Marcus Kuhn

Artists - Studios - Issue 16

Marcus Kuhn is a true gentleman; a Gypsy Gentleman. Spiritual, romantic and a great tattooist, Marcus Kuhn gave an exclusive interview to HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine. He spoke to us about the "old" days of tattoo, the reason why he wanted to be a tattooer since his teen-age years, his adventurous life and numerous travels, the birth of "The Gypsy Gentleman" and his vision.

Photos & interview by Ino Mei.

When did contests first started happening in tattoo conventions?

Right in the beginning – probably before the 70s. 

Already?

Yeah, with cheesy trophies like… I don’t know, big cheesy tattoo machines… Well, they were happening before me, for sure, but I think most of them started in the 70s. The first ones were like the national conventions in Texas. The first one I ever went to was in New Orleans in 1988, maybe it was 1986… I think I was nineteen or something. It was pretty mind blowing. Filip Leu was there, he was super young and he was killing it. I remember I sat on the wall and looked at him and I was like, you know, amazed. Even then, the style didn’t matter as he was always ahead. 

At the time, in every American tattoo show you would go, you’d know everyone. There were the older biker guys, and there would be about sixty tattooers including all the people who came from England and Japan. And then there would be a group of younger guys, like my age, including Eddie Deutsche, Marcus Pacheco, Aaron Cain, Jeff Rassier, and Brad Fink. That was kind of the wave – a small circle – while now everyday there are like ten million kids entering the scene. Of course there was no internet and there was like only one tattoo magazine back then called Skin Art, and now there’s like a shipwreck. Then Skin and Ink came out and then Jonathan Shaw, for whom I used to work for, started International Tattoo Art. In the beginning it was great except from there was one picture of his work, then one picture of somebody else’s and then it was him again. He loves himself a lot!

Who’s Jonathan Shaw?

Now, nobody remembers him. He currently tells fortunes in Brazil, like a radio celebrity. Well, back in the day he had the only legal street shop in New York City called “Fun City”.

Oh, that guy!

I used to work there, at Fun City, when there were no tattoo shops in New York. The reason why Fun City was running was that we paid the cops and the Hell’s Angels were behind it, so we were the only real open street shop. We are talking about a city of eleven million people, in the late 80s, and we were charging a lot of money, as you can imagine.
So it was very hard to get a tattoo back then in New York?
Yeah, if you wanted to get tattooed by Spider Webb for instance you had to go to St Mark’s, go to the punk store and say the special word and then they would check you out, call him, arrange for you to go to his place and get tattooed.

When was that?

Late 80s. And he’s really weird, super eccentric, and much before that, there was this guy Thom deVita, now he’s got to be in his late seventies. Ed Hardy featured him in one of his tattoo books – the first tattoo books – that were the Holy Bible of tattooing. Thom deVita used to live in the Lower East Side, which used to be kind of a messed up part of New York City, with tons of drugs. So I was like sixteen, and went to his apartment to get tattooed, and I go in and there is like a bathtub full of dirt with babyheads and weird cards, holes in the wall with cardboard stapled and cross-pinned on it, a weird Tibetan mask and spray paint across it. It looked like a voodoo crackhouse. At the same time, it was like super electrifying, just all the stuff you’ve never seen before.

When I was seventeen I got a tattoo by Bob Roberts cause he was one of the gods of tattooing and I’m in his shop and this girl comes in, she’s crying. “Oh my boyfriend left me” she said. “I want to get his name covered” and he’s like “come sit here baby and she sits on his laps, and he’s like “yeah, I’ll cover it, just show me your tits, I’ll take fifty dollars off” and she pulls her tits out, while she’s all crying. I was like “this is awesome, I wanna be this guy”!

Around that time, I remember saying to my sister “don’t let me get away from this tattoo thing, make sure I keep doing this, this is gonna be the thing”. She was like “yeah, whatever” and then I did a shitty tattoo on her, my second tattoo. My sister, who is now in her forties with kids, hates her tattoo. And I have to see that tattoo every year (laughs). 

Which was tattoo number one?

The first was this punk rock kid, I tried to do the Motorhead skull but I used regular paper to draw it, and then when I tried to do the stamp on his skin and the whole thing started to come off, but he’s punk rock so it doesn’t matter and he loved the tattoo… I also did terrible punk rock tattoos on all my friends. I got all these little punk rock bands tattooed on them; Black Flag, Circle Jerks, The Birthday Party, etc.

Anyway, I soon realised that you can’t just be by yourself, cause you’ll be a very shitty tattooer. So I had to find someone with the knowledge. Back then not a lot of people had the knowledge.

So you went for an apprenticeship?

Yeah, to be honest I didn’t learn anything in the beginning from the apprenticeship, except how to get a cup of tea and everything but back then it was different: the deal was, we teach you, then you have to leave the city.

Seriously? Why?

You can’t be in the same city because it’s like a mother-dog; she has puppies and then afterwards it’s like go away and if the puppy comes back, the mother is like grr. Same thing with tattooers. There used to be a respect thing, you couldn’t open a tattoo shop in the same street, not even in the same city. In the 90s that started to fall apart and now you can go to every hair salon and get a cup of tea and get your hair perfect and then get a tattoo. It’s all gone. Like you see all these people with sleeves down the streets, while then, when I was seventeen and I already had pretty sleazy sleeves, everywhere I went people would be like “what the fuck?” because there was nobody who had sleeves, think about it.

How come you got so young into tattoo?

Because I wanted to go and be a tattooer, you know, balls in, all the way. I think I decided it when I was fifteen. I can remember sitting in my high school and smoking – in my school you were allowed to smoke – at the area where the cool kids were hanging out smoking, so I was smoking over there and to impress the girls I used to draw tattoos on people with ballpoint pen, just while smoking, being cool. But I never thought back then I can make a living. 

So I tried a bunch of other things, I came back to England for a while and met this kid, John Craven, whose father is Wes Craven who makes horror movies. So they got me a job working in the movies. I was twenty years old, I moved out to LA, and became an art director by the time I was twenty-two I did “Tales from the Crypt”. I built the crypt and all, but that job wasn’t for me. I made a lot of money though, so I could go to the tattoo shop, hang around, get tattooed, start to learn and use the film business to get into it. So, it’s funny that now almost thirty years later, I’m back doing movies again. It’s kind of cool how things go in a full circle.

The other thing I spent my money on at the time, were drugs and unfortunately, I end up going to jail. I went to jail like eight times here in New York and then I went to Puerto Rico and got arrested and ended up doing two and a half years in a legal prison in Puerto Rico.

Oh my God!

Yeah, it was pretty intense. So I had to get up there, stop with the drugs and the craziness. I kind of had a spiritual awakening. And that’s when I decided tattooing is the only thing, and I’m going to go for it. Every day I tried to draw and practice more than anyone else and it was easier then cause there weren’t so many great tattooers and not everybody tried so hard. Therefore if you tried really hard it was easy to be the best. At the time, Cory Kruger and me were probably the best tattooers on the East Coast. At that point I had a two-year waiting list. So I opened a bigger shop. I had five people working and then we had a company making tattoo machines. I had the fancy house, the perfect old car, the pretty wife, and everything all set up, if that’s what you’re thinking the big dream is.

Ok, I am waiting for a “but” here…

But, that’s not really the answer. Everybody chases the dream and for some people maybe that’s good, but that’s not enough for me. It’s like babysitting and playing by the rules and having more envelopes to put money in every week. But life just got mean and some heavy shit went down; someone working for me was a serial killer who killed this girl. There was a big trial, my wife went a little bit crazy and returned to Spain, my dog was killed and all of a sudden I have no shop, I have no wife and I have no dog and I have the News and the media after me, so I decided I had to get away from this… I rent my house out and I just took off again. Travelling always fixes you and you can run away from things so I decided to ran away from the pain a little bit. 

Be a nomad.

Yeah, being like a gypsy and the cool thing about tattooing is you can have friends exactly the same as you; same shit in the living roam, same taste in music. At the end of my travelling I rent a little cowboy house on a ranch in Los Alamos in California. Just me and my new dog chilling out up there in the ranch trying to figure out what the next chapter is. 

So I decided I’m going back to New York – that’s always been where it’s at for me – and fight again. I rented a big studio space in Brooklyn, a big loft, and started tattooing. One day this kid, a filmmaker, I met in Australia came to get a tattoo and said “me and my friend are looking to rent out some loft space” and I was “ok, I’ll rent you some space in the loft, you can put all your editing film stuff here”. So one night I’m in the loft just drawing late at night and I’m looking at all the film things around me: cameras, editing, and lights. Everything just sitting there and I was like “That’s the answer! That’s it man, all I have to do is start filming”. All of these awesome people I spent my life with in all these places and the cool music… There are so many great people in the tattoo world all around that you don’t get to see. Of course I’m not going to do it for money.

I believe all things happen spiritually, when everything opens up. So I’m walking my dog down on the 17th Str., and there’s a big museum called the “Rubin Museum”, and I am looking at a Henry Miller quote on the wall it says “You have to lose yourself to find yourself” and this this woman walks right up: “Oh, I love your dog, I work in the museum”. And I’m like “really? I love this museum, I want to make this movie, and I was thinking of filming here”. And she says “oh no problem, come on Tuesday”! 

This how you did the Gypsy Gentleman movie with Thomas Hooper?

Yeah, exactly. So, I told the guys in the film crew, ok, I tattoo in the day, I make 500 bucks and you guys will film and I’m going to pay you the 500 bucks and then we’ll do it again, and again… The filming was also spontaneous. I want it to be spiritual, I wanted to be just like when people are really good friends, just like we are talking now, not like fake and removed, so I tried a couple different other film people, trying to get the right combination and trying to understand the process. We filmed way too much in the beginning, maybe six days worth of footage to make a thirty minutes movie. I wanted it to be like Jim Jarmusch’ “Down by Law”. Film is art just like tattooing is art and nobody had taken and done it his way. It was very important to me to make it beautiful with good music, right energy and cool people; that’s why I’m careful with the people I’m choosing. So we made the first film and we put it out on the internet and we got 10.000 people watching. People instantly reacted just like when punk rock came. People are hungry for something real, they are fed up with all this shit, every day the same. They are all very excited, and I was surprised and I said “Ok, how am I going to get more money?”, we need to do more!

When did you release the first episode?

About four years ago. So after the first one, one day I was hanging out with my friend Thomas who’s working on this guy doing dots, and I was like “man, people loved the first movie but it cost me 20.000 dollars, how I am going to get the money to do another one”? So this guy that was getting tattooed comes up afterwards and says, “My name is Neill, and I’m really interested in being the producer”. So he became our executive producer and he was able to get the sponsorship from “New Era”, the baseball hat company, so now we got some money. Not a lot but thirteen to eighteen thousand for each episode. So I packed everything up again, bought an old camper, and I just started driving with my dog all the way across the country to hang out with interesting people, to tattoo, to get some money, and to find the locations to film. Then the film crew will fly over and we’d film.

It appears that people like Gypsy Gentleman a lot. What is your overall aim with Gypsy Gentleman?

I don’t want to make money; I just want to make movies. I want to be able to go to India with Jondix, Mike the Athens and Freddy Corbin and to tattoo all night long in a festival for free. I want to go to Egypt with Chad Koeplinger and Theo Jak and tattoo on the pyramids with a battery. I want to go to Russia and tattoo inside a jail with the Russian tattoo machines – I have a contact now for that – I want to go to South Africa to tattoo the street guys that are dead by twenty-five and I want to go to the favelas in Brazil, because tattoo is like magic. You can get into the worst places. I want to show all this kind of thing.

Maybe, now is the time for maybe a little different type of show. Gypsy Gentleman is about everything; it’s tattoo, it’s style, it’s history, it’s cool, it’s about the music. It’s like cooking; putting a lot of things together. I think that the big TV guys might be ready now to take a “risk”, to put it in front of bigger audience and then hopefully that allows us without losing integrity to have a little bit of money to make more. All I want to do is make more.

It would be amazing to secretly “invade” – like the Trojan horse – all these TVs, all these iPhones and all these iPads. To put something good into everyone’s heart. Our smartphones are currently the most powerful tool cause everyone’s got them and it seems crazy to me that they either use them to be famous or to be rich. How about use them to put some warmth, some love, and some goodness out and at the same time make people laugh and entertain them. That’s what I try to do at each episode of Gypsy Gentleman.  

How the name Gypsy Gentleman came up?

It’s an alliteration so that everybody remembers it. Gypsy Gentleman is actually a name I had before when I was in Australia and I don’t know why, I was like a Gypsy Gentleman! I think it works great cause gentleman is to be a good person, to be polite, I also like nice clothes and style in general. Everyone has a different connotation for “gypsy” but to me gypsy is romantic… The 20th century gypsy who shows up with a caravan and a nice old scarf, charms you and drinks wine with you, while you eat apricots and smoke roll-up cigarettes. Everything in my mind is like that, I live like that.

So you are a romantic?

I’m in a movie, in my mind, I’m either in an old Humphrey Bogart movie or in “Santa Sangre”. When I learn a language or I live in a different place I kind of think myself as a character in “Cinema Paradiso”. So I do that with everything, my house is like that, the clothes I wear, etc. I’m wearing this (ed. he shows me his hat), because I think it’s something between Russian navy and Russian peasant mixed.

What is your current take on tattooing?

Because with tattooing, in the beginning, you fight to be famous and come to the top and then you get up and there is no top, there is no best, and even if you think you are for a day you are not tomorrow, and it doesn’t make a difference in your life. Tattooing is like playing a rock 'n' roll concert for one person. You don’t have to make everybody love you, you just make the one person that day happy. It’s important that both of you have a good spiritual experience and that this person leaves with a big smile. So now I don’t care if everybody thinks I am the best or the worst, it doesn’t matter at all anymore, I just want to make movies and good tattoos.

Tattoo work photographs courtesy of Marcus Kuhn.

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