An impressive background in art that spans San Francisco and Florence, two cities with opposite cultures: the American city is known for its avant-garde, transgressive mood, while the Italian city has its roots entrenched in tradition and a rich art history.
This is how Mary Joy Scott started to develop her art, which shifted from the canvas to skin. And to talk about her tattoo art we went to the true mecca of tattooing: Tattoo City, where Mary Joy has been working for years thanks to her encounter with Ed Hardy who changed her life, as she explains to us in this interview.
The full interview by Margherita B. was originally published on Tattoo Life (September/October issue).
Hi Mary Joy, and welcome to Tattoo Life! I’m fascinated with your background: you left San Francisco to go to Florence, Italy so that you could continue your art studies. Why did you make this decision?
I was studying painting and drawing at San Francisco State University when I decided to study in Florence for one year. I wanted to study classical oil painting and figure drawing. I also wanted to be close to the rich artistic culture and history in Italy. A program through my school allowed me to study at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence for one year. I was very lucky to have access to the wide range of museums in Italy that my student ID allowed me, places like the Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe in the Uffizi where I was able to hold original drawings and prints by old masters. I’m very lucky to have had the experience of studying art in Florence.
What did you study and learn during your studies?
I studied painting and drawing, but also wanted to minor in philosophy and classics. I studied painting with some wonderful professors, including the famous photorealist painter Robert Bechete. I took several printmaking courses and learned classical intaglio and European woodblock printing. Hermeticism, Egyptian studies, and occultism were my major areas of study aside from painting. I also took a lot of language courses, mostly German and Italian, since I lived in Switzerland for a time and then studied in Italy.
Did you devote yourself to tattooing right away? If not, how did you get started?
I devoted myself to tattooing after I graduated from university. I was getting tattooed a lot at the time and was fascinated by the culture of tattooing. I volunteered as a curator for an art gallery that’s linked to tattooing, called Hold Fast in the Mission District of San Francisco. Through the gallery I met Ed Hardy, legendary tattooer, artist and publisher, and CW Eldridge, tattooer and world renowned tattoo historian. These two men have both helped me immensely in my tattoo career and I am very grateful to them. I got tattooed by Ed soon after the art show and he asked to see some of my artwork.
A few months later, he called and asked if I might want to work at the shop as an assistant. I did that for one year and then he asked me if I would like to learn how to tattoo. Of course I leaped at the chance. He said, “ok, get a drawing ready and you are going to tattoo yourself on Sunday.” It was Wednesday! So it all happened really quickly. I tattooed friends for free until Ed felt I was ready to be unleashed on the general public. In the beginning, I showed him every tattoo I did and he critiqued me heavily.
He was also extremely supportive and made me want to work as hard as possible to become a good tattooer.
You are a tattoo collector yourself: how have you built up your collection and who have you chosen to tattoo your skin?
I have tattoos from some of my favorite people in the business. I have alternated between acquiring large pieces and one shot tattoos. I have a back piece and several other pieces from Kahlil Rintye, who is a friend and mentor to me. I have a dragon and a tiger from Ed Hardy. I have been tattooed by Doug Hardy, Chriss Dettmer, Claudia de Sabe, Lindsey Carmichael, Jondix, Dr. Lakra, Lyle Tuttle, Chris Conn, and Thom deVita to name a few.
The city of San Francisco has played a fundamental role in the American tattoo tradition. What has influenced your style and creativity?
My mother was a dancer and my father a photographer. They both went on to pursue careers in the medical field. My mom had lived in San Francisco’s iconic Haight Ashbury district during the Summer of Love. When I was a kid, she was a belly dancer with a North African style traditional dance troupe. My father is a great appreciator of art history. So I was raised in a house full of music and art. San Francisco was a big part of my upbringing.
The sense of freedom and creativity is something I have always felt drawn to. In middle school, I started going to punk shows and getting into my personal style.
I started wearing lots of black, boots, heavy eyeliner and dark lipstick. I still dress that way, all these years later. Music has really been a huge source of inspiration for me. Punk, post punk and metal are my favorites, but I also love ancient lyre music or whatever strikes my fancy. I think if you can make art that makes you feel transformed, like a good song does, then you’re on the right track.
Do you think your style has been influenced in any way by the mood and examples found at Tattoo City?
Of course I draw a tremendous amount of inspiration from the history of tattooing within the walls of Tattoo City. Ed is, of course, my greatest inspiration since he is a true artist, intellectual and innovator as well as a salt of the earth tattooer. The art of so many tattooers who have worked at the shop is all around me and I soak in it every day. People like Dan Higgs, Eddy Deutsch, Tim Lehi, Freddy Corbin, Colin Stevens, Jef Whitehed and Chris Conn worked there over the years. I know the emphasis on big custom work at the shop has influenced me greatly. I try to push the limits as much as possible. I watch Kahlil working on huge, complex bodysuits and I just feel like I want to do more. It’s inspiring and humbling every day. The reference library and the flash at the shop provide insights and ideas that are invaluable. I think there is a tradition of forging a unique path that every artist who works there feels.
Now that you have become an accomplished tattooist, what do you like about your work, and how has your life changed over the years?
My life has definitely changed a lot over the years. I have a 10 year old son and I try to balance a very demanding career with parenting. I just feel like I’m on level 10 difficulty all the time. It’s made me a stronger person I think. I didn’t know what I was capable of until I just had to put my head down and get everything done every day. I like the work I do that has a sense of vitality, of liveliness or emotion.
I’m happy when the tattoos I do seem to have an inner life to them.
I think people are looking for a certain strength or sense of inner self when they get a tattoo and it’s nice when that circuit is completed. I get a sense of personal satisfaction when I see an older tattoo I did come back, and it still looks good. I like a certain sense of timelessness in a tattoo, so I try not to get too gimmicky or trendy.
Do you only devote yourself to tattooing, or do you explore other expressive mediums?
I also make paños, ballpoint (biro) pen drawings on antique wedding handkerchiefs. I got the idea from seeing Chicano prison art on handkerchiefs and I got obsessed with making them in my own style. I paint in watercolor a lot, which I really enjoy. I did a series recently using salt in the background. It provided an interesting texture. I enjoy drawing with pencil, it’s one of my favorite mediums. It’s so simple and direct, but capable of subtle nuance and complexity too. Recently I’ve been working in oil on canvas again which is a great feeling. I’d like to do more of that.
What does it mean for a tattooist like you to work at Tattoo City?
It’s a huge honor, but it also means that I really have to keep my personal motivation high. I want to make sure that I am contributing something worthwhile to the legacy of the shop. It’s like working in a sacred tattoo cave. I try to take a moment and show people around if they’ve made the trip to visit. It’s such a historic shop and the flash on the walls are museum quality. I will say that it’s very, very humbling. I always feel like Wayne and Garth when they meet Alice Cooper…. “We’re not worthy!” It’s just a huge honor, always, and I am filled with gratitude. I often try to speak the names of all the people that have worked there before. I like to show people around and tell them who painted all the cool flash on the walls: Jack Dracula, Sailor Jerry, Owen Jensen, Brooklyn Joe Lieber, Bert Grimm, Dainty Dotty, Chris Nelson. This is the stuff that is really important to me, the history of it all. It’s a great shop to work in too, because we have private rooms with adjoining windows. This allows us to focus on big projects and provide privacy when needed, but we can still talk shit and horse around with each other. That’s important I think, the vibe between the tattooers. I also have the freedom to travel if I have a good opportunity, like the London, Paris and Aachen tattoo conventions that I do every year.