“Skulls Make Excellent Subjects!” – An Interview with Gerry Carnelly, Tattoo Artist

by Jason Michel

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Gerry Carnelly has built up a reputation as one of Britain’s most hardworking tattoo artists. His shop is Octopus Tattoo in Derby in The Midlands. He is not only a top Tattooist but a damn fine visual artist to boot with a complete dedication to his work.  I had a wee chat with him.

Hey Gerry!

Tell these ignorant curs something about Gerry Carnelly.

When did you realise that you wanted to happily inflict pain onto a paying public & become a tattooist?

A short introduction: I’m thirty eight years old, from Rochdale near Manchester, and I got into tattooing in the early Nineties, pre-Internet (imagine…). I was treading water at Rochdale Art College, stalling the prospect of getting a crap job for as long as possible. A good friend of mine bought the RE:Search book “Modern Primitives” which was pretty cutting edge back then, as it had interviews with people like Genesis P Orridge, Fakir Musafar and ManWoman among others.

But the main interest for me was the viewpoints expressed by Ed Hardy, Greg Kulz etc about tattooing. How it was capable of being more than a crude blue mark, and how it was a valid form of art that had passed through the centuries in one form or another in widely disparate cultures. It was also reinforcing the feeling of disillusionment I had with the accepted art world, where it was only an elite few who could appreciate “real” art, and speak the “art language”. It had nothing to do with real peoples’ lives, and didn’t affect them in any way. Tattooing was something, it seemed to me, that did affect people, that made a difference to how they saw themselves, and how others saw them. A hell of a lot of energy going on there, away from the “blessings” of the mainstream which I was immediately attracted to.

It was kind of a watershed period back then, when the whole profession was starting to move away from the back street scratcher shops, and some really inspiring work was starting to come from the likes of Filip Leu, Guy Aitchison, Paul Booth, Marcus Pacheco among many others. They seemed to have the same reference material as me, eg, a whole load of comics, Lp covers, science fiction punk rock weird shit going on, and they were putting it into peoples skin just like it looked on Lp covers! Fantastic! This was for me.

So I started absorbing everything I could on the subject; early tattoo magazines were coming out at that point, and I bought as many as I could and memorised the interviews word for word in some cases, and bought whatever books I could find. Just breathed it, day in and day out. This was what I wanted to do with my life, no question.

Why do you think the human animal wants to be covered in images even if it is painful? Where do you think that urge comes from?

Well, who can answer that question definitively? I can only offer you my skewed theories. Maybe at some point in Man’s early evolution, he tripped over a stone, fell on to some burnt sticks, and the resulting splinter left and indelible mark under the skin. This may have led to the idea of group identification, and then later on to religious or spiritual marking for ritual/rite of passage purposes as well.

In the context of the post industrial consumer age, I think the reasons are manifold, but it does seem to be about individual definition. In these times, we’re losing our group identities, except perhaps as marketing demographics or target audiences. People are very confused and rootless, and I think getting tattooed reinforces a sense of self and of control over one’s own body regardless of consensus opinion.

I personally got tattooed because there was the possibilty of changing myself into this other person, this tattooed person , and that was very liberating for me, as I’d had little or no control over my own life up to my late teens. Rebellion plays a part in any adolescents life, but it was more than that for me, it defined, and continues to define who and what I am.

As I said before, people get tattooed for all sorts of reasons, from the superficial to the profound to the purely aesthetic, but it does seem to be be that it’s just something that some people do and have always done throughout history, and it doesn’t look like it’ll be disappearing anytime soon….

Is it really a “community” these days? Are people getting tatttooed to stand out, or to fit in?

Tell us about your “visual” influences? Who did look to when you started tattooing, was it just other tattooists or were you looking beyond the established form?

My visual influences come originally from a lot of science fiction book covers, record sleeves, comics, horror movies, y’know, a lot of nerdy guy stuff. I grew up with 2000AD and Judge Dredd, so a lot of the artists in there shaped the way I drew stuff later on. People like Brian Bolland, Kevin O’ Neill, Carlos Ezquerra and many others got me all fired up to go and draw. I was also into people like Gerald Scarfe, Francis Bacon, Max Ernst, and a ton of Art Nouveau and Japanese Ukiyo-e artists, and too much other stuff to mention.

Later on, when the tattooing thing came along for me, I absorbed as many of the artist’s styles as I could. Mainly, I was tring to figure out how to draw things with as much flow and impact as possible, to try and make them look “heavy”, like real tattoo designs! As far as tattooing influences go, the main influences were Guy Aitchison, Marcus Pacheco, Ed Hardy, Grime, Berni Luther, Klaus Fuhrmann, Filip Leu and closer to home, Steve Potton.

I feel now that I’ve got a decent grip of that “heavy” look and I’m pretty comfortable with the way things work on the body as a whole. I’ve been trying to go back to the source, by which I mean instead of referencing a tattoo or a painting, I’ll go to a photo, or better still a real object, and translate that into a tattoo-able design.

I imagine a difficult thing is how to develop one’s own “style” in tattooing. You are after all dealing with someone else’s ideas.

Where does the creativity come into it?

Is it a case of how much input you can give? Or is it the perceived “limits” of the artform?

The thing with tattooing, like any art form passed on from teacher to pupil, is that you’re supposed to learn the established forms first, and then add your own personality. I didn’t have that much guidance when I started, so I just had to figure it out for myself, and slowly, through just doing lots of tattoos, your own likes/dislikes and influences come out, and you start to see your own style coming through, it’s a mistake to consciously try to have a style from the word go, it should happen naturally, otherwise you’re forcing it, and it shows.

Other people’s ideas are just that, ideas. I mean, there’s a tattooist in Canada called Steve Moore, who’s really good, and he said in an interview,

“The only way that I’m going to do a bad tattoo, is if I do a bad drawing”

And that stayed with me, because if someone comes in and wants something that sounds lame, it’s up to me to make it into something great that looks impressive, and if it looks poor when I’m done, that’s my fault, not the customer’s. I listen closely when people tell me how they want their design to look, as they’re the one who’ll be living with it, not me.

The amount of input I can give is determined by the person who’s getting the tattoo. So once they’ve told me their idea, as far as I’m concerned, the ball is in my court, and it’s up to me to produce a good design they and I can be proud of. Most people are pretty comfortable with giving me the freedom to do it as I see fit, which is great. Now and again, you’ll get someone who wants a lot of control over the entire process, which can be suffocating. But it depends on how you talk to them. It’s usually down to insecurity, or bad previous experiences with tattooists, but once they realise that you’re listening to them properly, they start to relax. You’re dealing with anxious people, and some of being a tattooist is knowing how to put people at their ease and get them to invest some trust in you, who’s basically a stranger. I’m very aware of the other person, the’yre not my personal sketch pad, and they pay my bills, so I try to accommodate them to a large degree. Some people are just too inflexible, and doubt you all the way along, and those people I can’t work with. But they’re a rarity.

The limits of the art form are usually limited by the public. Some want to get something really out there, and some want what is deemed to be acceptable by their peer group. A lot of the time, it comes down to putting a nice piece of work on, and the last thing you’re thinking about is pushing the envelope. I’m usually just trying to do better than my previous efforts, I don’t think too often about how limited I am or I’m not. I’m only limited really by myself.

What’s this I hear about the Third Mind?

Care to elaborate somewhat, Mr Carnelly?

The Third Mind Collective is a project that I wanted to do for a few months now, and it’ll be starting on October 11th. It’s a collective of artists (tattoo or otherwise, but mostly tattooists) who will meet once a month at Lifetime Tattoo in Derby. The idea is that we work on a given subject for the afternoon, then over the next month, we create a finished piece of work. At the beginning of the next meeting, we spend an hour or so critiquing each others work. After that, we choose another subject from the box, and begin again.

There was another so called “artist collective” at another studio, but there was no structure to it, so it fell apart before it got anywhere. It was basically there to make the studio owner look good. I’m doing this because there’s very little discourse or exchange about art in tattooing in my experience, most people are happy to talk about machines, conventions, who’s doing what, but the actual art side of things rarely gets discussed. It’s also a reaction to the media fuelled hype that has surrounded the tattooing profession for the past couple of years. I want to try and “close ranks” and get back down to what we’re supposed to be doing, regardless of whether it gets on TV or generates a load of cash or whatever. The point is to exchange ideas and techniques, and hopefully we can improve what we do and have fun doing it. I’ve had a very positive reaction from pretty much everyone so far, so I’m excited to see what happens over the next few months.

What’s the worst thing about the tattooing business, especially now it’s become so mainstream?

Ha ha haa!!! Where do I start? Tattooing has been on the crest of a wave for about the last ten to fifteen years, and finally I think the wave has crashed. The main reason is that tattooing represents something edgy, and therefore, marketable to the mainstream media.

And thus, “reality” television programmes, “designer” clothes, alcohol, accessories, in fact, anything that can make money by having a tattoo design slapped on it is prey.

To me, it’s like seeing your childhood sweetheart in a gang bang movie. She was so pretty, but now, they’re all having a go.

The main culprit are the TV shows. What utter shit they are!! Anyone with half a brain should realise that the “customers” are all auditioned for their heart wrenching (ie ratings friendly) tales of loss and bravery. They’re basically aimed at people with a mental age of an eight year old. Not just that the shows are all fake, but it’s the image of tattooists that they put across (in no small part due to most of the tattooists involved) We’re all apparently loaded with cash, hang out with “celebrities” and complete full arm tattoos in twenty minutes, all of which is completely fake.

So there’s the way it’s represented by the media, but also there’s the availability of tattooing gear. Ebay is the main offender on this subject. They sell a huge amount of cheap and very nasty tattooing gear, most of which is produced in Chinese factories, and is very low quality. They sell it to anyone and everyone, without discrimination.

And so, tattoo studios are inundated with people needing hideous marks that their friend has done covered up. You could say it’s good for our businesses, but it’s basically the same as mopping up someone else’s crap. This is linked back to the TV shows…”it looks so easy, I can do that, why should I pay all that money?” And so, within a day or two, they start mutilating their friends.

I realise all this was inevitable, it was too good to last for too long, and like everything else, someone saw money to be made. I find it all to be sickening, and I’m just waiting for the time when they decide that there’s something new for them to whore out, and they leave us alone to carry on with the profession that has been around for a lot longer than the fucking television.

You’ve mentioned a little about music.

I know for a fact that you love to play music while you’re tattooing, how do you choose which tunes to play?

Is it a mood thing & what kind of music lets you really go into the zone?

I couldn’t work without music on, the machine buzz would drive me half crazy. So I play a very wide variety of music, usually changed every couple of weeks. It really does depend on the mood I’m in. Usually, I’ll get in in the morning and put something heavy on, but not always. By heavy I mean stuff like Unsane, Goatsnake, Prong, etc. Then as the day goes on, I get more into instrumental stuff or electronica, anything from Perez Prado to Boards Of Canada or Klaus Schulze. Sometimes I just get bored and put the MP3 player on Shuffle, and see the reactions of my customers. I find it’s a seasonal thing, usually spring and summer is more guitar based, and autumn and winter is more electronic, introspective stuff. It’s important to me that the customer’s okay with the music, as they’re in physical pain, no need to add mental pain too! So I do restrain some of my choices, and try to keep it listenable, and I accept some of my taste is not everyone’s cup of char. I sometimes end up doing CD’s for people of the music I play in the studio, which is a boost, as I love sharing music.

Painting is a completely different medium for producing images from tattooing, yet, you paint.

Does your painting compliment your tattooing?

Painting is a release from the restrictions of designing artwork that will be on someone’s skin for the rest of their life. There’s a lot of things you can do with paint that you can do with tattooing, a lot more subtlety that could not be reproduced on skin. So I wouldn’t say that what I paint informs my tattooing, I don’t really paint tattoo related subject matter, it’s more personal. For instance, I’m working on some new paintings right now of deep sea creatures that require a lot of layering which wouldn’t really translate into a tattoo because of the skin’s ageing process. I also decorate animal skulls with biomechanical forms made from a putty called Milliput which is fun, because it’s three dimensional and I can use the surface of the skull to dictate the end result.

So that could be used as a tattoo design more than the painting because of the solidity, and skulls make excellent subjects!

Plus, subject wise, it’s not everyone’s taste. So it gives me a freedom which I wouldn’t otherwise have, and that indirectly gets me fired up to design better looking tattoos.

What about your reading matter? You’ve mentioned the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, but which books have influenced your world-view & how?

Loads of books influence my world view.  I’m a huge fan of Burroughs, Philip K Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, Alan Moore, H.P Lovecraft, Clive Barker, the list goes on, and also I’ve recently read two books by Anthony Peake which made me look at things differently, highly recommended. The authors that I’ve mentioned saw life in a way that questions the very fabric of reality, which is something that has led me to the idea that your life is only what goes on inside your head, it’s an idea of yourself and how you see what’s around you. Basically, I make it (life) up as I go along, without too much of a plan, just decisions based on arbitrary concepts and my present environment.
And to find authors that have so brilliantly described their ideas which make me question my own reality, gives me impetus to carry on doing what I’m doing, and reaffirms my belief system.  Doesn’t make it necessarily true, but it’s a relief to find that I’m not alone in having sometimes bizarre ideas and views of life.  At the moment, I’m off fiction, I’m trying to balance it out by reading factual books.  I’ve started off with “A History Of Art” by E.H Gombrich, and that’s extremely well written and it’s fascinating to see how the different painters and art forms connect up, at least in Europe. If you’re not already familiar with it (and it should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in art)
I highly recommend it.

How do you see “underground” culture developing in the future?

Is it dead & should it be so, now that corporations & their media have gorged themselved on every little morsel, or do you think something else will come along to inspire people?

I don’t think it’s dead by any means. Underground culture still exists, and I think always will. Periodically, it attracts the attention of the mainstream media when they require something “edgy” to market, of course it has to be sanitised and diluted for mass consumption first, witness independent music and tattooing. It’s more difficult to define now, as the lines are blurred to the point of being unrecognisable, mostly due to the mass dissemination of information on the internet. But even with the periodic harvest, people still create for their own reasons.

As long as there are people doing their own thing, regardless of conventional ideas of “success”, underground culture will continue, and it’s important to me to have that in my life. Inspiration comes from all periods, not just things that have come into being recently. I find it’s best to go backwards to the origins.

What dream have you yet to accomplish?

The next stage for me is to open a larger studio here in Derby (which is happening early next year), and be able to spend more time painting and to start creating my own music, while still earning a crust. And to travel a lot more. Other than that, I have no grandiose dreams of world domination. Hard to believe, I know.

Will you be remembered after your death?

Well, it’s not going to matter to me really, as I’ll be dead. Or perhaps, as Anthony Peake suggests, I will live forever subjectively, so I’ll never be forgotten. But I think the main reason why I do what I do is because I’m massively aware on a daily basis that I won’t be here forever, not in this life any way, so for those I’ll be leaving behind, I’d like to leave a nicely arranged mark. Mortality is the biggest motivator.

WEBSITE / OCTOPUS TATTOOThe Third Mind Art Collective

8 thoughts on ““Skulls Make Excellent Subjects!” – An Interview with Gerry Carnelly, Tattoo Artist”

  1. Well, that was a fascinating interview. It seems to me that no matter what form it takes artists have one thing in common– the love of creation. And hello, do I love your skin creations here. This is so great “it’s a mistake to consciously try to have a style from the word go, it should happen naturally, otherwise you’re forcing it, and it shows.” Agreed. I also appreciate how you see art as a growing, flowing entity. Your influences are really neat. Hell, HP Lovecraft is practically in your shop’s title! If I ever make it over the ocean, I will def be stopping by your shop.

  2. Thanks for the responses! I thought the interview came off pretty well, I didn’t sound like too much of a tool! I’m encouraged by your comments to post up some more artwork on here in the future, of a more personal nature.
    Good to have a place like this to express yourself.
    Big thanks to my friend Jason Michel for sorting this out and for being patient.

  3. Pingback: World Spinner

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