(This interview was conducted by Guy Aitchison in September of 2011, and went live on his website www.tattooeducation.com in February 2012.)
1) G: Many tattooists take on painting as a way of rounding out their artistic practice. You had a fair amount of art experience before you started tattooing... How would you compare the roles these two art forms play in your life?
N: Painting is my outlet for pure, unmediated self-expression—a highly personal world. Tattooing is more public: a collaborative effort between myself and another, mediated by a client’s wishes, tastes, budget, pain tolerance and other factors. There’s plenty of crossover between the two in terms of certain techniques and artistic concepts like color theory. So, spending time at one invariably helps with the other, yet they still remain distinctly separated by what is ultimately possible and desirable in each. The fact that I came to tattooing through art, rather than the other way around, has led me to approach my tattooing as just another medium through which I can create art, albeit a highly mediated one.
2) G: For many tattooers who paint, canvas is a place to loosen up, get free and uninhibited... The opposite of what is expected of them on skin. Your work in oils is anything but loose and free—it's some of the most meticulous painting work you see coming from any tattooer. If not for the sake of freedom, what is the painting experience offering you?
N: It may seem illogical, but painting actually does offer me uninhibited freedom in the form of concepts, symbolism, and where I can go in my mind—not to mention how many hours I can invest into a piece. But as you mentioned, my actual painting technique is anything but free—I’m usually aiming for a very specific aesthetic that’s dependent on a precise and clinical approach to paint handling. In tattooing, not only are you not very free in the realm of technique if you want a well-healed piece, but often you’re not free in terms of concepts and symbolism either. But, these unique challenges of tattooing serve to hone the intellect and creative problem solving abilities, which is a valuable asset gained from being both a tattooer and a painter. With both mediums, there is freedom within an over-arching framework of natural limitations.
3) G: The new works are a bit larger that we are used to seeing from you—many of your older works are little larger than playing cards. What role do you think the size of the canvas plays on the unfolding of an artistic vision? And does this apply to working on skin as well?
N: In my case, I started to want to delve into these huge, universal concepts that felt like they needed more physical space to be given the proper presentation. To that end, I still don’t feel like I’m painting big enough for some of the things I want to say. But because I’m so used to painting smaller, I’m pacing myself in the process of making larger paintings in order to avoid pitfalls and abandoned projects. I’ve always been in awe of artists such as yourself, who’ve successfully communicated their vision on an epic scale, with paintings 6 feet or larger. I don’t think the size of an artist’s work always plays a crucial role in the unfolding of their vision, but I think it goes without saying that some visions can only realize their full impact at the appropriate size.
4) G: Your last series of paintings, Rebuilding, was intensely personal, focusing on the discomfort and the uneasy triumph of personal transformation... You used realistic flesh and blood effects to bring this discomfort to the forefront. The new series is much different, less personal and more universal. Do you feel this is a new creative chapter for you, or is it a natural extension of where you left off with Samsara, the closing piece in Rebuilding? How do these two series connect?
N: “Reclaiming” was both a new creative chapter as well as a natural extension. Through the process of deep personal healing represented in “Rebuilding,” one is able to free the emotional territory to look beyond oneself, to reclaim their life, and the entire universe as their own—as one and the same. I felt certain shifts within my mind after completing the former series, and I was able to access emotional and conceptual realms previously blocked off from myself due to the lingering traumas of my crazy younger years. So “Reclaiming” was, really, my first attempt to represent this new territory, these new ‘vibrations’ visually. I don’t feel that I was completely successful, either; so some of those themes and symbols will be revisited in future paintings. But my work continues to revolve around themes of personal transformation, and as such is firmly grounded in the messy, visceral, intimate realm of the human condition, so I’m not sure if I’ll ever completely abandon the subject matter I’ve explored for so long. Rather, I predict it will evolve and be re-combined in new variations with other influences that continue to creep in as I expand and explore my consciousness.
5) G: I often encourage tattooists to explore alternate mediums, particularly painting, as a way to round out their art skills. You have a book out, Sharp-Focus Realism In Oils, chock-full of artistic and technical details for tattooists exploring painting... But there is still this sense of intimidation—for some reason, many tattooists are afraid to try painting. Why do you suppose that is, and what advice do you have for tattooers ready to take those first steps?
N: I think the reason for most intimidation is the ego, and nothing more. The ego, as a psychological concept, consists of a natural biological urge to protect oneself from emotional harm, from feelings of loss, uncertainty, and failure. In trying new things, there’s a high chance for uncertainty and failure. So naturally, people who may be used to succeeding in or mastering the tattoo medium, who form their self-image around this success, stand the chance of being humbled by not succeeding at a new endeavor. Furthermore, most tattooers are considered art experts, since they put art on other people for a living; so there’s a real fear of not measuring up to both the public perception and one’s own high standards. In order to combat this self-created pressure, I feel it’s really helpful to redefine the concept of failure, to strip the cultural value judgment from it, and in turn, reinvent it as a positive learning tool for yourself. It’s been said that artists in particular need to abandon much of what they know and have achieved, and begin failing again—with dignity and understanding—in order to develop their skills and avoid stagnation. So, being a beginner at oil painting can be an opportunity for self-discovery, a chance to reaffirm the desire to learn, to explore, and to meet new challenges. And the best part is, no one in the world except for you has to see anything you’ve created! You can keep it to yourself, or paint over it a million times, throw it out and start over…you as the creator are in control of your own journey, and that’s a beautiful thing.