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What It's Like to Tattoo Prisoners, Jennifer Aniston, and People Who Don't Know What Tattoo They're Getting

Scott Campbell just finished a project where he tattooed people for free, on the condition the tattoo was a surprise.

Scott Campbell (Photo: Hennessy)

At this year's Frieze art fair, renowned tattooist Scott Campbell decided to tattoo people for free. The only catch: the tattoo had to be a surprise. For his "Whole Glory" project, six lucky people a day got to put their arm through a hole and let Scott go wild on their skin.

The project picked up a load of media attention here, but Scott's better known elsewhere for tattooing everyone from A-list celebrities to Mexican prisoners; from when he took his "Whole Glory" project to other cities; and, among cognac fans, for designing the label art for a limited run of Hennessy bottles.


I met up with him at East London's Sang Bleu tattoo studio to talk about what it was like to tattoo in a prison, how you go about giving people surprise tattoos and the importance of shitty tats.

People in London taking part in the "Whole Glory" project

VICE: Here's something I've always wanted to ask a tattoo artist: what do you think about non-permanent tattoo ink?
Scott Campbell: I'll believe it when I see it. I feel like every few years you see some article about something coming out related to temporary tattooing, and I've never seen a product that was actually anywhere near viable.

There's part of me that wants to be bitter and say, like, "Well, that doesn't count because the commitment is the thing," but it's just a different thing. Permanent tattoos are powerful because of their permanence, and I think it's healthy to have old outdated tattoos. We all make mistakes in life, and none of us can go back and change the past, but when you have the past tattooed on you it kind of takes away the luxury of denial. I can't pretend I was anybody but who I have been, because I have it written all over me.

Is there a difference between tattooing prisoners in a Mexican jail and celebrities in New York?
I've tattooed bikers who murder for a living and Jennifer Aniston, but I definitely see a common thread through all of them – they're just people, trying to do the best they can. You definitely see more similarities than differences.


How did the prison tattoo project start?
It was a time where all these reality TV shows were cropping up about tattooing, and it was becoming a part of pop culture. I was trying to deal with that, because tattooing is something that I have loved my whole life and all of a sudden the whole world was running away with it. I wanted to reconnect and get back in touch with it.

In prisons, tattoos have a powerful and visceral purpose. Prisons are a place where everyone's been given a uniform and a number, and it's just homogenised. Tattooing is the only medium they have to distinguish themselves from the people around them. So it felt really good to be part of a tattooing process that had a genuine purpose, outside of just aesthetics.

There's clearly a resourcefulness when it comes to the materials in prison, as you weren't allowed machines – did you feel that in regards to the designs you were tattooing as well?
A lot of the subject matter had to do with Santa Muerte, the patron saint of criminals. A lot of them were also for the families on the outside. I feel like there was a real attempt from people to have reminders that the world inside those walls wasn't the whole world – that there was warmth outside of there that they were quite desperate not to forget about. It's easy to get lost in a place like that.

*You tattooed a bunch of soldiers on the frontline in Afghanistan too. How was that?*
It was really interesting. I'm the son of a draft dodger – my parents did not believe in war, and I realised when I was on the plane over there that I didn't even know why any of these people were even in Afghanistan. I don't know why they're fighting. I went there interested in the emotional environment and what people were going through. It was similar to prisons in the sense that a lot of the tattoos I did were either camaraderie tattoos – tattoos they got with other soldiers to reinforce solidarity – or tattoos that connected them with home.


Both going to prison and to the army, were there any expectations you had? Did they correspond with the reality?
If there's anything I've learned in tattooing it's not to judge. Don't even bother having expectations because they're going to be wrong. I think I was surprised in Afghanistan at how much I connected with people, because that culture was so different from my world. I am less often surprised by other people and more often surprised by myself.

I think the prisoners were very happy for an outsider to take an interest in them, because they're basically treated like animals most of the time, so for someone to come in and look at them as a person is really refreshing. Every prison has their resident tattoo artist, and that was the first place they took me – saying, "This is our tattoo artist; he does all of our work in this area of the prison." So we swapped notes.

Did you keep in touch with them?
A bit; we've become pen-pals. There were two main guys who took me around there; about two years later one of them was stabbed and killed in the prison and the other one ended up killing a couple of people and being transferred to a different prison, and I lost touch. Prison is not a very stable life.

At Frieze you were giving people surprise tattoos through a hole in the wall. What attracts you to working with limitations?
The "Whole Glory" project came about because I do a lot of painting and sculpture. Obviously working on a canvas I have freedom – in tattooing, your canvas has an opinion, and you need your canvas's permission to do stuff. So this was a way of realising my fantasy: 'What if I could tattoo with the same freedom that I can paint on a canvas?'


It's been such a cool experiment. It started off just out of curiosity, but I feel like I've learnt so much from it about human nature in general. At first I thought the wall would take pressure off of me, but it actually put a lot more pressure on me – to make it sincere.

In New York I tattooed about 20 to 25 people, and at the end of it I threw a dinner and invited everyone to have dinner so I could meet them. It was so funny because almost every single one of them pulled me to the side and said, "Hey man – I just wanna say thanks, because obviously I got the best one." Everyone was saying, "Man, this is so me!" So it felt like that thing when people read a horoscope and think, 'This is me!' It's like… were you that before you read it or are you that now because you read it?

Is there such a thing as bad tattoos?
I love stick 'n' poke tattoos and the fact that they're relevant now and are becoming a way for people to communicate. A lot of tattoo artists frown upon it because whatever, but I think it's awesome. It really captures the spontaneity and sincerity that I think makes tattoos powerful. It gives anyone the ability to tattoo – you don't need equipment.

Get shitty tattoos – sincere tattoos. The aesthetic doesn't matter. People who are getting their first tattoo, their biggest mistake is that they put too much pressure on it. They feel like they need to summarise their whole identity in one symbol. The tattoos that people like are the ones that are sincere. If you look down and you regret a tattoo you got ten years ago, it's likely you just regret being the person you were ten years ago. Don't blame the tattoo.


Thanks, Scott.


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