1. How long have you been tattooing and what brought you into the industry?
As of July 2009, I’ve been tattooing for 8 years and 7 months. It’s easy to keep track of because I did my first tattoo on New Year’s Day. First and foremost I came into tattooing through my love of art and thinking that the tattoo medium would be a really fun and interesting way to apply my vision. At the time I was also intrigued by all the rebellion and counterculture associated with it, but those specific motivations have faded a bit so it remains a pursuit of challenging, fun artistic expression.
2. What type/types of machines do you use, have used, recently switched from, etc.? Why do you use what you use?
I currently use my 3 Fallen King Irons for just about everything, and I love them. They’re dependable, lightweight, smooth, and powerful. Sometimes I use my Lucky’s Aaron Cain-built machine that I won at the Evian, France 2008 convention. I also love Pulse machines—I pretty much learned on those and used them for every tattoo up until trying out the FKI’s. I’ve dabbled with Next Generation and Mickey Sharpz too, tried out Neumas, which are a great alternative to coil machines, and I quite possibly may have done a few tattoos with an Insane Clown Posse Hatchet-Man machine.
3. Your work is so uniquely "Nick Baxter," incorporating so many genres and elements into your style (realistic elements, great dimension, texture, bio-organic, geometric, with a painterly touch). How did you develop this technique and how has it evolved through the years?
I’ve developed my actual tattooing techniques through years of obsessive hard work and constant self-critique and analysis of results. I think the most effective way to learn something really technical and mechanical like tattoo technique is to be a scientist and a clinician about it—get the left brain involved as much as possible. Then once the point of familiarity is reached, you can get the right brain back into it and become more intuitive and random. So that’s what I’ve tried to do. I’m not so obsessively meticulous about it anymore, now that I know what I’m doing.
This is separate from how I’ve developed my artistic technique though, which has been a more varied process and is harder to explain. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been drawn to realism and the mystique of creating the 3D illusion on a 2D surface. So I’ve always practiced and studied that style of tight rendering and tried to bring it into whatever inspires me visually, like nature and all its surfaces, textures and the effects of light and shadow. I’ve tried to bring all of this into my tattooing, as much as I can.
4. What tattoo-related goals do you have for the coming year?
One goal is to do more international shows and see more of the world. Artistically, I’ve been trying to master the biomechanical and abstract organic genres of tattooing. It’s really fun but also very challenging—it’s caused me to rethink a lot of what I do and push out of my comfort zones, which is a good thing. I don’t think I’m quite there yet, in terms of having my own unique style and achieving maximum depth and convincing realism, so that’s a goal I’m working on whenever I get the chance to do those pieces. Otherwise my tattooing goal is always just to do the best and most inspired tattoos possible.
5. What have you changed about your technique from what you were tattooing a year ago to the present-day pieces you are producing?
I don’t think much has changed, but the most important thing that has is that I now use 5-magnum needle groupings to block in a rough first pass on larger work and to help in building up organic textures. Working with Guy Aitchison was what sold me on the benefits of the 5mag and different approaches to starting large-scale work.
6. Where do you see yourself a year from now? Five years from now?
Honestly, I see myself doing much the same thing. My life will always consist of making art, traveling, spending time with good friends and family, staying as strong and healthy as possible in order to try and make the most of every day. I have so many great opportunities open to me because of tattooing, so I’d like to keep doing that as well as push my painting more—make some more things happen with galleries and exhibitions.
7. You are also an accomplished painter. Do you find that your tattoo work benefits from your painting (and vice-versa)?
They absolutely do benefit each other. I’ve always been a huge supporter of working in multiple mediums, because of the way they can help and influence each other. Too much of tattooing is way too myopic, cannibalistic—closed in on itself. The biggest advancements to the tattoo art form have come from people who’ve had a fresh approach inspired by outside elements. Experimenting with other mediums allows you to discover new ideas and make mistakes you don’t want to make on skin, and in turn you’re benefited when you bring that new knowledge and experience back to your skin art.
8. Do you feel that your formal training in art school helped to guide you to the path you have chosen and to the types of artwork that you do now?
Yes, my formal training played a huge role in shaping what I do and how. Art school is a structured environment meant to build your artistic skills up from a simple and solid foundation of technique and theory. It teaches you discipline, and the critique and criticism of your creations by teachers or classmates helps you get over your ego in order to see more and better possibilities. My school sort of specialized in a really traditional and technical realism-based approach, so I think that training is obvious in most of my work in all mediums. I actually dropped out of art school to pursue tattooing full time, but what I learned in my time there was so valuable that I recommend not dropping out to anyone who asks me about it. Luckily my own work ethic and commitment were strong enough to keep me disciplined and learning after I left so I don’t regret it, but I would have learned more and in a shorter time had I stayed in.
9. Who inspires you in the tattoo world and in the art world in general?
First and foremost my friends inspire me, and many times with more than just their tattoos. But honestly, anyone putting out well-executed, creative work inspires me—there are too many to list and that’s an exciting thing, for tattooing’s sake. But I’m lucky in the artistic sense that some of my best friends are also great tattooers, like Jeff Ensminger, Adrian Dominic, Sean Zee. Some others I’m always excited to see new work from are Nikko Hurtado, Russ Abbott, Shige, Tim and James Kern, Tom Strom, Tim Biedron. Sean Herman is another really good tattooer who shares a lot of the same beliefs and lifestyle as I do, and I get inspired to know there are other tattooers out there who are similar to me in that way. The tattoo artists whose work I’ve always looked up to the most, ever since I apprenticed, would probably have to be Guy Aitchison, Cory Kruger, and Paul Booth.
My artistic inspirations are even more vast and hard to list. An attempt at a very incomplete list would be any and all photorealist painters, Trompe L’oeil painters, Caravaggio, Chuck Close (older stuff), Cindy Sherman, J.P. Witkin, Salvadore Dali, H.R. Giger, Daniel and Geo Fuchs (“Conserving…” series’), David Carson, Ron English, Gottfried Helnwein…
10. What do you have going for you that makes you different than most artists?
Every artist is unique in some way, simply because art is a product of the self and no two people are exactly alike. That being said, however, I think what might make me different than many contemporaries is that my artistic vision strives for an unrelenting technical precision and mastery, while drawing from a wide array of visual and conceptual influences—often complete opposites. For example I’d say I’m just as influenced by old Renaissance masters as I am by contemporary photographers, highbrow museum art and lowbrow counterculture art, as well as such diverse concepts as anarchism, romanticism, postmodernism, and Buddhism. It’s an attempted synthesis of the totality of human experience. I don’t just paint things that I think are cool looking, there’s usually a whole thought process behind it—some kind of symbolic intent.
My tattooing usually contains some input and direction from the client so all this stuff might not show up so blatantly there, but the fact that all of it is subtly underlying a lot of my tattoo art might make it different from a lot of other tattoos, I don’t know. The fact that I’m trying to approach all my tattoos, even when they’re the clients’ ideas, on three different levels simultaneously—the concept behind it, the visual style, and a technical mastery in execution—could be a part of it. Again, it’s hard to compare myself to such a diverse art form with so many talented people pushing the limits of the craft.
11. You are not only an artist, but an activist. How does your commitment to veganism, anarchism, and being straight-edge contribute to your success (if you feel that it does)? Do you find that your artwork gives you a platform to educate others?
My lifestyle and ethical choices are completely intertwined with my success, because they lay the solid foundation for everything I do, why I do it, and how it’s done. I wouldn’t be successful at much if I just didn’t care about anything, or hurt lots of people, or if I didn’t take care of my mind and body so that I can get the absolute most out of them, and out of life. Straight Edge (sober, drug-free living) is one of the most important choices I ever made for myself to help me be constantly committed to self-improvement and responsibility, which has made all of this possible. Veganism has helped keep me fit and healthy, and is a daily lesson in being compassionate and thoughtful about how your decisions affect others. I get a little nervous about the anarchist label because I do a lot of things that many textbook anarchists might be opposed to, but the spirit of basic anarchist ideals is as much a part of my life as I can make it. Ideals like personal freedom, self-determination and free association based on sincerity, cooperation and mutual aid (as opposed to coercion, force, manipulation, and hierarchy). It’s basically just a method for interacting with people and the world around you; not that myself or anyone else is perfect at it, or never makes mistakes or suffers deep confusion at times, but having these ideals (and others) in my life as a framework to come back to and strive for has given me positive direction. They keep what I do rooted in a deeper meaning that gives my life purpose.
All of this naturally shows up in my artwork and I want it to, but the viewer has to know to look for it because often it’s subtle. Except for in my graphite and paper collage pieces, which I use as more of a platform to be really blatant about what I believe in.
12. What is your philosophy towards work?
I love work, I’m a busybody. But my philosophy is perhaps different than the cultural norm in that, I try to see no distinction between work and leisure. I think that’s a false dichotomy that’s so limiting to the human potential, and causes a vast number of people a lot of misery. So I try to find a greater purpose in everything I do, incorporate it into some kind of goal or attitude that benefits either myself or other people, and ideally both.
Because of this I’m an extremely “hard worker” but to me, everything is work and everything is leisure, too, so it’s almost irrelevant. I still suffer, I still have my battles, but I’ve found a way to merge the two things in my life and in my attitude. My “life’s work” is my art, and making art is something I choose to do in order to have fun, so it’s the same pursuit. On the other hand, when I “work out,” a lot of the time, it’s difficult and it isn’t exactly “fun” but it’s something I choose to do that benefits my mind (endorphins) and body (fitness). So choosing the activity by your own free will, and the meaning you invest into the activity, is what makes the negative concept of “work” disappear.
None of this is to imply that I don’t still have my own struggles or need help at times. But I make sure to spend at least a few minutes of every day being consciously thankful for everything I have, and have been able to do in life. I know how fortunate I am to even have the time and ability to be writing about work theory, instead of slaving away at something I don’t enjoy without the energy to figure out what I really want to do in life.
13. If you had enough money to retire right now, would you?
Like I wrote in my response to the work question, retirement doesn’t really exist for me because my concept of work is different. Retirement to me is another product of divided and conquered thinking—a life divided sharply between pleasure and suffering, choice and powerlessness, where the two sides are battling each other but at a perpetual stalemate. I attempt to see things more holistically, less black and white. So for me, no, I won’t ever retire from doing something I love, like art. But should a day come where I love doing something else even more, I’d try to frame it in the positive sense of, ‘now I choose to do this instead.’ I make an effort to live based on passion and positive intent, because I find a lot of benefit and satisfaction in that method.
14. Are you organized? Describe how you schedule your time on a normal day.
I’m highly organized, and I’m very fortunate to have a lot of variety in my life, with the freedom to make my own schedule, so I’ll just describe a normal home or “work” day:
-read a chapter of a book
-eat breakfast or lunch
-check emails/take care of misc. secretarial stuff/chores/phonecalls
-start painting, tattooing, or other misc. project
-eat lunch and/or dinner, feed cats dinner
-more painting or other art projects or hang out until way too late
15. What is the best thing about being a tattoo artist?
By far the best thing is having meaningful, fulfilling work that benefits my own life and can enrich the lives of others. Second to that is the degree of personal and lifestyle freedom it allows.
16. What is your dream in life? Are you living the dream now?
My dream life is being happy and fulfilled, reaching my highest human potential while benefitting others. I’d say I’m living a good portion of that dream now, but there’s still a ways to go. I’m still building the puzzle piece by piece—replacing some, adding new ones, trying to step back and see the bigger picture I’m forming. It’s a constant work in progress.
17. If you were an animal, which one would you be and why?
I might choose to be a bird, so I could finally get to live out all those flying dreams I’ve had—some of the best sensations ever.
18. What's in your refrigerator right now?
A lot of fresh organic vegetables and fruits, some almond milk, a bunch of condiments like mustard and Vegenaise, juice, water, tofu, tempeh, some Thai food leftovers, cat food, Flax meal, a bottle of probiotics.
19. How do you tackle stress?
I try to do something physical yet peaceful like running, bike riding, or hiking. I also try to keep a regular meditation practice. I usually practice a type of meditation from the Buddhist tradition called Shamatha, which is basically just mindfulness of breathing—trying to root yourself in the present moment with complete awareness, while acknowledging and releasing all mental trips and storylines.
20. What is your favorite book?
I think the three books that have had the most profound impact on me over the course of my adult life have been “Days of War, Nights of Love” by the CrimethInc. Workers’ Collective, “Choice Theory” by William Glasser, and “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron. One is anarchist, one is psychology based, and one is spiritually based, but all three deal with the general theme of human happiness, fulfillment, and liberation.