I arrive at the new Glassboro Barnes and Noble early, a feat I save for school and writing related projects. I’m supposed to meet Brad here, in the cafe’, at 6:30 p.m. The cafe’ is fairly empty and I try out about five tables before settling for one that falls victim to the least amount of sunglare. I feel like Marcel Proust, particular in my choice of seating arrangements and comfort, trying out table after table. The floor to ceiling windows of the ghost town cafe are like magnifying glasses, channeling the sun right into my eyes. Sitting down is better, it hides you from the solar death ray.
I take out my notepad and set up my laptop. I open up my interview document, intending to refer to my bullet points as the conversation ensues. I’ll wind up not referring to it much at all as the interview drives itself and I remember a lot of the points that I wanted to discuss. I order my grande mocha, with whipped cream, and relax, splitting time between my drink and watching the door. I’ve never met Brad and we didn’t elect to wear some code garment, like a red sombrero, or “Members Only” jackets. There are now four other tables with customers, but I am the only one that looks like he is prepared to interview someone or transfer the plans for a super secret new missile system to Tom Cruise. I decide that Brad will probably be the guy to come in with his head on a slow swivel looking for me.
At about 6:40 p.m. Brad walks in. At least I think it’s Brad and hopefully not somebody looking for super secret missile system plans. He’s scanning the cafe’ and I stand up, “Brad?”
“Yeah,” he says. He’s smiling, that’s always a good start.
“Joe McGee,” I say. We shake hands, he gets a drink (something in a small cup, I’m not sure why I notice the small cup, but I do. Now I’m feeling imperialistic with the might of my grande cup. I make a mental note to stop making mental notes of his cup, forget my cup, get on with the interview).
Brad is a little taller than me, caucasian, and young (23). He’s wearing a t-shirt, flannel and a windbreaker kind of jacket. He has shorter blonde hair, with gel in it, waved over to one side in a preppy punk (and this would not be an insult to Brad) kind of neo-rockabilly fashion. He’s clean-shaven and his ears sport large gauges (those earring piercings that create large holes in the lobe). Brad will later tell me that they might be 5/8 of an inch. He’s not sure exactly, but they’re some “weird size around 3/4″ but not 3/4”. The earrings are important because they connect to tattoos, aesthetic expression and a definition and discussion of a deviant subculture, something Brad connects to and feels comfortable in the company of like-minded individuals. During the course of the interview it will become apparent, as my sleeves become pulled up, and my longer hair and obvious earrings are evident, that we share a connection to this related subculture.
We sip at our drinks and engage in some small talk. He apologizes for being late, says he’s never been to this Barnes & Noble. He wasn’t exactly sure where it was. He’s from Sewell, so he’s close.
Brad is an artist besides a photographer and film maker. I mention that I understand he has some art in a gallery here in downtown Glassboro. Yes, he says. He thinks it’s on Front Street, he’s not really sure. He knows it’s across from a BBQ place. He believes it’s been open about a month. I get the impression that he has a lot going on and the art aspect is in the background right now. I’ll come to find out later that he also works at a law firm and this weekend he spent 15 hours filming footage for the potential show that got my attention in the first place. It was a very hectic weekend, he tells me. A lot of people backed out, making for a very frustrating time. He tells me that out of 15 hours of film, he probably has 15 minutes worth of decent footage, stuff he can use for the show.
I ask him to tell me a little bit about his background and about art. I want to know what he likes to work with and how he got to where he is. I basically open the floor up to Brad and he runs with it. Brad turns out to be quite the talker and at times I have to almost interrupt him to focus in on something he says (something I don’t like to do as it can often be seen as stepping on someone’s toes). But the conversation unfolds like a tulip in May and I let Brad go, scribbling away on my notepad.
Brad tells me that he likes to work in a lot of different mediums. He started with drawing and sketching, before progressing into painting and then finally into film and photography. He names Ralph Steadman as a major influence in his art career, highlighting the fact that Steadman did Hunter S. Thompson’s illustrations for his book. Brad liked Steadman’s use of the fountain pen and how the artist can use the ink mess as part of the art.
At the end of our conversation, after the notepad is away and we are just two tattooed guys discussing movies on Netflix, he’ll tell me that “Escape through the Gift Shop” is about Steadman. But in the moment, we’re discussing artists who have influenced his own work. I mention artist Greg Simkins as another who does some neat things with inks. He mentions Shel Silverstein and the surreal style of Tim Burton.
He enjoys working mostly in black and white and in drawing images. He tells me that usually only looks at the image once and then draws from memory. Whatever features stand out in his mind are those that get exaggerated or focused on.
Brad went to St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia. In school he tended to get in trouble for approaching projects in a different light, something strange when you consider the inherent individuality of expression in the nature of art itself. Because of this, he was mostly a “C” student. He tells me about a class they had on the holocaust and this “very dark” painting that he did. After it was graded and no longer required for the class, Brad wanted to do something with it. There were paintings hanging in the English hallway. He found an old nail and bent it a bit, pushing it further into the bricks so that he could hang up his painting. It stayed there for three years until included in an art auction where it was sold to a private buyer. “It wasn’t even supposed to be there,” he says, smiling. “It was my own little mark I left on the school.”
“I don’t think you can grade art,” he says. “You can tell if someone is there to genuinely work, or if they are there just because it is required.”
We toss around the idea of defining art as the end result of someones creation. Is it something produced by someone with true skill, someone “who can actually draw”, or is it something that looks cool? Brad says that he likes drawing made up creations because it comes from his imagination. Who is to say what is right and what isn’t at this point?
After drawing and painting, he went into film. Brad was heavily into the music scene, both as a participant and as a spectator. In fact, this was where his love of tattoos and piercings started. He was (and is) into the punk and hardcore scene. He started shooting video of the bands as a result of spending so much time with them. He was following the music, spending money and discovering that the bands had no money. By filming the scene, he could be involved and maybe make a buck. However, he needed money to buy film, gas and equipment. And, oh yeah, food. You know, the important things.
Brad realized he’d have to branch out. He started Risen (pronounced Rye-zin) Industries in 2007 and got involved in infomercials. He did a 10 minute video for an Aflac insurance agent about supplemental insurance that was put on the client’s website. It successfully developed more business for Brad and gave him the confidence to pursue this further as he understood that he could expand his work.
Brad moved from web clips to television commercials. Risen Industries filmed a commercial for Empire Tattoo (Sewell, Pitman, and Clementon) that aired on MTV in the late hours, or as Brad categorized “when people with tattoos would be more likely to be watching.” I ask him if he got ink out of the deal and he laughs, “Yeah, I got some ink.” However, none is visible to me at this point (and later, Brad explains his desire to appear mainstreamed as much as possible).
Right now he does a lot of weddings, which he claims to “absolutely hate.” But he does them because they pay “phenomenally.” He explains that it’s almost a crime to charge what he does, but he has to. If you don’t charge the exorbitant amount of money that people expect to be quoted, they won’t hire you because they think you must not be good or that something is rotten in Denmark. People expect to be charged a lot for wedding photography. For Brad, the prospect of doing these kinds of things is necessary, but not very exciting. It’s like a routine documentary about people who he has no connection to. However, this affords him the ability to do the more creative projects, to fund the kinds of things he is actually interested in. He compares it, in a way, to being a tattoo artist. “You do it because you have the skill, but you are doing specifically what they want you to do.”
According to Brad, some people call this “selling out.” But again, this is a necessary means to a creative end. The fun projects will not fund themselves. He laughs at the notion of “selling out.” He says that he could show me pages and pages of scripts for so-called “reality shows.” If you ask him, that’s “selling out”, right there.
Brad is in the process of opening a second branch, Risen Industries Sucks. The original incarnation of his business would handle all of the tamer aspects, such as wedding and photography. Risen Sucks would handle all the band stuff, head shots, artwork and off the wall projects. He explains that he can’t have that stuff in his office with all the wedding photo people because it gives the wrong impression. It comes down to balancing the reality of business versus the desire to chase the imagination.
Chasing the imagination brings us to the current film project that first attracted my attention. Risen Industries is shooting a reality television show at Sinful Creations, Vineland, New Jersey. With the success of TLCs shows like Miami Ink and LA Ink, as well as the apparent attraction to a misconstrued sense of NJ (Jersey Shore, Real Housewives of New Jersey), Brad recognized an opportunity to jump on board with something as promising as this. What really attracted him to the project was the approach they wanted to take. They wanted a reality reality television show.
Their show is going to illustrate those things that you don’t see in the others. They want to focus on the people coming in to get tattoos, and that sometimes it’s just because it looks cool. Not every tattoo has some epic back story. They wanted to show that it is personal and invasive, that the artist is on your personal space. It’s intimate, they are touching you and the obligatory small talk is like going to get your hair cut.
The artists in the show consulted other artists to pick their brains about what they might like to see presented. One complaint is that those other shows never show a price, they never show money changing hands. It reminds me of a placard I saw in Mean Street Tattoo (Queens, NY) shop: “A cheap tattoo ain’t good, and a good tattoo ain’t cheap.” The artists had issues that people don’t realize how much tattoos cost, that they are expensive.
They wanted to show that tattoos hurt. On those TLC shows, Brad says, you never see anyone cry. In the last weekend of filming, there was a girl getting the entire top of her foot done. There’s a lot of bone there, he explains. It hurts. “You never see tears on t.v.. The pain is real.”
Brad talks about a tattoo artist that was getting a tattoo machine tattooed on him (something that only a tattoo artist can get put on their body, according to Brad). This tattoo artist said that he “hates getting a tattoo.” He liked that tattoos, but he hated getting them. “It hurts when you are getting it and it hurts for a few days after. I hate this.” Brad laughs. “You don’t hear ‘This sucks’ or ‘That hurt’.”
They want to make sure that people know what they are getting into so they don’t waste their time, or the artists time. People need to know this stuff, says Brad. He talks a little about the pain and procedures involved in removing tattoos. “Tattoos were never meant to be removed,” he says. Incidentally, my brother John, who lives in Texas is getting a tattoo removed from the inside of his forearm. He tells me that the process hurts ten times more than getting the tattoo. He is five sessions in and probably has five more to go.
They also want to show the fun involved. They want to show what really goes on. On the last day of filming, the shop manager managed to clog the toilet and they filmed the entire episode. “It was just funny,” says Brad. “You’d never see that on other shows.”
And there are snippets that won’t make the final cut, but provide insight never the less. I’ve mentioned in previous blogs about the correct form of terminology: Tattoo machines NOT guns. One of the artists yelled at Brad about his reference to a “tattoo gun”. Brad replied that “both put holes in you.” “Yeah?” said the artist, pulling a gun out of his drawer. “This one will kill you.”
They are shopping it to Bravo and MTV right now. MTV seems to be the most interested.
The applicants for the show submit their name, age, picture of themselves, tattoo idea, body location, color or black and white, and reason for getting it. The artists have a chance to review and sign off on the ones they are interested in doing. This is a chance for the individual artist to showcase their own skills. Some are good at portraits, others enjoy pure black and white work, while others like illustration. Brad explains that it is a combination of what they are good at and what they are interested in.
Area artists are, according to Brad, excited about the project, but at the same time a bit hesitant. Brad thinks that they are waiting to see the final project and reserving their judgment until then. He thinks the show is going to surprise a lot of people. And yet, some artists will still claim that they “sold out.” Brad explains that everyone strives to be successful but once you hit that level of success you are out of the circle. You have “sold out.” Brad goes on to explain that the whole process is an act of doing what someone else wants you to do in the first place. With art, nobody is forcing the buyer to purchase it. They buy it because they like it. The artist did the work that he wanted and left it. With tattoos, you are doing what you are hired to do. The point I imagine he is getting at here is that, at what point do you decide to scorn someone for the success they reap by doing work for hire in the first place?
Brad laughs and says that if it were an accounting reality t.v. show, where they were auditing on t.v., they’d probably be applauded by their peers. He mentions the Sistine Chapel. It’s just hired work, he says. “Painting the walls in a pattern. Hired painters.”
Another tattoo artist echoed Brad’s own sentiment. Being a tattoo artist in and of itself is selling out, he said (his words not mine). His reasoning was that you are taking someones idea, someones creation and doing it for money. That tattoo artists are paid to create someones vision beyond their own. This particular artist was a painter and for him, tattooing was a means to earn money for his painting. “My talents get me the money to do what I want.”
We come back full circle to the art. He tells me that he has drawn up some tattoos for people. They take it to the artists and the artists put their tweak on things. He thinks it is cool that “something you created is something they put on their body.” It “commemorates something you did.”
I ask him about the separation for an artist, that moment that someone buys their art and takes it with them, what does that feel like and in a sense, is this feeling the same for a tattoo artist that sees his work literally walk away. Brad describes it as “bittersweet.” On the one hand, you are losing something you created, he explains, but on the other hand, someone wanted it bad enough to pay you for it. As an artist, he explains, you make a conscious decision to put a price on something that you have created. You give it value and if it is desired enough, that price will be paid. If it’s something that you hold so dear you wouldn’t dream of getting rid of, you just don’t put the price on it in the first place, you wouldn’t put it out there for sale.
Brad’s love of the entire art process is most evident when he tells me that if he were to come upon someone viewing a piece of his art, raving about it, desiring it, and talking to him (Brad) unaware that he was the artist, he would just give it to him. “It’s yours,” he says, complete with an offering hand gesture. “Because that’s someone who really loves the art, not someone saying, ‘oh, this would look great in the living room’.”
On the subject of art, I ask him to tell me his thoughts on the art’s ability to “speak.” He explains that some things need an explanation and if you are around, or if you are the bearer of the tattoo, you can offer that explanation versus someone completely missing the point. I make a note that perhaps this means the objects cannot speak on their own, if they need someone to translate, but as I write this, I begin to think that maybe they do speak. They just say different things to different people. Brad states that some tattoos have bigger meaning than others ( a sentiment echoed by other artists, most recently by Matt Doherty and Tracey Morse of Mystic Eye Tattoo).
But, to Brad, the tattoo represents a subculture. He likes when he sees someone with tattoos or piercings because he knows he’ll be able to relate to that on person on at least some level. “You share a culture,” he says. “It tells me that you’re in the same realm that I’m in. That there’s some common ground.” If he is in a room, or at a party, and he doesn’t feel comfortable, he knows that he can hang with a person who shares that connection. “A single serving friend,” he jokes. “Both oddballs.”
Brad explains that he is a straight edge (someone who abstains from drugs and alcohol) and that if he sees someone else with an “X” on their body, he knows that he has a kindred spirit.
He acknowledges that people are quick to judge. He believes that they probably think, “Oh, here comes trouble.” He goes on to say that “if someone gets to know me, they might be glad they did because otherwise they might have missed out on meeting a good person.” He understands that his choice to embrace a seemingly deviant appearance brings with it questions. It’s part of the territory. He does not get upset and tells his friends to act the same way. “People are going to ask questions,” he says. “Don’t be angry at them for that.” He doesn’t think it will ever be completely mainstreamed. The parental influence is, in his opinion, too strong. Parents pass down to their kids that you do not get tattoos.
We talk about the gauges he has in his ears. He tells me he got them because he was bored. Again, he works in a law firm during the day and can’t get too crazy. He has flesh tone gauges in case he needs them for work. But mostly he will not go any bigger with them because it’s a cost issue. He doesn’t want to buy any more jewelry.
When he gets older he thinks his tattoos will serve as memories, like a scar. “It’s a moment and a memory,” he says. These are stories of and from our lives.
This echoes my theory of aesthetic expression and inner identity as outward expression. That tattoos are shards of soul gazing.
We wrap up the official side of business and Brad tells me that he has a shoot coming up in the next few weeks and that I’m invited to come down and hang out, take notes, ask questions. He is eager to answer any other questions that I have and let’s me know that if there is anything I need to know, just shoot him an email. We talk about movies for a bit and Brad says that it is so nice to sit and have an actual face to face conversation, especially in this crazy world of text messages, Twitter, Facebook, and emails.
It’s about quarter to eight. We’ve sat and talked for over an hour and could probably talk for hours more. We shake hands (he has a strong handshake, always a solid attribute) and Brad leaves, reminding me to email him with any questions I have. I tell him that I will, of course, do that and also keep him informed about where the project goes. I thank him again.