Sunday night, backstage at a chilly gallery in Chelsea, Scott Campbell hunched over a disembodied forearm, his tattoo gun buzzing.
“I don’t want to sound like some crotchety old tattooer who’s like, ‘It’s so nice not to have to talk to the person I’m tattooing,’” said Campbell, who’s tattooed stars like Marc Jacobs, Sting, and Orlando Bloom. But he did, admittedly, benefit from the absence of small talk: “I can just follow inspiration. I don’t have to have permission.”
The appendage Campbell was working on at the moment belonged to Nate Schlie, a 20-year-old fashion student from Cincinnati, who had stuck his arm through a hole in a Milk Studios gallery wall as part of Campbell’s exhibit “Whole Glory.” He was the last of 23 people selected by lottery as part of the four-day exhibit that began Thursday and closed Sunday night. Like the other 22, Schile received a free, permanent, palm-size tattoo of the artist’s choosing. (Normally, Campbell’s tattoos start at about $1,000 an hour.)
“It is freedom that as a tattooer I have never had,” Campbell explains. “I feel like tattooers are kind of like the strippers of the art world. We get into tattooing because we like the lifestyle, and we like what seems like freedom, but no matter how good of a tattoo artist you are, it is always a service industry.”
Campbell had no knowledge of the people attached to the disembodied arms that bravely (or stupidly) appeared before him for a mystery tat, but even without knowing their history, their gender, or their tastes, Campbell said that he feels a telepathic connection. “Call it subliminal, call it juju,” he said. “But there’s a real communication that happens in choosing the design for people.” And many of those who went under his tattoo gun agree.
Sunday night, at the closing party for the exhibit, the Cut interviewed 16 of Campbell’s new clients — the first-timers, the tattoo-llectuals, and the superfans. Click ahead for more.