“Given that the House is 250-plus years old, you could say that Hennessy is the oldest personality I’ve ever tattooed!”
“1+1=3” is one of those things that is just as abstract as it sounds. You could say the same for Hennessy’s latest collaboration in their V.S Limited Edition artist series, an on-going yearly reinterpretation of the brand’s legacy in a new and fresh way. For the 2016 bottle design, Hennessy collaborated with celebrity tattoo artist Scott Campbell.
Campbell has a knack for taking the ubiquitous and making it his own, resulting in embellished contextualization. Whether it’s his watercolors of tattoo guns-cum-relics forged within prison walls or his baroque take on bar fight staples, Campbell’s hand is always uniquely evident. This approach to capturing personal narratives and crafting something new are prevalent in what he’s created for the Hennessy bottle.
We met up with Campbell at his shop in Brooklyn, Saved Tattoo, and chopped it up about freedom, the significance of the number three, and advice for someone trying to get into tattooing.
What was it like to get that initial call and to really get busy on the next iteration of the Hennessy V.S Limited Edition bottle?
The way that Hennessy has kind of framed it is that each artist selected to work on the V.S Limited Edition bottle tends to be referred by the artist that came before them. Ryan [McGinness] called me and said, “Hey, would you want to do this thing with Hennessy?” I thought it was cool because it allowed for an opportunity to talk to him about his experience. I’m guessing that Shepard [Fairey] called him before that, and so on and so on. It’s also nice that each bottle is representative of this great community of artists working together, more or less.
Going in I didn’t know that much about the brand. I’d seen it in bars and liquor stores before, of course. I knew a little bit about it. Getting this opportunity allowed me to get more familiar with Hennessy and its history, beginning that fundamental learning process. Talking to Ryan and the other artists about their experiences also helped me get to know the brand that much more. It also helped that I’ve worked with LVMH in the past and always had really great experiences with them. Overall the company is truly respectful and always has a great relationship with artists.
When you were finally able to begin working with the Hennessy team, what was that experience like and what inspired your design for the new bottle?
This sort of project is definitely outside of my element. [Laughs.] However, the most interesting collaborations come about when you take two opposite things or two parties that occupy two different worlds and combine them. I don’t know if there are too many tattooed scumbags working in Cognac, but I was able to make the rounds without getting arrested.
Where did you pull a lot of your inspiration from?
With tattooing, part of what I love about it is the opportunity to deal with a lot of symbols and their power. You can take these different icons or images and emblematize them; their power resides in the meaning you instill in them. It’s been my job for a very long time to meet people and take their emotional situations or whatever they may be going through and figuring out a tattoo that’s respectful and considerate of who they are. What I draw is always a reaction to my experiences with them. That’s something that I made sure to implement in my work with Hennessy.
When looking at the design you can see the elements that bring to mind your work as a fine artist. The wings that anchor the design in the center remind me of one of your watercolors.
Oh yeah! It looks like all of the layers of the plastic spoons. Those watercolors were really fun. I spent a couple of months in a prison in Mexico and made machines out of whatever we could find in the prison. I remember the one you’re speaking of. It looked almost like a butterfly or wings or something with all of the layers of the clear plastic.
How would you say you approached this project, compared to your fine artwork?
I love tattooing because of the human aspect. It’s amazing because it’s personal, it’s one-of-one, and it’s handmade. Part of what makes it special is what also makes it very finite and limited, in that it’s for that person, it lives under their shirt, and that’s it. If that person gets a sunburn, then that tattoo gets a sunburn; if that person gets run over by a bus, then that tattoo gets run over.
Working in other mediums is exciting because it’s a way of giving my ideas a broader space to live in; they can resonate further. They just have a bigger life, and so a lot of my artistic practice is taking the stories and narratives that inspire me and communicating them in mediums that last longer than being on someone’s arm.
When people talk about tattoos, the kind of word that comes to mind is permanent, but it’s really the most ephemeral medium I work in. My work outside of tattooing, these drawings and paintings, will last much longer than I will. As I mentioned before, they’re different worlds. I had to find the things in my world that connected with their world and the design I created for this year’s bottle is what we arrived at. Wings have always been associated with freedom and not being tied down. Creatively and otherwise, freedom is always something to aspire to.
That ladders up to the Hennessy slogan of “Never Stop. Never Settle.” You mentioned feeling that connection to the brand. To me, it feels like you embody that same spirit…you didn’t start out as a tattoo artist.
I started off as a scientist and basically dropped out of school, ran away, and started tattooing in the pursuit of freedom. Tattooing, for me, was a way to wrangle and live out that freedom. When I moved to New York I was like a little nomadic kid. I never stopped traveling and landed in New York. It’s the one place where you can sit still but feel like you’re moving. I love this place because it’s such a river of stimulus.
With the design process, did you do a majority of the work here at Saved Tattoo?
Most of it was done here, but I did work on it a bit in Los Angeles. We went to L.A. for the winter last year. It was here and there, maybe about six months is how long we worked on it.
Saved Tattoo is a chill spot nestled in the middle of Brooklyn. What about it sets it apart from the countless tattoo locales around the city? What is it about this corner in Brooklyn that makes it unique?
We just have a tight family here at Saved Tattoo. Owning a tattoo shop is a huge pain in the ass and not incredibly lucrative, but it’s super important to me because we have a family here. I love working with and around these people, where everyone has their own take on things and does their own thing. It’s inspiring to be around them and to work with them. It’s like when people ask me to describe my style or pinpoint what makes me different. You could probably ask anybody but me…I don’t know. We’re just doing it intuitively the way that we feel it should be done and have been lucky enough to stand out a little bit.
You’ve worked with everyone from Marc Jacobs to Heath Ledger, and also covered your wife, Lake Bell, in a full body tattoo for a cover shoot. What would you say is your most favorite tattoo that you’ve ever done?
Oh, man! Picking a favorite tattoo is like choosing a favorite child. I know it might sound cliché, but I just love them all. Obviously, getting to paint my wife for that magazine cover was super fun because we’d just gotten married and were excited about each other. We still are! But, no, it was right after we’d gotten married and it was like a real celebratory and fun experience. She doesn’t have any tattoos, so sometimes I’ll draw on her as just a fun exercise. She’ll be reading, and I’ll pull out the markers and start drawing on her. It’s great! It was this personal thing that we blew out of proportion and made public. It was cool.
It was funny too because this friend from the Upper East Side—that she grew up in New York with—was getting married that afternoon and we went to the wedding. We show up and all of her childhood friends are there and literally no one would mention this tattoo that went from her knee to her neck. They were all just like, “Hey…yeah, you married that tattoo artist…yeah, you did…” We kind of didn’t put it out there that it wasn’t real. It was pretty funny!
I think in life, in general, if you can be comfortable in transition…if you don’t need things to be perfect and finished and defined, if you can be comfortable with things being unfinished and unknown, it’s a powerful position to be in. It’s more inviting for creativity and potential.
What’s the significance of the “333” in your Instagram handle?
I love the number three. I try to incorporate it in my work as much as possible. I think the number three is very powerful. When people are getting flowers tattooed on them, I try to make them multiples of three. The number four is very complete, closed and very finished, whereas the number three feels like it’s still open. It’s almost uncomfortable, you know? It still has potential, like it’s not finished yet.
I think in life, in general, if you can be comfortable in transition…if you don’t need things to be perfect and finished and defined, if you can be comfortable with things being unfinished and unknown, it’s a powerful position to be in. It’s more inviting for creativity and potential. That might be a lot to read into when it comes to a number, but I like the number three.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into tattooing?
Don’t do it! Be a graphic designer! I’m kidding! It’s a hard business, and I love it, but it really is a hard life. There’s no such thing as part-time tattooers. You have to commit to it completely and immerse yourself in it to even become competent at the most basic level. It’s tough; I have struggled in the past with it a lot…even the most acclaimed tattoo artist in the world, even if you’re the best in the world…you have to keep in mind that it’s a service industry. You’re still sitting there taking requests, and I think every tattooer yearns to have a little more freedom.
I just took my Whole Glory project out to Los Angeles, where I set up a hole in the wall where anybody that wanted to could stick their arm in there and I’d tattoo whatever I wanted, and they don’t get to see it until it was finished. Part of that came about after fantasizing about being able to tattoo, but with as much freedom as I wanted, being able to work in this medium without asking for permission. As far as advice for people getting into tattooing? If you have a choice, don’t do it.