Tattoo magazines were usually a mixed blessing, back in the pre-internet Dark Ages. On one hand they connected you to a global tattoo community; on the other they were usually put out as part of a Biker magazine family and didn’t always reflect the cultural standards of something like Hardy’s TATTOO TIME.
As tattoo culture evolved, more and more magazines popped up. Content was king; when you had a family of magazines to put out every month you’d pretty much feature anything and everything you’d photograph at a convention. Each passing issue would have less and less quality work, but you’d pick them up, just in case.
For my money, the best of the bunch was Michelle Delio’s run on Tattoo Revue. (which ran under the banner of Outlaw Biker’s Tattoo Revue) As the editor, she really turned things around, wooing top artists to provide content.
Issue #25 had a multipage interview with Daniel Higgs conducted by Ed Hardy. While Tattoo Time #5 featured some of Daniel’s work, this was a rare sitdown interview that puts you where his head was at the time. I scanned the entire interview last year and put it in my flickr page. Last night, someone submitted my scanned pages to Occult Vibrations for inclusion. Strangely enough, I had forgotten about them, so it was a welcome email.
Here’s the complete article:
Daniel Higgs being interviewed by Don Ed Hardy, Tattoo Revue #25:
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How did you get started in tattooing?
I started getting tattooed right after I got out of high school… I got one and just kept going back to get more and more, so I was in the shop all the time time, at Tattoos Tux’s place in Baltimore… and after doing that for a few years I landed an apprenticeship with him to work there for a couple of years, learning the rudiments of it, and eventually wound up out in San Francisco doing some tattooing and it just kind of fell together.
Were you doing other kinds of art before that?
Yeah, I’ve always drawn pictures…
Tux has a pretty distinctive style thats apart from the mainstream, right?
Right, he has his own inimitable look…he had spent a lot of time with Thom deVita when he was learning to tattoo so I was indirectly influenced by deVita through Tux, deVita was almost present all the time with the way Tux’s shop looked, and so forth. For awhile l was immersed in that whole esthetic, whatever it is, which is hard to put your finger on..it was fortunate for me, Tux does a lot of assemblage with found object. all kinds of stuff put together, that are really beautiful. The shop was covered with that kind of stuff… that was the first tattoo shop I’d ever been in, so I wasn’t aware that there was a more standardized version of a tattoo shop. I thought every tattoo shop was a very individualized thing, with your art on the walls… he kept the placed locked up all the time, even during business hours, we were right next to the Greyhound station and there was a lot of weird activity going on in there all the time. We would actually get bus riders coming to get tattooed who were on a layover and they would need a tattoo
done in a half an hour so they could get back on the bus. The neighborhood was kind of sketchy… The first thing that hit me about the shop was the green soap smell, I didn’t know what it was but that smell was really intoxicating to me and I still love walking into a shop and
getting that waft of green soap.
I don’t know what other people’s apprenticeships are like. I know a lot of people scrub a lot of toilets and and wait for bits of tattoo knowledge to dribble out of the tattooer’s mouth… but at Tux’s, first he just made me hang around and sit right behind him while he tattooed, all the time And we talked a lot not necessarily about tattooing but about art in general any number of different things, then he just let me go tattoo some friends and he gave me advice… it was a real interesting experience and looking back I cherish it, learning that way. He got me going and gave me a real deep respect for what l was doing.
When l moved to San Francisco it was a real different scene; l found I was tattooing more people that were trying to align themselves with different subcultures; whereas in Baltimore I just tattooed regular folks… a lot of strippers, construction workers the people who you think typically get tattooed. But out in San Francisco you see all these people that are outwardly bizarre, and just being there was kind of the next step for me. l’ve been tattooing going on 8 years now.
When you started tattooing did you want to do your own kind of designs right from the beginning?
Yeah, Tux encouraged me to draw my own stuff because that was sort of the advent of all the custom work on the east coast… people were starting to figure out if they went to a specific tattooer they could get a custom job. I used to do a lot of cartooning so the first flash I drew looked more that way, I hadn’t seen much of the classic American flash.
Tux had the shop covered with flash, in every corner, in the bathroom, wherever there was room to put up sheets.. and he had some really old east coast stuff way up in the comer with spider webs and everything and it was real emblematic, head on symmetrical designs that had that cryptic look like they were saying something but you couldn’t tell quite what, you know? l had to get on a ladder to look at them. I really liked them, they were really hard . But Tux was a businessman and he’d say people don’t want that stuff and they didn’t, in Baltimore… they were seeing this fine line like van art, they they’d always admired on T-shirts, posters and automobiles, and now they could get it on their skin, and that’s what they wanted.
But when I came out to San Francisco l met a lot more people that had a lot more old flash and I started seeing that there was this consistency between it all. Even though different people drew it there seemed to be some sort ol laws as to how to was shaded and colored If you had to break down and describe what those laws were it would be impossible, but there was a consistent look. I didn’t do anything too deliberately, but I guess I liked it so much and it seemed so right to me that my work started to go that way. I didn’t really push people to get traditional subject matter even though I love all that. I just wanted my work to look that way no matter what the image was. That kind of stands off the skin.
So people started responding to that?
I didn’t even tell anybody what I was doing… everybody was using 3 needle outlines but I started switching to a heavier outline, using heavy black shading which was going against what a lot of people were telling me was popular, the contemporary style, but I was just ignoring that and going with my gut feeling, doing solid fields of color trying to find the right place to leave the skin open, just getting it all to work together so the tattoo was just unto itself on the skin. And people started to like it, at least some people did, some people probably think my work looks like shit…. but some of them noticed my work had a slightly different glow than the way the other work was glowing so they started coming to me. So you have some regular customers who you can turn on to what you’d really like to do and they respond and get it. And they understand that’s often the best way to get the best work, to get what the tattoo artist would really like to try to do.
Working in Tattoo City I still do a lot of the regular stuff, dolphins on people’s butts, names, whatever… but no matter what l do, even the little tiny dolphins, I’ve been doing with the fattest outline possible. and they look good, people who get them like them. lt doesn’t just have to be scratched in there with the hair fractured line. When you see those little tattoos on people’s bikini lines from the early 70’s, shooting stars or whatever I think they look great now when they’re kind of blown out a little bit. Of courses lot of people think they look awful but l think they look good like that.
What are the kinds of thinks that you think make a good tattoo?
Well of course there’s all the technical stuff, that goes without saying, but beyond that I like things that have visual impact and then have a residual mental impact where there’s something lingering that makes you think, and causes an emotional response. l know this is getting a little conceptual… I just like stuff that jumps, in every sense, visually, conceptually.. but on the flip side I don’t like tattooing that’s trying to prove something… that’s trying to prove it’s a great tattoo… or enjoy seeing a tattoo on a person who’s trying to prove publicly the kind of person they are. I guess what l like is if a tattoo is real honest, but that’s a very subjective thing.
A lot of tattooing seems so self conscious and contrived, it’s a hard thing to grapple with, these days.
Well I understand what l feel is a good tattoo and a lot of people would disagree with that and
that’s fine, that’s what it’s all about, but I do feel particularly strongly about it.
A lot of subject matter you’re working with is obviously a vocabulary of personal symbols that a pretty enigmatic in your other art work, and in the tattoos.
Well I keep several vocabularies; you never know what you’re gonna have to communicate or who you’re gonna communicate with, so in tattooing you come into it and lf you’re lucky you realize there’s a lot of dead guys who came before you who worked a lot of shit out in advance and if you just pay attention you can learn a lot of things from these people by looking at some photographs left behind of the work, and all the flash, which is like a codex, if you want to pay attention. So we’re talking pictures, now. You’ve got all the prime symbols…life, death, love, hate, the skulls, the powerful animals, and then they get weirder and weirder, you see designs drawn by all these different people and you can’t figure out what the heck it is, some little permutation… it must have meant something at some time.. But it occurred to me a few years ago that when you look at all the tattooing cultures, they’re all getting the same stuff…they’re getting their versions of the same thing; they’re all totally related but when you’re in a different environment you draw it a different way. So when I use those kinds of things, like skull tattoos which people will always get, it’s one of the most human symbols, everybody has a skull and it’s where your brain is- although some people look at it as a death thing- I don’t look at it as nostalgic, or retro, or whatever, because those things go way back and they’re gonna go way forward. It has nothing to do with the 40s or whatever; there’s just styles of executing them, but the symbols themselves can‘t he dated, they’re archetypes.
Traditional tattooing, or being traditional, doesn’t mean staying stuck in the past. It means nurturing something that came way before you because you deeply hope that it will continue way after you. It’s about being in the middle, not being at the end. You‘re not initiating something. nor having the last word, you’re just carrying it through, with the time you’ve got. I consider the way l tattoo a traditional manner because I tattoo all my tattoos that way, whatever a person wants. Of course it limits me somewhat, l’ve spent so much time learning to work this way. but there area lot of these little styles and tricks that I am just not adept at…but fortunately, at Tattoo City, between Freddy Corbin, Eddie Deutsche, Alex Herman, Igor Mortis and myself. we can do pretty much any style of tattooing as good as anybody else in the world.
It seems like that’s a natural progression of the sense of tattooing as an art, toward specialization, of going to a person for a particular style.
Yeah, in the old days can were about the same, but now they’re all different and not every mechanic can work on every kind of car. And they’ re all good mechanics. But the way l tattoo l don’t think impresses people as a particularly unusual style; they can really see it, tell what it is…l don‘t tell people l‘m using a bold line, or really heavy shading…l can go anywhere in this country and tattoo regular people, and pay my rent…
A lot ol people now are taking this medium to prove themselves individually…. there’s a process of individuation going on where a lot of tattooers are using people‘s skin to work out a lot of things for themselves… they`re trying to execute these dreams they have on people’s skin, the sort of pictures they like, and how tattooing could go. Because their technical proficiency is there, and the work they do looks amazing, lot of people are swarming to them to get these individual masterpieces put on them. And that helps to isolate them too as an individual. They might not even know what it is, but they do know that it’s so complex, there’s so many special effects layered on special effects. it could never be reproduced and they can look at it and know that they are totally one of a kind. If that’s what somebody needs, that’s fine and dandy. but I got into all this self-alienation when l was a teenager, felt like, you know, the rest of the world’s fucked and I’m not, and got into doing whatever you do, makin’ your hair look stupid and stuff like that..and then I realized, after l’d been getting tattooed for a couple of years, that when you get stuff off the wall flash, invariably other people are gonna have the same tattoo.
At first that irked me -you’re gonnna bump into somebody that’s got the same thing on their arm-but then I got I few skull tattoos, a few snake tattoos, everybody gets those things, and you’re joining into a bigger thing, and nobody gets them the same way twice anyway, nobody’s gonna get them all in the some spot. You can’t reproduce somebody’s collection, that’s when I realized that I might not have the ability to blow down any doors in this medium…I don’t know if that’s what made me not want to blow down any doors, I don’t know which came first, but after I realized that, I didn’t feel the need to carve my own really deep personal niche in tattooing; I wanted to be a good tattoo artist, and put good tattoos on proper that would heal up right and look good for as long as possible.
But you have carved your own niche; your work is so striking and different from the ‘modern tattooing’ that most people of your age and experience are doing.
I think it guess back to my connection with Tux, and through Tux my invisible connection with deVita, although my work doesn’t look anything like theirs- but that’s what their work is about, not looking like anybody else’s, but just doing the work the only way you know how, drawing pictures and putting them on the skin. Bringing whatever you ‘ve got to it. Both those guys are deeply aware of theones that came before them, even though their work might not necessarily show
Well, my personal bent with all that you’re talking about is that all the special effect etc. after a while get to be “so what?”… it’s mostly confusion and grand-standing, and of course avoids the whole question of the integrity of the image in the skin. At 18 or 20 most people can’t conceive of what their tattoo will look like in twenty years, and most probably don’t care, but it is a factor unique to the medium.
That’s what I call athletic tattooing- or athletic art; you see what came before you and you’re driven to break the record. You’re gonna put more stuff in, more colors, more layers- it’s just gonna be more insane than anybody’s ever seen because you wanna knock off the old guy and be king of the hill. If that’s you’re avenue, that’s cool, but I’m not a jock. Sometimes I wonder if other tattooers might think, well that’s just sour grapes because Higgs doesn’t know how to do the transparent tribal techno-wave, or whatever, and I don’t! Or that I might be griping because I’m limited, and have bumped against my limits. And I readily admit that I am limited and I thank God that I know where I’m at, and I got a lot of room to move around, but there are some impenetrable things for me. Maybe these are psychic barricades I put up because I know I don’t want to pursue that… a lot of that special effect tattooing, when it’s pulled together right, blows my mind. If you’re a tattooer and you can’t look at it and not admire the work it took to even conceive it…
Eventually it seems like they’re gonna run out of ideas and then tattooing will be finished, it’ll all be retread. Which it all is anyway; because no matter what style different people use, it’s always the same stuff; it’s always dragons, or some conflict, or attempt at expressing serene beauty, with a bunch of flowers… maybe the newest expression I’ve seen is when people get themselves made to look like they’re made out of all machine parts. That’s sort of a newer sentiment. Everything else has already been expressed, any number of different way, and will continue to be expressed. You know, “I’m a badass” or “I love animals”, or whatever it is someone wants to say about themselves. Of course these days the main thing a lot of people are saying about themselves is, “I’m tattooed”. That’s all it means. That’s where tattooing is just a fashion. It’s a fashion you can’t change, you’re always going to have to incorporate that into your look, which might be a drag for some people later on… when totally blank, hairless skin is in, which might be coming up sometime around the turn of the century…
Yeah, Egg World…
But by then they’ll have advanced plastic surger to take care of everything…
Well, Paul Rogers always referred to tattoos as marks, and that people wanted to have that mark. You know how it is once you’ve decided to get a tattoo..
A lot of times when I’ve just picked something off the wall, I’ve always hoped that I was on automatic pilot, even though I don’t know why I’m attracted to a design, I just trust my instinct. And I believe that’s just the way things work… you’re either gonna get what does mean something to you somewhere… which I guess you could say about the people that get the outer space slime pit scenes, that means something to them deep down. A lot of the tribal stuff has allowed people to just get tattooed, there’s nothing to stand behind there except the fact that you’re tattooed- which is of course something to stand behind… there’s no other real implication. And there’s a beauty to that, too, but again, that’s not the kind of stuff I’m doing. I like the stuff that’s more like a pictorial equation. It’s like a sentence of pictures.. that’s why I don’t like to fool around too much with lots of background. I like the look when they’re just freestanding on the skin. I used to think, of you were gonna get lettering around a tattoo you should put it in a ribbon but now I’m leaning toward freestanding lettering. Not even attempting to give it it’s own space; just admitting that it’s on the skin, and allowing to look like it’s inscribed right on the skin. A lot of these tattoos are creating a space on skin, but in some kind of other reality.
Do you have any advice for people approaching the business?
Well, the trick thing is, you’re providing these pictures for people to wear on their skin, so obviously it can’t fully be an exercise in individual expression- it is a lot of the time but to me it seems like it shouldn’t be- and the person getting the tattoo should make sure they have a lot to say in what they’re expressing. It’s getting to be where people are finally collecting tattoos like they’re collecting somebody else’s art; they want to get what others will admire as a fine piece of work. To me it seems you’ll be more satisfied if you get something that’s yours also, not just something you own because it’s on your skin. For one of the least material possessions, it seems like tattooing is getting more materialistic- though of course it is material, your body is matter- but a lot of them are getting tattooed with things that they think have this value because it’s top of the line, state of the art tattooing. What that tattoo will then show is that they’re in the know about what’s hot, what’s in, and they’ve got it, they made the scene.
The trouble is, ten years down the line, it’s like speculators in ‘fine art’, they’re stuck with these collections.. but at least they can dump them.
Whereas if you own a lot of art by friends of yours, or people you really admire because it moves you, you won’t want to get rid of it. Basically you want to get things that will enrich your life. As for individual expression, the more you tattoo, the more it starts to make sense, and you unconsciously develop a style. And that’s your expression, the way you tattoo, not what you tattoo.
Yeah, some tattooers think by just grabbing components, like dice, pinups, whatever, they’re gonna get some power from them, with no thought as to how they’re executed.
Then there’s that whole other school, of trying to make stuff as sick as possible, all the festering eyeballs… vulvic and phallic collisions going on.. there’s a lot of that kind of tattooing and art, for that matter, going on right now, which I call POTTYSEX art. People are running out of ideas. It goes back to that notion of athletic tattooing, where you’ve gotta beat what went before you. People are afraid if they make tattoos or art that looks like something that already happened, it’s not as valid, which is ridiculous. One person didn’t invent the wheel, it was invented simultaneously all over the place by people that were inspired. It didn’t make any successive wheel less of a wheel, they all rolled.
I don’t know, it seems to me that it used to be a thing that just happened to certain people; some people got tattooed, it was almost like a random accident.
Now they’ll do it to hope they get in the magazines… a lot of people get exposure that way, and a lot of people see it in a magazine and think, that must be good; a lot of them couldn’t figure it out on their own.
Right. But just because my photos are in this magazine doesn’t mean shit. ha ha ha.