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Brutal Poetry, Soft Violence: Interview with Damien J. Thorn

Brutal Poetry, Soft Violence: Interview with Damien J. Thorn

Tattoo Artists9 min Read

In this interview with tattoo artist Damien J. Thorn, he talks about perseverance, striving for artistic evolution, and the power of design.

Damien J. Thorn's expressive dots and jagged lines recollect brutal wood engravings or torn metal etchings. The textural quality of his creations makes each tattoo viscerally tactile; the image is endowed with a life of its own. At times these powerful pieces seem to be indicative of emotive depths, grotesque folkloric phantoms, abstract shapes that define an ambience, or sacred talisman used to protect a celestial body. But whatever you may see within the ink, the transformative energy of Damien's work is irrefutable. 
There is a magic to the iconography we embrace as our own, that we mark our skins with, and even more enchanting is an artist, like Damien, who can so specifically capture, visually, something that resonates with the deepest parts of ourselves. His aesthetic language speaks the things that, sometimes, we cannot.

Can you talk a bit about your beginnings before tattooing? Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?

As long as I remember, I’ve always wanted to work in comics or animation, to the great displeasure of my family who thinks it’s not a « real » job. But I always kept drawing. My drawing and my ambitions changed, leaving animation behind. I ended up drawing almost only sketches. In college, I studied visual effects, 3D, animation and photography and got an engineer certificate. I started tattooing during my studies. At first I was just curious about it and then I became more and more serious.

I was 23 (now I am 35), at this time it was hard to find help and information about tattooing. I was really alone, facing this culture not knowing any tattooists. I had real technical issues, and above all it was really stressful! I remember tattooing a sentence in Tibetan along a spine. 3 sessions of 3 hours each!! It was crazy. But my only machine was a coil Chinese one, that came from eBay. The adjustments were terrible and I lowered the speed to maybe 2V to reduce the noise…It was ridiculous !

Finally, I tattooed more and more, mostly on friends and students from my school. I think about it sometimes; it was fun though!

Then, one year after my graduation, I started a real apprenticeship and it was the real big beginning!

It seems strange that so many tattooists these days are self taught, but that it’s still looked down upon. What do you think are the pros and cons of being self taught versus having an apprenticeship? Why do you think being self-taught can sometimes be taboo?

Old habits die hard and I think in the tattoo industry there is this heritage where people like when some values are respected. But the world is evolving, interests and culture are constantly changing. At a time tattooing was only for a few specific ones, but now it’s open to a lot of different people so inevitably there are also new ways of doing it.

The main problems with self taught tattooers is generally the organisation of the session and the work space, and of course hygiene. I understand that a « vandal » tattoo session could be fun but from a tattooist point of view, someone self taught, working alone can be worrisom regarding the quality. And for the customers too.

Happily there is sometimes good stuff coming out. There is a big amount of tattooists that learn alone and now are well-known artists, recognized by both tattooists and public. Self teaching is not a curse but being good is decisive!

Apprenticeships are the same. Sometimes it can be great and helpful but is also can be really hard on you. Sometimes you finish it being tougher or it can break you.

This is why I don’t think there is an only way to learn tattooing. Value and determination are still the most important. And knowing that people trust you to ink their skins for the rest of their lives. You can learn that both alone or with your mentor.

To me, apprenticeship will end when I’m dead! Never have I learnt more than since I talk and discuss and exchange with people, asking my coworkers, guesting, and even with my apprentice! So, am I still an apprentice or am I the apprentice of my apprentice?

Your style merges ancient Japanese iconography with Neo Tribal Blackwork and fascinating illustrative textures. Can you talk about how your style has evolved over the years? What inspired you when you were a kid, and what inspires you now?

As a kid, I was in love with manga so drawing was like breathing to me. So, around me, in my room, in my head, Japanese iconography was everywhere. Sometimes even more than Latin ones, even more when anime and manga became mainstream. I also love French comics (BD) and comics.

Japanese influences stay stronger, because the feudal and modern imagery is really powerful. I think the themes are approached in mangas, and in Japan, in general, there's always a great mix between basic feeling and emotions, with a unique imagery, soft or violent. Maybe this is this « soft violence » that is fascinating me. Maybe I am looking for that.

Speaking of the tribal, it’s more technical. I love every style of tattoo but tribal has a strong visual impact that is blowing my mind every time. I mean, it seems so simple, just black, just lines, just filling and yet it is so powerful. It’s crazy! Tribal is strong, tiny pieces to gigantic ones.

I try to take in tribal the power of the compositions and to mix with what I've developed for a while now, this Japanese aesthetic. I don’t really want to be a specialist of one style in particular, I just want to acquire a technique that allows me to mix or transform different styles I like, mixing or juxtaposing them.

For another example, engraving imagery but with traditional Japanese flames. I can work, I just have to find the balance. So mixing Japanese and tribal is basically what I work on every day. I'm moving step by step but I can’t wait for the next day to come! I'm constantly evolving and I like that.

Japanese back piece collaboration with Damien J Thorn and Victor J Webster #DamienJThorn #VictorJWebster #blackwork #Japanese #Japaneseinspired #neojapanese #linework #illustrative #tribal #neotribal #darkart

I feel like many artists have a philosophy, mission, or meaning behind their work. Do you have one and if so, what is it? What do you think makes a good artist? How do you define success?

I don’t really know what success is. I mean, I feel like it is an end, but I don’t see when this end is for a tattooist. Finishing a tattoo? Reaching perfection? Being popular?

Popular does not necessarily mean good. There are a lot of people that are more than popular but yet not good, speaking of pure method. Sometimes the reflection of the person has more effect than their work.

It can also mean being trendy, but being trendy is the beginning of the end. It's also the step right before being out of the ark. So, I don’t seek for « that » success. It gives me a constant motivation, always moving forward. You have to test, and fail, and explore to understand better. But there is no end.

I think every artist has a philosophy or a meaning behind their work. Art or any kind of artistic expression is a different way to communicate, an alternative to speaking. Speaking can be an art though! But to me, the arts are a tool, to help those who need to express and surpass themselves. And it’s great.

Speaking for myself, I have for a long time been jumping from style to style, not really having a purpose or something really deep. And one day I felt, or maybe someone told me, that my work had an atmosphere and it questioned me. So, I kind of did an internal digging to know where it came from. I mean, I try to embrace it and accept my influences. All kind of them: movies, music, animation, cartoonists, painters, tattooists.

What is the process like when getting a tattoo from you? How do you make sure you are satisfied and fulfilled as an artist, but that your clients are also happy?

It can sound like a cliché but my satisfaction as an artist is indivisible from the delight, the feelings, of the person that chooses me for my work. But deeper, personally or purely artistic, it’s more complicated.

I think my biggest fear is repetition. So, if I am being asked for new things, I alway say yes. For that matter, I always say yes to something I think I can handle. Of course, I always tell myself I absolutely have to place and execute it the best I can, and I do it. It’s not perfect (I’m not), and I’m evolving, improving. And yes, sometimes I see my old work and I think that I will not do the same today, or that it could have been better. But for sure, the day I execute a tattoo, I make the better choice I can at this point. Looking back makes me rethink « perfection », and makes me realize the evolution. My evolution.

I know that I make less and less concessions. It’s because the time, seeing my tattoos aged, makes me understand what works or not. We work with time. Time is our thermometer. We learn with time. So, I try to adjust my methods, my style, correct some old habits. I learn to be strict with myself. I want to improve, I’m never done! I do not compare myself to other. Our lives, our visions, are way too different to be compared.

Artistically, I am looking for an emotion, a sign that shows me that my work is true to what I imagine for someone. The impact and the emotion are important. For a drawing or a big composition. And maybe for the tattoo to be distinctive in its style. To be good is following its code. If I can manage that, in harmony with the person that requested me, I think I can sleep well.

Truly I am lucky. I have a lot of incredible projects, and each day is a new challenge. It’s unbelievable. I like to know that, for a moment, I share something with a person, and that I produce an eternal thing that comes from the best in me. I try to follow that purpose.

If you could choose anyone, living or dead, to have dinner with, who would you choose and why?

I would choose Jean Giraud « Moebius ». I had the chance to met him once, it lasted 15 minutes. He was a drawing genius! He mastered the line.

If you could only read one book, listen to one record, and watch one movie forever which ones would you choose?

Le Petit Prince - Antoine de Saint Exupery
Stalker - Tarkovski
Unfinished Sympathy - Massive Attack

Beyond tattoos, what are you really passionate about? What can you not live without? How do you spend your days off?

Sports, a lot! And I love to spend time outside. Movies. I need them. Escaping from reality, the atmospheres, the feelings they gave me. And then, on my days off I try to do anything but tattoo. I really fear to confine my mind. I feel like if I think « tattoo » all the time, I will reproduce the same things over and over again. 
Inspiration, references, they come from details. A pattern on a wall, a painting, a fashion magazine… Everything has the ability to inspire us, so on my days off I like to get sharpened by the environment, everything I see, raw. While to create, I need to be bored. Once you accept boredom, everything become easier. My mind becomes creative, and everything I took in during my days off can slowly take shape.

So, I either wander around or create. And taking care of my own kind. I think it’s great.

Do you have any travel plans, projects, collabs, merch, etc. coming up that you’d like to share? Any hopes for this year or the next?

Yes! I always have something going on. But for once I would like to do more. I often want more than I already have so, regarding tattooing, I am constantly working on something new to offer.

But I also have video projects. Like a graphic outlet where I can express what I can’t with tattooing or drawing. I’m working on it ! I also have ideas for a book mixing different media (text, photo, drawing, notes, etc). I was looking for a new way of expression, I think I will enjoy it.

This year I will keep traveling. I would like to go back to Penang, spending the Chinese New Year there, and visiting at length the Kek Lok Si temple. There’s something in here! And going back to Japan, enjoy the mountains and the sea.

Speaking of collars, actually I am looking for volunteers for a new project. I will announce it soon.

Justine Morrow
Written byJustine Morrow

Social Producer, Journalist, Editor, and Curator for Tattoodo I am here to support you 🌻 IG: @lathe.of.heaven

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