As a long time admirer or the darkly romantic, classic work of Chris Cleen, I had the pleasure of meeting, interviewing and getting work done by him on his most recent trip to San Francisco, for a guest spot at Idle Hand tattoo. As a New York based tattoo artist, Cleen spends his days at Saved tattoo in Brooklyn, and at his drawing table, creating his erotic themed Victorian imagery for enthusiasts of his craft, those looking to get tattooed and himself.
Hannah Stouffer: Put a name to the color of red that you use.
Cris Cleen: My red is the fire of the heart.
I adore the combination of prim Victorian imagery and erotica that you use, how did this style develop for you?
There are a lot of victorian erotic artists but I guess tattooing them only works when someone is willing to wear them. So much older tattoo flash is erotic in nature and to appeal to the fantasies of men and if i can push people to embrace that in themselves, I think its a very important avenue in tattooing and in turn , self discovery. I'm not trying to keep the erotic art Victorian necessarily its just more the clothing that I think is sexy specifically under things! I guess with that, just showing enough is what makes it more inviting than something crude. If it engages you to look closer, it makes it interesting as art and also in a tattoo.
Have you noticed a change in the types of images people have asked for over the years you’ve been tattooing?
People have changed the images they get many times mostly through internet trends, unfortunately. I guess thats why I ry to offer something specific so that those designs circulate. I want the primitive subjects to circulate because they will last longer than a custom piece for one person that gets homogenized a hundred times over. People that are worried about their personal design getting created don't realize that they will get used on other people when it makes its rounds on the internet.
Is there anything you’ve been wanting to tattoo, but haven’t gotten the chance?
I always get to do what I love in the way of designs. I can't think of anything that someone could do that would flip my switch other than scale. I guess if someone wanted to get covered in my work and or the subjects being bigger, like a snake along one side of the body, things like that. I'm always on the lookout for a women with no tattoos who wants a american image body suit from me that I could take around the world to show off.
What was the first tattoo you ever did? Have you always worked in the same general style?
I cant say I've always had the same looking work, of course one goes through lots of experimenting and trial and error but I've stayed course this ship for quite a while now. I think I have the look I wanted to have since the beginning but took a long time to get there.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
I do not keep a sketch book. When I think of stuff away from the drawing table, which I hardly am, I work out the details in my head and let it haunt me and if its still a good idea by the time I get to draw it, then I trust it.
What do you think makes a good tattoo? Alternatively, are there any tattoo styles/imagery that you loathe?
This question, I could go on forever. I think the most important quality in a tattoo in the sense of craft is being able to tell what it is. It has to be readable to everyone. I think as far as imagery, I have three rules of beauty: it has to stand alone, it has to be vulnerable, and it has to has to have hope.
There is a lot of imagery I don't like but mostly anything that I think people get because they see tattooed girls in magazines, or the desire to look heavily tattooed with anything as long as it looks so.
Were you a painter before you started tattooing or vice versa? Does one medium influence the other?
I did not do art before getting involved in tattooing. I try to explore ideas of art that maybe i can filter into the tattoo work but I don't desire to do my art because its mine but because I believe in it as a tattoo and keeping that kind of work going. I'm as selfish as an artist because I want tattooist to but more personality in their work than they often allow. Painting helps me work out ideas and give people results of the kinds of things I would like to do more in tattooing. I have no interest in an art career other than this one, at least now.
Have you noticed any differences between the work you were doing in San Francisco and the work you’re now doing in NY?
I have noticed some differences in the clientele in New York in the sense that, to no offense to west coasters, but i think New Yorkers will take more risks and get something a bit more daring, faster and more of it. I think San Franciscans need a little more finessing.
You said in your video documentary that you worked to understand the images you were tattooing, rather than just blindly spreading your art. How did you work to understand them, and what insights did you gain?
I guess when you learn what made the tattoos design then and what those artists where looking at , it can get you to look at things more that way. What mattered to clients back when they has less artistic options in the craft sense. What you do with the art when only so much can be done in the skin. I think every time the craft gets better, the soul of it fades back a little. Just my opinion of course but I think even in my own history, the more effects I learned to do with the tattoo machine over the years, the less I care to use them and focus on the subject matter.
What is it about the process of having clients choose flash from you that you find so intriguing? Will you ever go back to custom?
I do custom tattoos still. you just have to come to New York to get them. Its funny to me that it seems so weird to people because when you go to a restaurant, you order the food they have on the menu. The idea, is to have people say what they want with there tattoo but keeping in the vocabulary of American tattooing. Anything with a face, a girl, a person, a flower, can say anything emotional literal or abstract. iIs always been strange that people want their tattoos to be so literal but they often think a mom heart tattoo isn’t' enough. I think I learned a long time ago to speak art through tattoo images and I would like to encourage people who are getting tattoos to consider something designed for the skin
For more of Cris Cleen's tattoo work, check HERE
For available 2D work of Chris', check HERE
With assistance from Julia Silverman