What does underground mean to you?
That’s an interesting question. I think underground, basically, means not mainstream. Nowadays it seems to refer to something that is ffnot pop”. It connects more to the avant-garde. It’s about the alternative thinking, thinking outside the box, things that may be seen as unusual to the greater part of the society. I think the Underground changes, for a long time in New York tattoos were underground which meant there was only small niche group that was interested, like the Rock ‘n’ Roll, that kind of thing. The Underground questions the authority, convention and things like that. I don’t want to say it’s not normal but in a way it’s not normal. But what’s not normal eventually becomes normal, if you look for example at tattooing. It has certainly gone from being underground and thought of as criminal, military, or tuff guy, type of niche. That’s what tattooing was for many years. It has now entered into the mainstream. And once you go from the underground to the mainstream then it becomes more common, more well-known, more reproduced, more just about money, it becomes more of a business. And I think that’s a big part of the difference.
The mainstream is where the message that everybody understands is. In the underground the message only speaks to the people that understand the language that is spoken. Like subculture. Like when Punk once had its own language, had its own look, its own fashion. That was the language that people in Punk understood. But eventually parts of Punk became mainstream.
But isn’t that natural? When people taste the money they lose the underground sense of their work. Maybe we shouldn’t worry when something that started in the underground becomes popular or more commercial.
If it does become more popular and commercial the chances of it being saved and being a part of history are greater than if it remained in the underground. There are many art forms in the underground that disappear and if you don’t protect them and document them, like I try to do, then they disappear. So that’s a part of the process, trying to preserve and to save those essences.
It’s very difficult to become an icon. How did you do that?
I didn’t plan it, but by doing the same thing for many years and becoming recognized for it and fighting for it, it’s what you become recognized as doing. You acquire a public persona. What turned it around, for me, was the next generation.
In a way, they discovered me. The people who made Captured are kids in their 20’s. The fact that I also captured a part of New York that will never be again, resonated with them. The bowels of the Lower East Side were always a fertile ground for the next generation to draw their inspiration from. From its history and the remnants left behind, from people who came out of poverty, from German Lutherans to German Jews, the starving Irish, Polish survivors, then eventually Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. The seekers of freedom expanding their wings and learning to deal with original ideas and making them work. Many new art forms came out of these struggles. It was cheap rent and an inexpensive lifestyle that made so much possible. The ingredients attached to struggle and survival was the soil that produced so much of America’s creative contributions.
But now money has changed everything in such a way it will never be the same again. Those kids, who made Captured, made the movie because they knew I captured the end of that period. Like in tattooing – Herbert Hoffman for example – people were doing copies, ,ash, that period is gone, almost finished. Tattooing was all about the copying; now the desire is for an original piece.
What do you think about the modern New York tattoo scene?
Once something becomes mainstream, so popular, with the TV shows and all that, it just becomes something of an entity itself. What I discovered, back in 1995, when I started coming as a Guest Star to Jochen Auer’s Wildstyle and Tattoo Messe, as a whole, Austria and Germany were about five years behind New York at the time. Poland was probably eight to ten years behind, maybe more. By the time you got to the year 2000 Austria and Germany were in the same place as America. And now Poland is in the same place.
Now there are Polish Art Stars at all the conventions like the New York City tattoo conventions. First working Polish artist I met was tattooing at a Wildstyle and Tattoo Messe show in Bad Ischl Austria, and, by now, the level of artists is the same as everybody else’s. And then you look at China now and they have many artists who have reached that place too.
Starting in the mid 1980’s the Tattoo Society of New York nurtured much of the NYC underground tattoo scene. In 1961 it became illegal to tattoo in NYC. It was near impossible to learn to tattoo in NYC and there were few shops. The cities where it was legal were the places where an artist went seeking fame and glory.
The Tattoo Society allowed people to get together, to learn. During this period of time tattooing was exploding in the places where it was legal. Books like Ed Hardy’s Tattoo Time, ReSearch’s Modern Primitives, were well placed on bookstore shelves and tattoo magazines were becoming popular reading. !at whole late 80’s early 90’s next generation NYC tattoo wave came out of the Tattoo Society of New York. Sean Vazquez, Michelle Myles of Daredevil, Paul Booth, Anil Gupta, Wes Wood, Tattoo SEEN, they came out at the same time, because the Tattoo Society opened it up and made it possible. !ere was a no way to learn tattooing in New York. Since the TSNY was NYC the core base was diverse. A guy like Wes Wood was the intellectual, engineering type, who was interested in how the machines worked, the rules and regulations related to health and medical issues, the legal rules, not so much the craft, more the intellectual side. Wes searched out old-timers and he learned how to make machines and needles and inks, so he would then pass on information to Sean, Michelle, Anil, Craig of Abstract Tribal, Emma of Porcupine, and all those other people. Once it became legal, suddenly you have 200 tattoo shops in New York. It loses its preciousness and uniqueness. But you get a lot of quality choice because the quality now is fantastic. I like the older stuff, the rugged stuff, even that really shitty Punk stuff, it’s attractive.
I was lucky because when I traveled through East Germany with Wildstyle, the Wall was down by that time, so I was able to photograph quite a few East German prison tattoos, which are different than Russian prison tattoos. Political images like a tattoo of a Stazi boot print tattoo on the ass. I feel I was lucky to capture those tattoos. These old regime tattoos are quickly getting covered.
They say that in Russia there are only two school of tattooing: the prison and the realistic.
Here, prison tattoos exists. What gets the most coverage is the West Coast prisons, the Hispanic prison gangs.
What was the most difficult aspect of your decision to leave New York City?
The hardest part really is leaving my friends and what I have created. I am very attached to the Lower East Side. The L.E.S. is a large part of my persona. I’m established here, I have a lot of things going on here. Each life has a certain determination to it. When you get to a certain age and have certain things going on, like Elsa, she’s not as healthy as she was, and she’s half the act. So I’m losing half the act and I can’t run the whole thing by myself. So that forces me to do something. !e system that we have here rolls over you. It’s like running in a race, if you can’t do it they hook you out. Everything now is about money and if you can’t get into that game, then you can’t be here. It’s really that brutal here.
The genius behind New York was a cheap rent and inexpensive lifestyle. I think it’s a mistake that Bloomberg made the city money oriented and expensive because all of the genius, what grew out of the ground, is what made New York and America great. If you look at Lower East Side history, you’ve had the artists like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Madonna, Jimi Hendrix all of the great names because they could afford to be here. All the jazz people, Charlie Mingus, Charlie Parker, Don Cherry, and the clubs where musicians like Thelonious Monk, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and so on played here.
But for those people to get recognized, like with the underground, it takes a lot of time. Artists like Jackson Pollock, a lot of them were in their 50’s or 60’s before they achieved financial security, even though they had the fame. How can you wait that long to get that kind of recognition? You can’t do it here now.
How many years did it take you to get to this point with your magazine?
About 20 years to learn everything to get to this point? And if during those 20 years you had to pay the same rent you’re paying now, that’s a problem. Unless you start off rich it, takes that kind of time and effort to get to your place. So you came from the underground and you’ve put all your time and effort to get here. It came hard. When you get older, if you can’t keep up here you lose it all. I don’t have any other family; it’s just Elsa and me. I know a lot of people but it’s basically us. So going to Austria is a way to secure my archive and other things. It’s all about trying to survive.
Don’t you think that you’re going to destroy the myth of America as a ffdream-come-true” land?
Have you seen the New York Times piece about me? It was huge. But in a city of 12 million people who cares if someone’s leaving? It’s not about me, I’m just a symbol. It’s about the end of possibility for a lot of people. It’s about the loss of opportunity for the people who think like me.
The young musicians and friends of the band DAMEHT put together a major two person art show for Elsa and I. If these young people can keep it going then that’s a different story.
It’s like having a tattoo magazine – people love it, people want to be in it, but it probably doesn’t make you a lot of money. It probably just pays for itself, it gets you here, it gets you to conventions, but you don’t have a house at the beach, a house in the hills, it’s still a struggle. And people will look at the magazine and imagine that you are making millions of dollars but it’s not true. But in a way it should be true. Hopefully at a certain point it all comes together, your business and hard work, but you don’t know that. So your magazine puts you in the same boat that I am in.
If you stop the possible emergence of a Jackson Pollock or a Jimi Hendrix, you’re killing the future. They came from the ground up. They didn’t come from the top. The top doesn’t tend to produce great stuff. So to answer your question, it is not me who is killing the American Dream. It is the take-over by major international corporations. I differ from the people in power who say corporations are people. Corporations are not people.
The most important shows on TV are the housewives shows. Manufactured icons with very little cultural content to offer. We no longer have worthy cultural heroes and icons to look up to. They give us the Housewives, the Jersey Shore airheads, the Kardashians, Paris Hilton, and so on. Bloomberg forced out many of the small independent businesses, like coffee shops and brought in the major chain store, cookie cutter businesses, like Dunkin Donuts. Whereas before all the corporate coffee places like Starbucks, the coffee shop is where people hung out, met each other, socialized.
The small independent restaurants and coffee shops is where the energy got generated and ideas came together. Like when you created that magazine, you didn’t do it by yourself – there was a bunch of people talking: let’s make a magazine! How can we make a magazine? Oh, I don’t know, you do this and I’ll do that. Oh, I found a printer, oh I can write, this guy takes pictures – it’s an energy, it’s not from the rich people, it’s from the bottom, from the hard work, the ideas and the pushing and the turning… And that’s where the greatness comes from. Otherwise the magazine wouldn’t be there.
First, you had the possibility – in the Communist times you probably never could have done that. So it’s great that you can now do that. But on a certain level you know as well as I do, when you go to Berlin and all those cities there is all this exciting activity happening you don’t really see here. Here you see people going to bars and getting drunk but not so much art. Because there are no cafés where people can hang out, because it’s too expensive. Before, let’s say in the 80s, I have three dollars in my pocket. I want to take you out for breakfast ‘cause you’re that big deal from Poland who’s got a magazine. It’s a 99 cents breakfast. You have a choice of three different kinds of toast, you can have rye, white, or pumpernickel, 2 eggs any way you want them, orange juice, pan-fried potatoes, unlimited coffee. So your breakfast is 99 cents, my breakfast is 99 cents, you give a dollar to the waiter so he’s happy ‘cause he’s got a price of the whole breakfast. So for 3 bucks you and I sit there and talk for 2 hours, drink coffee all the time and we make something happen. Nowadays these possibilities are gone – they don’t have many community coffee shops anymore because they cannot afford the rent. The conflict now is not democracy versus fascism or communism. It is democracy versus corporate capitalism.
In 1979, I moved from western Canada to the Lower East Side of NYC. The L.E.S. was a very ethnically mixed neighborhood. For me, it was an easy adjustment to deal with the food and culture of the Polish, Ukrainian, and Chinese because western Canada has a lot of Polish, Ukrainians and Chinese people. The L.E.S. had such a wide variety of different, inexpensive restaurants to choose from: you had the Polish, with pierogis, kielbasas, beet soup. You had those little individually owned Japanese, Russian, Jewish, Irish. Chinese, Tibetan, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican and Mexican restaurants with all their different foods. And then you had the cultural mix: filmmakers, artists, poets, writers, musicians, toy makers, and so on. Each cultural niché had a wide variety of art forms; for example – film: underground, avant-garde, independent, mainstream. It was educational just to be here because you meet all these people like Jim Jarmush, Tom DeVita, Joe Coleman, Allen Ginsberg. You had the whole mix here and all the different creativity fed each other.
Now it’s so narrow that when you go to the corporate coffee shop people are on their computer, or cell phone, or Twittering to each other so that reservoir of accessible knowledge doesn’t exist anymore in the same way. Maybe you’ve got Bushwick and this new art community, but it’s brand new. The L.E.S. culture went back over 150 years. The roots were deep. Each different generation left something behind. For example in the community, going back to the mid-1800’s, you could find art, artifacts, architecture, businesses, left behind from the Irish, the Russians, from the German Lutherans, from the Jews. Moving up through the decades, you could find traces left behind, representing all the various cultural movements that passed through the community: the Yiddish Theater, the Beats, the Hippies, the Punks, the Unbearables, and so on.
Because most people on the L.E.S. lived in small tenement apartments or in projects, street culture was extremely important. It was on the street corners where much of the American culture grew out of: Break Dancing, Hip Hop, the Mafia, street gangs, sport stars. Go back through old paintings and photographs and see how active the street were: Hispanics playing dominos, musicians playing music, kids playing games, sports, people looking out their windows, sitting on stoops, street gangs, drag queens, the iceman, pushcarts with fruit or food.
Starting with Giuliani, there was a strong push to stop people gathering on street and on street corners. Cops would tell people hanging out to move or be arrested. !e icemen had their carts confiscated, the push to eliminate push carts businesses; many of the street book sellers were harassed out of business. On the L.E.S. most of the old street life no longer exists.
Many families have been forced out. Most of the long term small businesses are gone. The area has been gentrified. Gone are most of the familiar and notable clubs, coffee shops, individually owned restaurants, dive bars. Gone are most the typical businesses that a community needs to stay livable: the baker, the butcher, the tailor, the community grocery store, the shoemakers, dry-cleaners. Corporations like New York University have purchased large pieces of real estate, expanding the campus, building dorms, and tearing down the past.
The development is luxury apartments and hotels. The economic push is for corporate cookie cutter businesses or high-end bars and expensive eating establishments. In the small section of the L.E.S. where I live defined by Allen to Essex Street, Houston to Delancey Street there are more bars than in any other area of the city. The neighborhood will soon have four new luxury skyscraper hotels. Because of the bars, tourists, transient students, to the people who live here, this section has become known as Hell Square.
Gone is inexpensive and affordable. It was affordable to live here. You could have had a big meal for $4.50, you could’ve afforded that. Now the breakfast is $12. So it’s lost a lot and they are paying a big price for it and I think it’s a big mistake. Society is embracing companies like Monsanto that genetically alters the seeds which produces our food. Monsanto is a chemical company which produced industrial compounds used in the making of plastics, adhesives, paint, and products like Agent Orange, DDT, PCB’s all highly toxic to live forms.
What about Obama?
I don’t know the guy. There is nothing about him that I know. Who is he? What does he really think? What does he represent? My interest is local. He has not developed a public persona.
Do you think that the underground is going to move somewhere else?
Maybe Detroit? It could be possible. Look, after WWII the muse left Paris – 1980s, you went to Paris to be an artist? Whoops, you made a big mistake. Paris was finished. It was a great city, it had great museums, food, people and many other things. !e history, Delacroix, Picasso, the Impressionists, the Surrealists, all the different schools… but after WWII it was finished. Like Italy, what major art movement came from Italy after the Renaissance? Not much for 500 years. I’m not saying they don’t have good artists. The food is great, it’s a beautiful place, Rome is great.
It’s all about the energy, the muse. I think the muse is in China. !e artists you hear about internationally… do you hear about any American or European artist who represents the culture or the politics? Who does that? I can’t think of a particular artist who would represent America. England? Banksy?
Let’s talk about your cultural contributions.
My cultural contribution was made with a hand-held consumer available camera on the night of August 6th – 7th, 1988. In large part, it was my video and my resistance to handing over my original videotapes to authorities that caused the riot of that night, classified as a police riot.
At that time recognized professionals used high-end, expensive, professional equipment. The professional camera people usually had a lot of extra baggage: a sound and light person, many heavy batteries, a large recording device, and a heavy, metal body, shoulder carried camera. My camera was light made of plastic, good in low light, built in mic, used 2 hour tapes and was a consumer available piece of equipment. !is was the first time such a camera was used in this kind of way. The police were not intimidated by it. Big mistake. It developed into a historical statement. !is tape broke new ground.
My resistance to turn over the original tapes generated much press. I landed in State Supreme Court – then was sent to jail for contempt of court – went on a hunger strike and was defended by famous radical lawyers. Eventually I won my point, which was I am an artist and that tape is one of my art works and it belongs to me. Yes they can have a copy. I had a point of view and a reason to fight. On the Oprah Winfrey show I said: “Little brother watching Big Brother”. That was a big statement and millions of people saw that. It meant that any individual with a camera (which can be a power weapon used to protect one’s democratic rights) can hold the authorities and the police accountable for their actions on the street. !at was the beginning of a whole new digital age and I was on the frontier of that. Making strong public statements can bring a person a certain amount of the historical significance, recognition, and fame. Because I exposed the police involved in illegal activities, most of my work remained in the underground. This kind of artistic activity doesn’t make you money, because the establishment sees exposure as a threat to their society.
I’ve been lucky to make more than one cultural contribution. With the Clayton Cap, I was the first person to put a label, a brand, on the outside of a baseball cap, the first person to have embroidery going around the hat, the first to do the custom caps with original designs. I changed the direction of the American baseball cap.
In all of this when I say I, I include Elsa Rensaa, my partner, now wife, of over 40 years. As she says in the movie Captured – “We are Clayton.” I would not even be here if not for her.
I was involved with the tattoo in NYC. In 1986, Ari Rousimoff and I started the Tattoo Society of NY. Ari made a movie, “Shadows in the City”, using a number of people from the TSNY. I was the creative director. By 1990, Ari moved on and Elsa and I ran the club. As I said before, the TSNY helped open up opportunities for a whole new wave of young talented artists. Remember, in 1961, a law was passed making it illegal to tattoo in NYC.
In 1995 I was contacted by Jochen Auer of the Wildstyle and Tattoo Messe in Austria. He needed famous American tattoo artists and sideshow performers. I provided that talent. This opened up the door for a number of American artists, as well, as introducing Austrian and German artists to the Americans. Wildstyle and Tattoo Messe is not a convention, but it was the first large-scale international tattoo event in Austria. The show traveled throughout Austria and Germany, always pulling in a large audience wherever we went. It exposed countless numbers of people to a whole new form of tattoo art done by highly skilled artist.
In 1997, a person who worked in the o0ce, Kathryn Freed, my City Councilwoman, wanted a tattoo. Ms. Freed was a little surprised it was illegal to get a tattoo in NYC. Since I had been involved in street politics, and was the president of the TSNY, she came to me and we spoke about this fact. Eventually, Wes Wood, Kathryn Freed and I engineered the process, which made it legal to tattoo, once again, in NYC. !ere was one critical meeting, where all the artists came out to vote on who should represent the tattoo community. Coney Island Freddy was our main opponent. He was old school and also has lost the 60’s case. !e turning point was when Steve Bonge stood up in our favor and explained that Wes and I had a record of doing good work for the tattoo community. It took almost a year to make it happen, but we won. It was now legal to tattoo in NYC.
Steve Bonge, Butch Garcia, Wes Wood, formed the partnership that created the NYC International Tattoo Convention. I was the organizer for 16 out of the 17 conventions. Wes Wood dropped out as a partner after the first year, but stayed on as a vendor. The venue was the historic Roseland Ballroom. Roseland was located in heart of mid-town Times Square area. Sadly Roseland is now being demolished.
A part of my journey has involved taking things from the underground or common places and helping move them closer to the mainstream. But the bulk of my work is more connected to the underground and aren’t things that the society really highly praises. It gives me certain recognition and fame but the mayor is not coming down saying: hey, stand up, Clayton’s here. Society is not trying to save me. I represent the bohemian way. A lot of my messages have been seen as anti-social. I’ve been involved in radical politics, including a number of arrests, fighting gentrification, attempting to keep out of my neighborhood the major corporations and stop the expansion of New York University. I like capitalism but small-time capitalism, not the super-corporate capitalism that wants to wipe out small, independent businesses. And that’s what’s happening in America – corporations buy up all the venues, radio stations, TV stations, the media outlets. So you lose all the individual voices and to do that is really critical to capitalist freedom.
Didn’t you want to go back to Canada? Why Austria?
Can you imagine Poland in 1953? Would you like to go there? That’s what Western Canada is like for me. I generated a certain amount of recognition here among the young kids in America, but I never received any kind of recognition in Canada.
I have good friends in Austria. Jochen Auer’s Wildstyle and Tattoo Messe show introduced me to many people and a good number became friends. All the people I know in Austria work hard at what they do and are talented.
What is the future of the New York City Tattoo Convention?
Steven Bonge and Butch Garcia own it and we’ll have to wait and see what’s going to happen with it, where it goes.
What were the greatest achievement and the worst failure of the New York Tattoo Society?
You can say they are both the same thing. !e biggest achievement was probably the legalization of tattoos. Now the other side of making it legal is that we have 200 tattoo studios. So it’s the best and it’s the worst. But the best part from the point of view of something important and unique or inspiring it’s the fact that the Society created this environment that so much came out of. I’ll give you an example of the meeting. The biggest meeting we had, was for about 600 people because Sally Jesse Raphael, a TV talk show, came to document a meeting, so that meeting set the record for largest attendance.
The meetings were open and friendly, and people shared because there was a need for it. There wasn’t any other way you could learn and it was a safe friendly environment. Before, if you opened a tattoo studio somebody could break your window. By having people come together, !e Society stopped all that. We always had big meetings, 200 people – no problem… we had contests and all that. But the moment tattooing was made legal, at the next meeting we had like 6 people. Because now everybody was everybody’s competition.
Wes Wood and I were involved in the legalization. Our goal was to make the rules and regulations fair to as many artists as possible. But, unfortunately, there were tattooists in the background, trying to figure out how to make the law only work for them and nobody else. Some of them wanted rules and regulations so an artist would almost have to be a doctor to practice the craft. I’ve even seen this at one tattoo convention in Europe. There was a guy dressed up in the whole doctor’s outfit, as if you had to be a doctor to be a tattooist. It was making impossible for people just to have a business.
Whose idea was it to form the New York Tattoo Society?
Ari Roussimoff’s and mine. In 1986 there was Roger Kaufman who started Tattoo and Body Art Society of NY. TBASNY – which was meant to include: tattoo, body-art, hair dressing, piercing – which at that time was a total taboo because all those old tattoo artists were like: are you kidding, hairdressing? No way! Piercing? You have some guy with a thing stuck in his dick, are you crazy? Don’t bring that shit around here! So Roger couldn’t maintain it anyway and he was giving it up, so Ari and I took it over. And eventually Ari moved on and I kept it going.
During the time tattooing was illegal, was there something like the Coney Island Tattoo Show?
I used to be part of that. I worked with Dick Zigun, the head person at Coney Island Sideshow by the Seashore. For a number of years we had large shows. !ese were tattoo shows, but they were just showing the tattoos, not making them.
You also had an art gallery. Tell us about it.
I did a lot of different shows down here. !is ground ,oor store-front was the gallery. We showed a lot of people, some that went on to become famous like Dash Snow. My concentration was not on the mainstream, but more outsider art, art closer to the fringe, those who had a clear direction, a strong point of view, a vision, who were following an inner voice. They had to be good. Artists like ► Charles Gatewood. Manwoman, ► Boris Lurie, ► Jerry Pagane, ► Herbert Huncke, ► Spider Webb, ► Tom DeVita. Much of this information is on my section of the ► NO!art site. And be sure to know that Dash Snow and Joey SEMZ (R.I.P.) were both masters.
The NO!art website (► http://no-art.info) is designed and operated by ► Dietmar Kirves in Berlin. Dietmar is one of the old-school Germans who does everything the right way.That site is unbelievable; it’s a total blessing for me to have somebody with Dietmar’s talent putting my material on a website. He’s in his 70’s now. That NO!art site is a library over, owing with content.
And then I started doing the history books. A big part of the idea behind the books is being like a game. Getting out of the underground takes you years and a lot of people I know are highly talented, like Spider Webb, who really don’t have their place in the larger society, where they are accepted and respected. For example – there is a woman that calls herself Pulsating Paula, it’s a very sexual name, she used to be a stripper. She took photography in the early days of tattooing and she went to serious biker places… she was a pioneer in tattoo magazine photography, but she’s not part of the mainstream so by now she’s forgotten. She was one of the first magazine tattoo photographers. Her work showed up in places like Easy Rider magazine.
So the idea with the books. Let’s say in the book ► Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side, you have Allen Ginsberg, who is famous, and you have Lionel Ziprin, or somebody else who is not famous, but they may be an even greater poet but it might take 20 more years to be discovered. And, in my opinion, a lot of times those people are more interesting and harder to get to. The books are anthologies, meaning they are a collection of articles written on a particular subject, and done by people connected to the idea. It is not just my opinion one is reading, but the facts come from the people written about. I have done ► Resistance: A Radical Social and Political History of the Lower East Side, ► Captured: A Film and Video History of the Lower East Side, ► Front Door Book, ► Legends of the Lower East Side (a coloring book), ► Wildstyle: The History of a New Idea (with Jochen Auer), and I am working on ► Street Gangs of the L.E.S., and a NY Tattoo history anthology.
I used to show the tattoo artist, Tom DeVita who is now 88. A show of Tom’s work can now generate 10’s of thousands of dollars. For decades Tom used to be underground. I showed a lot of interesting people. And Spider Webb, of course. He moved from NY as well.
In American tattooing, Spider’s Pushing Ink is the most important book of the 20th century. It’s way more important than Ed Hardy or any of those other books because it was done in the 70’s. If you go through that book, you’ll find conceptual tattoos, vampire tattoos, food tattoos, genital tattoos, freehand tattoos, artists with their own original style.
Ed Hardy comes from West Coast, where it is a little easier to work, a little bit more subdued; there is more time, more space. Ed Hardy did the book series Tattoo Time, but it was just pictures. No question about it, Ed Hardy is Mr. Tattoo America, if anyone is, and his series were very important books, but that’s later in the 80’s. Spider Webb was already out there. Annie Sprinkle and Spider Webb were important because they brought together Fine Art and Performance, limited edition art books with original tattoo related art pieces. Ed came out of the printmaking tradition based on copying, reproducing and craftsmanship.
Spider offered different alternative views on tattooing, and Annie was among the people that brought sex to tattooing. Annie was like a vehicle. People came to her place to get tattooed and pierced, and Fakir Musafar would do piercing workshops at her place. Annie attracted a lot of bright people around her, one of them being Spider (and Les, here). Because of Spider’s buffoonery some people looked at him as a bit like a joke, but the Spider is as crazy as a fox. If you step back and you look at, for example, just one of Spider Webb’s 20 books, Heavily Tattooed Women, the introduction was written by Marcia Tucker. Early in her career, Marcia Tucker, had been a curator at the Whitney Museum. She left it to start the New Museum. This collaboration between Spider and Tucker was one of the first serious hard-core connections between high-brow fine art and tattoo.
People say you can tell if someone’s sophisticated or well off by checking out their shoes. And Spider always has good leather shoes that are polished. But then Spider was also in the Navy. On a certain level Spider is a complete contradiction. Totally out of his mind, anarchistic, but on the other level he is a Navy guy. In a lot of ways he is very conservative. In the tattoo world, in a lot of ways, that’s contradictory.
It was always one of Ed Hardy’s ambitions to connect highbrow fine art and tattoo. Ed was one of the other main forces to bring tattoo into the art world. To connect branded designer fashion and tattoo imagery in a mass market way. Very Pop.
Prior to Spider’s book, there were very few books to be purchased: 1933 Tattoo, Secrets of a Strange Art by Albert Parry, 1958 Burchett’s Memoirs of a Tattooist, 1974 Art, Sex, and Symbol: The Mystery of Tattooing by R.W.B. Scutt and Christopher Gotch, 1979 Spider’s Pushing Ink. Then, in 1982, Tattoo Time, which was important, no question. It brought the topic to the general public; it turned tattoos into sexy news. At the end of the 80s you had Modern Primitives and that book became extremely important. And that was it!
And now there are hundreds of books, they are everywhere. The list of books will show you how much the history has changed. The thing that is very hard to get is the history of the magazines. In the beginning, most of the people who published tattoo magazines also published porn. But finding the history of the tattoo magazines is hard.
Like Casey Exton, he was one of the first. Dian Hansen was one of the first people who started putting tattoos in a magazine, which was Outlaw Biker. And then later came Pat Reshen, who did ITA and porn. Porn and tattoos – that was the magazine culture. And the Mafia would be doing the distribution. !at was a part of the history of tattooing culture. Nowadays, the business is very different. ITA started because Debbie Ullman came to me at the Tattoo Society. She had been working at Outlaw Biker and had talked to Pat Reshen who wanted to start a tattoo magazine. So Debbie became the vehicle because she had the experience. I introduced her to Jonathan Shaw. That was one of the things the Tattoo Society did, hooking all this stuff up. It’s important to save this history. And the parts that you don’t know are the parts that most of the people forget. Steve Bonge was very important in the history of tattoo photography.
How do you come up with the idea of the custom baseball caps?
I am walking down Avenue A and on 12th Street I see this little shop. I go inside and I realize this guy makes baseball caps. And I think, wow, so I could get like an orange peak and a black top, and he said, yeah, no problem. As long as I’ve got the material, I can make it. So he’s an older guy, he makes this hat for me. Little funky, he’s like a folk art kind of guy, but he did what he did. And the guy next door sold baseball stuff, all the equipment, as well as the iron-on Club letters. And so, for the first cap I got some iron on material, I cut out the shape of an octopus and ironed it on and that was my first cap. Then I went back and got some more, because it was like 2 bucks for a cap. One day when I was at the cap making shop, I realized that Ben, the proprietor, made the jacket backs for the Bronx Street gang the Savage Skulls in the Bronx. So I realized that Ben could draw with this embroidery machine, because the Savage Skulls had a skull in the middle.
I said, hey, can you do my drawings, as embroidery, on the sides of my caps. He said, you’re crazy. I said, I’m gonna pay you for it. So he did it. !at was the beginning. But if he hadn’t been there and if the little shop hadn’t been there, and he wasn’t making the whole cap, I would have never got the Clayton Cap started. !e possibility was there. This was 1986. He eventually retired and Elsa took over making the caps and doing the embroidery. She was very good at controlling the machines and took the Clayton Cap to a whole new level. We were able to buy all the machinery we needed to make the caps at bankruptcy sales and going out of business sales. We were the first to put a label on the outside, brand, and do embroidery on the front and around the cap including the peak. We made custom caps. GQ magazine wrote we were one of the 2 best baseball manufacturers in America. Not bad.
You know I have a Polish friend, Lech Kowalski, a filmmaker who made the movie Rock Soup. He also made a documentary about a Polish guy, Lukasz Szyszka who made boots at the Cockney Underground Boot Factory. The film was called, The Boot Factory.
They started in Cracow. The owner of that company is a friend of mine, he’s an old Punk rocker. They had a shop in Berlin, and after that, something happened and the whole company collapsed. Szyszka moved to London.
Lech Kowalski used to live down the street from me. He also made a movie called Gringo – about the skate board heroin addict John Spacely. Gringo was made famous because of a mural on St. Marks made by a downtown paint-maker, Art Guerra. It was the face of John Spacely, the skateboarder, with a patch over his eye with the large word Gringo.
I think Lech moved to Paris, he left New York years ago. So we’re connected in that way. That’s pretty amazing, right?
Let’s talk about your art.
I was always the oddball. I come from the bad end of a working-class neighborhood. And I got into an art school after high school and that was my introduction to the middle class. I did terrible, and it almost killed me. I got into trouble, but through the art thing I worked my way into a university fine art program. But they were pushing us to think exactly as they do. They were not teaching skills just philosophy – their philosophy, so I switched to education. In education they didn’t care what art you made. And then I also found out that I liked printmaking. With printmaking, as long as you learned how to do it technically, it didn’t really matter what the art was about. I always had my own vision, my own point of view and my own way of doing things.
I got a job teaching art in high school, which was good for me, because that meant that I conquered the school thing. I eventually became one of them, one of the teachers. I decided to take some more art courses. I went to Nova Scotia and I took printmaking. I graduated and went back to Calgary where I came from. I taught at the art school that gave me such a rough time.
In Nova Scotia they taught you technique. Really hardcore technique, so I was a really good printmaker. And being a printmaker got me to New York because printmaking was a specialty item. I knew lithography and etching and I could print for people. Elsa and I moved to New York, got a great job working at a famous print shop because there weren’t that many printmakers around. Elsa, in the past, had worked as an art director in the largest commercial print company in Western Canada. Color printing was done with four-color separation. In Nova Scotia, Elsa also did lithography. She started to experiment with hand drawn color separation. She understood that this color on top of this color, gives this color. When we got to NY, when Reagan became President, one of the things he did was he made prints tax shelters. So when Paloma Picasso sold the image rights to a lot of her father’s artwork, Jackie Fine Arts bought the images and they were turning it into prints. And it turned out that this European specialty printer trade skill was the Chromist. Elsa learned how to do that, practicing on her own. In France, a famous artist like Picasso would say, “This is my drawing, make it into a print”. It paid well, $1200 for each color. So Elsa could do that. Some of those prints had like ten colors on them. So we survived like that in the beginning and it was all right. Then eventually tax shelters stopped. But making those prints made me a specialist in an area where most people weren’t. Everybody that went into art school wanted to be a painter. They had 12,000 painters on the block and no printmaker. So it worked out fine, and I always had my own style.
Before coming to NYC, after graduating with an education degree I taught art in a rural high school. We had two different groups of Indians from two different reservations, farmer and town kids. So you have to make the art classes interesting for everybody, as well as an educational experience. I learned a lot about crafts. But I also learned a lot about natural dyes. You could make them out of berries, coffee, Kool-Aid, so we did a lot of experiments. So how do you make a shirt? Since it was the country, I had one kid bring in a sheep and we sheared the sheep and washed the wool. !en, when you touch the wool, you realize it’s all greasy. And that’s where lanolin comes from. And you realize you can take a stick and spin it and make cloth, and weave it together and make a shirt. Even the D students understood how it worked. You got the sheep, you take the wool, you make the lanolin, you make it blue because you’ve got the berries.
If we’re talking about art, it’s art and craft. You touch both. They come together. Sometimes artists don’t do shit. They just do philosophy. Which is more important? What do you think?
The destruction of art was that it became, or it could be just philosophy. In other words, we don’t have to make anything, we can sit here and come up with an idea and the idea could be the art. You’ve got kids coming out of art school that don’t know how to stretch a canvas, they don’t know how to paint, or do any of those things because it’s how you feel that is important. And those craftsmanship qualities are what makes an artist at a certain point.
What is more important?
I think the ones that will make the most important statements are those that have the love, if you really have the love for the art, you’re going to try to learn as much about it as possible. It’s like when you were a kid, you want to learn about motorcycles, you will try to build them and take them apart and put them back together as much as drive them. And in the old days if you had a motorcycle, you had to be able to fix it. So you had to have both. You had to be a craftsman or a mechanic, which is like a craftsman.
Do you ever think about leaving the underground, going mainstream?
Yeah, of course. At a certain point you hope to get to a place where somebody appreciates your art enough to buy it and save it and deal with it. I think every artist hopes that. I think I’ve been blessed by not having become a commercial product. Apart from Picasso, there are very few artists that kept on growing and changing. Once they got their style and became famous, especially as a young person, like Jasper Johns or Stella, they’d be making the same painting for 50 years. In a way, the fame and money kills you. You know, when you’re a rock and roll star like Bruce Springsteen and for your next concert you’re gonna play folk music, you’ve got a problem, you’re gonna have to give it up. It limits you in a lot of ways. So in a way I’ve been very fortunate to do the caps, to do the politics, to do the Tattoo Society, to make the art, because I didn’t have anybody pressuring me: do this, do that. If now I got the fame, in terms of people commercializing my art, it would have stopped me at the point I would have made it. It would have been easier to make it and preserve it and maybe have a better life. Not that my life is bad but I’ve got an archive I gotta save. If all of a sudden they recognize you, then they want to save everything. But we’ve both seen archives just get tossed out. If Charles Gatewood died today, it’s not impossible that his archive could end up in the garbage. We love Charles, he’s important but he hasn’t seen that level of fame that he deserves and needs and he’s really earned, so it could just disappear because people here are so into fame and recognition that unless it’s Paris Hilton they don’t see it. !e smart thing about Spider and Charles is that they make all those books. !e books may not make a lot of money, but they are catalogues of their work, in a way it’s a very smart move. It could be the same for me.
What was the first camera that you got?
A Pentax. Actually Elsa bought it for me in 1972, it was a great camera, for $30. Industrial, very strong, could take a lot of abuse. I mean I had to go digital after September 11th, but they have a lot of problems. The hard drive is good for 5 years, DVD for 2. This shit is not as magical as they tell you. The film will last.
They treat me good in Europe. At Jochen’s show he has me listed as “America’s number one underground photographer.” It doesn’t get any better than that, right? I don’t get that here.
This brings us to your connection to Wildstyle.
Yeah, that was my initial crossover to Europe. Wildstyle was an innovative force in the tattoo world because that was one of the first major shows that were beyond tattooing. It was cross-cultural, they had hot rods, motorcycles, and fashion, and all of these other social aspects. Normal folks would go to Wildstyle who would never go to a tattoo convention. Your local doctor or sophisticated person wouldn’t go to a tattoo show. But because this was also a car show etc., you had the whole cross section of the population show up and then they get to see tattooing, as well. My job was to bring over famous American sideshow entertainers and tattoo artists such as Spider Webb, Gill Montie, Jack Rudy, Sean Vasquez, photographer Steve Bonge. Sean Vasquez eventually ended up moving to Salzburg and getting an Austrian wife. Even in the early years, in the 90’s, Jochen had a Polish tattoo artist working in a Wildstyle Bad Ischl show. At that time, Austria was about 5 years behind America. !ere were really only 2 Austrian artists that you heard about: you heard about Klaus Furmann and you heard about Bernie Luther. At that time you never heard about Mario Barth. Mario Barth was famous in America but he wasn’t that well known in Austria. He came from Graz. But he was not known. And so the first time we went on tour around the whole country and a lot of Germany, including what had been the DDR- we went to Rostock, Dresden, and Potsdam, and all those places, after the wall came down. !is audience had never seen those kinds of tattoos before.
We were introducing people like Gill Montie or Sean Vasquez and all these people. The first time we went around Austria we’d see guys with little anchors, by the time we went around the second time, all of a sudden it was like boom! And not everybody can get into a tattoo convention. If you’re a guy from Graz, let’s say and you’re applying for Berlin, the chance of getting in is not that great, in the mid-90’s. So you get into Wildstyle and you’re now with real professional tattoo artists. So Wildstyle’s contribution added its influence by helping modernize tattooing in Europe. And it was Wildstyle that got me there and so once again it’s through tattooing that I got to Austria. Wildstyle also had theater because Jochen likes to do things on a very high level, so he hires a company Domino Blue from Vienna who creates all this original music, visuals, and stage acts. Tom Blue puts on a big stage production and has gymnasts from Hungary and Poland, who were really good.
Take a look at this book Jochen and I produced: Wildstyle – History of a New Idea. This book documents the early years of the show. Wildstyle had to work hard to gain recognition in the tattoo world, because Wildstyle was not coming from a traditional tattoo base. It’s not a convention, but they are slowly beginning to get it. We’re all outsiders, in a way.
Who did the tattoos on you?
This one on my ribs was hand-poked, by Shinji Horizakura, a Japanese tattoo artist, and it hurt. With a machine the hurting stops when the machine stops. With hand-poking the hand on your body is pounding up and down at every poke. After a couple hours it felt like I was kicked in the ribs. For a couple of weeks it felt like my ribs were bruised.
What is your message for the tattoo world?
I’m happy that I’ve been able to make a contribution to a lot of people’s lives and have been able to give people the opportunity to express themselves as artists. I’m happy that a lot of what I am involved with has been connected to the working-class. I think that’s important because as an artist you hope to do something that is good for society. Maybe some people think it’s low culture but tattooing is a culture that deals with subject matter that is necessary to the human spirit, things that are necessary to the human soul. Like what you’re doing with the magazine, you’re helping people to be recognized, taking people from Poland and introducing them to people in America, that’s all positive stuff. We’re actually doing it for the people. And that’s critical. In our own way, we are giving back. Tattooing on that high level, is enriching people’s lives, and not just continuing a lifestyle. We’re saving a culture that needs to be saved.