Artist Interview: Bailey Hunter Robinson
Say what you will about New York, but one thing's for sure: this city is like a magnet for great artists. That means, at any given shop, you'll find talented tattooists from just about anywhere you could land a dart on a map. Recently, I sat down with Bailey Hunter Robinson.
I first met Bailey back when he was working with Chops at the now-defunct Hold Fast studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Bailey headed down south a few months ago but has recently returned and now tattoos out of Saved. We sat down over pancakes and talked about tattoos, Native Americans, and his (enigmatic?) personality.
P: So you grew up down south, right?
B: Yes, I grew up in Bay Minette, Alabama.
How'd you get into tattooing?
A series of bad choices I guess (laughs). I was always in the hardcore scene and around a bunch a kids who were heavily tattooed, they were all older than me, they were all tattooed. I had an apprenticeship at this shop called Hula Moon in Pensacola, FL, which turned out to really just be me working for a year. I wasn't able to do anything, I couldn't touch their machines, I had to break everything down, I made needles for all seven guys, took care of all seven of their stations. It was a really busy, military-style shop. And to make money I washed dishes at a Japanese restaurant.
When was this?
That was when I was eighteen. And then I decided I was gonna go to college to be a printmaker (because I'd never tattooed at that point). So I went to college for a little while, quit that and then I started tattooing when I was twenty-one. I did my first tattoo in Birmingham, AL. This guy Chad Soner helped me out a lot when I was first starting. I have a lot of old tattoos from him. He kinda showed me the basics: sharp end goes in to the skin, this is what a power supply looks like, have at it!
So that's what I did. I did my first tattoos there, I did like three or four and then moved back to Pensacola and got a job at the worst shop in the city. Because that was the suggestion pretty much, you know, 'Get a job at the worst shop!' So I tattooed for about six weeks. I took a bunch of pictures of these terrible tattoos I'd done and sent 'em to this guy in Tallahassee. He hired me so I went and started working for him. I told him I'd been tattooing for like a year and a half and he bought it.
Why the move up to New York?
I knew a bunch of people up here. At the time I'd quit tattooing. I quit for about six months and didn't want to tattoo anymore. I was living in Tallahassee, living in this dirty old punk house and just being scummy and gross and was like 'Ah, I gotta get my shit together,' you know. So I moved up here. I just wanted to be here because it's the birthplace of the tattoos that I like. This is where it all started and I wanted to be a part of it.
Funny, I wrote in my notes "connection to past" and that's something that seems to come through in your tattoos and paintings, too. It seems connected, especially the idea of a trade that involves working with your hands, moving to New York to become part of that history. Is there some part of doing a trade with your hands that appeals to you, too?
Honestly, I think tattooing's not a really tough trade. It's not a trade where you can say, 'I work with my hands.' I think someone that digs ditches, or someone that farms or rides tractors, literally works with their hands. That's tough work.
You know all tattooers are the same, you get fat and slouchy (laughs), it can't be that strenuous, you know? But I guess it's a feeling of 'I'm creating this thing' and maybe it looks like it's old...like I'm building furniture that's made to look antique; sometimes I feel weird about it.
Well, you've also referred to tattooing 'as just a job.'
It's nothing more to me than a job. It used to be so much more. When I was younger it was like, 'Tattooing is my life!' and I was so consumed with it and I was so into it. I wanted to be so good and I wanted to do this and do that. And I'd go get tattooed by this guy, by that guy, and then the older I got I realized it doesn't fucking matter. It's a job.
If someone comes in with a tattoo and I don't wanna do it, I'm not gonna do it. I don't take it like, 'Oh I have to do everything' because I don't have to do everything. I just do what I want and that's kinda how I live my life I guess. I used to be really wrapped up in the 'This guy is a really cool tattooer, and that guy is good, and I wanna be big like that guy' and maybe it's just part of getting older. Because who gives a shit? There's so much other shit to do. I'm really involved with antiques. I love that. I like doing things that aren't tattoo related. I like painting a lot of really Dutch-style art, that's another thing I'm really into, kinda Shaker-style stuff.
I was looking at some of the paintings up on your website. One reminded me of a George Catlin painting. It was a Native American chief.
I'll go through phases where I'll be obsessed with Native American stuff and I'll paint like twenty native American things and then I'll be like, 'Ugh, I don't want anything to do with it.' It kinda goes in cycles. For a while I did nothing but Native American tattoos basically. Every single tattoo would be that, not necessarily because I wanted to, it just kind of evolved into this phase and then it just stopped and as soon as it started it was done. I could've had a portfolio of just Native American stuff. And then it was gypsy girl heads. And then that was done and now it's just, unfortunately like nothing (laughs), a big portfolio of nothing.
How would you describe your style?
I definitely try to be diligent about it, with the colors I choose, the line weights and stuff. But I don't know, I can't think of how to describe it. I just want it to look like my opinion of Americana. Sometimes I want it to look really old and gnarly, like it coulda been done on the Bowery and sometimes I want it to look really fine and crisp like an old cigar box label or bicycle ad from the turn of the century or something. Those two things really influence me. But as far as what I'd describe it as, I'd just say Americana.
What do you think makes a 'good' tattoo?
Something that's got a decent amount of black. I like a lot of black. I like to be able to tell what it is from far away. Anything that's not a new idea pretty much makes a good tattoo (laughs). Anytime someone comes up with a new idea, it's probably a bad idea (laughs).
Are there subjects you always want to tattoo? Horses, Native Americans?
I'm always up for that stuff. If I could have it my way, I would literally tattoo nothing but horses, Native American stuff, birds... that might be it. Ooh, and snakes.
How about other tattooers you're into?
I love Theo Mindell's stuff. He's like he perfect mix, he's one of my favorites. And there's this guy Chris Queen, I like his stuff a lot. It's very different and honest. It's very vignette-looking and he pulls it off perfectly. He does the tattoos that I have tried to do and I just can't do 'em. But those guys, I get really excited when I see their stuff. And then you have the obvious Bert Grimm.
Anything coming up on the horizon?
I'm trying to have a show in the fall, a solo show, but no tattoo stuff. The folk art and stuff... I would like to do it elsewhere but it'll probably be at Saved, late October. I was actually thinking of maybe doing it at the other Saved location in the city, just get a different crowd in there.
How is that place?
It's nice. It's still under construction right now, but it's surprising. It's kind of a weird marriage of two bizarre businesses. It's underneath a cafe with a little store that sells 'items.' They sell things like old filament lights, all kinds of stuff.
Before we finish, I got one more thing I have to bring up. You've got a bit of a reputation of being kind of surly... some might even use the word 'asshole.'
Yes, apparently that's a very big issue (laughs)! Well, I guess it's all perception. I feel like I'm kind of a take-it-or-leave-it kind of a person and I was raised by a take-it-or-leave-it kind of person and the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
If you don't like it, you don't have to fucking get it, but don't expect me to bend over backwards. I'm no one special by any means, but neither are you. So if we're not gonna come to an agreement, there's no point in wasting my time or yours. And sometimes I feel like I get kind of a bad rap about it. There are a lot of people that are bigger jerks than me. But maybe 'cause I'm not as outgoing as other people, I don't smile while I'm being mean or something it just comes out wrong.
I don't know. I've always gotten that my whole life. It's weird because, for the number of people who think I'm a jerk, there's also a number of people that think I'm really nice...well, I don't know if I'd say a lot of people (laughs). They're my friends, how 'bout that. I think it's really weird. But apparently it's a big deal and a lot of people talk about it, other tattooers. If people think I have a really bad look on my face or whatever, hey, I'm just ugly (laughs). This was my favorite question so far, by the way.