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Interview with Jesse Smith Part 1

Juxtapoz // Friday, 07 Aug 2009


Whether a critique of present-day social and/or political practices on canvas, or a saturated, eye popping slice of eye candy on skin, Jesse’s work never ceases to evoke close inspection. Some pieces seem to go on for miles, deep within the bodies that are so privileged as to be graced with such top-notch ink. Others, the smaller works, seem to pop off the flesh on which they make their home. Either way, they make you look down at your own tats and wonder why you got ‘em done by some dude whose shop walls still sport flash from the 90s. Tribal butterfly, anyone?

Creamsicle-based memorial tats, bunnies with spraypaint can dicks, and collabos that pair dinosaurs and Elton John. Need I say more? I’ll let Jesse do the talkin’. —Tanya Kollar, for The Citrus Report

Tanya Kollar: I discovered so many great artists just through checking out your website. Where do you find out about all these amazing talents?

Jesse Smith: I love art, so I’m always surfing the internet, and when I talk to my friends of course they point out people. Whenever I find anything new I just wanna share it with as many people as I can, cause most of the time, if I find an artist I really like I’ll buy a piece of artwork off of them then promote the fuck out of ‘em and make ‘em as famous as I can make ‘em on my side and then my investment gets better.

I knew there were ulterior motives behind it…

Everything I do is self-serving, just so you know [laughs] I do do it for other people, but have you ever heard of the theory of simple subjectivism? It basically means that anything that anybody does, they do it for selfish reasons. Like if a woman’s house is burning down and her kids are in there and she risks her life to go save them is she doing it to save the kids or is she doing it cause she can’t stand to live without them? So of course I do things to help other people but it makes me feel good to do it. So it’s like a big vicious cycle.

Nooo, more like a beautiful cycle!

Yeah, I wanna kill two birds with one stone, I wanna do it for me and the other person that’s involved, linking to their website or whatever.

So you’ve been doing art forever but didn’t initially think you’d end up a professional artist. When did you finally realize that tattooing would be a profitable career for you?

When I was in high school all my electives were art classes. I loved it and I always wanted to be an artist but never really expected to make money off it. So I told my Dad I wanted to go to art school, and he was like “well how are you gonna pay for it?” My dad had never been to college before, my mother had never been to college before, so we weren’t aware of the proper way to get into college. I was pretty much under the impression that I was never gonna be able to go to art school. So my dad was like why don’t you go try and get into the military, that it’s a good way to start out and all that. So when I got into the military I met this fella who was drawing caricatures at Busch Gardens and he was like why don’t you come draw characters at Busch Gardens? Honestly from my perspective I was like no way, there’s no way I’m good enough to draw at Busch Gardens, that’s big money. So I went to go get a job and they gave me an 8-hour class and just threw me out into the park. I was drawing the ugliest fucking caricatures you can draw, I mean they were horrible. And the funny thing is people were like “Oh my God, where’d you learn how to do that?” And they’re all sayin this shit behind me and in my mind I have this little paranoid thing goin’ on in my head, I feel like…man, Busch Gardens hired these people specifically to say these things to boost my ego for me to do better at making caricatures. It’s really crazy, but I was like there’s no way people can really like this art! So, I’m drawing caricatures, and that’s when I started realizing I was pretty good at art. I was actually one of the better caricature artists at Busch Gardens, ya know for it being my first year there. But in my mind when I first started doing art I never in a million years thought I was at a level where I could be making money off it as a job.

So at that point I was like I can be a caricature artist for the rest of my life, this isn’t hard. I can just sell caricatures and get paid, or I can work my way up the line at Busch Gardens and become a manager and do all that, that’s where my mind was then. And then I met this guy at Busch Gardens named Biff, really cool guy, awesome caricature artist and graffiti artist, so we hung out all the time and eventually he introduced me to this guy named Carlos who was tattooing at his house. So when it came time to re-enlist in the military, when they asked me if I wanted to re-enlist, I was really kinda trying to figure out what I wanted to do with myself. I was like if I stay in the military then I’m guaranteed stability for the next 20 years, I don’t have to worry about anything, I’m taken care of. But I would always wonder if I could’ve made it as an artist. Then I was like if I go and try to be an artist, and I don’t make it at least I know that I tried. So that was what made my decision, I was like I’m gonna try. Worst-case scenario I go back into the military, whatever. So I shot up to VCU in Richmond here, and went to school, and just tried to keep on getting better.

I’ve always told myself that if I’m ever put in a position like that again where I have a choice of jumping into something that’s not guaranteed but it’s following my passion, or staying with the stable thing, I’m always gonna jump. Actually I don’t know if you know this but I might be moving out to California in January…

Do it!

And that’s a huge jump for me ‘cause I’m so stable here in Richmond. I’ve got clientele out the butt, I’ve got a great group of friends, I’ve got all this good stuff goin’ on for me in Richmond but I feel like I’m starting to feel too comfortable, and I feel like I need to get around these people who are gonna push me, I need to get to the next level. I feel like Cali is the place to go. There are tons of great artists out there, the art scene is insane, so I gotta get out there. That’s my next goal, to get out there, and basically I’m trying to slow down on tattooing and start doing my paintings, pushing into more of the painting/illustration world. Tee shirts, Gelaskins, whatever, anything and everything that has to do with the type of art I’m trying to get into.

That stuff is big out here right now…

You know Gelaskins, right? Gelaskins is a company that makes skins, and they have in my opinion all the best artists. Like, I find artists through them. I’m on their mailing list, I’m on all these mailing lists – I got ‘em just throwing artwork at me all the time. And as soon as I find somebody I just throw ‘em up on my website for other people to see. Have you ever heard of Chris Berens? Did you see his stuff yet, from Amsterdam? He’s so awesome. I think he’s like 6th under my inspirations in my links section. You gotta check him out.

I checked out a lot of those but I didn’t get to all of ‘em. There are so many!

I think they’re all awesome artists, but I also like to have it for my own use too ‘cause its humbling. If I go through my links section all these artists are at a standard that is well above normal. Everybody’s always like I can only think of this many artists that really inspire me in the tattoo world or whatever, but if you go through my links section you’ll see a lot more than that –I’ve got 410 links on there. You need to know who your competition is.

Yea, you’ve said that Bugs really pushed you to keep getting better, and who else was it you worked with, Jason Stephan?

Yes, Jason Stephan is my best friend in the tattoo world, I mean, he’s one of those guys that keeps my head straight. Even though he’s always complimenting my stuff, if I ever slip up and I start trying to have a little to much of an ego, he’s like hey, get your ass back in line.

Ha, yea, sometimes everybody needs that little kick in the pants.

I mean just like any artist, we all have egos. You have to have an ego I think to be good at anything. I’m real confident –that’s the thing, people are like aw that dude’s real pretentious and stuff like that – but I’m pretentious when it comes to playing basketball and I suck at basketball. It’s just the way I am, and it’s more me just joking around. And the problem is is, I would always talk shit about being the best at this and that, and the thing is when I first started tattooing I sucked. So I would be bragging about how awesome I was but I really wasn’t, in my mind I knew I wasn’t. And then I kinda shifted to this point where people actually started thinking I was good and then when I’m talking like that they’re like aw this motherfucker’s got an ego. But it was just me doing the same thing I’ve always done, I just finally got to that level where people were actually thinking I was serious. So now I kinda have to watch my mouth a lot more.

Nothing wrong with confidence!

I mean that’s true but, Craola is one of my favorite people in the whole wide world, and I probably wouldn’t like his artwork as much if he was some cocky bastard. He’s an inspiration to me on a couple of levels, I wanna be like him as a person, not only as an artist. You see a lot of artists that have just lost their personalities, especially tattoo artists. The problem with them is everyone and their mom gives them compliments – I used to get these compliments, people were like “You’re so awesome, I love your work,” and then I’d go look at somebody else’s portfolio who sucked, somebody who was tattooing out of his kitchen and he would be getting the same compliments as me. It was like how can I have an ego when this dude is getting the same exact compliments as me.

I’m scared of tattoo artists now - I’m not really heavily tattooed, and a lot of tattoo artists hate that shit. They really hate it, they’re like how are you tattooing and not heavily tattooed? I’m like, I just love art, [tattooing] just kinda fell into my medium base, that’s all. And it’s not like I hate tattoos, I’m just afraid of commitment. My boy Jason, he did my nautical stars, and I wanted to get tattooed by him so bad, ‘cause I tattoo him a lot and he’s always like I wanna be able to give you back a tattoo. So I thought about it and was like alright Jason I want you to tattoo me. And I told him the idea I wanted and all that stuff, and then I just got cold feet, ya know? I knew that if he did it, it would be done by one of my best friends, the meaning behind it was really good, he’s a great artists, all of the above, but I just couldn’t do it! I freaked out at the last minute like I can’t do this Jason, I’m sorry man. He was like that’s cool, you’ll come around. What I was thinking actually is, I’m going to Comic Con this July, and I’m gonna be hanging out with Craola for a day or two when I’m down there, ‘cause he’s always like why don’t you get tattooed, what’s goin’ on? So I’ve decided, if I can talk him into drawing me up a bodysuit then I’m gonna have him draw it up and I’m gonna get my boy Dan Hazelton to color it. I’m gonna get that shit done. Because I mean, I want the best of the best of the best.

Yea I saw your recent collabo sketch with Hazelton – that shit was hot!

Actually I went up there specifically to start the bodysuit with him. I basically drew everything, and then we both outlined it at the same time, and then he’s doing most of the coloring. Did you ever see the Golden Acorn piece with the octopus head? That was done by Dan Hazelton and myself, I drew everything and he colored it all, so I want a bodysuit kinda like that.

Phew, so if you’re gonna do it, you’re gonna do it right, huh?

That’s the thing - I wanna make sure that the piece I get is something that pretty much inspires the world, ya know what I mean? I don’t wanna get a piece just because its free – I know Craola ain’t gonna be drawin’ up a bunch of bodysuits, so I’ll probably be one of the only people in the world that has a Craola bodysuit. And then Dan Hazelton, his pieces are incredible, so I think it would be an awesome collaboration.

That would be quite epic.

It would feel good too I’m sure. [laughs]

Stay tuned for Interview with Jesse Smith: Part 2 tomorrow.



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