laptops and lately, lots of money. His dollar bill sculptures, which were a big part of his show Make It Rain at O.H.W.O.W., consist of designs individually drawn and then etched into a stack of 100 one-dollar bills. If it seems frivolous, spending $100 to make a piece of art, as he points out, is not actually all that bad. And, he says, “They feel really amazing to hold, because they have the history of passing through so many people’s hands.” Plus, they sell. And quickly.
Lettering plays a big role in both Campbell’s work both on and off skin, and his script is the most identifiable aspect of his art. “What I like most about Scott’s work is that it’s so distinct,” says Al Moran, a close friend of Campbell’s and one of the founders of O.H.W.O.W. “I see a lot of art every single day, and there’s so much dissemination of information that it’s hard to stand out. Scott’s script and embellishment have a direct link to an American movement called The Golden Age of Ornamental Penmanship, from the 19th century. What is amazing is that Scott took this 100-year-old aesthetic, reinterpreted it, and made it contemporary and uniquely his. For an artist working today, that’s a major accomplishment.”
Campbell also paints a lot, and while he’s worked with oil and acrylics, he sticks mostly to watercolors. “Coming to art through tattooing, it’s easier to relate to watercolors because the pigment is transparent. If you put a black line down, it’s going to be there in the final product.” he says. Lately, he’s been working on a series of large, realistic paintings of tattoo guns he helped make while spending two weeks in a Mexico City penitentiary, tattooing prisoners. “They're really cool, like almost architectural objects but made out of toothbrushes and VCR motors and Bic Pens that are all superglued together,” he says. “Even just structurally, they're really intriguing, and if you know the purpose, there's that romantic element as well”
As Campbell discusses this, I can’t help but think that this progressive and humane act—commissioning an internationally respected tattoo artist to give prisoners something they could actually be proud of—seems at odds with the reputation of the Mexican government. It turns out that it is: To gain entry, Campbell made fake MTV press passes and brought flowers to the receptionist. “I’m really, really proud of these passes,” he says, rummaging through the detritus on his desk, looking for one. “They are so legit looking, it’s like embossed and everything.” He can’t find it, and he’s pissed with himself, worried that he’s lost it. He sits back down. “My contact down there was this guy who’s this featherweight boxer, and he just rolls around Mexico City in a pimped out BMW with a gold-plated .45 in his pants and a pet lion in the backseat. He was my tour guide. It was insane. It was amazing.”
Campbell has always had a love for Mexico and Latin America. A few years ago, after a breakup with a girlfriend, he bought a motorcycle and headed south out of Brooklyn. He stopped two and a half months later, when his bike broke down in Peru. “I love putting myself in situations that I am not 100 percent sure I can get out of, and then seeing if I can get out of them,” he says of traveling. “It's good to have that fear now and then.”
“The guy has lived more than anyone I know, he’s squeezed a few lifetimes into his 30-some odd-years,” Al Moran says. “When the bike finally broke down for good, Scott jumps on a plane and goes back home and picks up his life right where he left off. I think what amazes me the most about that is that I could never see myself just picking up and going like that. It sounds amazing in theory, but to have the balls to actually put it in practice tells you a lot about the individual. And funny thing is, I got tons of those stories about him!”
Campbell doesn’t really look like a tattoo artist, whatever a tattoo artist looks like. I’ve read, somewhere, that he has the names of four different women tattooed on him, but I’m too embarrassed to ask. “The top half of me is more deliberate, but my legs, they look like the bathroom wall at Max Fish. They're a wreck,” he laughs. “But I love them. They look like they've been places.” There’s something about Campbell that seems refined—he’s hyper-intelligent and charming, someone who’s risen to the top of his field not because he was dead set on getting there but because that was where he was destined to be. But he started where everyone starts—at the bottom. “At first when I was working in a ghetto street shop in San Francisco, all we would do was tattoo little gangster kids and Russian mafia dudes, and all I wanted was to work in a nice shop. But now, I think every good story I have to tell,” he says, “everything in my past that has given me any grit or sense of reality, has come from working in that shop.”
Campbell is a natural-born raconteur, and as he brushes his hair out of his eyes, he smiles—his grin almost cartoonish in the way it spreads across his face, revealing true joy and hinting at mischief. “Once, my friend Terry was apprenticing under this guy Tom Slick in Portland. Terry was the guy in the shop, where if you came in wanting an eagle, Terry would do it for $50, but if you wanted Tom to do it, it would be $100. No one questioned Tom. He wasn’t a big dude—he was small, he was serious, and you didn’t fuck with Tom Slick. So once this guy came in, a logger, and he was drunk and he wanted a tattoo but didn’t want to spend the money on Tom, so he was going to get Terry to do it.” This is clearly a story Campbell has told many times, but one he has not grown tired of. “So Terry sits down, and the guy goes, ‘If you screw this up, I’m going to kill you, I’m going to beat the shit out of you.’ So Tom walks over, introduces himself and says he’ll do the tattoo and charge the guy the same. So Tom picks up the machine, and then the guy says to him ‘So, you know, if you fuck this up, then I’m gonna have to kick your ass.’
“So Tom sits down, tattoos S-H-I-T on the guy’s arm, pulls out a gun, and says ‘There, now what the fuck are you going to do about it?’ “ Campbell is practically slapping his knee. “And I’m like, that’s the toughest thing I’ve ever seen in my life! And it is fucking amazing! That was when I was like, ‘This is real, this is the real deal.’ You can't learn to tattoo from a correspondence course. You have to have someone show you, and then you have to learn it on your own.”
A few weeks prior, Campbell had organized the funeral of Beau Velasco, a good friend who had overdosed on heroin. Velasco was the only tattoo apprentice Campbell has ever had. “If anything, in apprenticing him and taking him on, I saw this beautiful kid who really just needed a way to support himself and needed something to focus his energy on and be proud of. That was a good enough reason to teach someone to tattoo,” Campbell says. “But that was a rough one, I don’t think I’ll do that again, the whole apprentice thing. I’m not so proud and arrogant that I think I need to create a legacy. There are enough tattoo artists in the world.”
Death has been a consistent presence in Campbell’s life over the past year, as he was also extremely close to Dash Snow. “Yeah, yeah, it’s been a rough summer,” he says. “It was just starting to feel normal, and then, fuck. I don’t want to answer my phone now. Dash was amazing, I could go on and on for hours about how much I loved Dash. And it was crazy when Dash died, because I just went through that a year ago with Heath: Heath was the same age, and had a two-year-old daughter. Now, going through my rolodex, I don’t think I know anyone anymore who could OD. Anyone who has problems with that is now dead.”
Campbell, he has decided, is not accepting any more bad news this year. Instead, he is planning a trip to the Amazon, and has several international art shows in the works. And though Campbell will become more well-known and his stacks of dollar bills will sell for even more and more dollar bills, he will still keep tattooing. “If I stopped tattooing, I think the rest of what I do would lose it’s specialness as well,” he says. “A lot of what I really fell in love with about tattooing was just being around these old tattoo artists with their knobby knuckles and all the stories they would sit and tell. And that is one of those things, when I get old and am sitting in a convalescent home somewhere, if there's one thing I want to have, it's good stories. The rest I don't really care about.”