From the bottom to the top
by Crash of 3rd Eye Tattoo firstname.lastname@example.org
Marcus Kuhn has one of the most colorful histories I've yet encountered during my stint writing interviews for Prick magazine. I found it difficult deciding how to approach this article. Should I explore Marcus' past, hoping to pull from him those rare gems of wisdom only obtainable from one who has taken the hardest roads of life and found their way safely back? Or should I leave it lay, instead pressing him about his now much-brighter future? Realizing nothing can be force-fed on unwilling listeners I decided to focus the attention of the piece principally on Marcus Kuhn's new work and potential. I will offer this suggestion however: if you ever find yourself in circumstances similar to this guy's, spend some time with Marcus. He's got a lot to offer and he likes to talk.
Marcus has worked in over 30 different tattoo shops in 14 years, from New York to California and back; he's seen it all. He's been a hotshot tattoo artist published in all the magazines, and he's lost it all doing time in Riker's for his addictions. But because of all these experiences he has become one of the best-grounded tattooers I've had the pleasure of meeting. No rock-star attitudes here. He's been down that road before. Marcus Kuhn has finally found contentment in his life and in his art, (and he likes it.) Y'know, it's funny, I remember seeing your work, shit, like 10 years ago and then it seems you just disappeared!
Yep. That's pretty much what happened. What were you doing before you got into tattooing?
I was an Art Director-working in film doing prop sets for videos, TV, and film. I worked on the Tales From the Crypt movie, some early episodes of 'Beverly Hills 90210'... I don't know, a bunch of stuff, even some Richard Simmons videos. So, how did you get into tattoos?
Well, I started hanging around Bob Roberts' shop gettin' tattooed. And Jill Jordan was his apprentice then. Just needed a way to get my foot in the door. After that, I started working underground in LA. That was around 1988. It was around this time that I started to meet people. After a little while I moved to the East Coast-Maine. I got some work from Aaron Cain and he invited me to travel with him and tattoo on the road. After that I met everyone. Shawn Anderson was real supportive, Guy, Julie Moon. I owe a lot to Julie. Unfortunately, my drug addiction grew at exactly the same time. I think everyone knows that I was King Junkie for a while; I don't try to wear it as a badge. I know that everything I went through was for a reason. But you're sober now right?
Oh yeah. For six years now. I had a profound experience while in a Puerto Rican jail, and I knew those days were over. What then?
I moved back to New York sober. That wasn't the easiest place to try to start again so I ended up moving to Miami for a while. While I was down there hammering away at flash shops, I made a decision: there are just so many negative aspects to tattooing, y'know, so I was either going to quit tattooing or I was going to fall in love with it again. Well, while I was down there, I became acquainted with Cory Kruger, who was working with Julie Moon, and I was so inspired by his work because it was just a whole other step above, y'know, a new level. So I decided to leave Miami and move back to the east coast and work with him at Julie's. But by the time I got there Cory had had a falling out with one of the guys at the shop and had left, which was ok because he was right down the road. Our friendship blossomed from there. Since that time, I've become obsessed with tattooing again. I love his work. He is so unappreciated, I think. His work is amazing.
Oh man...I firmly believe that he is the best tattooer today. And I mean that sincerely. Not just as an artist, but as a person. Cory embodies everything that's best in tattoo. Some of these guys today really make me sick. How so?
They have no humility; they're too full of themselves. I think that it's partially because tattoo has been tied to this MTV thing and it's symptomatic of our American ego-illusions in general: tying our self-esteem to our image. People think they are what they do. Because of this, all they care about is how they are perceived; everything is about them. We are people who do tattoos; that's it. We are not great. I think it's funny that some of these guys forget the fact that to 99% of the people, we're just tattooed carnie trash. No one knows who we are. No one cares. Some of these guys even put up this fake aura of humility, y'know? But it's not real. Humble people don't feel the need to complain and bitch all day to their posse. It's their way of appearing humble but, again, it's for the sake of their own ego. Do you know what I mean by that?
Yeah, it's funny. Do you think cheese makers have these same problems? Do you think they get together at "cheese conventions" and everyone sits in awe of one of the cheese makers and says shit like "Man, that east coast guy makes the best cheese"? That's great! Well, let me ask you this: is there any hope?
I don't know, man. I think tattoo has evolved at an amazing rate. And I think, artistically, it's at an all time high. But I don't see any way to escape that other side of it. Some guy in Bali carving wooden masks for four bucks a month has a better understanding of himself than most of us. What do you think has contributed most directly to our artistic evolution?
I'd have to say the magazines have made the biggest difference. And it's a double-edged sword 'cause they've also helped create the problems. They are great for inspiration and sharing new ideas. It's almost like a collective consciousness now. People in Japan are doing the same things we are. At the same time, they've created some monsters too.
Right. What about the Internet; how influential do you think it has been as far as helping tattoo evolve? Or, how influential do you think it will be?
That's an interesting question. I know that I spend a lot of time on the Internet looking at portfolios searching for new ideas. I know that it's been very good for finding customers, at least for me. A lot of people have become clients because they saw my work on my site. When did you open your new shop: Just Good Tattoos?
This August actually. I'm really proud of it. The aesthetic is beautiful. And the whole concept in general, y'know - Just Good Tattoos. Less frosting, more cake. What kinds of goals do you have for yourself having just opened a new studio?
My goal is to find balance. And the reason I did it here, in a small town, was after talking to people like my friend Bill Loika, they offered this suggestion: you're going to charge the same price for your tattoos, so if you open in a big city you have high overhead and you'll have to tattoo every day just to maintain the machine. But in my shop I can tattoo a day or two a week and pay all the bills. Now I have the freedom to do other things - cheaper tattoos where I have more control of the imagery, or paintings, travel, whatever. I don't have to grind it all day, every day, to pay the bills. And it's great. That's a freedom a lot guys don't have.
And the reality is that I'm tattooing more than ever and I'm traveling a lot. Every month I'm going somewhere to tattoo. This year I get to work at Yellow Blaze in Yokahama and visit Horiyoshi III in Osaka, and Cory is going with me this year. It's all very exciting. What about artistic goals?
To trust more in my own style and not feel driven to follow the same path as everyone else in tattooing is doing because it's the thing to be tattooing, aka-traditional and Japanese. I love the aesthetic of those, but my tendencies lean towards more imaginative executions of those images. A lot of times, because of discipline, I tell myself that I shouldn't do it my way, that I should be more attuned to the traditional way. Say I'm drawing a tiger, sometimes I force myself to go back and pull out some reference and make it more Japanese. What I've realized in the last 4 months or so is that the ones who make their own path are the ones who don't let other people's opinion restrict their behavior. My style has been flowering lately and I'm getting more people trusting me with larger work, so my other goal is to execute, in my own style, more of that type of imagery. I believe in a very fast execution of tattoos, like Filip Leu style. I think you can achieve a very powerful image without having to spend 50 hours in a sleeve. And I love to see that stuff, it's amazing, but I like to tattoo as fast as I'm thinking. I don't like having every tiny detail worked out before I tattoo, then it becomes so meticulous in execution. I like the freedom of a well-planned composition; then add detail as I go. What type of work are you doing?
Larger pieces. I have about six back pieces going right now. Lots of sleeves and half-sleeves when I travel. I do half-sleeves in 2 sittings; sleeves in 4. And I have a day rate now, so people come to see me with $600 and I'll tattoo them for 9 hours. It's great. I have one guy doing a whole traditional body suit; I had already done his sleeves, but now I'm doing from his neck to his ankles. I'm doing it for $300/day, but the agreement is that he comes in every single week to get it done. How many opportunities are you going to get to do a fuckin' body suit, y'know? That's awesome. And I think it speaks a lot about your dedication to doing those tattoos you want to do, if not a genuine humble outlook on yourself and your art. You're happy tattooing and that's it.
Thanks. What are some of the art projects you have going on right now?
I've got a bunch of stuff. I'm finishing up a set of traditional flash for Pulse. I'm doing a set with Bill Lyoka, who really inspired me with traditional stuff; a skateboard deck for Sean Crofoot's show. It's sick. It's all like Russian jail tattoo art. I'm also doing a set with Cory [Kruger] and some collaborative painting. Some T-shirt designs for a company in Japan. I'm doing some pieces for a book on envelope art. I have a list of paintings I'm trading other artists, and collecting all the cool, new flash. On the website I just invite people to write: anyone who wants to trade paintings or flash, just shoot me an email. I also want to do more traveling next year, so meeting new people and doing guest spots is something I'm down with. I'd like to do week long guest spots in as many shops as possible for the next few years. So, after all the bullshit, it's finally paying off.
Definitely. I'm content being a B+ tattooer who has really found his own style and has enough clients to keep me fairly busy. That's all I want. Prick Magazine - Marcus Kuhn Interview