Inked Icon: Spider Webb
The latest issue of Inked magazine has one of the most favorite interviews I have ever done: a Q & A with the inimitable tattoo legend Spider Webb. I have interviewed Spider before, and every time, there's another fantastic story I have never heard before -- and I want our talks to go on for as long as he doesn't get bored with me, but then there's that limited magazine word count in which only the highlights get put into the article. With Spider, every word is a highlight.Spider Webb, born Joseph O'Sullivan, is considered one of the most important people in contemporary tattoo history. With more than 50 years in the industry, he has legitimized tattooing as an art form, helping to bring it into galleries, museums, and even Christie's auction house, where a tattoo by Spider Webb was deemed "priceless." He fought to legalize tattooing in New York City after it was banned in the '60s by tattooing on the steps of museums. He expanded what some viewed as the limitations of tattooing through his conceptual art pieces and tattoo performances. And he's done all this with humor, flair, and mischief. Spider Webb, who holds a master's degree in fine arts, continues to create art, tattoos, tattoo machines,and trouble at his tattoo museum in Charlotte, NC. You'll also find him at tattoo shows and galleries around the world.
So what I've done is taken an excerpt from the article and put it below. Following that, you can read more and get another crazy tale -- about grave robbing, porn star Annie Sprinkle and more -- which wasn't published.
Learn more about Spider at Spiderwebbtattoo.com.
From Inked magazine:
You've been bringing tattoo art into fine art galleries since the '70s. You're particularly known for your conceptual art pieces. How did that get started?
How it all happened was a girl was interviewing me for a magazine, and she said, "Spider, what are the limitations of tattooing?" Being a big fucking know-it-all, I said that it's the size of the human body; that's the limitation. Then after I saw the interview in print, I thought, What kind of bullshit is this? What limitations? We have to get rid of limitations. So I thought to use a whole bunch of people in X 1000. I tattooed one X on 1,000 people, with a big X on the last person made up of 999 Xs to complete a conceptual piece. ... Then I started to do the Tattoo Vampire. It's a conceptual piece with just two simple dots on your neck. I've been doing that act for 30 years all over the world, from Studio 54 to the sewers of Paris, in Gracie Mansion, and in museums and galleries. It's a great show because there's sex, blood, kiss- ing, and you get to live forever. It's a very beautiful performance. Then I thought to myself that what would be real cool is if I become cupid and just tattoo one dot. So it's the same as the vampire act except I use an arrow and I make one dot for love, usually on a girl, but on men too-- and there'll be the fake blood and a breast exposed. That's what every- one wants, and I give it to them.
What other conceptual pieces have you done?
Do you remember Pulsating Paula? She was one of the photographers when they first started tattoo magazines. She's a biker girl. She's great. I tattooed her clitoris one time with a monkey tooth I pulled out of an alligator's skull. She was one of the first people I did the cupid tattoo on. Now I'm thinking to myself, What am I going to do next? I know what I'll do. I'll become the Invisible Man. And that's what I did. So I started to do the Unwanted Tattoo. I would be invisible. I wouldn't even be there. The first fucking thing I did was I took my doorbell apart, and I took out the black piece that you push to ring the bell, and I put in a piece of an ink an and a thumb tack. Then the mailman of all people rings my bell and he tattoos his thumb. I said, "Oh shit, that's fucking cool." Then I started to make other ones. I made the unwanted tattoo toilet seat. Then I did the greatest one of all: the gas pump. A guy tattoos his hand when he squeezes the thing. A lot of these things I had to rig up a video camera because I don't want to be there when the guy or girl freaks out. They think they can wash it off but they can't. There's a lot of humor in tattooing--people who don't want it, not wanting what I'm giving that day. Isn't that cool? [Laughs.] Children laugh about 2,000 times a day, and most adults laugh about 40 or 50. People are so afraid. I think tattoos take a little bit of fear away. Makes them a little stronger.
Read more from the article here. Keep reading for an unpublished Spider story.
What was the fine art world's reaction to these tattoo performances?
Oh shit, there's a fucking can of worms. Well, I have to say that it was mixed. There was a lot of publicity and stuff about those pieces. Then I had a show the following year at the same gallery. I said to the guy who owned the gallery, Chuck Levitan, why don't we have another show next year. He said, "No man. I love your work but you have the fucking art world all crazy. These people are coming down on me. You're a bad boy here." I said, "What's the fucking problem?" He said, "Well, what about that human bone thing you showed?" I had a human skeleton. I recycled it. I made all these art pieces out of human bone and called it "Adam, The World's Most Recycled Man." I recycled all of the skeleton. I made everything from whips to pedals for bicycles to refrigerator handles to pool sticks. I made a lot of different things out of the body and I guess it upset people, which is kind of weird. [...]
Where did you get the skeleton from?
I bought it.
You went to the corner store and bought the human skeleton?
Matter of fact, you could in those days, at the medical supply house. They used to get them from India. You could buy a complete skeleton for about three or four hundred bucks. It would probably be two or three grand today. Then they stopped selling human bones. But I'd actually get them from Mexico. I would go down there, people would steal them from graves, and I would bring them back.
Yeah, one time, I had a duffle bag full of fucking skulls. We got stuck at the border, me and these other crazy guys. So the [border control] guy says, "What's in the duffle bag?" I said, "There's a bunch of bones in there." He opens up the bag and it's all filled with these skulls, and that was probably around the time Charlie Manson was running around killing people. Anyhow, the guy starts shaking the skull, and he's looking up the bottom of the skull where the top vertebrate goes in and he's looking for marijuana. I have fucking skulls in this duffle bag and he's looking for fucking marijuana seeds. Then he lets me go. So I drive across the border and then get on a plane. I get off the plane, and of course some fucking cab driver is going to hustle me, so he takes me to my place in the Bronx and he starts telling me the price - something crazy like I owed him $30 or something. I said, "Ok, just a minute to get my wallet out of my duffle bag." And the duffle bag doesn't just have all these skulls but all these illegal switchblades. So he turns around and sees that I have a skull in one hand and a switchblade in the other, and I said, "How much do I owe you?" The guy ran away. Fucking asshole.
You have used parts of the body in a number of fine art projects. I remember seeing a tattoo machine you created that had Annie Sprinkle's pubic hair in it.
That's right. I'm really proud of that machine. There were a couple of machines with her pubic hair in it. No one was giving me a million dollars worth of diamonds to inlay in these machines, so I just sued Annie's costume jewelry for different things. And one time she gave me this box of pubic hair. She would send it to fans--they would send her money and she'd send them shit like that, used panties, and crap. So now I have this box of pubic hair. Fucking Cool. So that wound up in the tattoo machine that was auctioned off at Christie's along with "a tattoo by Spider Webb." That was the first time Christie's ever auctioned off a tattoo. These are the same jerks who told me that tattooing wasn't an art a couple of years before.
Spider is looking for an intern to help with his archives and museum collection in Charlotte, NC. Send your resume to firstname.lastname@example.org.