Interview with Jesse Smith Part 2Juxtapoz // Saturday, 08 Aug 2009
Tanya Kollar, of The Citrus Report, caught up with this artist and asked him a few questions. Read Part 2 of the 2-part interview with Jesse here.
You were mentored by some great tattoo artists when you were first starting out. Have you now taken any blossoming tattoo artists under your own wing?
I have a handful of artists who contact me and ask me for critiques on their art and stuff like that, and I’ve had a couple of apprentices, but it’s just that I’ve gotten to the point now where I just don’t have the time. If I were to give someone an apprenticeship I would wanna make sure that they’re gonna be the next best artist in the world as much as possible. I’m not gonna stop till I push them to the top, and I just don’t feel like I have the time to do that right now. I just wanna do it right –I wanna put my reputation on everything I do. If I have an apprentice I want that apprentice to represent me, and I want people to say yea I know he got apprenticed by Jesse ‘cause his shit’s legit. Do I sound arrogant?
[Both laughing] No way! You’re too self-conscious about being arrogant, cut it out!
Well my first interview I ever had in ITA, the chick asked me, “so what do you think about your artwork now?” and I was like, “If you asked me a year ago what I thought about my work then I would’ve told you I was the best artist in the entire world, but if you ask me now what I think about my art from back then I’ll tell you I sucked.” And of course, she wrote it exactly the way I said it, but then I started getting all these people chattering about it being like “Jesse thinks he’s the best artist in the world,” but they didn’t realize what I was really trying to say. I’m hoping it’ll always be like that, that a year from now I’ll look back and be like I sucked.
You’ve basically stopped taking new clients. What brought about this decision?
When there was just too many people trying to get ahold of me. I went through this crazy period of growing pains….oh wait, hold on a second…my neighbor just ran over my mailbox…
So, where were we? You were getting bombarded by people contacting you for tattoos?
That was actually a real stressful time in my career. I never in a million years expected I’d be doing this well. Honestly, my [original] goal was just to be a professional artist, and then it was Busch Gardens and then being a tattoo artist. I kept hitting these goals, so I was like I gotta make a new goal, so my new goal was to get a magazine article, then I got a magazine article, then I started getting a lotta magazine articles. I kept setting these goals and it was just like all of a sudden I started getting all these e-mails, and I’m like “whoa.” So I’m answering all these e-mails and before long I don’t have time to draw anymore because I’m answering e-mails. So then I set up and FAQ, which totally cut down on e-mails, but I was still overbooking myself, so even the clients who I had started on, they couldn’t get back in cause I was booking so far ahead. I was like, man, I’ve gotta get control over this some sorta way.
So then I set up a waiting list, and I actually took deposits from everyone who got on the waiting list. I was like give me a deposit and as soon as I’m ready I’ll get you, I will tattoo anybody who wants to be tattooed by me. So when I had probably like 2 or $3,000 in deposits people started hitting me up like hey can I get my deposit back, I’m not gonna be able to get tattooed…I was like man this is ridiculous. I spent almost 6 months trying to get everybody their deposits back or getting ‘em in, or they’d come and have a consultation and we weren’t clicking, and I realized it wasn’t working so well. So one day I was like ya know what, I’m only gonna tattoo the people who I can tell wanna get tattooed by me. Not go to my website and are like ooh this guy does bright colors, I want bright colors.
Then I started taking submissions, and I have like 320 people on a waiting list right now and I’m not gonna be able to get to [all the submissions], I know I’m not gonna be able to get to ‘em, so I just go through and pick the one’s that…ya know ‘cause, back to the selfishness thing, I’m not doing this for other people, I’m doing it for me. I enjoy doing art, I love it, and if I start doing things outside of what I wanna do, then it’s not gonna be fun for me. I have to stay inspired and have to make sure I still enjoy this job in order to keep doing it. Also, I have to control the quality of work I put out too. Like if somebody comes in and wants me to do a bunch of devil-worshipping tattoos, and all of a sudden you see a bunch of [those] tattoos, that reflects my work and me as a person. So I wanna make sure that everything I put out there follows some sort of continuity with the style I’m trying to push forward, as well as sending out that message of what I believe in.
You’ve said that your artistic style is more aligned with Lowbrow than it is with New Skool – what’s the big distinction for you there?
Thing is, back in the day it didn’t bother me to do New Skool, because New Skool was this thing where you’re using bright colors and everything’s bent, toothbrush is bent, spark plug is bent, sacred hearts and all that stuff, and I feel like at that particular point that was “the new.” But now, that’s the old. I’m not trying to say I’m better than the New Skool artists, I just feel like the majority of the New Skool genre has surpassed that label, so I feel like we’re pushing into a new label. So Cool-Aid and Electric Pick and I, we’re all talking one day and we’re just like man we really don’t like that New Skool label, so we’ve all been trying to figure out a label to kinda push us into this new realm. Versus being stuck with this old genre that was associated with that type of work ‘cause we’re not doing that stuff anymore. So we started playing around with different words and we came up with “lowbrid,” ya know cause hybrid is a mixture of a couple of different things, and I felt like “lowbrid” is like a mixture of comic book art, and New Skool, and graffiti art, and lowbrow, and all that stuff, all the things that inspire me. It’s just a mixture of everything. And I just thought it was cool because “lowbrid” seems like the opposite of “high-brid,” a little play on words. A couple of the guys weren’t really into it but I was like, ya know what, I can name my shit whatever I want! I can name my shit “lowbrid” and if they wanna associate themselves with a different title that’s fine. And I mean, it doesn’t have to be named anything, really. I like the fact that you can see my work and say hey, that’s a Jesse Smith tattoo. It’s the same way Lowbrow started, Robert Williams started Lowbrow through Juxtapoz magazine. He just started calling it Lowbrow and that’s what happened.
Both the world of tattoo art and lowbrow art are doing good things right now – they’re being lent so much more legitimacy.
The tattoo world, in my opinion, is just starting to catch up to the fine art world. I mean, people hate to hear me say that, but when it comes down to it I think that the tattoo world was so far behind the art world when it first started out. I mean, you had your few artists like Guy Aitchison, but even them, you look at some of their older stuff…like I don’t understand some of Bugs’ old flash sheets. Like a crescent moon with the little knob on top of the crescent had a piercing on it, real cheesy shit, ya know.
And now Bugs is doing tattoo cubism…
Did you know Bugs used to be a Celtic artist? He was doing mainly Celtic work, and then one day he got up and he was like ya know what I’m not doing this shit anymore, I wanna do Cubism. And that was it! I really respect Bugs a lots, as far as an artist he’s a really passionate person, and he does what he wants to do. But he’s French so that’s what they do. Actually I’m thinking about a European tour next year maybe.
Europe’s got an interesting body modification scene going on. I love French tattoo art, like, do you know Yann or Lionel and their style?
That’s the real kid-style, right? When I first saw it I was like…what the fuck is this…but ya know what I like? I like the fact that somebody can do something they love and stand by it no matter what people think about it. I really admire the fact that those guys can do that and stand by it. That’s what they do. There’s lots of artists out there who do childish kinda artwork but it’s not as easy as it seems. I can’t do that shit. When somebody tells me I have to do a tee-shirt design and I can only use 5 colors, it’s like NO!!! So I really admire simplistic art. There’s a guy under my links section, ARO - his stuff is super simple, and I just love that stuff.
If you go to Europe maybe you’ll get a little of that influence...
I need it, I need all of it.
Having grown up in Germany you have a strong background in graffiti – do you still do street art at all or have other obligations trumped any graffiti efforts?
I haven’t done any graffiti since June 2007, so it’s been a couple of years. It’s not that I don’t wanna do it, but I have a choice. It’s like I can either go out and do a graffiti mural in the middle of nowhere, not gonna get paid for it and possibly get busted for it, or I can do graffiti on people and get paid for it and not have the possibility of getting busted. And, it travels, it’s like painting a freight. I love it. Everything I love about graffiti, I can get from tattooing. Besides the huge canvases, and the 100% freedom. But it’s funny, you get to know people on such an intimate level. I mean, I spend more time with my clients than I do my friends. I have clients who come in every week, 3 hours a week for the past 3 years. I know those people more than I know anybody, it’s just crazy.
I’d just think you’d wanna get out there and be a little bit of a rebel sometimes - I have zero artistic ability but if I did SF would be a great place to use it. So where in Cali are you considering moving to anyways?
Well San Diego first, and then actually I got offered a job in San Francisco to do concept art for video games so I’ve been thinking about that. They were gonna give me my whole own video game too, which I thought would be awesome. I just have these huge tattoos goin’ on right now, like this one chick I’ve got like 270 hours on her so far. I’m just trying to finish up all my obligations, ‘cause I can’t jump into doing concept art for a video game when I’ve got all these people’s tattoos I need to finish up, it’s not fair to them if I don’t finish them up. And then if I’m gonna be doing a video game my brain needs to be focused on that, I don’t wanna have to be thinking about all the stuff I left behind.
How does your creative process work when you’re sketching and painting? Do you imagine a concept first and then create a piece based around that or do you prefer to just start painting and let a concept develop organically along the way? I’m thinking specifically of pieces like Gary the Gruesome Gimp that seem to have a detailed story behind them.
Well, it works out both ways – I’ll have a relatively shallow idea of where I’m going with something. But not always, sometimes I’ll have no idea where I’m going. Like, you know the “Corporate Consumption” piece, where it’s a politician and there’s a little kid in his mouth? That I just started drawing and it came out. I built a concept on top of it, as I was going. It’s weird, as you’re drawing you’re thinking of everything, ya know, you’re thinking of how you’re gonna make this shape, but when you’re coloring it you’re not really thinking about the shape or anything, you’re starting to think about where is this piece going, what does this piece mean to me and stuff like that. But yea, I’d say a lot of the time like with Gary the Gruesome Gimp… I was actually gonna create an adult ABC book, I had all these characters that I wrote down, I had Adumb the African Albino, Ryan the Retarded Rabbit, Dave the Drooling Drycleaner, I had Laura the Legless Lesbian, I had Wayne the One-eyed Wigger. I had tons of characters and what I was gonna do is basically draw each character in a cool way and then I was gonna create a story behind them, and by the end of the story some of the characters would overlap with other characters. I have the whole story written down – but it sucks ‘cause I really fell off that whole idea, ‘cause it was really just very ambitious. I did maybe 7 of ‘em myself and each one took me probably 50-60-70 hours apiece, between the actual conception of the art and the story and then the layout, how it would look inside the book and all this stuff. I think it would be really funny when it’s done but what are there, 26 letters in the alphabet? I mean I did 7 and I started it when I was in college, it took me 2 semesters to get 7 characters together. It was just so much. I’d love to take it to the next level – maybe one day I will, maybe one day I’ll come back to it but I’d have to draw all the characters over again. I’ll wait till I’m financially stable enough to not make money for a year or two.
Yea, have some time to just bullshit and draw legless lesbians all day.
Laura the Legless Lesbian is a nasty one.
I really like the Gruesome Gimp one, with the ball in his mouth and the shadows and all.
Did you see the dildo coming out of his head? I tried to make it real subtle, I didn’t want it to be like BAM in your face, but I wanted people to be like aw I love this drawing, and then “ew!” [laughs]. I love it when you can do that to people.
Well I have to tell you, sometimes when I’m looking at your work I just start laughing, so I guess that’s a good reaction by your standards.
I like it when people look at my artwork more than just looking at it, ya know what I mean? I want it to be a piece of candy, but I want it to be a long-lasting piece of candy. I look at some artists and they can draw something, and you’re like wow, I love looking at that….but then after you’ve seen it, what else are you gonna see? So I like my work to have not only that candy effect but having people be like whoa there’s a concept behind this.
I’m looking at the DJ in the Woods piece right now, and I remember it was the first piece of yours I ever saw. At first I was like alright, whoa, bunny rabbits, and then you see the whole scene with the DJ and the mountains and everything and it goes so deep, but you don’t really see that until a few seconds after you first start looking at it.
It’s so frustrating to me, everybody loves that piece and I drew that shit probably like 6 years ago, and I really feel like its so immature compared to what I’m doing now. But everybody always likes it!
So you’ve done quite a few collaborations with other artists, both on skin and on canvas. Is it true that you’re doing one with Jason Jacenko next? Or is that something you were planning on that didn’t pan out?
It is possible, he actually just moved to Texas. What happened was there was this guy in Australia who contacted me about drawing a sleeve up for him, and I was like I’ll draw it up for you but only if you get it tattooed by this guy, who was Jason. So when this guy was talking about doing this collabo, I’m already having an interview telling people it’s gonna happen ‘cause he said he wanted it, and then it didn’t happen. So now I try to pace myself a little but more when somebody says they want somethin’. But I’m sure Jason and I will do a collabo eventually.
So you’re about to be heading to California for stops in San Diego, LA, and SF to guest spot at various tattoo shops, are you totally booked up or do you still have spots open?
I am totally booked up for San Francisco, I have one spot in LA and two spots in San Diego.
Well even if people don’t have the chance to get tattooed by you this time at least there’s the potential for you moving out to California so we can have you around for good!
Oh no, I’m definitely moving out to California. No ifs, ands, or buts. I can’t wait to move to Cali, you guys just legalized weed out there! I know it was decriminalized, but I just recently heard that they actually totally legalized it. I mean, I’m not a big pot head, I don’t really smoke that much, I just think it’s so stupid to waste your time on that shit, ya know what I mean? They’ve already made millions of dollars off taxes from weed so far in California.
It’s a great place to live! Well, I know you have to get ready to leave for Miami so I’ll let you go, but thank you so much for taking the time to do this Jesse!
I’m glad we took the time and I’m very flattered.
Didn't catch Part 1 of the interview with Jesse? Read it now here.