Thomas Hooper | Interview

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Thomas Hooper Interview

Beautiful, But Not Nice

Following a successful show at Nepenthes in New York, iconic tattooist Thomas Hooper talks to us at his Brooklyn studio about his art, how his career came to be, and things that are beautiful...but not nice.

 

Adam Bryce: First of all, can you tell us how you originally started tattooing? 

Thomas Hooper: As a kid growing up, I wanted to get tattooed and I was very fortunate to find a tattooist that was good and I secretly really liked it and wanted to do it. I used to go to America because I rode BMX and I was sponsored, so I would stay with my friend there. I got some equipment, the guy who was tattooing me found out, fixed the equipment and I started tattooing myself. He showed me how to tattoo other people and I slowly built it from there.

 

I was kind of getting to the point where it was a kind of semi-apprenticeship but I wasn't right for an apprenticeship, so he encouraged me to go off and do my own thing. My mother’s an artist and so is my sister, so I always rebelled against it. I studied engineering, I studied media studies, I did film and photography...and then my Mum suggested I do a foundation in art. That was great, it was a year. 

 

AB: In England? 

TH: In Hastings, which is where I'm from originally. I was the only kid at college that actually had cash, because I'd go to school all day and then go home and tattoo friends, I had this little spot where I would tattoo people at night and it just kept building. So I thought – what’s the next step? I had an interest in art, so I did a degree in drawing. That changed everything for me, how I looked at everything. I was tattooing again whilst I was doing that. I think teachers wanted me to bring the tattooing into it ( my work) and I didn't think they mixed. I always fought with how they could inform each other, so for me one was one and one was the other. So I went through and finished the degree, got a job as a tattooist straight away and just knuckled down tattooing. I didn't draw or paint or anything apart from tattooing and by that point my tattoos were getting pretty good. I never want to go to work and tattoo for 8 hours then come to the studio and make tattoos on paper. I think they're beautiful but I cant do it. Its like when I paint, I’ll think that I should be putting it on skin. 

 

AB: Within tattoo culture as an artform you have a very specific style which has become quite iconic, Where did that come from? It's obviously transferred into your art which makes sense but where did it originate? 

TH: I grew up listening to metal and punk music, riding BMX, wanting to skateboard but not being able to. I've always had that subculture but I wanted to step outside that and make something of my own. When I first started tattooing, the work that made me want to tattoo was work by Alex Binnie and others. I just thought this is incredible. This is about 15 years ago and they were way above the game. I didn't think I wanted to tattoo like that but I did want to make something like that. Maybe thats the weird narcissistic ego of me wanting to make something of my own...there are bands that do that sort of stuff...musicians that take different things put them together and make them theirs. Like Fugazi for instance.

 

AB: I guess tattoos in general have become super popular but your style in particular is something that people have tried to emulate. How do you take that? 

TH: People always do it, people have always done it. The point where my work got really refined and I found out what it was I was doing was just on the cusp of the social media explosion. If it was 8 years ago it probably would have taken me 65 years longer to get where I was but now I post something online and it just feeds everywhere. I see it all over Tumblr which is great, it gets out there so much quicker. Whereas before you would save those pictures and send them to a magazine or upload to your website. But now you’re kind of famous for 10 seconds. I'm very repetitive, I'm not afraid to look at something and say that’s good, then change it a little and use it again and just keep doing it like that. Like wallpaper. 

 

One of my friends talked to me about a group of Japanese tattooists that spend their life studying Japanese tattooing, doing it all my hand. You know that Koi carp they do, they do it a thousand times then they do it another thousand times, you know just getting it right, hunting for that perfect one. 

 

AB: So obviously those same sort of principals apply to your art, how have you managed to find that interlinking between what you do day in and day out, tattooing and then when you get to the studio to do your art?

TH: I mix it up, so rather than thinking about what I’m trying to convey or what it’s going to look like, because with tattooing you’re constantly talking with the client about what it’s going to look like. So I kind of try this/this/this and this and see where it gets me and then maybe it will get to that thing that I want it to, but maybe it won’t. Like quite a normally painted piece in the centre, and then there is all of this pattern work underneath, so I will create all of these layers of patterns which ill paint over and completely obscure them. Because tattooing is so precious, the skin is, so with the art I'll create things and then I'll break them down. So I'll build up layers and sand then back down again. A lot of it is to do with impermanence and mortality. I just want to make things that I actually like...a lot of abstract stuff...using processes that are really interesting and I guess the point of the exhibition is to see what other people think. 

 

AB: I actually bought a piece the other day so I thought it was amazing! 

TH: Thank you! I've been doing a bit of research into Max Ernst and there’s this thing that he used to do called decalcomania, where he would paint onto glass and then laid out paper on top, but he would get in and paint these weird figures and scenes into this weird abstract thing that you can barely create by hand. So I was doing a lot of it, doing little studies, trying different materials and then I discovered the work of this guy called Shuzo Takiguchi, he was a poet, filmmaker, artist. He did this literally painting onto glass, laying the paper down, peeling it off, it was just kind of zen. I was like – wow, this is similar to what I'm doing but there’s a bit more color, so I kind of interlinked them. One of his pieces was called "Origin of Solitude" so I used that as a play for the title of the show. I was very inspired by it. I'm very interested in Rorschach's as well. So literally what I'll do is paint onto one side of it then fold it over, open it and I've made a Rorschach. So I'll mix them together by painting patterns over the top. I’ll take photographs of little segments and take them into photoshop to create hexagonal patterns. I like just noodling away creating these little processes. 

 

AB: So are you working on a follow up show at the moment? 

TH: I have a show in Germany that I had an opportunity to do but I’m just trying to figure out how I want to do that. Then my other project is a small book I made, it’s about 100 photographs of skulls in different positions. The other project is setting up a photography studio in here for a couple of months and really get in there...I don't have any solo shows planned but there’s a group show I want to do in LA, then one here.

 

AB: The show was at Nepenthes, you are obviously involved with Maxime and Sang Bleu, I just wondered about the fashion connection. Has it just sort of happened? 

TH: Yeah it just sort of happened...I don't really have an interest in fashion, I like clothing in a material sense, things that are really well made, the structure of vintage clothing. I’d really like to do fabric design, just designing patterns. Not clothes or trends or fashion or anything, just making patterns. As an artform or communicator I'll make t-shirts throughout the year in limited amounts and I like them because you’re making this piece of art that goes out there, it’s actually communicating with more people. 

 

AB: Yeah, this is not the right way to say it, but it’s like an ad. It’s an accessible form of art. 

TH: Yeah it definitely promotes myself but a lot of the time I won’t put a name or anything on there, but people begin to recognize it. You know if I put it on a t-shirt and a guy is in a city 100 people will see it, but if it hanging in someones bedroom that’s great, but only a few people get to see it. You can look at pictures of them on the internet but when they are on the internet it’s almost like they aren't real. 

 

AB: There is obviously a dark aesthetic but there is a positive meaning that goes along with your work, can you explain that a little bit? 

TH: My interests in my life are very positive, I mean I listen to heavy music that has a stereotypical impression on people. But some of my favorite pieces of work are Richard Serra's Oil Stick Drawings and some of them are just black panels but I find them fascinating...there’s just something beautiful about darkness or that kind of void where it’s nothing. When I did photography and when I did painting and drawing my teachers used to tell me my work was too dark, but I liked it. 

 

AB: Yeah, you and a lot of people I know get a positive feeling from something that is dark in its aesthetic, including myself. 

TH: One of the first personal relationships I had with an artist was William Green who was my friend’s father. They had not seen each other for a long time and they got to know each other again and William had been a painter in the 50's and 60's, really famous. Have you seen the Rebel with Tony Hancock? You know when Tony Hancock signs on the canvas? That’s a William Green! He used to put tar on his paintings and set them on fire, they'd have an exhibition and destroy it, he'd leave paintings in the garden for 6 months. I was studying photography and film and Simon (my friend) asked me if I'd be interested in taking photographs of his house, because he had a four bedroom house and he painted in every room and he hadn't painted in 30 years...it was a nice clean everyday house...Simon got in touch with him and re-awoke his creative spirit. So I just started visiting him and photographing him and his work was dark. It was also that aesthetic with I guess how pop culture is today of making things so when people see them they can’t say – oh, that looks nice. It’s beautiful but it’s not nice. When you say something is nice it’s because you don't really want to judge it. 

 

Adam Bryce





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