Brian Thomas Wilson hails from Portland, Oregon where he runs his own tattoo studio, Scapegoat Tattoo. This is precisely all of the information I had about him before we spoke, but the work I had seen blew me away as soon as I clapped eyes on it, which compelled me to contact him in a bid to find out more. Interviewing Brian was an absolute pleasure. He proved to be an incredibly friendly, approachable guy with a passion for his art that was palpable even in our written communication.
Coincidentally, it turns out Brian is planning a trip to the UK next month. Read on to find out more about the man himself, his work and, if you’re that way inclined, how you might go about getting under his needle.
Onemetal I hear you are planning a trip to the UK to do a residency at Jayne Doe, in Essex! Tell us a bit more about this!
Brian“I am! I had just written Becca maybe a day before you had contacted me for this interview. The folks at Jayne Doe are really talented and I’m excited to work with them. Becca’s recent work has been especially good. It’s really beautiful and inspiring.
Also, as a little bonus for me, my good friend Eckel, who works at Conspiracy Inc. in Copenhagen, will be doing a guest spot as well! He’s an incredibly talented artist and tattooer!
I’ve only been to England once, for the London Convention, and didn’t have a lot of time to see much. I’m looking forward to being in a new place and hopefully making some new friends… and maybe being a bit of a tourist.”
Onemetal What are the dates of your visit?
Brian“I haven’t gotten them totally nailed down, but they should be between the 2nd of July through the 11th-ish.”
Onemetal What would anyone hoping to get under your needle have to do to secure an appointment? Any information regarding booking or rates would be particularly useful!
Brian“The best way is to book is through email – mailto:Bigfatvegan@gmail.com. Include a description of what you’d like done, size of the tattoo and the placement. I’ll get back to any prospective clients within a few days and with further instructions from there that may or may not include a photo of the area to be tattooed and a deposit. I have to be a bit more selective while traveling, so, I won’t be able to tattoo everyone. I will, however, get back to everyone with at least a “yes or no” answer.
As for rates, I usually default to the shop’s rate so it may be best to contact Jayne Doe for a better idea at this stage.”
Onemetal As your tattoo work clearly shows, you’re an incredibly talented artist. How old were you when you first realized that art was your calling?
Brian“Well, thank you for the compliment! Art, or some kind of creative field is all I’ve ever seemed to be any good at. And “good” is pretty debatable! It’s just something that I’ve always done. I’m really lucky to have it.”
Onemetal Was tattooing something you always knew you wanted to do or was your introduction to the tattoo scene a little less direct? If so, how?
Brian“It wasn’t something that I thought I would do. There wasn’t a tattoo culture in my town at all. Well, I had a friend in high school that had a sleeve with a Japanese dragon on it. It was crazy for someone to have a tattoo, let alone an entire sleeve back then, this was like 1991 or something. At that time I couldn’t understand someone wanting to have something that I’d drawn on them “forever”. Eventually I got my first tattoo, (from the guy with the dragon sleeve in my bedroom while my parents were on vacation!) and the concept of “forever” changed.
About a year after I got that first tattoo, I started hanging out at this tattoo shop in Carson City where a friend of mine had been getting tattooed. I showed them some of my drawings to see if they wanted to buy any or if they knew of any way to sell them. About a week later I was offered an apprenticeship. I can’t say that I learned much there, I tattooed a couple of grapefruit, read through the “Tattooing A-Z” twice, as I was told, cleaned the floor… that’s about it. We’re cool now, but it didn’t end very well.
I never actually did a tattoo with any supervision or guidance, learned to make (bad) needles on my own, tore apart my machines when they wouldn’t work and had to figure out what was wrong. It was a long road, with a lot of mistakes. The internet wasn’t what it is today. You know, a 56k dial up modem was the shit back then! So, no message boards, no books outside of the one I mentioned earlier, which, you should know had a section on “how to clean your needles” so you could reuse them! I don’t think that I really, fully understood where I wanted to be, or even believed I could be, as a tattooer until about two years ago. There’s more to go for sure.”
Onemetal How long have you been tattooing for now?
Brian“I got my first full-time job as a tattooer in 1999. So, about twelve years.”
Onemetal For a lot people heavily involved in the tattoo scene, tattoos and tattooing are part of a very alternative lifestyle that seems to often go hand in hand with other choices such as vegetarianism / veganism and straight edge. Besides tattooing, have you made any other alternative lifestyle choices and, if so, how does it all tie in together, if at all?”
Brian“Well, as you can see by my email address, I am both vegan and fat! And big in most parts of the world, except when I went to Denmark! Tall people!
Anyhow, yeah, I’ve been vegan since about a month shy of that first tattooing gig. It’s my chosen path, if you will. And, as such, I make sure that it’s part of my tattooing.
It took me a long time to get there though. I was pretty scared to look at what I was using to tattoo. Both tattooing and being a conscious vegan were hugely important to me and I didn’t want to compromise either one. I, of course, still had my head in the sand and had chosen to stay ignorant for a major portion of my career. When I made the decision to open Scapegoat, it was time to “put up or shut up”, as they say. I was determined to follow my ethics and run my shop free of animal products and as environmentally responsible as I possibly could. Lucky for me, it wasn’t all that hard! Just a lot of diligence, phone calls, emails, and maybe a little alchemy…
Now, we have the shop, with a great community. About three years ago, myself and five other friends with three other vegan businesses (Food Fight vegan grocery, Herbivore clothing and Sweetpea Baking Co. – gotta plug my peeps!) found a building and opened up in one place. We’ve got a whole vegan block! The nice thing about having a tattoo shop, is that it doesn’t fall into the usual “vegan” category. It’s not food and it’s not clothing. So, even if someone thinks that all vegan food sucks or isn’t worried about what their clothes are made of may still get tattooed at our shop. We do good tattoos. If we did shit tattoos, it would just be a gimmick, and we don’t, so it’s not. The quality is the same, shit, most of the products we use are the same. I think of it as a kind of cross-over business. We get people from all walks of life. And I wouldn’t have it any other way!
Onemetal That’s awesome that, between yourself and your friends, you’ve managed to build up a little vegan ‘empire’ if you will. What has the reaction been from the non-vegan contingent?
Brian“It’s been really good overall. You know, there will always be haters. But, we’re actually in a great community and have wonderful support from the rest of the city. You certainly don’t have to be vegan to get tattooed, or eat a doughnut or whatever is offered in our “mini-mall”. But, just as a precautionary measure, you might what to leave your fur coats at home! Haha!
I will say this though; Every now and again, someone will say that vegan tattoos don’t last as well or that the ink is inferior, which is complete shit. The pigment we use is the same as any other tattoo pigment that is used anywhere. It’s all from the same companies, we just ask a lot of questions about the carrying mediums they use for said pigment.”
Onemetal Tattoos and tattoo related imagery have seen a huge rise in popularity over the past few years and, as such, becoming a tattooist and forging a career and a name for oneself is presumably a lot harder than it once was. How did you get started and what has your journey been like so far?
Brian“It took me a long time to become okay with self promotion. I’m not a terribly prideful person and I just figured that if what I was doing were worth a damn, someone would eventually pay attention. More recently, I realized that I’d have to “put it out there” if anyone was going to see it at all!
As for my journey, It’s been rocky. Like I said before, I never had any real supervision. I was on the outs with the shop I started at and I felt that the shops in Reno were way out of my league. I mean, it worked out, but it definitely took longer than I think it should have. My tattoos sucked for a long time! I tattooed out of my house, opened a CD/Record store and had a crappy tattoo shop in the back. Actually, I did my first four tattoos in an abandoned church in Eugene Oregon. I was scared to death! I’ve covered up a few of them now. Like my fellow tattooer Cheyenne Sawyer says, “You’re not a real tattooer until you’ve covered up your own shit”.
The first “real” shop that I worked in was Blue Dragon, down in Phoenix Arizona. I had just decided to get in my car with $600 and drive until I ran out of gas or found a job. I stopped and visited a friend in Phoenix, talked to Dick at the Blue Dragon and got hired within a week. So, I stayed there for two years.
I have to tell you, Phoenix sucks! Blue Dragon wasn’t the best shop around either. But, it was my first walk-in tattoo shop experience. Man, back until about eight or ten years ago, the lobby at almost all of the shops I’ve worked in would just be packed with people on the weekends! You’d have twenty or thirty people just hanging out, waiting to get a tattoo! Now, five walk-ins in a day seems super busy! Ha ha! It took me almost ten years to realize how valuable working at those kinds of shops were. Between the customers and the boss, it breaks you in quick! But the real value was in the muscle memory. Learning to reproduce the images that were on the wall. I didn’t see it like that then. I wanted to be “Mr. Custom” or something. I should have been more interested in becoming a better technician.
After that, I moved back to Nevada and worked at a shop called Body Graphics in Reno for Guy Martinuek. That shop was rad. It was the first place that you could see the history in. Guy was a second generation tattooer and his son Jesse was working to be the third. There were old acetate stencils, had drawn flash from Pat, Guy’s dad. Mostly from the 60′s, but some stuff was way older. They had all of these old correspondence letter from tattooers like Doc Web, who’d started tattooing in the early 30′s. Old antique tattoo machines of Pat’s. It was also the first time that I’d worked with international artists and thought that maybe I could get around the world tattooing.
After Phoenix, I’d always wanted to move up to Portland. I wanted to be someplace more liberal and to live in a place that had trees and wasn’t a sprawling wasteland. Ha, I’m really not making any friends in Arizona right now, am I! Good thing it’s a British magazine. Plus, it’s like vegan heaven! So, after a brief stint at a shop in downtown Portland, I went to work at Pussycat Tattoo. It’s in Milwaukie Oregon, a suburb of Portland. I stayed there for three years. The owner of the shop, Saad Sweilem, is a great tattooer and one of my very best friends. If it weren’t for him, I don’t think I’d be where I am today. He’s always been super supportive of me as an artist and a friend.
Since opening the shop, I’ve had wonderful opportunities to have awesome guest artists, like Seth Wood, Eckel and Cris Cleen at my place and to travel the U.S. and to tattoo in a few different countries. I still have a lot of places to see before I hang up my machines! It’s a great job! I can take it anywhere I go. As long as I’ve got something sharp and something black, I can tattoo!
That pretty much brings us back to present.”
Onemetal What are your goals and aspirations both as a tattooist and an artist?
Brian“Ultimately, to be happy with what I do. The pursuit of being better will always be my goal. Learning to streamline and simplify what I do has been the most challenging thing for me, but also the most rewarding. I want to make tattoos that “breath” right. Do you know what I mean? It’s like a song. If there are too many notes, and no place to take a breath, then it feels claustrophobic, chaotic. I feel trapped. I think that I had to learn that you can say a lot with a few well selected notes. You don’t need to use every trick on every piece, be it a tattoo, a song or on canvas.”
Onemetal How many tattoos/hours worth of work do you have yourself?
Brian“Oh, many hours. I still have a good amount of room left though. Eventually it’ll all be one big tattoo though!”
Onemetal Is there anyone in particular you would like to get tattooed by? If so, why?
Brian“There are a lot of people that I’d like to be tattooed by. I think the most important folks I’d like tattooed by are friends. I’ve got a monster of a tattoo to get finished by Seth Wood still. I’d like to get tattooed by Ryan Mason at my place, pretty much anyone at Atlas Tattoo.
Outside of that, I keep thinking that I’d like something form Tim Biedron, he does rad monastery animals! Thomas Hooper too. I read an interview with him where he talked about his ideas behind strong, striking black images and it made me like his work even more than I did. I really don’t have a good answer to this. There are so many amazing tattooers and I feel like I’ve only got space for four or five big tattoos left.
I wish that I could have been tattooed by Chris Conn.”
Onemetal Throughout the years various styles of tattoos have come and gone in and out of fashion, i.e. tribal and biomechanical. What are your thoughts on trends in tattoo culture and do you think the current appreciation for old-skool and traditional style art will undergo the same sort of transition as previous trends?
Brian“I think traditional will always have a place in tattooing. Bold will hold! That’s as true today as it was yesterday and will still be true tomorrow. It will wax and wain in it’s popularity, but I feel like it’s beyond trend. It’s like blue jeans. No one questions blue jeans anymore, they just are. The traditional tattoo feels timeless. It’s always been there but it’s still current. There’s a lot of honesty in traditional western tattooing, just like in traditional Japanese tattooing, and in real tribal tattooing.”
Onemetal As someone who has first hand experience with the industry, what trends are you seeing at the moment?
Brian“Well, I’m seeing a lot of things. The biggest one is the influx of new tattooers! Some of these kids are amazing! Doing stuff that took me half my career to get good at, and in less than half the time! There’s so much information available. The contrast of that is that for every bad ass kid I see out there, I see twenty that are just awful scratchers. The blessing of tattooing’s popularity has totally watered down the soup! I’m not angry at them, well, sometimes I get pretty pissed off at what I see, but I just feel like the good ol’ days are gone and we’re going to start seeing tattoo shops in Wallmarts where that kind scratches out a name for $17.50 an hour.
Trends in tattooing right now, I’m seeing a great movement toward symbolism. In all different styles. I kind of think that the world is in a pretty fucked up spot right now and there’s a kind of unspoken need for some sort of mythology to help us believe in something. All the old gods are dead, so we’re using their bones to build new ones.
There seems to be a lot of interest in texture, like stipple shading, line weight and the resurgence of whip shading. I also see a nice balance between strong use of lines and delicate rendering of detail.”
Onemetal For those of us not in the know, can you give us a quick idea of what these different types of shading are?
Brian“Stipple shading is using dots to achieve value differences. Pushead and John Dier Bazely are good examples of contemporary artists (not tattooers) that use this effect a lot. Whip shading gives you a similar effect, only using a shader needle and “whipping” it to deposit the most ink at the beginning of the stroke leaving the least at the end, with a “chattery” effect. Line weight is just calligraphy-ing the lines. Making them thinner and thicker to suggest shadow.”
Onemetal Do you think these trends are a universal thing or have you noticed any differences internationally?
Brian“These days, yes. With the ability to upload your latest tattoo minutes after finishing it for people around the world to see. It’s kind of flattened the landscape. I see a some little regional influences and differences, and one country might be more into, say, black and grey over colour. But it seems like there are three or four waves right now and everyplace has at least one rider on each of them.”
Onemetal As a tattooist, what would you say is your greatest achievement to date?
Brian“Creating a business that gives me the luxury of never having to put my ethics aside. Being able to use it as a platform to help out others and to educate. To show that even a tattoo shop can have some high moral standards and give a shit about something more than money.”
Onemetal What about your strangest request?
Brian“I tattooed a face on a guys dick that made it look like it was puking. It was a bet with his wife. What’s even more fucked up, is that his 16 year old kid was in the lobby waiting while I did it. AND, he know what was going on. He looked bummed! So did his dad! And no, I won’t tattoo your dick. I’ve learned my lesson.”
Onemetal Is there anything (tattoo related, obviously!) you will refuse to do if asked by a potential client?
Brian“Well, I just said I wouldn’t tattoo dicks! The obvious stuff, I won’t do anything that’s racist or hate related.
Actually, there’s a lot that I turn down these days. I’m getting pickier about what I do. It doesn’t mean it’s a particularly bad idea, it’s just one that I think someone else might do better, or it’s not something I’d be excited to do and feel like it would compromise the quality of your tattoo. No one should ever be offended by an artist declining a tattoo.”
Onemetal What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Brian“Declining tattoos! I hate saying no. Well, I hate to disappoint people. As any kind of artist, you need to be the one who edits the kind of work you do.”
Onemetal What has been your favourite piece that you have worked on to date and what is your favourite type or style of tattoo to work on?
Brian“That changes everyday. I am really happy with the fox and bird tattoo that I did a few weeks ago. I believe it’s the one you saw that got me this interview! She wrote me with three separate ideas and that image just popped into my head. I asked, and she was into it. I’m stoked on the way it moves from one arm to the other.
My favorite style? These days I like symbolic narratives. Mostly illustrative kind of stuff. I’m totally bent on turn of the century illustration artists like Arthur Rackham, and Ivan Bilibin as well as more modern stuff like Vania, Brian Froud and of course, Cris Conn. Animals, ladies, naturey stuff. I like to do things that are a little fantastic. Not too, faeries and pixie dust, but, just a little off. I do love things to do with mythology and folklore. Little pieces of a larger story.”
Onemetal How else do you express yourself artistically?
Brian“I play a little guitar and yell a bit. Not as much as I’d like to right now, been way too busy. And, when I have the time, I do a little painting. Seems like I’m only motivated to do them for some sort of benefit. The last one I did was to aid in clean up and animal rescue from the gulf coast oil disaster called “Gulf Ghost”. I made a limited edition of 100 prints. To throw in another plug, I still have a few left, they can be found on scapegoattattoo.com.
I hope to be doing more of both in the future.”
Onemetal What advice would you give to any aspiring tattooists out there that may be reading this?
Brian“Don’t half ass it. To be just a good tattooer, it takes long hours and a lot of sleepless nights. And, I think the number one thing that I would have done differently is, to cherish those days at the walk in shop. Years later, I was complaining about some of the “crap” that I’d been tattooing, and that I wanted to do “custom” work. She said something that I repeat to myself, and others, all of the time. She said, “Even a fine artist has to paint a few fruit baskets”. Basically, we have to take the proper steps to get to where we want to be. Not everyone is going to just be an amazing artist. Those flash tattoos should be like meditation. They give you the ability to focus on the line, the colour, the shading. Practice technique and build up that muscle memory before you jump into something you can’t get out of!”
Onemetal How about advice for someone looking to get his or her first tattoo?
Brian“Look at portfolios. Find the person that does the kind of work that best fits the tattoo you want. Just because you hear that so and so it the “best”. It doesn’t mean that they’re the best for your particular tattoo. You don’t need to wait three months for a ten minute kanji tattoo. If an artist turns you down, it’s good, not bad. You don’t want someone doing something they’re not into.”
Onemetal Before we conclude, as is customary on OneMetal, we’d like to get to know you a bit better outside of your profession as well! What sort of music are you most into? Any bands you would recommend we check out?
Brian“I’m all over the map with music! My first love would definitely be metal though! I’m kind of out of the loop these days, but I just can’t get enough of that “Baroness- Blue album” It’s so fucking good! I’ve kind of been in that kind of mood lately. Something that’s driving, has good “rock and roll” bones. You know, like High on Fire, the first two Big Business records, stuff like that.
I’ve been on an old R&B/Soul kick too. Bill Withers, there’s some dark, sad stuff on his records.
All time favorite band has to be Neurosis. Through Silver in Blood is probably one of the heaviest albums I’ve ever heard.”
Onemetal Are you a fan of comic books? If so, what are you into at the moment?
Brian“Umm, I’m a fan of being a comic book fan? Anytime I go into a comic book shop I just get overwhelmed and have no idea where to start. My brother’s into Shaolin Cowboy. The art in that is amazing! The story sounds crazy too. I’m a huge fan of James Jean’s art too.”
Onemetal Got any film recommendations for us?
Brian“I just saw this Russian vampire(?) movie called Night Watch. It’s got great imagery and a kind of modern fairytale story. Movies to get bummed on because you learn things about heavy shit, Earthlings, and one I just saw called Manufactured Landscapes.”
Onemetal What about games? If you’re a gamer, what’s your console of choice and what games are in it the most at the moment?
I just bought a PS3 last week. You know, catching up to old technology. I’m not much of a first person shooter game kind of dude, because I get lost too easy in them, but I got Portal 2 and it’s got to one of the most fun and interesting games I’ve played in a while.
Best game ever, though, Wario Wares: Smooth Moves on the Nintendo wii. No one can look cool playing that game, and it’s awesome!”