Scott Campbell was in Hong Kong in December to present a series of new works at Over the Influence. We caught up with him at the opening to learn more about his colourful life.
“I always loved the sciences growing up, and I still do. I went to the University of Texas, and basically, I was interning in this bacteriology lab under this professor, who was doing cool stuff. He was basically trying to isolate bacteria growing on the leaves of plants. Long story short, for 12 years this guy was trying to figure out exactly what was happening in this bacteria’s metabolism and what protein was triggering this reaction. It just so happened that during my semester there, he did it. He figured it all out, he published his paper, received his kudos. Everyone in the lab was super excited, and I just kind of realised that I don’t have a 12-year attention span. I want to wake up and be like, “I want to do this today.”
I need that immediate gratification, even though science and research are so honourable, but the lifestyle is just not one that I’m compatible with. I dropped out and ran away to California. I happened upon tattooing, which was a way to draw pictures and feed myself, and travel and make cash. I was like a criminal gypsy for most of my twenties, and it was great. It was awesome, until you need things like health insurance. Tattooing supported me and I loved it, I still do. I wasn’t good at college. I finally accepted that it won’t fit no matter how hard I try. It worked out in the end.
The past 10 years I shifted to more fine-art projects, working in all kinds of mediums. I keep coming back to working with cash. I really love the dimension of it and the tactile quality. It’s the authority that money has, which is fun to destroy. It’s fun to take something that is so revered and just, you know, just fuck it up for the sake of making something beautiful. It demands people’s attention.
This show specifically is very specific in subject matter, it’s a lot of textural stuff with different skulls. They’re like an old friend. I was a rebellious punk rock kid who drew skulls to piss off my parents and it’s become this kind of mantra for me and obviously holds a lot of relevance in tattooing. I think they’re really important because accepting our mortality and having mortality in the room with us acknowledges that we’re temporary and everything we worry about on a day-to-day basis isn’t really as heavy as we make it.
Everything starts with a drawing, basically like a topographical map and then we cut each layer one by one. We lay all the money out and the drawing on top of it, and a laser cutter follows the path of the drawing. We stack them up and glue them on top of each other. I do some two-dimensional stuff, but I like to do things that are more engaging and pull you in a little bit more.
It feels a bit theatrical, I like the subtlety of the skull where it’s not what you immediately see. It’s present, but it doesn’t push itself upon you. It’s just playing with the hierarchy of the elements and which one you gravitate towards first.
I think I have a complicated relationship with authority, I don’t like being told I’m supposed to do something. The fact that I’m supposed to consider money so sacred immediately makes me want to tear it up. I will destroy the money for the sake of creating something that I think is more interesting, and just kind of treating it so disrespectfully that it’s just a medium. It’s just like a tube of paint or anything else. It’s taking away that authority about it.
Tattooing is pure in a way that it has no resale value. I’ll do a tattoo and it just serves emotional needs. We honour that, and its purpose, and it will never end up at Sotheby’s. My canvas has an opinion, though. If I want to get weird and experimental, I have to ask your permission. I definitely think, in a way, most tattoo artists crave more freedom because you really feel your audience being your customer so present in the room.
Doing something like [fine art] is liberating in that I can do whatever I want, and I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission. I think all artists crave as much freedom as possible. I mean, that’s the only thing worth anything.”