Scott Campbell has become a legendary artist and creator in his own lifetime. Having grown up in New Orleans, Scott moved to San Francisco in his 20s and began tattooing. Not long after, he traveled the world then came to New York in 2005, starting his own studio (SAVED Tattoo), and amassing a list of trusted, cool celebrity clients from Marc Jacobs to Courtney Love.
Now, Scott's career encompasses the visual arts. Whether he's directly referencing tattoo culture or engaging in a broader conversation about consumerism and culture, he's making an impact. He's gone on to do commercial collaborations with Louis Vuitton and Pirelli and even helped his wife, Lake Bell, create art pieces for her film, In a World...
We caught up with Scott to talk his new wine, which also goes by SAVED, working with prisoners in Mexico, what burning one of his exhibitions taught him, and what his advice is for young creators.
If you have good intentions, love, and care, and if you care about something while you're making it, it comes out in the final product.
How did you connect with Clay Brock for SAVED wines and how did you come up with the designs for the red and rosé?
I had known of Clay for a little while through mutual friend. He has a llama on his farm that my wife is obsessed with. We met on a road trip one time; we were driving by and pulled in to visit the llama, really. Clay is one of those people who is so passionate, so knowledgeable, and so kind, that whatever he does you want to be a part of it. Whatever his passion is being poured into, you know it’s going to be great.
The collaboration evolved pretty naturally. A big part of a wine's personality is the visual aspect and the label, so it just made sense because that's my world—everything that’s outside of the bottle. His world is everything that’s inside of it.
Clay and I sat down and talked about wine-making, because I didn't know that much about it before I met him. I had always envisioned that there would be a bunch of guys in lab coats with pH test strips. It just seemed very clinical and scientific. He explained the weird superstition that goes into the agricultural end of it, how it's not an exact science, and how everyone has their own way of doing it. It is a genuinely romantic process, and I liked the idea that if you put good juju into the making of something, it resonates in the final product. If you have good intentions, love, and care, and if you care about something while you're making it, it comes out in the final product.
I feel this way with painting or anything else. If you genuinely have good feelings and are happy when you make it, even if you can't literally see that, feel that, or taste that in the final product, it is in there somehow. With the label, I wanted to create a system of symbols and gestures that are tied to the concept of superstition in general—the idea of believing that they have a power larger than they actually are. There's a power that you project onto symbols and gestures through your beliefs.
It's the same as having a lucky rabbit's foot in your pocket. Obviously, the fact that you have a rabbit's foot in your pocket doesn't directly change the way the world unfolds around you. But if you believe that it does, then it changes the way you interact with the world around you, and that does change it. From that gesture, there's a dynamic that's really common in tattoos, in tattoo history, and in my life—believing in something makes it real. I like that gesture, so the bottle has a lot of symbols and phrases that I genuinely believe in and that I think make a world a better place.
Awesome, I like that.
Not to be too grandiose about it. These are just things that I think are positive and good and that I get confidence and creativity from.
Let's talk about your exhibition at OHWOW gallery from early last year, "Things Get Better." How did you learn that limitations can endanger creative thinking through machines constructed out of appropriated materials? How have limitations in your life inspired creativity, boundlessness, and ultimately optimism, especially relating to the title of the show?
I love that show. I spent two months in a prison in Mexico working with these prisoners. I originally went there to take pictures of the tattoos they were getting. Tattooing in general has been a part of my life for seventeen years now. I've been doing tattoos for a long time, and I really love it. I feel like reality shows and other parts of culture have taken tattooing in a direction that is less sincere than the concept of it that I know and love.
In prisons, there’s this environment that does everything it can to dehumanize a population: they give you an orange suit and a number, and tattoos become the last way to distinguish yourself from the people around you.
I went down there to reinvigorate my own interest in tattooing, because in prisons, there’s this environment that does everything it can to dehumanize a population: they give you an orange suit and a number, and tattoos become the last way to distinguish yourself from the people around you. Because of that, I think that what people get tattooed in prisons has a gravity and a severity to it that's very interesting. People get tattooed because they need to; it's more than aesthetic.
So I went down there to investigate that and take some pictures. They were so excited to have some weird New Yorker come in, take them seriously, and genuinely think that what they're doing is cool. I ended up tattooing them—of course they didn't let me bring tattoo equipment into the prison—but I sat down with them and made prison machines with what we could find, and when I got home, my favorite part was these machines. They are perfect symbols of ingenuity and perseverance. When you think you have nothing, look around and make something out of nothing.
There is definitely something that plagued my youth and made it difficult to have any real direction. Tattooing has been really incredible for me, in that I was always passionate about art, and I was always making things, but like most kids, I didn't have a lot of confidence. Drawing was a compulsion. I couldn't finish anything, and I never really had focus. I mean, what 16-year-old has focus anyway? I would start drawing and halfway through I'd say, "Ah, I don't like it."
Once I started tattooing, it was the same. I would be halfway through and go, "Ah, I don't really like it; I don’t like where it's going," but tough shit, because there is a big sweaty biker in front of you who wants you to see it through. Then I would stick with it and push through, and by the end of it, I would love it. I feel like my first couple hundred tattoos went that way, where I would start them, and halfway through, I would be sweating and saying, "Oh my God, what the hell am I doing? What is going on?" You keep working through it, and it works out. After doing that thousands of times, it really ingrained a sense of faith in me that is really important to my artwork now. You just do it and go through the motions, and you show up to work each morning, and you keep making things even if you don't know where its going. Just don't lose momentum, and it will work out. That philosophy has never let me down, and it's something I am very grateful to have learned.
I was reading your interview with Raymond Pettibon in Dazed. You say, “The consequences of doing a spider web on the throat of someone who is going to die in a week are much more severe than messing up a dolphin on some girl’s ankle." Can you explain that in the context of prison tattooing, and distinguishing oneself from others, but maybe also in a broader sense?
It’s true, there's a gravity there that’s exciting. With tattooing, there's obviously an aesthetic quality to it, and that’s fine, but it’s half and half. I would say it's half aesthetic and half juju, but I think it might just be all juju or 99% juju and 1% aesthetic. A tattoo is a residue or an artifact of an experience. It’s something that’s left over. A tattoo is not the thing, the action of getting it is the thing. If the action of getting it and the environment that it's done in are the reason it's done for, all of that resonates in the final product. If it's done for only aesthetic purposes, it's not as interesting to me. That’s not to say that a Yosemite Sam done on someone's leg in a garage when they were 16 years old is not an important tattoo. As long it's honest to that moment, you know it's beautiful and profound. Does that answer your question?
Everywhere else I have lived, that restlessness has gotten me in trouble, whereas in New York I based a career on it.
I was more interested in the concept of a tattoo on someone who is going to die in a week versus someone with a dolphin tattoo, in terms of what it means.
I don't want to belittle people with dolphin tattoos. Someone who is going to die in a week has their head and emotions in a place of trying to find peace within themselves, you would expect. It's having the awareness that you have a week to distill your whole life into something that you're comfortable with and that you're comfortable walking away from. The tattoos someone would choose in that mindset are tattoos that I genuinely learn from. Because they don't give a shit about aesthetic in that moment.
What has traveling and living all over the world, whether you’re in Mexico, in Asia, or in Europe, taught you about tattoo culture worldwide and how you wanted to be a part of it? How did you decide to settle in New York, of all places?
In the first half of my 20s I got to travel. It was a way for me to satisfy so many of my curiosities about different places and get to be an intimate part of so many different lives. I learned so much. Of course traveling gives you perspective. You learn a bit about yourself from the people you encounter. I thought I’d travel forever, and then I got to New York City. New York is the one place in the world where you can sit still and still feel like you're traveling. I just love New York. I have a certain restlessness that I know a lot of people have. Everywhere else I have lived, that restlessness has gotten me in trouble, whereas in New York I based a career on it.
I've always been fascinated with the reasons why, or the repercussions of, artists destroying their work. When you did it in 2010 in Mexico City, you said it was because you had concerns they weren't taking you seriously and you didn't like the way they handled everything. In hindsight, how did destroying that collection affect you or maybe liberate you going forward? Were you taken more seriously by your dealers and galleries afterward?
It was important because it taught me context. For a long time, it was about making the work. It was like, as long as I'm true in the actual making of it, that’s all that matters, and who cares what happens after it leaves my studio.
It was educational for me, because I learned that it does matter, and I am protective of what happens to work after it leaves my studio. As far as how it changed how art dealers work with me...When I lit that match and threw it in a puddle of gasoline on top of my work, I had submitted to, "Here goes my career. I will always be known as this bratty asshole artist, who, if he doesn't get his way, throws a tantrum and burns everything down." That's where my head was at. I was ok with that. I was like, "Whatever, it’s fine; all I know is that I'm in a situation that I don't like, and I have to change it."
As word got out about it, people were asking what happened. The people in the art world who I genuinely admire and look up to were really supportive. It definitely ended up getting respect from people who matter. I'm sure there are people out there who don't understand or think it was a PR stunt, but the few people in the art world who I genuinely use as points of reference all gave me high fives for it. So I felt ok about it.
I actually love this woman, and I'm very proud of the love I have for her, and I have no shame of putting that out there as loudly as possible.
What was it like creating temporary tattoos for your wife, Lake Bell, for the cover of New York Mag? I also read that you helped her make fake Picasso and Haring paintings for her film In a World... Do you have other projects you're planning to do together, or do you keep your art separate?
Our mediums are definitely very different, and because of that, we have a really healthy and profound respect for what each other does. Obviously I'm madly in love with her and think she's amazing. The New York magazine thing was really fun. There’s a certain part of our life that is public; she's more in the public eye than I am, because of TV and film and stuff. It's definitely interesting when the public knows your life, and in the age of the Internet, you can google anything and anyone's relationship.
The New York Magazine cover was a moment when it was like, "Oh wait. This is intimate. Are we going to show people this part of us, or are we going to keep it to ourselves?" It felt good to be really open about it and unguarded and just take naked pictures of my wife for New York Magazine. It felt really good to decide not to care. To just do it and be like, I actually love this woman, and I'm very proud of the love I have for her, and I have no shame of putting that out there as loudly as possible. It was great, and it was good timing. Her movie had just come out, and I felt like it was a really great way to celebrate her.
In terms of collaborating, she made her movie on a shoestring budget. She was in such production mode that I just made myself at her service. Artwork for films are a significant expense. It's amazing to me how much they have to get cleared legally and how restrictive that is in film. Literally you can't film a building that has graffiti on it without getting clearance from the people who illegally did the graffiti on the wall. That’s crazy to me.
It was a small budget, and I wanted to help out, so I just made a bunch of artwork for her movie. It was just one night with a bunch of paint in my studio. Yeah, I'm sure we'll work on stuff in the future. Susan Miller, a famous astrologist, says we collaborate really well together and that sometime in the future we'll work together more. If that has any bearing on the future, then yeah.
Well, you got her cosign so that's awesome. So, I'm curious. How do you reconcile your interest and participation in many types of art, whether it is what people label as outsider or low-brow art, with larger projects for Louis Vuitton or Pirelli. Additionally, it seems like you play with the ideas of luxury and luxury iconography, especially with your US currency reliefs. In the scope of your work, how do you reconcile what a lot of people see as high and low. For you, is there a high and a low?
You mean, the dynamic of a grimey tattoo kid doing fancy luxury brand bags?
No, I mean...
No, I call myself a grimey tattoo kid all the time.
I mean, how do you choose to do a enter a larger commercial project while at the same time examining money and commerce in your art?
So, how do I be punk rock and still make a living?
Not necessarily. I'm not trying to reduce it to that. I just mean putting one of your pieces, where you've made a powerful statement by carving into dollar bills next to a Louis Vuitton bag you've designed, both which are excellent works. I'm asking, how do you see them fitting together? Maybe they are the same, but since your work seems to critique consumerism and luxury, I had to ask.
With the dollar bill and the money stuff, it didn’t start as trying to make a political statement. I feel that with any artwork, you make it, and through making it, you are exploring your own feelings about it. Nobody writes a mission statement and then makes artwork because of it. You’re just working through something, and you figure it out as you go along.
Holding this stack of money that was destroyed for something emotionally affected me in a way that I was surprised by.
With the money reliefs, I carved a stack of one dollar bills, because I liked the tactile element of it—having these layers—and it’s what was in my pocket. I carved a stack of dollar bills, and it said “The Thrill is Gone” on it. Holding this stack of money that was destroyed for something emotionally affected me in a way that I was surprised by. It felt special, it felt kind of blasphemous, and it felt exciting. That was interesting for me.
I like to believe that I’m not emotionally attached to money, but holding this in my hand made me feel the ways that I am. It's been interesting to explore that and play with that feeling and that excitement. Then there is other peoples' reaction to it. The first time, I cut up 100 one dollar bills. The first thing anybody said when they saw it was, "Oh my god, you destroyed a hundred dollars!" Whereas, I’ll paint on a piece of paper that costs $150, and nobody is like, "Dude, you just painted on a perfectly good piece of 150 dollar paper." It’s interesting when it's that literal and visceral—how it impacts people.
As far as doing things with luxury brands, I really love Marc, and I don’t know if I would have done anything with Louis Vuitton if he wasn't in charge, because I love him and trust his vision. In the same way that I met Clay and said, "Whatever you are doing, I want to be a part of it," I met Marc, and I was like, "Whatever you’re doing, I want in."
I don’t think there is anything wrong with having nice thing. There is one story that I always think about, and I should definitely Wikipedia this to make sure I don’t get any of the facts wrong, because I may have built up a story in my head that isn’t completely accurate. Do you know Lead Belly, the singer? He’s basically this old blues singer, but there is the craziest story where he was in a chain gang, in Texas, serving time in prison. The governor would come by and listen to him sing every now and then, and he was actually so into Lead Belly’s singing that they became friends, and he ended up getting pardoned. Long story short, he started playing shows, he had money, and he did this thing where spent every penny he had on the flashiest clothes. He was like, “I want to wear a suit every day of my life.” There is something beautiful about the pride he felt about finally being able to dress nice, and that was what mattered to him.
Anytime I think of someone feeling guilty about luxury, I think of that story—this guy who had nothing, and then, you know. Maybe that’s totally off topic. It’s just a really beautiful story. When I think of people raising their nose at someone being showy with the way they dress, I’m just like, "Dude, fuck it." Whatever helps you get out of bed each morning. Be proud. There is no shame in it. I like the dynamic of being a tattooed scum bag and then having Louis Vuitton luggage. It’s almost exemplary of New York, the New York machine, and how accessible everything is. We are all parts of this big New York machine, and you can do whatever you want.
I always just like to ask, what is your advice for creative young people who aspire to your level of work or collaboration?
Just keep making stuff. Like I was saying earlier about learning from tattooing, each time you start to make something, it is a leap of faith. You can’t control it, you can’t predict it, and if you try to, it will be insincere. Just show up to work everyday and keep making stuff. Through the action of making things, ideas with come together, and before you know it, it will have a purpose, and it will develop a clarity of vision. Just keep making things.