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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’d also have a hard time finding someone who hasn’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. Having his filigreed lettering etched Written by Kate Willams

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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. Lately, Campbell is also a growing art world star, having held solo shows at O.H.W.O.W. in Miami and Lazerides Gallery in London in the past year. However, most of this—the press, the celebrity, the status—is stuff that Scott Campbell doesn’t really care about it. What’s important to him, what he lives and will probably die by, is tattooing.


cott Campbell grew up in Louisiana, on six square miles of swamp land that his did it in blind faith, without ever knowing whether or not he would get there. But I was

Now I reall y 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

grandfather bought in the 1950s with the hopes of discovering oil. He didn’t, and the like, ‘I can’t do that, I can’t wait 12 years.’ And I realized then that I need to do parcel of earth evolved into a small fishing community. “There’s nothing but dirt bikes something every day that I am proud of to be able to maintain my self-esteem and not and guns out there,” Campbell says. “Now I really romanticize my childhood, but when shoot myself.”

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 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

to be.”

Restless, Campbell and his friends would catch rides into New Orleans, where trouble Tokyo. In 2001, he stepped off a plane in New York and hasn’t left, at least not came easy. It was here that he first became aware of tattoos. “There were a lot of guys permanently.

who worked off shore on these oil rigs, and they had these sun burnt tattoos,” he Saved Tattoo looks more than an art gallery than a tattoo shop. Its walls are flash-free recalls. “Just seeing these old guys in the grocery store with these big blue blotches, I and white. In fact, when the tattoo chairs are moved out, it is a gallery. Campbell and would think ‘That guy’s got stories; that guy’s been places.’ It was the closest thing to I sit in a small back room that is cluttered with computers, tracing paper, photos, pirates that actually existed.”

milagros and a snake in a jar. By his own admission, Campbell has the attention span

In addition to Saved Tattoo, Campbell also runs Mama Tried Studios, the umbrella of a gerbil, but the fact that he’s able to sit in one chair and talk for an hour and a half, under which he works as an illustrator, art director and fine artist. The name is in without getting up to get a drink, change the music, or take a phone call, brings to part a homage to his own mother, a woman who really, really hated tattoos. “She grew mind a focus instilled by his chosen profession. “I was a classic ADD kid, I would start up out there on that bayou in a really rural, working-class blue collar conditions,” drawings all the time and never finish them,” he says. “But you start a tattoo and even Campbell says. “And she was beautiful, she was like the hot girl on the bayou, and if you’re not into it and there’s this part of your brain that says, ‘Dude, this sucks, when she met my dad, who was in the oil business and from a wealthy family, he was you’re screwing up,’ you have to finish it and make it work. I don’t know if I ever would her ticket out of there. I think she associated tattoos with where she grew up and she have had the discipline to make other art if I hadn’t done that thousands of times.” wasn’t very proud of that. She didn’t want her kids to grow up to be what she was

A few years ago, after doing a job for Nike that got him interested in laser

running away from.” Campbell smiles. “And then I based a career on that. Like the one etching, Campbell bought his own laser. It sits in the office next to him, and looks thing she tried to keep me away from is the one thing that I’m now kind of proud of.” unimpressive—kind of like a copy machine. Campbell has used it to etch books, ostrich Campbell’s mother died when he was 16, and he and his father didn’t get eggs, laptops and lately, lots of money. His dollar bill sculptures, which were a big part along so he left Louisiana and finished high school in Houston. From there, he went of his show, Make It Rain, at O.H.W.O.W., consist of designs individually drawn and to Austin and spent two years studying biochemistry. This is maybe the chapter that then etched into a stack of 100 one-dollar bills. If it seems frivolous, spending $100 to doesn’t fit with the rest of Campbell’s story. It’s not easy to picture him as a nebbish in make a piece of art, as he points out, is not actually all that bad. And, he says, “They a lab coat, but Campbell explains this passage as an attempt to make his father proud. feel really amazing to hold, because they have the history of passing through so many “My dad was in oil, then dropped out and went to medical school and became a people’s hands.” Plus, they sell. And quickly. physician. His father was a paleontologist. It was a big science family, and I love the Lettering plays a big role in both Campbell’s work both on and off skin, and his script sciences, I really do, but I remember the day when I was like, ‘I can’t do this. I was is the most identifiable aspect of his art. “What I like most about Scott’s work is that interning in this bacteriology lab, and my best friend was this professor, Sloane it’s so distinct,” says Al Moran, a close friend of Campbell’s and one of the founders of Nelson, who was in his 50s, and he had spent 12 years researching this one bacteria O.H.W.O.W. “I see a lot of art every single day, and there’s so much dissemination of that lived on the surface of leaves. At some point in the bacteria’s metabolism, it information that it’s hard to stand out. Scott’s script and embellishment have a direct released a lot of nitrogen and that was detrimental to plants, so he was trying to figure link to an American movement called The Golden Age of Ornamental Penmanship, out where in the metabolic process this happened.

from the 19th Century. What is amazing is that Scott took this 100-year-old aesthetic,

“And he finally did it. So that was 12 years of his life and he achieved it and reinterpreted it, and made it contemporary and uniquely his. For an artist working published his paper and got his kudos and it was amazing,” Campbell says. “And he today, that’s a major accomplishment.”


ampbell also paints a lot, and while he’s worked with oil and acrylics, he sticks mostly to

Campbell is a natural-born raconteur, and as he brushes his hair out of his eyes, he

I l ove 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

watercolors. “Coming to art through tattooing, it’s easier to relate to watercolors because the smiles—his grin almost cartoonish in the way it spreads across his face, revealing true joy and pigment is transparent. If you put a black line down, it’s going to be there in the final product,” hinting at mischief. “Once, my friend Terry was apprenticing under this guy Tom Slick in Portland. he says. Lately, he’s been working on a series of large, realistic paintings of tattoo guns he helped Terry was the guy in the shop, where if you came in wanting an eagle, Terry would do it for $50, make while spending two weeks in a Mexico City penitentiary, tattooing prisoners. “They’re but if you wanted Tom to do it, it would be $100. No one questioned Tom. He wasn’t a big dude—he really cool, like almost architectural objects but made out of toothbrushes and VCR motors and was small, he was serious, and you didn’t fuck with Tom Slick. So once this guy came in, a logger, Bic Pens that are all super glued together,” he says. “Even just structurally, they’re really and he was drunk and he wanted a tattoo but didn’t want to spend the money on Tom, so he was intriguing, and if you know the purpose, there’s that romantic element as well.”

going to get Terry to do it.” This is clearly a story Campbell has told many times, but one he has

As Campbell discusses this, I can’t help but think that this progressive and humane not grown tired of. “So Terry sits down, and the guy goes, ‘If you screw this up, I’m going to kill act—commissioning an internationally respected tattoo artist to give prisoners something they you, I’m going to beat the shit out of you.’ So Tom walks over, introduces himself and says he’ll do could actually be proud of—seems at odds with the reputation of the Mexican government. It the tattoo and charge the guy the same. So Tom picks up the machine, and then the guy says to turns out that it is: To gain entry, Campbell made fake MTV press passes and brought flowers to him ‘So, you know, if you fuck this up, then I’m gonna have to kick your ass.’ the receptionist. “I’m really, really proud of these passes,” he says, rummaging through the “So Tom sits down, tattoos S-H-I-T on the guy’s arm, pulls out a gun, and says ‘There, now what detritus on his desk, looking for one. “They are so legit looking, it’s like embossed and everything.” the fuck are you going to do about it?’ “ Campbell is practically slapping his knee. “And I’m like, He can’t find it, and he’s pissed with himself, worried that he’s lost it. He sits back down. “My that’s the toughest thing I’ve ever seen in my life! And it is fucking amazing! That was when I contact down there was this guy who’s this featherweight boxer, and he just rolls around Mexico was like, ‘This is real, this is the real deal.’ You can’t learn to tattoo from a correspondence City in a pimped out BMW with a gold-plated .45 in his pants and a pet lion in the backseat. He course. You have to have someone show you, and then you have to learn it on your own.” was my tour guide. It was insane. It was amazing.”

A few weeks prior, Campbell had organized the funeral of Beau Velasco, a good friend

Campbell has always had a love for Mexico and Latin America. A few years ago, after who had overdosed on heroin. Velasco was the only tattoo apprentice Campbell has ever had. “If a breakup with a girlfriend, he bought a motorcycle and headed south out of Brooklyn. He stopped anything, in apprenticing him and taking him on, I saw this beautiful kid who really just needed two and a half months later, when his bike broke down in Peru. “I love putting myself in situations a way to support himself and needed something to focus his energy on and be proud of. That was that I am not 100 percent sure I can get out of, and then seeing if I can get out of them,” he says a good enough reason to teach someone to tattoo,” Campbell says. “But that was a rough one, I of traveling. “It’s good to have that fear now and then.”

don’t think I’ll do that again, the whole apprentice thing. I’m not so proud and arrogant that I

“The guy has lived more than anyone I know, he’s squeezed a few lifetimes into his 30-some odd- think I need to create a legacy. There are enough tattoo artists in the world.” years,” Al Moran says. “When the bike finally brakes down for good, Scott jumps on a plane and Death has been a consistent presence in Campbell’s life over the past year, as he was also extremely goes back home and picks up his life right where he left off. I think what amazes me the most close to Dash Snow. “Yeah, yeah, it’s been a rough summer,” he says. “It was just starting to feel about that is that I could never see myself just picking up and going like that. It sounds amazing normal, and then, fuck. I don’t want to answer my phone now. Dash was amazing, I could go on in theory, but to have the balls to actually put it in practice tells you a lot about the individual. and on for hours about how much I loved Dash. And it was crazy when Dash died, because I just And funny thing is, I got tons of those stories about him!”

went through that a year ago with Heath: Heath was the same age, and had a two-year-old

Campbell doesn’t really look like a tattoo artist, whatever a tattoo artist looks like. I’ve read, daughter. Now, going through my Rolodex, I don’t think I know anyone anymore who could OD. somewhere, that he has the names of four different women tattooed on him, but I’m too Anyone who has problems with that is now dead.” embarrassed to ask. “The top half of me is more deliberate, but my legs, they look like the Campbell has decided that he won’t accept any more bad news this year. Instead, he is planning bathroom wall at Max Fish. They’re a wreck,” he laughs. “But I love them. They look like they’ve a trip to the Amazon, and has several international art shows in the works. And though been places.” There’s something about Campbell that seems refined—he’s hyper-intelligent and Campbell will become more well-known and his stacks of dollar bills will sell for even more and charming, someone who has risen to the top of his field, not because he was dead set on getting more dollar bills, he will still keep tattooing. “If I stopped tattooing, I think the rest of what I there, but because that was where he was destined to be. But he started where everyone starts—at do would lose its specialness as well,” he says. “A lot of what I really fell in love with about the bottom. “At first when I was working in a ghetto street shop in San Francisco, all we would tattooing was just being around these old tattoo artists with their knobby knuckles and all the do was tattoo little gangster kids and Russian mafia dudes, and all I wanted was to work in a nice stories they would sit and tell. And that is one of those things, when I get old and am sitting in shop. But now, I think every good story I have to tell,” he says, “everything in my past that has a convalescent home somewhere, if there’s one thing I want to have, it’s good stories. The rest I given me any grit or sense of reality, has come from working in that shop.”

don’t really care about.”


Scott Campbell