Interview with Featured Artist, London Bellman
conducted by Dave Mehler
Dave for TCR: You have one of the coolest, most fascinating tattoo studios in Portland, and I know of a tattoo artist where I live (in Newberg, outside of Portland) who speaks of you in reverential, almost legendary tones. But my guess is you are an artist first, who works in a variety of mediums, as a glance at your studio makes clear. So my question is, why tattoo, and how did you get started, and end up in Portland, and starting up Atomic?
London: First, thanks for the compliments on the studio. I love my shop space and the ability to walk 12 steps down the stairs and be at work is pretty amazing. I think at this point we are kind of invisible compared to most studios. I don’t advertise so it has to be word of mouth. As time goes by its becoming more of a private space especially since the shop is only open four days a week ,where as most shops are 7 days a week with a gaggle of artists for the throngs. It’s nice to hear folks think I’m relevant as a tattooist and it keeps me fed too. I am an artist first who enjoys a few different mediums with tattooing being the one that pays my way. Why tattoo? I grew up going to the tattoo “parlor” when I was a kid and spent time watching my mom get extensive tattoos applied. I was always interested in art and tattoos but didn’t want to be a tattooist till later in life. I started my apprenticeship at the age of 28 which is late for kids that get into the industry today. I was working in the toy sculpting industry for five years making prototypes, (teenage mutant ninja turtles etc…) and after butting heads with the person in charge for some time I got fed up and quit on a whim. The next week I started looking at some tattoo mags and saw the work of a hugely successful artist by the name of Kari Barba. This was in Los Angeles at the time and I lived in Redondo Beach. I gave her a call and drove down to her Melrose Avenue studio to show her my portfolio. She stated that there were no openings but would let me know if anything came up. I figured I was being shot down but the next week one of her artists was moving back to Amsterdam and if I wanted the apprenticeship it was mine. I got lucky. After working for her for a couple of years I needed to get out of L.A. I always needed out of that place but tattooing gave me a viable trade that I could take wherever I wanted to go. I was born in Seattle and was a transplant to Redondo. I always felt the pull to move back North. After checking out Seattle before moving to Portland I realized that even then in 1993 it was a bigger city than I was willing to commit too. I went back to L.A. and looked at a map, Portland was the next biggest city between Seattle and San Francisco so I moved here sight unseen. It’s the best move I ever made. Atomic was started on a ridiculously small budget. I moved here with six thousand bucks. I found a space in the Pearl District, a 10×20 foot space on the street for 200 a month. I worked solo for the first two years eventually moving to a larger studio two blocks away. I added several artist’s and worked that space for another four years before finally buying the home where Atomic currently has existed since 1999.
Dave for TCR: Where does body art and tattooing figure in the realm of fine art—would you consider the tattooing as a business end, craftsman part of your work or is it more of an integral part of who you are and what you do as an artist? Is it a satisfying artistic outlet and form of expression? An artist’s calling is difficult because one has to make money to survive but also wants to be free to do and pursue art unshackled by commercial concerns. Is tattoo a good mix of both? It’s a strange and personal and collaborative art form creating a marriage of client and artist expression at its best, right?
London: Is it fine art or is it craft or something else? Hmmm… that will always be debated. I think for a lot of artists if your art is ranked among something that can be categorized, stored in a collection or museum of someone’s idea of what is high art and what is not then that artist feels validation. I think tattooing is a timeless thing that was here before people were worried about the intrinsic value of something. It had power, a spiritual prowess that was most likely gifted through a ritual to the wearer. You can document everything now digitally in the best archival methods available, but is a photo of a tattoo the tattoo or just a photo of a tattoo. I love tattooing but I don’t think it is fine art in the fine art sense. I believe the artists involved in the industry at this point in history are some of the most amazing artists on the planet. I also think the limitations are different for different mediums. People will argue limitations are only in the hands and minds of the individual’s intentions. I think the client should have something that will stand up for a reasonably considerable amount of their life here on Earth. People say tattoos are forever but I think they are a temporary design on an existential transitory being. Tattooing does provide me with a great deal of artistic pleasure but there’s also nothing like sitting quietly creating something completely of my own predilection.
Dave for TCR: Since another person’s body is your canvas, you begin with limitations—you must obtain the permission of the canvas about whether and how you may proceed—does this limitation provide interesting, provocative limitations or restrictive in a negative way? Does it ever enhance innovation?
London: The client is the canvas and as of late I am seeking clients that want to wear my vision on their body. I think the biggest limitation as far as the client/canvas is concerned is typically people are afraid to commit to larger work. The average clients have control issues and need to steer the project in directions they feel convey what they are seeking. Unfortunately most people think they have a grasp on design, composition, placement, etc. What this really boils down to is they think they know what they want but usually they have a smattering of random thoughts not clearly defined. If you take the time during a consultation to walk the uninformed client through the process usually they see the light and understand why something should be larger and other elements should take a back seat in the early design phase. If someone is too hung up on cramming every scrap of meaning into their design I will usually suggest cutting the fat to streamline to overall concept so the end product is less convoluted. If it is difficult for them to let go of some of those things I will suggest they take their time and really think about it. There’s no rush to getting a great tattoo. I’ll have them go home think about it, talk to other artists and not be forced into a permanent decision. If it doesn’t feel like the right fit for me I will pass on the project all together. Between the tortoise and the hare I choose to the crawl the path of the terrapin. Less is more in design and many aspects of life.
Dave for TCR: From what little I know of you and your work, and part of the reason I was drawn to your work as a Portland tattoo artist, you have certain obsessions, one of them being aquatic life and scenes—what drives you as an artist?
London: I do love water and the ocean specifically. Growing up in Redondo and for most of my childhood we lived within close proximity to the beach. Lots of days beach-combing and tide-pooling. I could care less about the sunning/tanning laying around aspect of the beach which is why I think many people go there. I love seeing all the tiny creatures that live at the edge of the world. The small things that support the rest of life fascinate me the most. The first street I lived on before we moved to So Cal was on a dead end street that ended into a path that weaved through the woods. Under the canopy were a myriad of pools that held similar yet different small creatures. Amphibians, their eggs, tadpoles, water beetles–all kinds of cool weird slimy stuff. The small stuff gets me and I get it.
Dave for TCR: I also remember a postcard you had in the shop in which you offered a steep discount if the client would meet with you and let you decide the kind of tattoo, colors and placement of the tattoo—in other words would allow you artistic freedom. How did that go—do clients trust you to just do whatever you want, within the context of a permanent/lifetime marking on their body?
London: I am still working on some of those projects. I’ll enclose some photos so you can see some of them finished and in progress. Yes, for the most part people trust my work.
Dave for TCR: What’s the story or stories of the weirdest client or situations you’ve found yourself in with their choice of work or placement. You must have several—any standouts?
London: Weird clients can range in so many different directions. I think after doing this for so long it still gets me that the process of tattooing opens people up emotionally. Clients divulge parts of themselves they don’t share with family, lovers, friends, etc. I’d like to say we as artists are cheap therapists but it’s not cheap. The upside is with a tattoo you get the benefit of hopefully a sympathetic ear and the bonus of walking away with a beautiful tattoo. I don’t want to call anyone out as we’re all fucking weird as far as I’m concerned, except for me. 😉
Dave for TCR: Would you care to comment on the state of the art of tattooing and how it is changing and becoming so much more mainstream. People who would never have dreamed of getting a tattoo before are getting them. Maybe you could talk about what it was and how you see it today, good and bad, from your perspective and where you see it as an art form going.
London: The tattoo client is very diverse now and yes, sadly mainstream. O.K. I’m going get all hippy dippy now so bear with me. I think the great part is that tattooing is strong and a giant and will continue to get bigger. So much talent worldwide and the ability for clients and artists to connect globally is incredible. I don’t think everyone needs a tattoo but culturally we have been sold on the idea. I expect too much from a client I think. I always hope people have a spark and sense of self so they actually walk around with something they are proud to wear. I also believe if you don’t know what you want then don’t get a tattoo. The tattoo shows on the T.V. are not helping either. The sheep mindset of what people see and think is reality and how things work in our industry are heavily skewed. Demanding clients get shown the door in the nicest possible way. I don’t want to work with someone in a hurry or that jumps from one idea to another in a heartbeat.
The traditional style has blown up the world of tattooing in the best and worst ways. The best being that it makes it more acceptable and mainstream if that can be a good thing. The bad being that young people are getting designs that they believe have power or some element that relates to their life when in actuality it holds no water. I’m sorry, young hipsters of today, excluding people who actually served in the military. You didn’t sail the seven seas, or cross any meridians. Culturally people getting traditional work are trying to create a future from a past they never experienced. Swallows, a compass, brass knuckles so many images watered down and becoming cliche. Empty images for a lost generation. Exploitation and commercialization at its finest. If you see the crappy pin-up girl with thalidomide hands, or bent anchor, rose misshapen from too much artistic Round-up sprayed heavily, second grade style ship drawings then any port in a storm will do. The next best thing based on actual tradition. Now you see a ton of the traditional work dumbing down even more to a folk renaissance. Solid basic designs broken down to something reminiscent of tweaker art. These are of course stylistic preferences. My point being if you are putting words and images on your body that are steeped in tradition, shouldn’t it hold true for the wearer to have some pride and experience instead of just putting it on here and there all willy-nilly just because every one else has one? Rant over.
Dave for TCR: Also it is to some degree a collaborative art in which you are commissioned as in the old days when artists had patrons, but it’s also personal—to you and to the client, because the client wears your art. Do you ever have clients you can’t please or who are dissatisfied with the art or ideas you create?
London: It is a collaboration and I am not a control freak but if you don’t have any sense of design then hopefully you at least know good design when you see it. Clients should research their artist and their style. If their style is to slap shit here and there with no cohesion then go get it. I don’t think every client has a keen sense of design and that is why they are talking to an artist, someone with years of experience in lots of different scenarios. The best pieces I have ever tattooed, the client usually has very little controlling input. They are welcome of course to steer the boat all they want but usually they lose control of the direction and then we are both sitting in a ship fast approaching the rocks. Dissatisfaction is a part of every business and yes I have had people that I instinctively know I should not work with. In the past I would take almost everything that came through my door. Inevitably I would sit on those jobs and realize that it was not for me when I should have realized it in the beginning. If there are too many red flags as far as the client goes back and forth adding and subtracting things randomly. If I know its a job not destined to be, I will kindly tell them that I can’t help them. No hurt feelings, its just better to know when something or someone will be a bad pairing. Most people appreciate the honesty.
Dave for TCR: How tied in are you in the Portland tattoo scene, and the national scene. Portland is changing and transforming into a reflection of a culture that seems very receptive to tattooing—more so than ever perhaps. I’m interested in what it was before and how it’s changing and what you make of that from your perspective—is it good, bad for a livelihood and innovation, or are you perhaps doing what you’ve always done and indifferent? Do you attend conventions or rub shoulders with other artists—is there good community here where people watch what others are doing and are influenced, or is it competitive, what?
London: I am not part of the Portland tattoo scene. I know a few artists here and there but we don’t hang out. I am not very social but the job of tattooing is very social. Sitting with someone for hours and eventually years you get to know people intimately. It can be inspiring and exhausting all at the same time. Usually I get my social quota from my clients and I have very little desire to hang with other artists and talk shop. I don’t care how busy you are or how much money you make. Are you happy? I used to attend conventions years ago and had a good time. Met lots of people I admired from afar and realized that they had a mutual respect for my work. This was a time when we only saw each others work in the magazines, remember those things? 🙂 I didn’t enjoy the travel, set up, hustle on the floor, drinking, loud music, cattiness of certain individuals. It is a competition and I never like to consider art a competition but there are aspects of it that are competitive. I don’t enjoy that part at all. I did enjoy having a chat with someone who’s art you have seen forever and realizing they are a good-natured being. The opposite can be true too, there’s still a ton of tuff/cool guy bullshit that I could care less about. The best times I have had was giving away stickers, prints, stoking folks out with goodies.
I started a collaborative project this past year with tattoo artists that are working in the bio organic or bio mechanically inspired realm. The last year I have been kind of reinventing the direction of my art and tattooing. still nature-inspired but at more of an Atomic level. The small stuff. Textures in plants, animals, wood, rocks, organic and inorganic. As part of this shift in direction through Instagram (which is where most of my interactions lay) I reached out to other artists working in the same vein. The idea was for each of five artists to draw a finished pen and ink drawing which I would then make plates from and print each persons piece in an edition of 120. The artists receive their prints in the mail, they sign and number them, then send them back to me where I collate them into sets. So far the first set is completed and I am currently working on sets two and three. These are all hand pulled letterpress limited editions which I print here at Atomichouse. My part is in the printing at this point. I wanted to give each of the artists their due and not throw myself into the mix at this early stage. Anyhow wanted to mention this project.
Dave for TCR: How did you come up with such a cool, hip theme for Atomic—I mean it’s a work of art in itself—I’ve never seen anything like it, and it’s very clean—it seems unique!? And inviting.
London: Atomic has gone through a few incarnations. The first space was a small library and my art everywhere with the basic set up for tattooing in a 10×20 room. The second shop was wood floors and brick walls in a loft space. Shoji screens, fish tank, futon, much more of a salon feel, but casual. The second studio helped me realize I don’t like being the boss, but I do enjoy being self-employed. There were a few rounds of artists through that space all whom I had to let go for different reasons. It sucked. The final space is here at my home and it has had a life of its own too. There has been very little rotation of artists. We had four people including myself and I think that’s one too many for the space. We are down to me and one other person for the last year and that has been quiet but great creatively, at least for me personally. I would like to add one more person but that would be the max. The whole of the idea for Atomic from the beginning was about something small yet powerful and the atom being the building block of everything we see and experience. Unassuming and all encompassing like nature. Thank you for the opportunity and I appreciate that you enjoy what I’ve tried to create here at Atomic Art.
Dave for TCR: Thanks London for sharing your work with Triggerfish, and letting us interview you. London Bellman’s website can be found here: http://atomic.ws/ . You can follow his up to the minute work on Instagram at londonbellman.