Scott Campbell, fine artist and bicoastal tattoo purveyor, has always had a thing for skulls. He would carve them into school desks as a kid growing up outside New Orleans, where, he says, “artsy fartsy was not honored, and it was all about who could catch the biggest bass.” He got a skull tattoo on his leg at a grimy parlor in Houston when he was 16 years old—the first of dozens that now festoon his body like graffiti on the walls of CBGB. As a tattoo artist, Campbell has inked skulls, as well as innumerable other designs, into the hides of clients ranging from truckers to surfers to celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Jennifer Aniston, Marc Jacobs, Courtney Love, Heath Ledger, Penélope Cruz and Lake Bell, Campbell’s wife.
As a fine artist, he has carved three-dimensional skulls out of stacks of dollar bills, etched delicate skulls inside ostrich-egg shells and inked skulls onto patches of pigskin he suspends inside watertight frames filled with preservatives. These pieces regularly appear in international galleries including Moran Bondaroff (formerly OHWOW) and Deitch Projects. For Whole Glory, an ongoing participatory exhibition he likens to a palm reading, Campbell inks tattoos—including skulls wearing top hats, biting down on roses, sporting headbands—onto the arms of anonymous strangers who blindly stick their fists through a hole in a wall, on the other side of which sits Campbell like Oz behind the curtain.
Then there are the skulls he draws in impermanent ink on his two-year-old daughter, Nova, before she heads to school—skulls and starfish, garbage trucks, cars, rainbows. And there is the ominous beaded steer skull that towers above his desk in the downtown Los Angeles art studio where he works when he isn’t inking clients at the newly opened “secret” outpost (entered through the back door of a Shinola store) of his legendary Brooklyn tattoo studio, Saved.
When pressed, Campbell traces his cranial fixation to the ancient artistic tradition of skulls as symbols of the fleeting nature of life. But he’s quick to add that tattooing “serves a primal need people have always had to define themselves,” offering a sense of control amid chaos—in the throes of love or grief or heartbreak. So what was the import of that inaugural Houston tattoo? Campbell attributes it to an adolescent desire to make independent decisions, before adding, hesitantly, that his mother, Maggie Campbell, had just died after battling cancer for eight years. “She really normalized the whole cancer thing and death,” he says. During medical treatments, she would let Campbell and his sister mount one of her wigs on a remote-control car and use it to chase the family dog around the house. If she needed her son’s help with injections, “she’d draw a smiley face on her butt, and I’d stick the needle in.”
Maggie’s free-spirited ethos is evident in Campbell’s claim that the biggest mistake first-time tattoo clients make is overthinking it. “Whatever you’re feeling when you get the tattoo is what you’re going to see for the rest of your life,” he says. “If you’re feeling stressed about it, that’s what you’re going to see. Keep it light and spontaneous.” What about those diehard romantics who ask for the cliché of a sweetheart’s name? Campbell says he never cautions against the decision, as is standard tattoo-artist practice. “If you’re going to fall in love, I don’t think you should hold back or second-guess yourself. Go all-in.”
As his cross-country courtship of Lake Bell suggests, Campbell tends to live up to his own ideal of romantic spontaneity. When the two met in 2011 on the set of Bell’s HBO show, How to Make It in America, she was living in L.A. and he in Brooklyn. “I knew she was my one shot at healthy domesticity,” Campbell says. Undaunted by distance, “I got to fall in love with her the way I wanted—making her things and writing letters. Once I mailed her a tiny, ring-size box. A tag on top read, ‘This is….’ Inside, a really thin paper unfolded into a giant poster that said ‘…a love letter.’ ”
When the chance arrived to ply his trade on a Playmate, Campbell’s sly wit and eye for iconography again came to the fore. Taking inspiration from a 1968 playboy cover that features a bathing suit cut into the shape of the Rabbit Head, he opted to illustrate the immortal silhouette entirely out of tattoo roses—a double homage to Mr. Playboy and to classic flash art, and the perfect complement to March 2017 Playmate Elizabeth Elam’s natural beauty.
So how does an artist go from skulls to our Rabbit’s famous visage? To hear Campbell tell it, the two aren’t as different as they may seem. “When I was younger, the skull was this rebellious mantra,” he says, “this little punk rock symbol of pushing against what was around me. Now it’s become an old friend. It makes everything seem a little less severe and a little more lighthearted.”
LIFE ANIMATES ART
A step-by-step look at how Scott Campbell creates a seamless, sensual union between playboy iconography and the female form.
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