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scott campbell's got money (and love) on his mind

Brooklyn based artist Scott Campbell's latest exhibition is full of defaced dollar bills, dedicated to love and titled The Smartest Thing I Ever Did Were Stupid Things For Love (we'd do stupid things too if we were married to Lake Bell).

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From painting logos on his friends’ jean jackets to carving skulls into their arms, Scott Campbell is an all round badass. Despite being born in a small town in Louisiana, to a mother who famously hates tattoos, Scott’s inked pretty much everyone under the sun – everyone that is, excluding his wife - dreamy actress Lake Bell, who unlike Scott, hasn’t a single tattoo on her body. For the last couple of years, Scott has been focussing on his artwork, from sculptures made out of money to drawings on the inside of an eggshell, as well as collaborating with Louis Vuitton on a range of men’s bags for spring/summer 11. As his latest exhibition, The Smartest Thing I Ever Did Were Stupid Things For Love, goes down in Switzerland's Galerie Gmurzynska, we drink fizzy water with Scott and chat about serial killers, cigarette smoking vaginas, and good and bad joo joo.

How old were you when you got your first tattoo?
I was 16. I had 20 bucks in my pocket and a fake ID and I went to this terrible, grimy tattoo shop called Dragon Mike's. I was literally like "what can I get for 20 bucks?" and the guy was like "you can get this skull or this butterfly." It was pretty much saying, if you’re a boy you can get the skull and if you’re a girl you can get the butterfly. So I got a little skull on my leg. I didn’t really care what it was, I was just more interested in getting a tattoo.

Any regrets?
No. People are always like "did you regret it?" but I have no regrets, because everything I’ve done has brought me here. 

Have you ever refused to tattoo someone because they were drunk or it was a dare or their idea was just really lame?
For sure. I generally don’t like doing anything negative or self-destructive. Obviously it’s not my place to judge people’s decisions. But if I genuinely think that someone might regret a tattoo one day I won’t do it. I don’t want that joo joo on my hands.

How do you negotiate between what your client wants and your own personal aesthetic?
It is a collaboration, in a way. Tattoo consultations can go so many different ways from them bringing you a design and going "I want this, verbatim" or them coming to you and being like "do whatever you want." I feel like a lot of times people think that it’s more satisfying for the tattoo artist to do whatever he wants but my favourite tattoos are usually when someone comes to me and gives me a place to begin.

Where did you learn your craft?
I started tattooing in San Francisco in the late 90s; I was just a grimy little fuck up kid running around. I was the kid in our little group who could draw, the one who’d always paint the crass logo on the back of everybody’s jean jacket. It went from jean jackets to carving into people’s arms and my landlord kept on bothering me for money every month, so I decided to call it my job.

And how did you transition from skin to sculpture? 
It was pretty organic. It had a lot to do with New York and the art community there. I grew up in a really small town in the south and the art world was something that I read about in books. I just always thought it was this community of people with perfect posture and who used much bigger words than I did. It was just a party that I wasn’t invited to. But once I moved to New York and got to meet and even tattoo these people that I had read about in art history books, it really demystified it for me. I was like "wait, all these people are just fuck ups like me." It was really inspiring to be embraced by that community.

How has your background in tattooing affected your work as a fine artist?
I don’t think it’s possible to keep them separate you know, my hands have been doing tattoos for 16 or 17 years now. Anything I do will in some way reflect that. I like the sense of narrative that tattoos have. You’re taking someone’s emotional situation and coming up with a phrase or a symbol that acknowledges it. I like the spontaneity and light heartedness of tattoos; I think it helps me to not get too serious about the artwork, to always keep it playful and fun. It’s funny, when people talk about tattoos one of the main words that always comes up is "permanent." But of all the mediums that I’ve worked in, tattoos are definitely the most ephemeral. I’ll do a tattoo on someone’s arm and it’s really about that moment. It’s whatever they’re feeling, whatever heartbreak they’re going through, that they want to document on their skin, it’s just for them, just for that moment, and then it’s gone. Whereas with artwork, I’ll make things that will be hung on a wall and have a whole different life. Artwork just resonates a lot further; it gets photographed and goes to museums. A tattoo will just get old and wrinkled.

Also art is typically something that belongs in the public space.
Yeah. There’s no resale value of tattoos. It’s more like a folk art that exists for itself. I mean granted people in our time have tried to commercialise it in whatever way they can with like reality shows and Ed Hardy. But, at the end of the day, tattoos can only be made one by one and by hand. They will always retain a specialness because of that.

I was really interested by your prison work, what was it like hanging out with a bunch of serial killers in Mexico?
It was really amazing. I went down there in reaction to what tattoos have become in mall culture and on TV. It’s frustrating as tattooing is something that I’ve loved for so many years, it’s been such a huge part of my life. I just wanted to be around tattoos that were real and significant, not just aesthetic. Prison tattoos are fascinating. You have this environment that does everything it can to dehumanise a population. Everybody is given an orange suit and assigned a number, and tattoos become your last means to distinguish yourself from the person standing next to you. It’s a severe environment, people are facing whole life sentences; they’re afraid they’re gonna get killed in there. Those tattoos have gravity to them, real meaning. I actually ended up tattooing a lot of them. The prison authorities wouldn’t let me bring tattoo gear in so we just made them [tattoo machine's] from whatever we could find, by melting a toothbrush or bending a spoon. Those machines were my favourite thing to come out of that situation; they were these perfect symbols of that environment. When I got back I did a bunch of really large watercolour paintings of each machine.

Why did you choose watercolour?
It’s just what I know. I’ve tried a bit with oil painting but with watercolour there’s a level of commitment. You can’t take a mark away or move it around.

How come you didn’t want to do hand poked tattoos while you were in there?
I could have but it would have taken longer and they would have come out more crude - which I love - but tattoos that I give I’m really critical of, while tattoos that I get - I’m more in it for the joo joo. A tattoo can be beautiful aesthetically, but if it doesn’t have meaning, it’s nothing, it’s just wallpaper. It’s gotta have good joo joo if it’s gonna mean something.

Do you do yours yourself?
No. Mostly it’s just people I’ve worked with or known for years. One of my favourite tattoos is by a buddy of mine. It was like 2am and we were just hanging out and we thought it would be a brilliant idea to do these hand poked tattoos and so he drew this chicken head on me. It came out so terrible that he tattooed the word "sorry" underneath it. It’s the apology that makes it.

What went down in Mexico afterwards, when you set all your work on fire?
This gallery asked me to do a show there and I agreed, because I really love Mexico. So I went down there and hung all the works and had the opening night, where we sold everything. But as soon as everything sold, the director of the gallery changed and I felt really uncomfortable. He kept quoting the dollar amount of the show and being like "I just made you all this money. You should be grateful." It kind of got to a point where I felt my work was being held hostage and it was all about the money. So me and a couple of friends went to the gallery, took down the works and smashed them on the sidewalk. I looked up and saw a gas station across the street and saw it as a sign that the universe agreed with me. So I just set it on fire. It was really satisfying but when I lit that first match I definitely thought "here goes my career, I’ll just be known as this bratty artist who throws temper tantrums and burns everything down." But actually there are a few people in the art world that I really respect who gave me high fives for it and were really supportive.

Yikes! How did your collaboration with Louis Vuitton come about?
I’m really good friends with Marc Jacobs, I’ve been tattooing him for years and we’ve done a lot of stuff together. He asked me to do it and I just like him.

In terms of Louis Vuitton being a global fashion brand, how did you reconcile that with your more unique, handmade art?
Haha, you mean why did I sell out?

No! I mean did you see it more as "evolving" from one to the other?
I think it’s satisfying to see your work in other mediums and Louis Vuitton has done such great collaborations with artists, I felt like it was a really safe place. And selfishly, I left home at an early age and my parents never really got it, I still don’t think they get what I do. My mum hates tattoos, but with the Louis Vuitton thing, it was the first time my world touched theirs. I sent them one of my bags and they were like, "oh we know what Louis Vuitton is!" It was good to come full circle.

Do you ever look back to art of the past for references or is your work more a commentary on today?
It’s mostly about today. With the money sculptures, I get asked a lot about whether it’s a political statement or some punk rock anti-establishment thing, but I’m not hugely inspired by political work, I’m much more responsive to emotional pieces. I was making these carvings in books, and I liked the texture of it. Then I made some out of money and it caught me by surprise. The first money sculpture I made, I held it in my hands and I was genuinely emotionally moved by it. There was something very blasphemous about destroying all this money, so I wanted to explore that more.

And what about your skulls?
I’ve been carving skulls into desks since the 8th grade and I’ve been carving them into friends’ arms ever since. Skulls will always be relevant, so long as we have them. But in my own work it almost becomes like a mantra.

There’s also a lot of humour to your works, one of my favourites is the vagina smoking the cigarette. Is humour something that’s very important to you?
Hahaha, yeah, for sure. It’s a reminder not to take everything too seriously. It’s funny, I actually thought about that piece the other day. I was at my mother in law’s and she had my book sitting on her table and she’s the sweetest woman in theworld, so supportive. But I was like "I’ve just given this distinguished woman a picture of a vagina smoking a cigarette."

What are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m working on a project that I’m so excited about. I’m doing this charity event with Free Arts NYC, which takes kids out of homeless shelters and bad environments and gets them set up in educational programmes that are art based. Every year they pick a celebrated artist, and this year, I’m theirs. I’ve done a lot of work with kids in prison and I’ve seen how responsive they are to artwork. If anything I do can be of service to them, it makes it all worthwhile. Shit I haven’t actually told anyone about what I’m doing yet. The event is April 30th, so if you give me a call on the 15th, I’ll have a great story for you then.

Scott Campbell's "The Smartest Thing I Ever Did Were Foolish Things For Love," is on view through April 20th at Galerie Gmurzynska Via Serlas 22, St. Moritz, Switzerland.