1) G: When we first met- I believe it was in front of Ed Hardy's booth at a convention in Chicago- you were showing off some impressive sculpture pieces you'd done as part of your Master's thesis (do I have my facts straight...?) you had a keen interest in tattooing and a broad range of art skills, but hadn't actually started your apprenticeship yet. With such a broad creative background, what was it about the tattooing medium that was so attractive to you?
C: Yes Guy, you remember that right. It was in Chicago in 1993. I had never ben to a tattoo convention in my life, and in fact at that time, I hadn't really begun to think seriously about becoming a tattoo artist at all, although those thoughts were starting to brew... However, I had been interested in the images, symbols, and history of tattooing for some time, and had been working with tattoo imagery in my sculptures. Of course I had seen several of Ed's books, and knew he was scheduled to be there, so I decided I had to go meet him. I was sheepishly showing photos of my sculptures to Ed at his booth when you walked by, and Ed called out to you "Hey Guy, You gotta come see this kid's stuff" And that's where it all began: you decided you had to have one, and I decided to have you tattoo me in trade. (I was so green and foolish I asked you to do a Pseudo Japanese thing that I had the balls to draw for myself! Idiot... So many many great lessons I have learned since then...)
To answer your question, I think there were many things about tattooing that attracted me immediately. The wide range of amazing artistic designs that were coming out in the early 1990's had a great deal to do with it. Tattooing was clearly in the midst of making a great creative leap, and I wanted to be part of it. I also love the great technical challenges that tattooing has to offer. As a painter, sculptor, ceramicist, glassblower, and printmaker, I've always enjoyed working with more complicated technical processes, so it was a lot of fun just learning how it works and how to do it.
Most of all though, it's a completely different experience from anything that an artist creates in the seclusion of his or her own studio: we tattooers work directly ON our clients. Everything I make as a tattoo artist is a collaboration; a blend of my clients ideas and my own, but ultimately the finished product is meant to express that other person's vision of themselves, not my own personal vision. I love that! Throughout all of my years in art school, I had been expected to constantly express my own voice, and I was frankly sick of hearing it. It was a tremendous breath of fresh air to be challenged by such a wide variety of exciting new ideas. In fact I've never worked so consistently for such a long time in any other medium, and it's the constant exchange of ideas that keeps me feeling excited to come into the studio.
In addition to that, it's an art form that can never be commodified. When I design and create a tattoo for a client, and they in turn pay for it, then it belongs to them forever (even if they do get it covered up later!). When you create an object in the modern art world, most often those objects are sold in galleries to people that the artist never meets in person, and the galleries take half of the sales to cover their cost of business. Those buyers can then turn around and later sell those works of art for ever higher and higher prices, keeping all of that money for themselves. When you hear about some artist's work that sells at auction for millions of dollars, it's hard to realize that the artist doesn't ever see that money unless they are extremely lucky. Only the collectors and traders make a profit. The artist gets paid the very first time that work of art is sold, and never gets anything thereafter. i really appreciate the fact that no one else can cash in on the value of my tattoos. Not only that, but my collectors know that they can never turn around and sell their tattoos, so they know that it's an investment in themselves that is above and beyond the value of money. That feels great to me, I know when someone comes to me to get tattooed, their interest is genuinely about the art, and not just an investment opportunity.
2) G: The sculptures in question were these oversized children's figures that were etched with images taken from the news and other pop cultural sources, heavy on the political and anti-war flavors... The first work you were having done in your own tattoo collection was very much in this same spirit. Since then your subject matter has moved from straightforward social commentary into a much harder to describe territory. How would you describe what you're expressing as an artist now?
C: In terms of my work outside of tattooing, that's right. As a college student, my work had a really strong political bent. I had grown up in the Reagan years, and started Graduate school during the first Gulf War when George Bush Senior was our president. The world I saw was deeply flawed, and like everyone in their early 20's I thought I had all the answers.
Those clay figures; a series of 12 kneeling boys, each one identical in form, but carved with distinctly different images drawn from pop culture and politics, were never actually intended to answer anything, but rather to show how the events of the day weighed on us all and distorted and changed us as people. It was a way of showing how the world leaves marks on us all whether we want them or not. Our own tattoos are quite the opposite. We choose what we get done. For many, it's one of the only ways in which we have almost total control over our time here on Earth.
In many ways, I am working with the same ideas in my current paintings, but without any direct references to politics, TV, Child molesters, or movie stars. The characters in my paintings are real people. I scour photo albums in people's Myspace and Facebook pages, mostly strangers to me, in search of faces and gestures that catch my eye. I'm especially attracted to strange or exaggerated hand gestures these days. I use photoshop and a lot of my own imagination to distort, change, and explode these figures into becoming the characters in my paintings. Whatever the narrative was in the photo doesn't matter; I make up my own little narratives in my head. These characters become freaks in a way; distorted and disjointed, often exploding apart. It's a way of exposing all of the dirty little secrets that hide inside of them, and at the same time releasing those secrets and bringing them into the light. Many people think of my work as apocalyptic, and I can see how it might look that way on the surface, but in my mind, I am not destroying these characters at all; I am setting them free! There is always a touch of lightness and humor to my work, at least for me.
3) G: With experience in so many different art mediums, how do you think this has affected your tattooing, both in your subject matter and in your technical approach?
C: I think that my tattooing and my studio work have both influenced eachother greatly over the years. When I first began tattooing, I had hardly any training at all, and I had no idea what the hell I was doing technically, but I did feel for a time that I was able to use some of my artistic tools to fancy-up and camouflage my crappy tattoos. Once I learned to properly tattoo of course, all of that experience simply gave me a lot more tools to design and tattoo with. I felt like I could do almost anything; I could bring a lot more to my tattooing than just tattooing.
In turn, Tattooing really taught me to be a better painter. It started with drawing; despite having earned both a Bachelors and a Masters Degree in Fine Art, absolutely nothing kicked my ass harder in the drawing department than my first five years of tattooing, and to this day I still don't draw nearly as well as a lot of other tattooers out there, but I am a master at tracing! I've learned to be a lot bolder with color and value, to create depth, and to keep things simple and not try to cram a thousand ideas into one single piece.
4) G: More recently you've moved from your broad multimedia approach into a more straightforward diet of painting and tattooing. I've always felt that tattooists benefit a great deal from working in alternate media outside of skin... Why painting? What caused you to narrow your interests into your signature style of acrylic painting?
C: Years ago, before I was tattooing, I did a great deal of multi-media collage and assemblage work, both with my sculpture and with my paintings. When I began tattooing, I was so engrossed in the culture and learning the trade that I really didn't do any other serious artwork for many years. When I decided that I needed to get back into the studio, I started slowly, with a series of simple multi-media drawings. Those lead to the early paintings, and I guess I just felt that I could express the idea of tearing apart the layers of a person just as well if not better with paint than I could with the mixed media approach I had taken before. In a way it was a tremendous challenge to be so limited, but after tattooing for so many years, it didn't seem like a limitation at all. My older work had also been a lot more aggressive and angst-ridden. In many ways, I just grew up. My ideas and images needed a more subtle and mature approach. At the time, I thought I'd do a few simple paintings and gradually build back into the mixed media work, but it just never seemed like the right approach. I wanted to go forward, not backwards.
5) G: Your paintings have become collector's favorites in the tattoo community: vibrant, active, both abstract and representational. It's a difficult style to label- a good thing in my opinion. Where on Earth do these bizarre visions originate, and what steps do you take to bring them to completion?
C: Ah, the "Style" question... or rather "What the Hell do you call that stuff you make?" That's as difficult a question for me to answer as it is for anyone else to figure out. I've been making paintings since I was in High School if not longer, and I've always been attracted to collage and found objects and images. Those bizarre visions ultimately come from the reality that we all live in; they are just filtered through my particularly tweaked view of that reality. My "style" of painting is something that has evolved so organically for me for the last twenty five years, that even I don't really know how I got to where I am now. I paint by instinct, really. I've never actually taken a formal painting class in my life, so I have never had any technical training with paint, and I've never been one to research that stuff on my own. I just play with paint. It's an emotional expression for me that's kind of impossible to describe in concrete terms.
I really wish that I could give a more clever or more deeply intellectual perspective on it, but I just can't be objective enough about my own work to see it in those terms. I paint from my guts, and always have. I've worked hard to keep my rational brain out of my studio as much as I can. I paint the way I do because that's the way I paint. I can look back at work I did 10, 15, even 20 years ago, and although I can see it evolving and changing, its still clearly Dingwell. I can look at my paintings alongside my sculptures, alongside blown glass and ceramic work, alongside of etchings and woodcuts, and it's all clearly Dingwell. There's no formula to it, it's just me. I guess that's why it's rather impossible to imitate.
6) G: So you have a new book, hot off the presses, featuring a collection of your favorite pieces. Can you describe the book for us?
C: CHRIS DINGWELL: INSIDE OUT. I'm tickled pink to have this come to life. It's been a goal of mine for several years now, but only just recently did I find the right person to help me make it a reality: my graphic designer, Stacy Kim. All I can say is that she did an amazing job putting everything together, and I owe her a great big thanks.
It's a soft-cover book; 10" X 10" about 150 pages of work. The cover design is really striking. Inside, it contains nearly every single painting I have done in the last eight years, along with some amazing close-up photos that really help you to see what the paintings feel like on the surface, and I think that part is especially important. I work in Acrylic, and my images are created by building up literally hundreds of layers of colors and textures, and brush strokes. Being able to see those layers up close really helps to make sense of how the work actually feels in person, and that's something that is often lost in most art books.
There's a brief, but amazing and hilarious article at the beginning of the book which was written by Johnny Thief from New Jersey, and scattered throughout the images are testimonials from dozens of tattooers and artist friends of mine whom I has asked to participate. Tom Strom, Damon Conklin, Matt Lukesh, Chet Zar, Durb Marrison, and Josh Fields are among those who contributed their thoughts, and I am really honored that so many great artists were willing to do so.
In addition, there are a handful of my poems! Most people don't know that in addition to everything else, I am on rare occasions also a poet. Much like my paintings, they are composed from fragments of found text and stories, and so they act like a literary version of my paintings. I think they add some richness and in some ways a deeper narrative to the images.
7) G: Last but not least, what advice do you have for other tattooers who are wanting to take up painting? How do you make room for such a thing in a busy life, full of family and professional pressures? And what can an artist do in the course of exploring a new medium to help unlock their own unique personal style?
C: SHUT UP AND PAINT!!
Seriously, Just do it! I've been doing a series of workshops for the last couple of years called "Painting Without Fear" because I constantly run into tattoo artists; often very skilled and accomplished tattoo artists in fact, who say they are afraid to paint. I find that just shocking. The canvas sure doesn't care if you screw it up! Painting isn't even remotely as hard as tattooing people is. Stop making excuses; make time for it, period. create a dedicated space that's easy to get to so you can sit down to paint any time you get the chance. Cut out the distractions: TV, Video Games, Sports, Midget Wrestling, whatever... just paint! Start out simple, and make simple goals for yourself. You won't be making any first time masterpieces, so you don't need to worry about messing them up. Damon Conklin told me that when he decided to start painting, he decided that his first 500 paintings would just be practice pieces; that none of them really mattered as finished objects, and I think that was a brilliant idea. He dove in head first and started cranking out paintings one after the other like a madman, and along the way, learned how to paint. You can't possibly learn how to paint until you actually do it; A LOT!
If it's something you are truly meant to do, then just sit down and do it. There are no short cuts! Don't compare yourself to anyone else, don't expect to be a master from day one, just do your own thing. I know that sounds easy, but it's harder than we often realize. As tattooers, we are constantly surrounded by other people's artwork. You can't think that you're going to sit down and paint like Me, or Shawn Barber, or Paul Gauguin, or anybody else, the first time you approach a canvas, and you can't let those thoughts stop you from trying; let them inspire you to bust your butt doing it! If you paint from your guts, they will always guide you in the right direction, and your own style will emerge from that. If you start thinking about how to create your own personal style, you will loose it for sure. Pay attention to what you are making: find the parts of your paintings that were the most fun and the most exciting things for you to do, and just do more of that.