Thomas Hooper

Artists - Studios - Issue 22

The exquisite Thomas Hooper, an influence to many, spoke exclusively to HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine about his influences, how he was initiated into tattooing and how his characteristic tattoo style evolved, the role of music, the reasons why he is settled in Texas, his opinion about reality tattoos shows, as well as if he is annoyed about the fact his work is been copied. Guest star of the interview... Oliver Peck!

Photos & interview by Ino Mei.

How did you start tattooing and when?

I started tattooing around 2000. I was taught by Jim Macairt, here in the UK, near my hometown, in a town called Eastwood. I was going to school in Eastwood for photography so I started getting tattooed and hanging out in the shop, then started cleaning the shop for him and one thing led to another.

So you are not one of those who were drawing since they were kids?

No, I drew when I was a kid a bit but when I started tattooing I couldn’t draw a thing. I had to really practise. What I did from an early age was photography and I always had an idea of composition and how to make a picture work. So I think that helped a lot.

How come you “choose” tattoo then? 

I’d seen some of Alex Binnie’s work, as well as Jim’s work, and I was totally taken by surprise that something so primitive could look so beautiful and different. So I kind of wanted to learn more and more about it. Tattooing is infectious, and so as much as I wanted to get tattooed I wanted to be able to make tattoos.

Has Alex Binnie been one of your major influences?

Yes, he’s always been one of my major influences. Curly, Xed Le Head, Thomas Thomas and Jondix are also huge influences, but Alex is a huge influence for them. 

Alex is the father…

Kind of. I don’t want to kiss his ass too much (laughs) but yes, he is. A lot of the stuff I am doing right now, it’s where it started. Well actually, I don’t know if Alex started it but he definitely pioneered a lot of it, he explored it to a great extend and tattooed so much of it that he made it something that you could actually see. Jim Macairt did a lot of this stuff as well. It’s like a giant pot of soup that everyone helps to make and then everyone takes some home with him.

When it comes to your tattooing and art in general what are your influences? 

I like looking a lot at early print work - two really obvious to mention are Hans Baldung and Albrecht Durer and of course there’s bunch of other people. Then I look at stuff that don’t even translate to tattooing. Like in my art, there are big influences, like the Spanish painter Tàpies and the sculptor called Richard Serra.

When I look for inspiration for my tattoos, I look at Traditional Japanese tattoos rather than looking at something similar to my work. That’s how I construct all of the layouts.

How has your tattoo style progressed through the years to what it is now?

It’s hard to put it into words, cause I just sit down and make it. When I decided to make my work have a style, I wanted it to look like how a Neurosis song sounds (ed. Neurosis is a metal band). Then I just took it from there and I constantly try to push what I do and push myself. It evolves and I try to be critical. I repeat what I do in the sense of the themes, not the drawings, so they get better and I get better while I’ m always trying to make everything a little bit more perfect, a little bit more interesting than the last one I did, and I think that that’s how my style ended up what it is. I want stuff to have energy, strength and be powerful; like the primitive tattoos that I grew up with. My tattoo adolescence - when I was learning - was characterized by looking at Polynesian and Borneo tribal tattoos - those tattoos of the warriors - and I just always wanted to make my tattoos like a warrior was wearing them.

Do you think that tribal tattoos that have been around more or less forever are considered to be more “classical” in a way?

Yes, and that’s why I look a lot at stuff like that and at old imagery. If I am using a picture of a rose or some kind of ornament or something that was drawn or painted like five hundred years ago and it still looks good, chances are that it will still going to look good in five hundred years.

What about the symbolism in your tattoos? Are there perhaps meanings you whish to convey? 

All the symbolism I use in my tattoos, I use it very loosely. It’s open to interpretation. The eyes for example represent humanity; “the eyes are the window into the soul”.

Your book “Inward”, a retrospective of your artwork, was published by Miki Vialetto. The least I can say it that it is breathtaking. How long time did it take to put it together?

It took about a year of me and Miki talking. It has a lot of work dated back to 2003 and onwards and I also made a lot of new work for it. It’s a bit like a monograph. It was nice to kind of see a lot of art that either hadn’t been seen for a while or just hadn’t been seen yet, documented and recorded in the book. 

“Inward” was as important to Miki as it was to me. The cover of the book is my art and I chose the name and the font but the composition and the colours are Miki’s idea. I didn't see the book cover until it was printed. He asked me if he could surprise me and I said yes. I also didn’t know what Jondix, Chad and Miki wrote as a forward for my book, until I had it in my hands. I just trusted Miki. He took so much care of it and that’s part of the reason why the book came out to be so amazing. I am very grateful.

Is the book consisted mainly of your paintings?

Yes, there are mostly paintings, as well as some illustrative pieces, and it is completed by a whole mixture of tattoo flash and tattoo paintings. Then Miki who is a fan of my abstract stuff, wanted to put some of that in there as well so it’s quite diverse. I also made a new repeating pattern for the facing page of every painting. The right page shows a painting and the left page has a different pattern, so it is nice to see the juxtaposition of the two.

Have you been involved with photography as well?

I use photography just to photograph my works. I use it in my paintings a little bit cause I photograph some of the things that I paint. I like to photograph my tattoos and I take pictures of my family. So that’s where my photography goes.

Apart from your photographic studies, did you also study painting?

Yes. I am from a single parent family so I did all this by myself; I paid for everything myself from working. I left school and I did a two-year course in engineering at college. I completed that, but I didn’t want to be an engineer. Then I did a two-year course in film and photography, liked it, but I didn’t see myself in the future to be a photographer and eventually I got into tattooing. Then my mother encouraged me to take an art course so I did one-year foundation in art and design while I was tattooing and with my mother’s advice - she advised me to try and do something different - I went to Camberwell College of Arts for drawing.

Tell me about your time in Greece! 

In Greece people smoke a lot (laughs). 

How did you end up coming over to Greece?

Mike invited me. He helped with a convention one year (ed. in 2007) and we all stayed with Mike. It was me, Jondix, and I think Tas was there too. For what Jondix and I do, Mike is the godfather. He took elements of what Alex was doing and pushed them into a whole new way. He is still an amazing artist, and everything that Mike did that incredible period of 1995 to 2000 inspired a lot of my tattooing.

So we just hang out back then in Athens, and then I used to go every six weeks to Barcelona and work. I did that for a year. I stayed with Jondix. We were both learning so Jondix was like my brother, Mike was like the father and Tas was like the bad uncle (laughs). I’m joking! He is amazing, he taught me so much even indirectly and he was one of the first because there was a bunch of other people who taught me that stuff, I just travelled a lot and picked up much. Then one of the men who taught me the most was a man called Ian Flower. He worked for a bit at Into You and he taught me about tattoo machines, how to be a technically good tattooer, and how to put a clean line on the skin. I’ve already been tattooing for five years at that point and I was like “ok, this how you tattoo”.

So I’ve only been to Greece once and I enjoyed it a lot. If I stayed in England I would probably travel more but once I went to America - now I live in America - the only part of Europe I come is England because my family is there.

How did you end up in America?

My wife is from America. I had an opportunity to go work there and I thought why not change things and try something new. So I ended up in New York working at Saved Tattoo - a really important place - working for about two years with Scott Campbell, Chris o Donnell, Stephanie Tamez, Virginia Elwood and Seth Wood. I learned so much from these guys.

While at Saved Tattoo did your tattooing changed?

I developed it and made it my own and kind of solidified it.

And now you are in Texas. Why did you decide to leave New York?

I’ve know Steve for about thirteen years, he has a shop there and he was aware that I wanted to leave New York because it’s too expensive, too crazy and I wanted a family and to be able to buy a house and have an art studio in the house. So when he offered me to come down to Austin and become a business partner I agreed and we got a bigger shop. There are other places I like in America, mostly in California, but I wanted to send my kid to a good school and have a nice house, and Texas is more affordable.

How do you see the commercialisation of tattoo nowadays?

Some of it is good and some of it is bad. There are many interlocals stepping in and trying to make money quickly by selling shitty supplies etc. That inspired people that are part of the industry to start supply companies and forced other people’s hands to make more effective products to compete those people with bad quality supplies. That’s the good part of the “commercialisation”. Another aspect probably is that I’m busier, and people are willing to travel to get tattooed by me. But overall I don’t really like commercialisation…

It appears that tattoo is currently a career choice. What is your opinion on that matter?

People now think it’s easy to get into tattoo. Well, it’s not! They just sit there, take out their iPhones, look at someone’s Instagram and ripping them off; start making art and t-shirts and calling them their own. But what they don’t realise is that tattoo has been here for hundreds of years already. So it’s going to come back on them: to all the people steeling from other people and being unoriginal. They will get it. When these trends pass, people that are tattooing in a certain trend, they will be lost. Because a lot of us we had to tattoo for eight years until we discovered what style we want to tattoo. Nowadays there are a lot of people they think that because they have all these Instagram followers that makes them good tattooers. This is definitely not the case.

Do you get copied a lot?

I don’t pay attention to it. To give attention to someone stealing your art you are just wasting your time - just go out and make some more. Fuck those people, again, they will all get discovered and found out on their own. I’d rather concentrate on making my own stuff; all I am doing is being influenced from referencing people. I just don’t like the people who don’t have the guts to say who they are influenced by; instead they are just pretending to their costumers that they are mister original and that they started this thing. I have watched people from all over the world stealing art from Jondix, putting it on other people and saying it’s theirs. He’s been drawing like this for the last twenty years and it’s a shame they don’t have the balls to say, “I did this piece inspired by Jondix”.

Anyone who does a tiny bit of geometric art in their tattoos owes all of that to Xed Le Head. A Mandala done in Dotwork with the skin left as the outline - like that negative effect - that’s Xed. Every one of them done, mine included, is owed to Xed. Then it is Tomas Tomas, then Jondix and then me. Mike was more responsible for the kind of crossover between Japanese, Tibetan and Indian art.

Why do you only do Black & Grey and Blackwork? 

I don’t. I do colour too. I just don’t publish the work. Black & Grey it’s easier. It’s more fun. I like the way it looks. It just looks more classic in the skin. I personally like the look of tattoos when there are old when they are in Black & Grey. 

What do you think about tattoo shows in America?

They are ok. This guy sitting next to me, Oliver (ed. Oliver Peck form Ink Master is tattooing right next to Thomas), I’d say that he’s probably the only one with real integrity. 

Thomas addressing to Oliver: “Oliver, have you paid all your bills”? It was either go to jail or do the show for Oliver (everyone laughs).    

Thomas Hooper: But just like with anything, not just TV shows, there are good things about them and bad things about them. If there is someone there to take care of it, it’s ok, and it can help the art. Some of the shows are quite atrocious, but you know, it’s TV! 

Is it reality TV?

Thomas Hooper: No! It’s not reality, it’s scripted. 

Oliver Peck: Reality shows are not real. Reality TV is real life TV. 

Thomas Hooper: It’s about ratings cause the more ratings you get the more you can charge the advertisers during the episode, and the more money the companies make.

Oliver Peck: The thing with Ink Master is that it’s a game show like any other thing. They enter and somebody wins money. The fact if it is about tattooing, or cooking or designing a dress or doing whatever you are going to do for a living and been exported on a reality TV show, at the end of the day it’s just a game show. Now, whatever drama they can get out of the contestants fighting each other, this is what they sell to the masses. The show is not marketed to the tattoo community; it’s not about the art and the integrity of the artist. It’s about a game show. People go there and win money of doing tattoos, sometimes, shitty tattoos.

Are you saying then that the level of tattooing in Ink Master is not good?

Oliver Peck: There’s some good and some bad. It’s like the American Idol. The people that suck are the most fun to watch. If everybody was great the show would be boring. It will be like “oh you did great, you also did great” and so on. 

Thomas Hooper: And they are casted as well. When they chose the contestants, I am sure they chose people that can’t tattoo.

Oliver Peck: It translates to entertainment value. The same reason the chose me; they knew I’d sit up there and say stupid things, and tell people they suck. They get a lot of guest judges on there and they don't do really well cause they’re quiet and they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. But it’s not about people’s feeling, it’s about a game show and you suck!

In social terms are tattoos more accepted in America today?

Thomas Hooper: It depends on the state you’re in, really. In Texas you come across many tattoos. I think tattooing is less of a subculture now and more of a culture. 

Has music been a great influence in your work? 

Music has been a huge part of my life. I love music and the things that I love I like to understand. So I was in a few bands, nothing big, I did some music, and I am friends with some people in bands. I have tattooed quite a few guys from bands; mainly metal bands. I’ve also done album artwork for various bands. Art is communication; you can communicate in different ways so the more the better.

Do you tattoo more men or women?

It’s equal. I think in the summer I tattoo more men cause women like to go swimming and sit in the sun a bit more. I like to be able to make a tattoo look good on different body types; it’s part of the challenge. You take one tattoo and it could work at a certain type of man or a certain type of woman, but it wouldn't work on another. Actually I do a lot of big work on women, but I post mostly the work I do on men, cause I like to be respectful on the women I’ m tattooing and not put pictures of their bodies on the internet. 

There’s still this objectification of the female body…

Yes, it’s disgusting. I also do a lot of work on women that I photograph in a way where you don't know that it’s a woman. So it doesn't really matter. Cause I don't like the picture being about a woman’s body. I’d rather it would just be about the tattoo.

What do you thing about “tattoo models”?

If you’re not been exploited by someone else and you’re happy about it, then do it. It can be empowering and everyone’s got to pay the rent, you know. There are two questions to begin with actually here, “why would someone want to become a model” and “why they would want to get a lot of tattoos”… 

Why you recon people do get heavily tattooed?

It’s different from person to person. Some people they just want to look cool, some others they can’t stand the look of their body or their skin and they want to change it, while some feel they don’t have any control of their lives and getting tattooed it’s a way to control; it’s quite cathartic I imagine. At the same time art is something you can be proud of it and it is beautiful.