A conversation with Jacob Des.
July/August 2016, conducted via email.
In December of 2014 I was asked to make a list for Swallows and Daggers of five tattooists to watch in the coming year. Three of the five were old friends, folks who I’d been tattooed by for more than half of my life and the fourth was some skinny kid from Ohio who I’d only met once. Without a second thought, I called him one of my five favorite working tattooers.
Jacob Des. (Instagram: @jacobdes Truth and Triumph Tattoo Dayton, OH)
Jacob’s art is unapologetically strange; traditional American style tattooing meets 1950s advertising art with a very large portion of ‘what the hell am I looking at’ thrown in. I’m not sure if he’s even concerned with challenging what’s acceptable for ‘tattoo imagery’ so much as he’s confidently doing his own thing without concern for uniformity. One of my top five favorite working tattoo artists.
In July of 2016, Des and I decided to forgo a standard formatted “Q&A” interview and instead chose to just chat back and forth until BEST INTENTIONS editor Ash told us we’d hit our deadline, eschewing anything resembling cohesiveness in favor of mindless rambling.
SP: Let’s start with the biographical stuff…
DES: I’m from New York. I grew up flying between New York and New Mexico (my dad lived out there most of my life) so it was a weird mix of metropolis and deserts. I went to school for painting at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) in Baltimore. I started tattooing because of Amanda Leadman who is one of my oldest friends.
SP: When I first started seeing your art I had a very skewed image of you; I imagined a clean-cut J.R. “Bob” Dobbs type throwback to the vintage advertising art era your work riffs on. I was surprised to find a skinny dude in a battle vest and white T-shirt. What were you like growing up? Skater? Metal Dude? Where did art fit into that?
DES: I think my interest in graphic media stems from collecting every obscure punk thing I could get my hands on as an adolescent. Punk stuff always had super good branding and media, the iconography and different font styles were all really inspirational especially knowing that the majority of it was DIY. Jackets in particular; there’s a language in jackets like those. They say a lot about what kind of punk you are and can authenticate you to some degree.So hand painting leather jacket band logos, doing paint on emulsion silk screens and making graphics that were bold and readable even when degraded in the photocopier were all really important to me. I’ve been making stuff like that since out-the-womb. I think that kind of mentality filters into the work I make still and there’s a lot of overlap in jacket/vest layout and tattoo layouts as well. A lot of old punk stuff borrows graphically from b-movies and comics which has lots of obscure depths to plunge as well.
SP: There’s a semiotic relationship between pop culture & designing tattoos that I don’t think a lot of people connect with. Especially the venerated old school stuff; they seem to think that there was some zen sailor meditating with a paintbrush in his hand whipping out iconic tattoo art that got passed down and shared, but a lot of those guys took inspiration from popular art of the time; pinups cribbed from old comic books, Rock of Ages lifted directly from paintings, black panthers, the Hot Stuff devil. Some of the most iconic imagery came from sources outside of tattoo culture and each reinterpretation of an image was muddying the waters for this fusion of high and lowbrow that distilled it into something totally new.
DES: Yeah, I’ve got a pretty healthy collection of original source imagery. Digging for that stuff is one of my favorite pastimes. I’m a hoarder of weird pieces of things. I take a lot of photos of shit I find here and there. I’ll take a photo of something with no real intention other than just having some immediate visceral connection to an image or sentiment then it just goes in a pile to be later cherry-picked and curated. I’ll find something weird and need to know more about the context then I’ll just get into an Internet k-hole looking up related things which usually culminates in some sort of flash sheet.
SP: What was your first tattoo?
DES: My first tattoo was a little black and grey Ramones tape with a banner, (laughs) pretty fitting for the time. My friend that dropped out of my high school had gotten tattooed before and was the only other person my age I really knew with a tattoo at the time. She took me to Daredevil in the LES on my birthday. My appointment was real late like almost midnight and my birthday always falls on fleet week in NYC so there were a bunch of rowdy sailors hanging out and getting like nautical Jerry tattoos. My first time in a tattoo shop was like this surreal throwback to another era of tattooing. Needless to say, I was completely infatuated from that moment on.
SP: Was it something you’d drawn?
DES: I had drawn some bullshit and they redrew it.
SP: You’re lucky. My first tattoo was by a biker mamma (who used the same liner/shader on my brother as she did on me) looked at the horrible drawing I brought in and tattooed it on me line for badly drawn line. It was a mess, but I was 15 and thought it was so damn cool.
DES: Damn that still sounds tight though.
SP: The whole experience was surreal. She made me drink a shot of Amaretto to ‘calm my nerves’ and there were Swastikas and SS bolts all over the shop. How long was it until you were back for your next one?
DES: I got tattooed the next year on my birthday again.
SP: When did the ‘I can do that?’ moment hit you?
DES: It wasn’t until like two years into art school that Amanda Leadman started pushing me to make a portfolio of tattoo flash designs.
SP: Where did you two meet?
DES: We went to a summer college program at Pratt in Brooklyn together when we were like 16 and we’ve been friends ever since. I work down in Nashville with her as much as I can and we’ve been doing international shit the last few years which has been so sick every time. We’re a good travel team we never get sick of each other which helps (laughs). She had been tattooing for a while already so I took her suggestions. She was the main guiding force getting me to focus my portfolio so I would be in a good place to get an apprenticeship after I graduated from college. I worked on that stuff for the next two years, dug up as much flash stuff as I could get a hold of and got tattooed at Read Street whenever I had enough money until I was done with school.
SP: Were you mostly digging up classic flash at that point?
DES: Bits and pieces of that kind of classic stuff yeah and then the more of it I saw I started to recognize connections between new and old versions of the same design.
SP: When you first started tattooing was that the stuff you were doing or did you try to do your own thing right out of the gate?
DES: I had the old flash on the side but tried to make the same or comparable images through various alternative sources. I wanted to remake them from the ground up, which I attempted with varying degrees of success.
SP: It’s usually a varying degree of success when you try to “out-Coleman” Coleman. Those designs are just so perfect to tattoo.
DES: (laughs) Yeah no way, it was less about out-doing the masters and more about using parameters to put your self in the same mindset. I wanted to be able to think the same way about creating that style of design. The application of that way of thinking will always differ greatly from what those guys were doing. I am myself and I wouldn’t dream of pretending to be someone else. I guess that gets back to you envisioning me as a laborious sign painter guy (laughs).
SP: How old were you then?
DES: I was 21 when I started tattooing. I wouldn’t get a driver’s license for another year.
SP: Laborious sign painter guys bring a lot to the table though; there’s something to be said for not overcomplicating a design. I think the kind of work you’re doing is a really great modern extension of older tried and true designs without aping or over-fetishizing an almost metatraditional look.
DES: Metatraditional is funny and seems fitting. There were a couple sets I did a while ago that were all really self-referential in that way.
SP: You know what I mean, though. The ultra conceptual “looks like a six year old did it with a blunt crayon” aesthetic that could only be created by an actual six year old or someone with an art degree. Designer outsider art.
DES: Well, yeah, it’s hard to make outsider shit without being an outsider. Like I could never loosen up enough to make a Rosie design. Without copying it outright I feel like you kind of need some sort of restraint in place, physically or mentally, to get somewhere that’s even remotely near it.
SP: Technique notwithstanding, how has your personal design aesthetic changed since you started tattooing?
DES: I think my sense of humor is the same still, I just try and make things that I would want or make me laugh. Most of them go unclaimed for good reason. (laughs)
SP: I think your unclaimed stuff is what I gravitate to most; portraits of people from behind, borderline homoerotic 1930s wrestlers, baseball coaches… the total batshit weirdness that ends up on your flash always tickles me when I see it end up as a tattoo. It’s far-out but seemingly free of irony.
DES: I’m drawn to mundane kinda familiar subjects that you can project your own intentions onto. Typically in their context on a sheet they’re vaguely subversive in some way. But I try to have the individual pieces have relationships within the sheet. When it’s tattooed the context changes when an image gets mixed into the collection on someone. I appreciate that interaction and it can offer a new appreciation for the design in its own sort of existence.
SP: I was talking to a tattooer whose work is way left of center and he joked that he rarely does large tattoos because the kind of people his art appeals to aren’t the kind of people you want to spend too much time around. He was breaking balls but.. I get it. Do you think your more ‘out there’ designs appeal to eccentric clientele or are you doing weird donkey tattoos on walk-ins who just connect with the design?
DES: I definitely do more mondo weirdo stuff on out of town people. People, where we live, don’t get flash, like even as a concept for the most part. Like ‘man only an idiot would get a tattoo off the wall… Here’s my Pintrest reference’. If everyone’s getting fringe shit though how do we tell who’s a real ass dude though right? It’s the litmus test for if I fuck with you or not.
SP: The same tattooer told me a story about a shop that had after hours ping-pong tournaments where the loser had to get something off his flash. I could see myself covered in it but I guess for some folks it just goes a bit far. You can always tell the differences between weird for the sake of weird and someone who just sees things differently though, I think. Or at least I hope.
DES: Yeah definitely I’ve always been more attracted to the way off than the way on. That goes for punk, movies, art, anything. There’s an honesty in making something that you like because you want to make it. Not worrying that you don’t have the right tools or education. I’d rather see someone go all out and fall on their fucking face than see some safe ass middle of the road shit. There’s a lot of complexity and brashness in trying to get there and sometimes the finding process is more interesting than the destination.
SP: I wasn’t that into punk growing up; outsider cinema was my main thing. That spirit of ‘fuck it, let’s make a movie’ really appealed to me. Guys like Ed Wood, the Kuchar Brothers, old John Waters, and Andy Milligan- the films aren’t punk as far subject matter goes, no leather jackets and Crass logos but there’s just that outsider drive to get their images on film. That really connects with painting flash that may not make much “commercial” sense. Dave Lum says his tattooing is “exorcising the little skin shitasses” whatever the fuck that means. Whatever gets those images out there. Same goes with making ‘zines.
DES: Let’s not forget Lloyd Kaufman. Fun Fact- I was an extra in Toxic Avenger 4. But yeah it’s that DIY mentality, the flash and zines I’ve been making are designed to be easily reproduced.
(DES asks if we can finish the interview in nothing but Emoji. I decline in a complicated sequence of kittens wearing crowns, flamingos and thumbs down symbols followed by a few eggplants, corn cobbs and peaches.)
SP: I think zines are how we originally connected, Christ, five years ago now. The thing I liked most about making them was the process of making them without really giving much thought to people reading them. Kind of calls back what we were saying earlier about just getting it out of your head.
Your latest is erotic fanfiction devoted to everyone’s favorite tattoo gameshow…
DES: Yeah we joked about making it for a while and I decided to do it before someone else beat me to it, but after I made it I realized that nobody else was going to. It’s the first fictional writing I’ve ever done as well as my first erotica. I also made an audiobook version of it that no one has ever bought (laughs).
SP: Yeah man. I was totally serious about it but the sample chapter I wrote was upsettingly visceral and borderline cruel. I’m glad you were able to soften it up.
DES: I tried not to make the zine too NC-17. I think Danielle Steel is funnier than hardcore porn is most of the time. I wasn’t making it to actually jerk off to it. But hopefully somebody will.
SP: Is it too on the nose to discuss the show? I think it’s thoroughly hate-able but they seem to have no problem getting new contestants every year so maybe I’m the asshole. What are your thoughts on it? Is there a silver lining?
DES: I think its been on long enough now to where I’ve accepted its existence. I think it’s funny in its extremely exaggerated reality. It’s not supposed to be informative it’s supposed to be entertaining right? It’s not supposed to be Tattoo Age and at least its not Tattoo School, remember that? Or Bad Ink (which you should definitely watch season one of) those fuckin dudes don’t even do real tattoos like half the episodes. It’ll break your fucking brain. It’s the South Beach Towing of tattoo shows. Fuck I gotta watch that again.
SP: The episode where two of the tattooers couldn’t build a machine was pretty entertaining.
DES: Yeah I love that one (laughs)!
SP: This is one of my go-to tattoo interview questions: Do you feel it’s important for a tattooer to know how to build machines? Make needles? Is that connection to the tradition of your craft important or is it just important that you can put on a good tattoo?
DES: I think in a perfect world for me I would come in early every day and make the needles that I needed for the day, on some chef prep shit. I used to but the reality is I just don’t make the time for it. I would have crushed that Seth build-it kit machine though. (laughs) Just sayin’. I think technical knowledge like that is essential to reach complete enlightenment. But having knowledge and making a good tattoo aren’t mutually exclusive either. Like there’s plenty of builders that do that better than they tattoo. I think we’re lucky to live in a world with such vast collective information at our disposal it’s just about how you choose to use it.
SP: I see it like getting sushi from Jiro Ono: does the person who makes your dinner have to spend their entire life devoting themselves to the minutia of perfection for it to be good? Not at all. But it’s certainly something to aspire to.
DES: That level of honing is insane to think about. I like the idea of setting intentionally unattainable goals, does that make me a masochist?
SP: I’d say it makes you a minimalist more than a masochist really. You hit that point where you’ve been tattooing long enough to see your old pieces come back and see what worked and what didn’t and the more you’ve pushed yourself with all the peripheral aspects of your craft the simpler you can get, the more “special effects” you can throw out so it’s not about the fresh Instagram photo that gets 10000 likes but how the tattoo is going to hold up in ten, twenty years.
…like the old adage of a simple black dress being the most difficult to make, designs reduced to primary elements can be a far greater challenge than poor compositions hiding inherent structural weaknesses under a glut of visual frosting.
SP: Is burn-out a concern?
SP: I think that if anyone can keep it fresh, it’s you. Thanks for taking the time to do this man, I think we kind of pulled away from the standard “So.. how long you been tattooin?” Q&A, but hopefully people will dig it.