Jesse Smith

Jesse Smith: “Around then I was getting a lot of sh*t for tattooing New School”

DH: You have a very unique style, was your original intent to tattoo?

JS: No. I honestly just really like drawing. Sifting the artistic circles I stumbled into it and liked what I saw.

DH: Are you still down in Richmond? I wanted to go to VCU when I graduated high school. Some of my favorite comic artists went there.

JS: I’ve been here for almost my entire tattoo career (for 23 years). What comic artists are you referring to?

DH: Michael WM Kaluta. Charles Vess and Rick Veitch to a lesser degree. And a few others. I forget. It’s been years!

JS: That would have been rad if you had studied down here! The Richmond tattoo scene is awesome.

DH: I really wanted to go. My guidance counselor told me to “get ready for a career of pumping gas, because that’s all you’ll ever do”. That would be after I asked her how to acquire a loan so I could attend college.

JS: Geez! Very encouraging

DH: Yeah, try being a punk rocker in rural Virginia in the late 80’s! VCU had me draw 15 things, warned me I was late on the list and probably wouldn’t make it, then let me in on after they received the drawings.

JS: I kinda had the same encouragement.

DH: Yeah, I had almost straight A’s and a 3.9 GPA, but I looked super punk rock. What happened with you?

JS: Although my parents were always supportive of me, they definitely voiced their concerns concerning me making a career out of art.

Jesse Smith's Tattoo

DH: Yeah, so did mine. Although mine weren’t so supportive. They kicked me out of the house when I turned 18 and then moved.

JS: Geez! Are they supportive now?

DH: Not really, but I don’t care. They didn’t visit me in the hospital when I had brain surgery for cancer.

JS: What?!?! I didn’t know u had brain cancer. When was this?

DH: In 2001. I had surgery, chemo, and radiation.

JS: Woah! Damn man! You’ve been through some sh!t. I remember your wife passing back in 2004 or so.

DH: Yeah, that sucked too. Hit and run. We’d be here all day discussing me though!

JS: Sorry, man. Definitely makes my life sound pretty rosey!

DH: So, I hear you worked for a high school buddy of mine named Drew Manley! He was kind of the older punk rock kid at our school.

JS: Haha! Yeah man, that was  for a couple of years around 2007.

DH: How was that?

JS: It was pretty refreshing. He kinda just let me just do my thing. Didn’t put up much friction with what I was doing at the time.

DH: I did all the zine covers and painted all my friend’s jackets back in the day. I never knew he did any art!

JS: Around then I was getting a lot of sh!t for tattooing New School tattoos, for not being heavily tattooed and for listening to hip hop. He was one of the first bosses I had that didn’t poke at all that stuff.

Jesse Smith's Tattoo

DH: It was a way different world back then!

JS: It was indeed!

DH: I used to get tons of sh!t for doing realism!

JS: “That sh!t won’t hold up” (sarcasm).

DH: Tattoo artists in Manhattan called me a “frustrated painter”.

JS: Yeah, I got that all the time. They would call me an art fag and give me sh!t for taking pics with a digital camera, or tattooing with big mags!

DH: Joshua Carlton got me on the big mag tip.

JS: Yeah man, he kills it with those big mags.

DH: So, you started in Richmond? Was your goal initially to tattoo?

JS: I actually started back in Newport News, VA. All out of my house while I was in the army.

DH: Damn! When were you in the army?

JS: I was in the army 96′-99′, ages 19-21.

DH: so you were an artist, what was your outlet in the early days?

JS: Since I was in the Army I had a ton of guinea pigs. I used to copy a lot of skateboard designs, garbage pail kids, Saturday morning cartoons, mad magazine, dungeons and dragon books, and so on. Then, when I moved to Germany in ‘93 I discovered graffiti. It was everywhere and it was amazing

DH: What were you doing in Germany?

JS: My dad was in the army and got stationed there.

DH: I lived there as a kid too for 3 years. My dad was also in the army.

JS: No sh!t! Wow! Where? And when?

DH: I lived in Frankfurt and Stuttgart around 1975 through 1978.

JS: That’s rad man! Have you been back? It’s really sad.

DH: Yeah, I went back to Berlin after the wall fell. There were all these punk rock squats in East Berlin.

Jesse Smith's Tattoo

JS: Haha! Sh!t, I feel like Germany is full of “punk rock squats”. Are you friends with Thea Duskin?

DH: No, who is that?

JS: She’s a tattooist that worked with Drew and I. She was part of the whole crusty punk crew for awhile. I’ll bet you guys would get along well She used to do a lot of train hopping around the US. She now tattoos up In Buffalo.

DH: That sounds like a cool scene. After I got back on my feet after being homeless, I attended art school in Alexandria and then moved to NYC in 1998 to be a comic artist.

JS: Damn man! Your life is way more interesting than mine is!

DH: DC wanted me to do superheros, Paradox Press and Kitchen Sink folded, and in the meantime I started tattooing. But sorry, lets get back to you!

JS: It’s OK. I love hearing about the artistic journey of passionate artists. There’s something so innocent about a young artist digging through the trenches to become a professional artist!

DH: When did you start taking tattooing seriously?

JS: I would say that I took tattooing seriously after I graduated college,

DH: What did you attend school for?

JS: I went to school for my bachelor of fine arts with an emphasis in illustration. While I was in college I convinced myself that I was going to do something else with my art and tattooing was just a way to become a better artist while simultaneously paying the bills. By the time I got out of college I had started to gain some notoriety so I figured I’d stick it out and see how far I could take it

DH: Did you go to college right after the army?

JS: Yeah. I got the army to pay for my college and I think I got about $600-$1000 a month while I was in school. Meanwhile I was tattooing about 30 hours per week so I was living comfortably.

DH: Nice! I wish I could say that, but NYC can be pretty brutal! When you started tattooing, was it in your now signature style?

JS: Back when I started tattooing custom tattoos weren’t common. We did mostly flash. But I would plaster my room with my work and would get a client from time to time to show interest. Around year 5 or so I had two portfolios. One full of my stuff and one full of reproductive stuff. Portraits, Soryama, Boris Vallejo, and so on. Eventually I got rid of the reproductive work and solely focused on my stuff. That was around 2005.

Jesse Smith's Tattoo

DH: I did mostly flash too. I had a separate portfolio of my art to try and convince people to get bigger stuff!

JS: Yeah, we had to hustle for cool pieces back then. Now people come in trying to get custom back pieces from artists who barely have a couple years experience.

DH: It’s changed so much. Now, right away people want sleeves.

JS: Yeah, neck and hands before anywhere else .

DH: Yeah, I turn those down. Until you have more tattoos.

JS: Yeah, I turn them down as well. I remember thinking that I was gonna get my whole body tattooed before I moved to my arms. I thought it was the way to go.

DH: I was broke. I remember two of my first tattoos were the Black Flag bars and the Sick of It All dragon.

JS: Haha! You were probably one out of a zillion that got those Black Flag bars!

DH: At least! You said you started your signature style around 2005. Were you doing other projects too or mainly just tattooing?

JS: Honestly man, I don’t know when I started my “signature style”. I feel like I’ve been drawing the same since I was 12 years old. I was definitely drawing and painting crazy characters before I started tattooing. In the early days I was drawing caricatures at Busch gardens, airbrushing at the mall, painting graffiti murals, and doing my own art on the side. I would say that I started to really draw a lot out of my head in 1996, and 2005 is when I decided to solely focus on “my style” as far as tattooing. But I always have multiple projects running at once. T-shirts, clothing, side paintings, tattoos just a bunch of creative business stuff.

DH: Any books out people can buy?

JS: I have one book called Chromatose: The Cult Of Color. It’s got a bunch of tattoos and artwork plus me rambling on about the tattoo world.

DH: You have your own shop now, right?

JS: Yup! Loose Screw Tattoo in Richmond, VA.

DH: Do you have a full crew now or is it just you?

JS: I have about 8-10 artists total. Just depends on the time of year.

DH: Nice! Yeah, I own a shop now. It’s so much work…

JS: Yeah it is! No one ever gets it until they open their own shop. I’ve had a decent amount of people leave my shop and open up their own. As painful as it is to see them leave, I know it’s a necessary step for them to appreciate what they had here at Loose Screw.

Jesse Smith's Tattoo

DH: How often do you tattoo? I had to go down to 3 days a week.

JS: I tattoo 2 days a week, and then work on my other businesses the other three days. I used to work 7 days a week about 12 hours a day but I just had a kid 10 months ago so that definitely put the brakes on that lifestyle. Oh, I also own

DH: Is that mainly the apparel company? And congrats on the kid!

JS: Yeah, all apparel, a few pillows and we’ll be putting up a new skateboard design here shortly.

DH: So, things are going pretty good for you? Despite this whole lockdown thing?

JS: Yeah man, I’m fully entertained with life at the moment! Of course there is always bs happening but I really don’t think you can appreciate the good times without the bad times. Oh! And I wanted to talk about if possible!

DH: Ok, shoot!

JS: It’s a modular organizational system that I created to help artists choose their palettes more effectively. It’s changed the way I pick colors.

Method Tattoo System

DH: Do you have an ink brand you specifically base it off of?

JS: Naw, it works with most ink brands. They all use the same bottles for the most part. You can also choose the size slat wall you prefer as well and configure it any way you’d like. Vertically, horizontally, staggered, whatever suits your fancy. Two shelves of 1oz bottles, 5 shelves of 2oz bottles, and so on.

DH: Ok, man, well thanks for doing this interview. Great to hear how some of the most unique artists in the scene built their careers.

JS: Thanks for interviewing me. I appreciate it.

Related posts: