Hypnagogic Hallucinations: Interview with Tattoo Artist Paul Booth

Hypnagogic Hallucinations: Interview with Tattoo Artist Paul Booth

In this interview with Paul Booth, he talks about his personal heroes, modern tattooing as well as how fine art and tattoos merge naturally.

Here you step into a sacred site...it is an ancient esoteric morgue merged with the body of an alien spaceship. The walls are bathed in the velvet glow of blood red light, rusted chains hang from the ceiling, and every cavity of the room is bursting with occult objects. This is the private studio of iconic tattoo artist Paul Booth

He’s collaborated with tattoo legends like Filip Leu, and contemporary masters of the craft like Yomico. He worked with HR Giger, brought Odd Nerdrum’s paintings to the US for the first time in five years in 2016, and he continually supports contemporary fine artists like Emil Melmouth, Alex Merritt, and Hannah Yata through exhibitions at sister exhibition spaces Last Rites Gallery and Booth Gallery

Being invited into the sanctuary of Paul Booth, watching him tattoo, and hearing him talk about the tattoo community of past decades was incredibly special. Pioneers of the industry, like Paul, supported the true eccentricity of the culture before it was watered down for the mainstream. Body modification was, then, a sign of true devotion and dedication to the underground...now it seems to be something that can be bought at a price without any real sacrifice. His authenticity and honest approach to his work attracts many...but only those ready to delve head first into alternate realities will ever truly understand it. 

I’d love if you could talk about how you got into tattooing and why you were interested in the body mod community?

Well, I did my first tattoo in ‘98 and I’ve always been kind of the rebellious type of person, so..there's a few things that got me into tattooing. One was getting a tattoo and realizing how cool it would be to make them and it was the ritualistic side of it that I loved. The smell of green soap...the whole pain...everything was intriguing. It really was about rebellion as well. Like when I got my head and part of my face tattooed, I got it to be rebellious...and nowadays it's a popular thing to do so now the little old ladies that I was looking to scare in the grocery store are coming up and patting my head! I’ve been outsmarted! I didn’t plan on that. So, that’s kind of my personal mentality when it comes to tattooing. I never did it to fit in. It was more about reassuring myself that I’m not “in”.

Does your tattooing have any ritualistic aspects to it?

I think absolutely tattooing has a ritualistic side to it but not in the sense of, ya know, sacrificing animals and such...but it is a ritual in itself. The whole idea of going to the tattoo shop, getting a new tattoo, you’re all excited, it’s a special day...getting nervous, sitting in the chair and enduring pain, it becomes its own ritual. Whatever the setting really. 

How do you feel about tattoo culture becoming so mainstream then? Do you feel like it’s going to lose some of its magic? Some of its depth?

My basic attitude is a bit of like...alright, it grows in popularity, more people pay attention to it, more people give it a serious look because it's everywhere you look...and what that’s gonna do is one of two things...one is it's going to invite in people that may possibly become a credit to the industry someday but, two, it’s also going to bring in a lot of riff raff because everyone wants to be a rock star and let's face it: the tattoo artist is the new age rock star. I think Gill Montie once told me the only people rock stars look up to are tattoo artists. 

I see it happening...I agree with you...no one gives a shit about the history. I know I sound like an old man, but there's a lot of things that could be learned from the old guys...and yeah, I’m speaking as an old guy, but still...I come from an age when I still had an interest in what the guys were doing before I came along. Guys like Greg Irons and such...doing just as innovative shit as people are doing now. But they’re forgotten. So that's a bummer...but that's not destroying the industry. That’s kind of normal with anything that spreads into mainstream. It’s going to get diluted. 

For me, if you want to make changes, you’ve got to educate the public because you’re not going to be able to rely on all the tattoo artists in the industry to look out for the industry. These days...everyone is more about themselves, and not really giving a shit about the impact their big name may be putting on things. So, I tend to feel a sense of responsibility...I don’t mean to sound like a snob but I love tattooing. But now I’m starting to hate the industry. Which is a bummer, because I’ve always stood behind it and always will. But it’s the art of tattooing that I have a passion for. And I’m tired of all the hype.

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How do you feel about the influence of Instagram on the industry? Do you think it’s changing things in a positive way?

I’m waiting to see tattoo artists show up at a convention in Nascar outfits, you know? With patches all over their arms of who sponsors them, and what Pro team they’re on...it’s like...lets just look at the art, you know? Let's explore that. The only reason why art is popular now is because it's required to make a name for yourself...and that’s what brings on the Instagram alterations that the public is not aware of. And it’s a shame. But it’s the public you gotta educate, so they can make their own decisions about what’s really going on. 

I’m tired of seeing artists that are obviously manipulating their photos that isn't really realistic, and that gives the public an impression that they think they can get that...when even the guy who did the tattoo, edited the tattoo, can’t do it. And now these people are expecting inhuman abilities. So, that part is disappointing. But a good seasoned eye knows what something is real or not. So at least the artists know what’s up. But I think it’s important that the public is educated to the reality of the situation. I hear of guys getting $5000 a day for a session, and I know his work. It’s going to fall out in a year or two..it’s falling out already. I don’t mean to sound judgemental, but it's the technical aspects of it. And I love art...it’s not about style...it’s about technique and the technical skills. And you can tell when artists are making sure it’s going to look good when it’s healed, you can tell when all they’re caring about is the photo on Instagram. And, whether you like my work or not, I’ll stand by my work. I believe in what I do, and how I do it, and why I do it. I’ve been in it for 32 years. But I’m about the craft, you know? I’m kind of huddled into my little space here in New York City, and I just want to make my art. Fuck all that other shit.

Did you open up the gallery in hopes of expanding upon the tattoo community? Like were you over it being so one dimensional?

Absolutely. I was about joining two worlds I found myself standing in. The contemporary surrealism world, I guess you’d call it….

Lowbrow, pop surrealism, there’s a million random genres out there these days. 

Exactly. And I’ve never been a genre guy. I originally opened a gallery because, rebel that I say I am, I got tired of being told I’m not an artist because I work on skin. And, believe it or not, there was a time it was like that. My move was like...okay, I’m going to open a gallery and try to bridge the gap and break the wall between the surrealism lowbrow movement and the tattoo movement and crossover each other...and bring them together, and try and let tattooing piggyback on the fine art so it could be classified as the same, just on skin. So that was my original intent with the gallery. Purely rebellious because I was tired of going into galleries and because I didn’t have thousand dollar shoes on I wasn’t taken seriously. I wanted to open a gallery that’s more like a family...and just chill. We have our own community, we’re quite happy here. Everyone here, from all walks of life, appreciates the aspects of dark art and things like that. So we all come together here in that sense. 

How do you choose artists for the gallery? Like Eric Lacombe, Miles Johnston...you’ve got so many great artists that you work with. 

Well, I’ve got a great team! They’ve got the ear to the ground, their finger on the pulse. And we try to introduce new talent when we find it...we’re always looking. We always look at submissions, but it’s also a matter of artists that we feel vibe with our program and who we feel represent what we’re trying to do, and we can represent what they’re trying to do. But my team is strong. A lot of it is them.

Do you find that you have a particular philosophy behind the gallery versus your tattoo art or does it all kind of merged?

I think at the root of it all it’s very similar, it's very much the same. I’m about creating an environment that is very unique and kind of...the science of it in a sense is for it to be dark and creepy, but warm and inviting at the same time. Almost like a level playing field as a way to appreciate dark art in general, sharing dark art in an environment that is conducive to it ...a more welcoming environment, I guess, So that people give the work a chance. Inviting new people into a world that they may not be familiar with. I enjoy being on street level for that...it’s very intriguing when people walk by and they want to see what’s going on.

I feel like it’s sort of incredible that the people who work with, the artists you work with, have often mentioned how kind and welcoming you are even though your space, your work can be darkly intimidating. The dichotomy between the artist themselves and the art that they make is often really disparate. 

Haha, don’t ruin my rep! Well...one of the reasons I ended up into punk rock when I was a teenager, I was like 14, a lot of the visual aspect of it...it was so angst, and rebellious and against the system and authority. And I was very much that angry teen...so I identified with it. But the visual aspect of it, the spiked mohawks, the whole attitude, I was also into...but I found that it was my filter. If you couldn’t get past my rough exterior then you weren’t worth my time. That was my general attitude since then, through my life, to this day. So if you can get past the exterior, and give what's inside a moment of your time then we’re good.

Can you talk about what were you like as a kid? Were you always interested in dark art?

My mother told me, when I was in my highchair, I always went for the black crayon. And that was my first pick every time...I know that when I was nine, maybe ten, I blacked out the windows to my room. My mom always supported my work. And that outlet was very important for me, because it was days of hell being in catholic school...but that’s a whole other interview. But...she was a big support for me, so art was always my go to. I won a national poster contest in the sixth grade, and it was a real big thing...you gotta see the pictures. It’s incredible. But it’s always been art. That’s how I got attention as an only child so I drew more pictures. And yeah...basically...by the time I got to tattooing I had already been an airbrush artist, painting murals on cars, hot rods and motorcycles. I was called the Mural Man in high school. So, when I got to tattooing, I implemented airbrush techniques and thoughts and I saw them….the amount of pressure you apply, how you wisp your hand around, the technical stuff. And hurtin’ people seemed kind of cool too. 

I think thats part of why people like this art form though...probably because it is the most visceral. You can feel art emotionally, but with tattooing you really need to be present. Is that kind of part of it for you too? Do you like getting tattooed?

Ha! I don’t enjoy the pain anymore. I want to do the other side of my head and face but...I keep talking about it for years now and still haven’t committed! 

When’s the last time you got a tattoo?

Oh, probably six years ago...something like that. I don’t know. I am really due. But the next one I want is my face...but it’s a weird thing I want, and I gotta find the right artist for it and all that. It’s kind of like...a topographical polygon map coordinate thing...but it’s all white. Not black. So it’ll be barely noticeable but it’s gonna suck getting it done. It’s going to hurt twice as much to see something half as much. 

How does it feel to have people trust you to mark their bodies for life?

I guess it's like anything, it's what you let it be. And if you're someone who doesn't have a conscience then I guess you wouldn't care, but I put a lot of pressure on myself to never forget that. I look at it like a responsibility. A tattoo artist needs to be responsible, and if you're doing stuff like I'm doing you're really transforming someone visually...you're a major role in that. You have to take it seriously. You owe it to that person, they've waited years to get in your chair, they respect your work enough to wear it on their face! The least you could do is give it 110%! I don’t ever let myself think otherwise...I remain as grateful as i can. I have a level of confidence because i know what I'm doing, so I'm not afraid to say no to something...but as much as i tease my clients for the pain they're in, or chuckle when they whimper, at the same time i always maintain a level of respect, because we're both aware of the amount of trust between us. Thats how I think. That’s my intent….

What was it like meeting H.R. Giger? 

I remember when I met him...he walked into this room of a convention we were working and we were both wearing all black, but my shirt had some red on it. He saw me, walked over, and picked up a red can of Coca Cola or something so that then we matched. It sounds simple, but that's how devoted he was to aesthetics. He paid attention to all the details, every single one. And I'm not a spiritual person...but I'm spiritual about art. He showed me how deep you can go, how dedicated you can really be. 

Do you have any advice for any artists out there?

I come from another age...so you’ll have to adapt my advice to today's ways I guess. But for me, you have to be fully committed because this is not just about art, it's also about the technical process, and it's about ethics too. And you're not going to learn that ordering a kit out of the back of a magazine, you know? Don’t forget that these people are devoting their skin to you...it should be a big deal. And..I don’t know...I don’t like to preach...so my advice would just be persevere. Travel if you can. Get tattooed by the people you look up to, and watch how they work and learn from it. There's no better way to learn than to get a tattoo. That’s also the time where you can trap the guy and ask him questions and bug him until he regrets tattooing you!

Do you have any projects you're working on that you want to share?

I'm reviving the art-fusion experiment...I have a possibility of speaking to some government officials about trying to make an art curriculum for younger students...that kind of thing. That's a charity driven project. I got lots of stuff going on...working on a screenplay for a short horror film, getting ready to start pitching it. Doing some cool tattoo projects. Painting again! I wasn't painting for awhile...we have a painting night here every Thursday night and I'm feeling inspired. I'm having a good time right now. Working with all these younger artists keeps me alive. It's inspiring for all of us. 

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