Paul Talbot is one of the most vibrant and real people you will meet in the tattoo industry. Once a musician, once nominated for Grammys, and once an accomplished graphic designer. He has been a standout post-modernist tattoo artist who doesn’t care about receiving awards, or following tattoo trends.
Talbot is rebellious and someone who speaks his mind. He cares about his clients and the art of tattooing, and coincidentally, his wife, daughter and son all work in the business like him.
Your graphic style was cited as “Andy Warhol art dragged thru 20yrs of dirty rehearsal rooms & beer soaked punk gigs,” (via Guitar Magazine). Explain about music and pop culture influences in your tattoo art?
That’s my favorite quote. Um, music and pop culture influences … they don’t influence the tattoo art. They are the tattoo art! I don’t come from the background of tattooing. I don’t come from the kind of traditional pinup girls, skulls, and dragons. Art to me started, literally, with the work of Jamie Reid. That was the first time I was really aware of what art was. I saw that “God Save the Queen” album cover [ref: Sex Pistols], and I was like, whatever that is, I really dig that. Then something like “2000 AD” comics come out when I’m a kid. And I think those two things combined were what made me really like art. And then I think the next thing that really excites me is the first time I see Bastian, who’s my absolute favorite. And still to this day, the only artist that when I saw his work in person for the first time in MOMA in New York, it reduced me to tears. I’m standing there in front of it and realize, “Oh God” (crying); what an idiot. But it was just magnificent. In the same way that early artwork style of “2000 AD” is magnificent, and that factory record stuff (the look of it)… I always forget the guy’s name.
Are you talking about Warhol’s “Factory”?
I think that’s where “Factory Records” get their name from. I will remember the guy’s name [Peter Saville, the graphic designer]; I didn’t know it was called “Constructivism” or anything like that at the time. This is all stuff that I had to research as a kid, which is much more difficult when there was no Internet. Right?
Because you have to go to a thing called the “library,” and look it up in a thing called a “book.”
(Laugh.) Yes, it is something you can actually hold. But all of that stuff is all around that kind of music. And I liked that kind of pop culture stuff. I don’t see me ever doing a Renaissance painting… There’s nothing wrong with Renaissance, it just doesn’t do it for me. It’s one of those things that just leaves me cold. Now tattooing doesn’t [leave me cold]. What I like about tattooing is the visceral nature of it, that you are putting needles in somebody’s skin and it is staying there forever.
It’s about rebellion and resistance. Like I don’t want to fit in with you and I still don’t want to fit in with anybody. Even in this room of people that are all my peers, I still don’t want to fit in with them. You know, who was it that said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member”? I think it was Groucho Marx. I’m that same guy.
I still to this day want to be the most punk guy in a room full of suits, and the most suited guy in a room full of punks.
I never want to fit in with anything. I just don’t like swimming with the tide. And so when I came to tattooing, I was never going to sit down and just copy the guys. Now historically, I don’t think I’m particularly groundbreaking. I tattoo in exactly the same way that all of the guys around me tattoo. I use all of the same tools. I use exactly the same process. But I use my world and my influence is to make the artwork. That’s why you can’t see a tattoo influence in it, because there is no tattoo influence.
Like many creatives you have got inspiration from different sources, yet over time have developed your own individual voice. Did it take a while for people to understand what you were doing?
Absolutely. Ultimately, it took me a while to understand what I was doing. You have to do enough of it, to be able to look back at it, and then go, “Oh yeah, this is what I’m trying to say.” Then people would presume that because it was so out there that I was standing against something, and no, I just didn’t see anything that I would wear as a tattoo fan. So I’m making stuff that I would wear. Initially, it was a bit like rebel without a clue. Right? It’s like, what are you rebelling against? Anything, anything at all. But now as I go along and I look back at the earlier part of my work, I realized that I understand my artwork better and the medium that I’m working in.
Again, it’s about understanding that I’m putting my artwork on another human being forever, and I want that human being to look better once I’ve done it and to be happy with it and comfortable. The best compliment I’ve ever had is when people get a new tattoo and their friends don’t notice, and they go, “haven’t you always had that tattoo?” — and then I know I’ve done a good job, because (that means) their closest friends can’t imagine them without it, which means it totally fits.
You were a graphic designer — i.e. a visual communicator. Has that job experience made it easier working with your tattoo clients?
Yeah, I think my background as a designer means that I’m really comfortable taking a brief, and working to that brief. Where I run into some problems is that tattoo clients sometimes aren’t used to briefs in a Creative. So trying to do that via email, or a DM on some social media platform, it’s really difficult. So I had to configure a day that they could just talk to me, person to person. And I found that it’s much quicker for them. They can voice what they want. Some people find it more difficult than others — not everyone’s the same. I go, I tell you what, let me just start doing something, if you start seeing something you don’t like, then tell me to stop and we’ll discuss it. And sometimes I’ll go completely the wrong route in order to get them to go, “Oh no, I don’t like that.”
You know, and this is my other thing about not wanting to chase the “rock star” status and all that.
You won’t tell a rock star that you don’t like what they’re doing because you know that you put them on pedestal, and I am not, I don’t ever want to be on a pedestal! I’m just a working guy, that you sit down with me, and I do the best job I can every day.
We are at the prestigious London Tattoo Convention, but you know that not every tattooist can be invited to it. So the fact that there’s a selection in life, and that you’re here, you stand out from the crowd, in my view that can be considered special. However, you’re still a human being.
That ultimately is what it has to be. When you work with people, you have to bear in mind the human brain: it’s a human process. And so I don’t allow any of that to get in the way. It’s, well, I don’t really fuck with social media that much. I don’t actually do any of my social media, because I fucking hate it! Karen [wife and manager] does it. In the last 12 months, I’ve had nothing to do with my social media and we really don’t post a great deal. And, it’s made absolutely zero difference to my business. So I’m questioning whether I even need it at this point. You know, it’s just boring to me. It feeds, it rewards like spectacle rather than just great artwork. You know? So like if I want to tattoo a realistic picture of some chick sucking a guy’s dick, that’s going to get more likes on social media than an amazing Japanese sleeve. What does that tell you about social media? It’s absolute bullshit. And it’s like the last days of Rome at the point where we’re laughing at the Christians being thrown to the lions. We need to question our humanity.
What are some of the exciting aspects of your job, and not-so-exciting parts of being a tattooist?
You only got to look around where we are sitting, in this amazing convention full of incredible individuals and amazing creatives. And I get to do this every weekend, when I want to. I get to fly everywhere. I get treated like a King when I go places (by wonderful conventions) that really look after the artists, and this London one is exception. It’s fantastic. It’s almost like they roll a red carpet out for us, which is incredible.
The travelling, meeting people and just spending time in a World where it doesn’t matter how one turns up here—I could come here in a Studio Ghibli onesie with a Mohawk and no one would bat an eyelid. You can be whoever you want to be. And I love that.
The accepting nature of the tattoo world and the alternative world: that is the greatest, the most exciting thing.
I guess the not-so-exciting stuff is, you know, going into the studio on Monday when we are closed, to fix the toilet. Because if you own a studio, you’re the guy that does that.
Your son (@immoralyouth), and daughter (@justbethtlbt) are also tattooers. Are you a proud father?
Absolutely. If I’m honest, I’m probably more interested in watching their career than my own at this point, because they’ve got everything in front of them and everything to experience. They’re already better than I am! (Because I taught them.) But most importantly, they’re amazing humans, incredible artists that have been drawing since they were children. And I’m so excited to see what they both do when they’re in the business for 10 years — each respectively. My son has started travelling now, and both are starting to do conventions … I’m just hoping to live vicariously through them.
The fact that they are both in the same industry as you, I am assuming they were eager to follow in your footsteps at a young age.
The only thing I didn’t want them to be were musicians, because I spent half of my life as a musician and never made a penny. I just said “Don’t take up music for a living. It’s going to be bad!” So when they talked about [tattooing]; you know, because it was either going to be art or music for both of them; when they looked like they were going down this route, then I said, just let me know if that’s what you want to do and come in [to the studio]. And they both did. They both worked in the shop as shop assistants to start off, and then when their drawing looked okay, which was pretty quick for both of them — they already drew like motherfuckers by the time they were 10. I then started teaching them. Gage (@immoralyouth) grew up in a recording studio, so it took him a little longer because he was more in the music world when he was little (also because I was still in that world then).
So it took him a little longer to acclimatize, maybe two years. With Beth (@jxstbethtlbt) it was probably 12 months, because she grew up in a tattoo studio. That’s where she came after school every day until it was time for us to go home. So she would sit and do her homework in the reception. She was breaking down stations at 14. With Gage it was a slightly different thing. But both of them took to it quicker than you would expect. And they were both making incredible tattoos really quick. It took me a long time to learn, because the people who taught me tattooing were rubbish.
Is it okay to consider you the Gene Simmons family of the tattoo industry? Or do you prefer being the “Paul Stanley” family?
Paul Stanley was my absolute hero growing up, and the reason you see stars all over my arm and stars in all of my art, they are a nod to Paul Stanley. I still to this day want to be Paul Stanley. So fucking bad. It’s ridiculous. If I could turn up to you with white-face paint on me and a black star and get away with it… (Laugh.)