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Experiential Knowledge: Interview With Tattoo Artist Robert Ryan

Experiential Knowledge: Interview With Tattoo Artist Robert Ryan

Tattoo Artists9 min Read

In this interview with tattoo artist Robert Ryan, he talks sacred plants, authentic living, and the traditions of tattooing.

Years ago I came across the books of Carlos Castaneda, most famous for The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. These tomes held mystical stories about a man apprenticing under a shaman. They spoke about the deep human connection with animals, the sacred power of medicinal psychedelic plants, and the philosophical symbolism that drifts under the surface of everything. The idea that reality could be so much more than what it seemed sparked a spiritual journey within myself, and millions of's just a shame that Castaneda's books turned out to be, in large part, fiction gleaned from the experiences of others. The value of his word being the impetus of change remains, but the truth tellers, those who actually patiently practice what they preach, are few and far between...and thankfully, Robert Ryan is one of them.

His work is filled with the iconography of Buddhism, Hinduism, Shamanism, and more. It is done respectfully, and with an incredible amount of care, insight and authenticity. Having met Krishna practitioners early in his life and later on becoming a formal student of the religion, Robert Ryan has truly experienced, and is devoted to, the art forms and philosophies he tattoos. His pieces resonate with honesty and love, because the intention behind each piece is fully founded on those concepts. The experiential knowledge he holds within, and in turn gives to the world, is a momentous and vastly meaningful gift. His work is, quite literally, shared enlightenment.

What were you like as a kid? Did you always know you would be an artist? Do you remember the first time you ever created anything?

I didn't have brothers and sisters so I had to entertain myself, I think this sparked my creativity. I can't remember creating anything specific but I do remember relying on my imagination a lot when I was a kid and definitely obsessing over things like Egypt, Martial Arts, Native American Indians, and ghost stories. When I got a little older I developed a close circle of friends and with them I started doing more outward expressive things like BMX, surfing, skating and music.

Although your style definitely has roots in traditional tattooing, your distinct voice is clear. How did you develop your style? 

I use the traditional tattoo format to make tattoos that aren't currently of the Traditional American songbook. I'm definitely not the first to do it. I was lucky enough to be exposed to Devita, Hardy and Higgs before I even started tattooing and they were masters of this.

Through the limitations of equipment and development of traditional American tattooing tattooers had to make their work impactful and resonate. This brought about the iconic look of what we do. I spent a lot more time studying this than a lot of other areas of tattooing that many get bogged down with. I'm just trying to get as much power as I can out of the symbols.

The esoteric influences, the Hindu and Buddhist icons, the shamanic concepts, can all be seen in your work. What artists, books, films, etc, have you researched or have inspired your creations?

I love the work of Ernst Fuchs, Leonora Carrington, Dali, Brion Gysin, Miro, Jodorowsky, Paul Laffoley, Gaudi, BG Sharma, Robert Beer, Pablo Amaringo, etc. I'm influenced by so much of other people's work but concerning the esoteric work, especially the Eastern spiritual traditions and Amazonian shamanism, that is through direct experience. The only way for me to truly express a lot of that is by actually experiencing it. Not as a tourist but as a friend, aspirant, lover, and devotee.

What brought you to be interested in deep spiritualism and self improvement? Was there a specific moment when you decided to embrace these philosophies? What advice would you give to those who wish to follow a more spiritual path?

I was blessed to have met Krishna devotees when I was 16. I spent a lot of times at temples and learning some of the philosophy but I was too young and distracted to take it seriously. It seemed really familiar to me though it was directly opposite to all I was being taught in school or by my parents. Though I wasn't practicing I stayed with a lot of teaching and tenets of vedantic philosophy and about 25 years after my initial introduction to Krishna Consciousness I was being initiated at a mountain top temple called Palani through a lineage traced to the most intense practitioners of a very, very secret path of meditation, mantra, medicine and ritual who are called Siddhas.

To answer the second part of your question my advice would be take it very slowly and carefully. There is tons of bullshit out there; a treacherous new age landscape of frauds who promise you enlightenment because they teach you to stand on your head and wear puffy pants and give you initiation after a furnished weekend retreats. If something resonates with you approach it respectfully. If Christianity, Islam, Kabbalah, Freemasonry, Tarot or Buddhism, always realize this is a gift. It's a schematic, it is a roadmap to get you to your destination. We still have to do the work, we have to choose the goal, and we have to maintain the focus and determination so we can reach it . Never forget it is always your own unique personal experience and every single person deserves this chance at self realization which really means inner peace and true happiness. You are equipped and worthy and if you feel the call don't let anyone stand in the way, especially our own minds which will try to talk you out of it at every step.

You’ve been very open about your use of medicinal psychedelic herbs and medicines such as Ayahuasca. What have your experiences taught you? Why is this an important part of your life, and how do you feel about the interest and popularity Ayahuasca is gaining?

Ayahuasca is a powerful soul. She is embodied in the body of a plant and when prepared and served properly and approached with humility can teach you everything from the geometric constructs of the universe to why you just can't be honest with yourself. You experience the teaching in ceremony. It's a direct transmission or in contemporary terms a "download", much different from reading or studying . It's an alchemical experience, it's intense, it's hard physically and it makes you confront the most suppressed and ignored layers of your life. Ayahuasca can heal that in you, it can clean it from the soul. It teaches you forgiveness of others and most importantly yourself. I have been working with this plant, and other plants related to her, for the last 10 years and it has been a major influence on all aspects of my life.

As far as its popularity is concerned, I feel the same way about yoga or vegetarianism becoming popular. As it grows the more people that are touched by this medicine the better the potential for peace, and healing can manifest. It's becoming popular because people need it . So I see it as mostly positive. That being said of course, like all things that are pure, people have corrupted its flow. Like a polluted river, Ayahuasca tourism, witchcraft, greed and irresponsible weekend "shamans" have poisoned many people. Yet the river still flows, you just need to get closer to the source. Hollywoods attempts to approach it are hilariously trite and lazy and will fade soon and people will eventually realize its nearly impossible to make a really good documentary about it because almost all of them are horrible.

Because your work is so philosophically charged, I’d love to hear what you believe is your own personal philosophy on art and tattooing. Do you see your work as a catalyst for change on a metaphysical level? What do you hope to achieve through your inspiring transparency and devotion to the various art forms you work in?

As a tattooer it is my duty to give people what they want and to serve the needs of the client in the best and most responsible manner. If someone is inspired philosophically by what I'm doing that's great, I'm honored to share anything I have plucked from the visual garden of eden which are the sacred teachings of mankind. If not, that is also fine by me. Tattooing is sacred enough of a practice that the image is secondary to the experience in a lot of ways. It's like music. The best live musical experiences for me is when the performer realized the importance of each individual listener who made up the entirety of the experience. When the song is woven as opposed to broadcasted. I feel the same about visual art. It has been said the characteristics of an object are presented differently, depending on the various states of mind of the observer.

Buddhist swastikas are becoming more prevalent in tattooing, as well as art in general. How do you handle misunderstandings between people, and how do you explain this icon to others who may not know its origin? Is it an important symbol to reclaim?

Symbol Illiteracy should be confronted, corrected, and discussed as much as humanly possible. The swastika is the perfect example of the hijacking of a sacred technology. The Sanskrit term Svasti, the root of the term swastika, means auspiciousness. It has been used for thousands of years before a mad man tried to drain power out of it in a meth fueled genocidal global rampage. He doesn't deserve it! His followers who still continue to bastardize it don't deserve it ! Humanity needs to reclaim it and make a very distinct point out of taking it back. By doing so you are stripping evil of its greatest defense, Fear. Sinister forces use symbols for oppression. Corporations use them to commodify. We use them for expression and realization. Everyone should be made aware of the differences.

Your book, The Inborn Absolute, is a gorgeous publication that displays your passions and talents beautifully. What was it like working on this project? Why did you choose to interview the likes of Freddy Corbin and Genesis P-Orridge? What did you think of Genesis’ Altar Everything exhibit at the Rubin Museum?

Thank You so much! It really was the efforts of Tim Kinsella and Ben Fasman and the team at Featherproof who made it so cool. They were fully committed to making a nice looking book and really went above and beyond, especially considering how hard they work on all their personal projects they spent a ton of time, effort and money to make it so nice. As far as the interviews, Freddy was a no brainer because he's one of my favorite tattooers and people. Freddy and Temple have been such an inspiration to me. He's brilliant and, as far as I know, doesn't have a cynical bone in his body. So I know I wanted to have him. Then Tim asked me to figure out someone who was outside the tattoo world and I immediately blurted out "Genesis" I didn't know why. I had never met her. I had a very peripheral concept of her art and music but my friend Ryan Martin is her assistant, manager and dear friend. I knew of anyone I could talk with she would be the one that would have no fear, no agenda, and confidence in the subject matter of the paintings, mainly of the deities.

So I asked Ryan, he said he thought it was a great idea and Gen agreed. 3 weeks later we were in her living room. I didn't want it to be an interview ,more of a reaction to what I was making. For all I knew she would have hated them and torn them to pieces. Which would have also been fine but she really liked them and the paintings just served as sparks to fuel the towering inferno of magic that is her life which she can articulate beautifully.

Her art show at the Rubin was super cool; it's one of my favorite museums. I was so honored that they turned the painting I made of Genesis and Lady Jayne into a giant rug. I loved how she he had people bring offerings to the museum! A friend of mine brought offering made from a cloth that was used for Michelle Obama’s inaugural dress. How amazing is that?

What is your absolute favorite place you’ve ever traveled and why? How does travel inform your life and artwork?

Varanasi India, the oldest living city in the world. The heart of Indian Spirituality, The City of Lord Shiva, also called Benares or by its original name, Kashi. Mark Twain once said "Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks. Twice as old as all of them put together." It's the most powerful. Traveling is one of my biggest artistic inspirations.

What will 2018 bring for you? Any events, collabs, or travel plans you’re looking forward to?

Right now I'm getting ready for a very cool group show in San Francisco in May at The Gael Gallery curated by Trevor Lee Ewald called 4, with Mary Joy Scott, Chris Detmer and Teide. I'm in the process of working on another book, this time with Andrew Fingerhut from Raking Light Projects. This summer I have the honor to be a part of Vices Tattoo Age Season 2 which will be on Viceland airing in July. So a lot of stuff is happening and there's a bunch more on the horizon so I'm trying to stay focused and enjoy each opportunity. Thank you.

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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