Artistry in Process: Clay McCay's Take on the Digital Frontier

Artistry in Process: Clay McCay's Take on the Digital Frontier

Anonymous Tattoo’s resident artist Clay McCay shares his views on the current digital revolution affecting tattooing.

The natural light in Anonymous Tattoo’s space is a New Yorker’s envy. High ceilings, a skylight, white walls with framed flash floor to ceiling, the space is incredibly easy on the eyes. It’s an open floor plan that lets you see everyone working, and rounding the corner behind the front desk, you’ll find a small wooden lightboard and Clay McCay hunched over it. Today, the light-up top isn’t turned on, as McCay is working diligently on a Wacom Cintiq. 


“I would typically draw this about this big,” McCay says, using his forefinger and thumb to zoom in and out of a line drawing of a lady head with a wolf headdress. “What I really like is being able to see far away. Like I don’t have to stand and see the whole composition from far away.” McCay has been tattooing all over Savannah, Georgia for many, many years. He’s seen the local industry change up close and personal, from the laws to the technology. He pulls up a photo on the Cintiq, revealing a black and white image of a sleeve with detailed directions and tribal patterns swirling over it. 


“I’m covering a sleeve I did on him twenty-something years ago,” McCay explains. “We did a sleeve and, see, his old sleeve is under this and under that tribal is his older sleeve. We’re gonna go over it with all these lines. Just took a picture of his arm and worked it out on here.” There’s no way to make a stencil for such a job, and rather than completely free-hand it without a plan, McCay is able to utilize his tablet as a tool for plotting out the details.

There’s something freeing about being able to go back and edit your own art, and while this revisionist approach is possible without a computer, our current digital age does make it an easier process to visualize and edit. Rather than stacks of tracing paper and a print-out photo of his client, McCay uses some Photoshop layers and an iPhone picture. 


The chance for a do-over is rare in this industry, so when the opportunity approaches, it’s worth the grab. “People ask, what’s your favorite tattoo? It’s usually the last thing that I’ve worked on. And when you’re talkin’ 20 years back, that usually puts [that tattoo] at the bottom of that list,” McCay says. McCay endorses using a computer as one of many tools in an artist's arsenal, but one must be very careful to avoid using it as a crutch.


A strong drawing is the backbone of a great tattoo. Part of working with your actual hand, drawing out the details you’ll eventually put onto a person’s skin, is that you practice the line, shading, coloring, and overall scope of the image. “There’s applications now that will do every scale on your snake if you let it, but, it won’t look right,” McCay says. “I’ll do a huge drawing on this thing and then I’ll print it out and I’ll do it all by hand. Just to get the hand-quality to it. I don’t like things that are too symmetrical, if they’ve been flipped on a computer and turned symmetrical. I’ll take it and hand draw it so it gives it enough variation on each side so it doesn’t look like it’s been flipped over. ‘Cause a lot of times I’ll see drawings I can tell that’ve been done on a computer.

“I did something the other day where I beat my head against the wall trying to draw this anatomical alligator for this girl, and it wasn’t working,” McCay continues. “I spent a lot of time on it. And finally, I just put away all my references, put away all the drawings I had already done, and just drew without looking at anything. And it came out way better than the other ones, where I tried to force it into looking too anatomically correct. That stuff can really strip the soul out of a tattoo if you’re not careful how you draw it.”


That’s also why you put down a deposit for a custom piece. Your artist is working hard to create something original for you, with a set of parameters presented by you as the client and tattooing as the medium: location on your body, color scheme, style, size. Your money down ensures that there’s good time spent into creating something unique. 


“I’ve seen tattoos that were less than stellar in their application look far better than tattoos that were perfectly applied but the drawing sucked ass,” McCay says. “You give me a drawing with soul, and a little bit of spontaneity to it, and even if it’s got a couple blow-outs, I’ll take that any day over a perfectly rendered, soulless, computer-traced something. You know? Any day of the week.”

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