Tattoo artist Scott Campbell goes beyond skin deep with a new exhibit at LA's OHWOW Gallery

The Ducati M600 is black and gold and makes a sound like a zoo tiger when you turn it on. Customized, it reeks of cash. The dash lights up with three letters: USA. It is so beautiful it can only be stupid. “I mean, it’s the most ridiculous machine ever,” says its owner, Scott Campbell, with pride. Just turned 37, Campbell may be the most famous tattoo artist in America. He’s also an art artist; his fourth solo show, Things Get Better, opens at the very contemporary OHWOW Gallery in Los Angeles this week. And he’s a dude’s dude. In his garage, three motorcycles lie coiled. This one, housed in his large-scale Bushwick studio, is different.

“My buddy paid $20,000 for it, then dumped $30,000 into it, and then his wife got pregnant and made him get rid of it,” explains Campbell, who will have a wife of his own—actor Lake Bell—next week. Fresh above the bros before hos stamp on his right forearm, he’s inked, in larger Gothic runes, Lake before. “Anyway,” he says, “I swapped my friend a painting for it.” A painting? As in one? Campbell grins, a slanty grin. “It was a really good painting,” he says.

"Tattooing had gotten sucked up by reality shows and mall culture, and I wanted to fall back in love with a folk art."

This is probably true. Things Get Better is comprised of 13 figurative works, each rendered in greyscale, gorgeous watercolor, like well-shaded ink. Four of the pieces, including the titular work, are text. Nine represent small, makeshift tattoo machines born in Mexico City, 2010, where Campbell spent two months in jail getting back to “the roots of tattooing” by practicing his trade on the inmates. Asked why he didn’t go to one of America’s own gnarly prisons, he says they’re too bureaucratic. “In Mexico City,” he says, “you can bring whiskey for the boss and flowers for his secretary, and you’re in.” 

“Tattooing had gotten sucked up by reality shows and mall culture, and I wanted to fall back in love with a folk art,” says the guy who, it should be noted, has left his mark on Marc Jacobs. When he opened Saved Tattoo in 2006, one of his first clients was Heath Ledger. In 2011, he collaborated with Louis Vuitton on a line of leather goods. None of this is the mall, exactly; it’s more like The Grove in L.A.

Scott Campbell

“But in prison,” he says, “tattooing has always had a certain gravity to it because you have a population of people who’ve all been given an orange suit and a number, and been dehumanized as much as possible. Tattooing there has a greater purpose. It’s a connection to the outside and a reminder of love, so that [the inmates] feel less like animals in a cage.”

Louisana-born Campbell has loved ink since he got his first, shitty piece of flash art for $25 at a downtown New Orleans shop. At one time he wanted to be a medical illustrator. Then he dropped out of the University of Texas and moved to San Francisco, where he picked up both pen, copy-editing for Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights Bookstore, and needle, tattooing for money. Now, he’s “a fucking mess,” with ink by both the world’s best tattooers and his “scumbag friends,” whose “bad” renderings of Hunter S. Thompson quotes and chicken heads are his very favorites, are layered double and triple on his limbs. Or like a palimpsest: A written, half-erased, and never entirely rewritten record of these human conditions, like a Cy Twombly painting, or the wall of a mirrorless bar.

In Campbell’s praxis, he keeps his hands right where you can see them. He shows me one of his tattoo machines. It is made of a Neil Young cassette tape, cut in half; a Bic pen; a common sewing needle; electrical tape. And it works. Another artist might call it a found sculpture and a day. Campbell wanted to meditate. “I think one of the most tragic things about calling something Art,” he says, “is that an ego or pride becomes involved with it. It used to be like…in ancient Greece, a genius was not a person. A genius was a ghost that lived in the person’s house and spoke through them. You yourself were not creative,” he says. “Instead, creativity was something that was channeled through you by like this cosmic force. There’s a certain freedom in that—that you’re not held liable for what you do, nor are you praised for what you do, you’re just doing it for the sake of doing it.”

"I think one of the most tragic things about calling something Art is that an ego or pride becomes involved with it."

His rescue dog, Texas, curls listening at his feet. A foot away, Campbell’s studio assistant, Sitka, finishes his painting of the Neil Young machine. Soon, Campbell will prove its function by tattooing, on my ankle, a long-stemmed rose. “It’s going to be bad,” he s