Despite dabbling in tattoo since his teenage years, tattooer Erik Jacobsen only picked up the trade professionally about five years ago. Since then, he has managed to create a stunning portfolio of modelled three-dimensional skulls, moths, and mammals and bold, graphic mandalas (just to name a few). Armed with a BFA in illustration from San Francisco's Academy of Art University, Jacobsen continues to work out of the esteemed Idle Hand Tattoo in the Lower Haight. Although there is precious little information on his work out there, we recently caught up with him for a quick chat about art vs. tattoo, his favorite types of images to work with, and his first (regrettable?) ink.
Jux: How did you get started in tattooing? What initially drew you to it?
EJ: I first started getting into tattooing when I was about 16 after seeing some old books and magazines on traditional Thai tattoos and some of the tribal work of Alex Binnie and Xed the Head. I loved the simplicity, boldness, and power of their work. After art school, I wasn't satisfied with sitting in a painting studio (despite being reporesented by a gallery), and by that point I had started to get some larger [tattoo] work done. I loved the whole process and the honesty of the tattooers I’d met, and I wondered why I wasn't doing it too. But, I was very lucky to get help when I finally started tattooing. It's not easy to get into and the learning process can be very uncomfortable.
What was the first tattoo you ever got?
Some bad tribal on my forearm on my 18th birthday.
How would you characterize your style of tattooing, and how did you develop it? Have there been any particular artists or movements that have helped you?
I owe my style of tattooing to so many other tattooers. Of course there are the ones who are direct style influences: Thomas Hooper, Xed the Head, Jondix, Guy Le Tattooer, Alex Binnie, and traditional styles of Polynesian tattooing, and people like Leo Zulueta who made tribal tattoos popular in the States in the 80's and 90's. I also owe a huge debt to the tattooers I work with, they have driven my growth more than anyone. Almost everything I know about the who, what and how of a tattoo I owe to them. I'm fortunate to work with people that give a shit about me and this job and push me to do better and always be learning.
Why did you decide to start tattooing instead of going down a more “fine arts” path? Is it common for art school students to become tattooers?
As more people begin to see tattooing as an artistic medium, I think it’s becoming more common for art students to become tattooers. But I’ve come to understand tattoo as more of a craft than an art form. It's not really about self expression; you are taking what the client wants and trying to give them something that will work as a tattoo and outlive them in both style and design; adding your “style” is secondary.
Although I think tattoo can be taken to the level of "art," it feels rather arrogant to add the label "art" to all forms of self-expression. To me, being an artist means doing something well enough to communicate concepts through a medium and do your craft so well that others get what you are trying to say. Art is about communication, a visual language. If people don't understand what you are trying to do, then you have failed.
It seems like recently you’ve been tattooing a lot of mandalas. What is it about that form that you find attractive/compelling?
I like the patterning. There is something about repeating organic shapes and patterns that when they lie on the human body they create an interesting contrast. Light and dark, organic and inorganic. There is a book that talks about how we as humans find beauty in the patterns found in nature--flowers, succulents, the spirals in shells, etc. I also like the nod to Eastern and ancient traditions. I don't think that everyone should wear Buddhist or Vedic symbols just because I like them, however. They're not appropriate for everyone, but a mandala can invoke a sacredness without being tradition-specific. I also just find them fun to tattoo. Makes my job a lot funner to do if you actually like the work.
What are your favorite types of images to tattoo right now?
Anything bold with lots of black and heavy contrast. Patterns, Mandalas and plants but I also like to do traditional Americana too. Anything black and grey. Realism is fun too.
How does tattooing fit into your overall artistic (painting, drawing, etc.) practice?
Tattooing gives me something to be challenged by. It's bigger than me and what I want or think. My work, when its done, gets up and walks out the door to go live it's own life. I probably won't ever see it again. The stuff I do on paper or canvas is probably the closest thing to what most people would consider an artistic practice. That’s where I sketch out ideas, try new things, experiment and basically do whatever the fuck I feel like.
Tattoos have to be applied and they hurt, so there can be less experimentation and self expression, Not to mention I’m usually expressing someone elses' Idea. In most senses, tattoos are just decorative in nature. The concept is sort of useless. Maybe someday I'll do tattoo work that allows me to work with bigger ideas, but I'm pretty content with just trying to decorate people and give them a cool, powerful tattoo. Whether or not someone considers what I do art is not my concern.
In your opinion, what makes for a successful tattoo? Are there any subjects you would flat out refuse?
Good tattoos should be bold, heavy black, Simple. Good thick lines and good use of positive/negative space. I don't like tattooing words in a font. It's a visual medium why would you just literally write what you want to say in a font that anyone can find on the internet when you could do it through a unique symbol or image. Words can be boring. At least get it in a nice hand drawn script. I'll do my best to make any tattoo work. Nothing hateful.
Have you noticed any patterns and changes in the types of tattoos that people request since you started working?
I think people are getting bolder work. But I haven't been at this that long. Can't really say I see a huge change. I'm just happy people are getting work at all... I'm very thankful that people let me tattoo them.