Rex Morris, also known as FCKNRX, is an abstract contemporary tattoo artist whose work embraces the dark edges of the fringed underground. Through a progressive and poignant destruction of the tokensized tattoo industry, Rex is creating a visual language that resonates with those who do not find themselves represented through mainstream tattoo aesthetics, philosophies or archetypes. FCKNRX tattoos are meant to endow body-ownership and control in a world where we often have none. Like a controlled burn in the depths of a far reaching forest, this artwork compassionately destroys to make way for new.
First, what everyone always asks, how did you get into tattooing and why was it something you were drawn to?
I first found interest in Russian prison tattoos when I was a young teenager—maybe thirteen—and built a cassette player rotary based on a documentary I watched. Creating a system of identifying oneself through the marks they wear on their body, and going to such great lengths to create the tools to do it, it was such a powerful act for these men who felt they had no power in their lives. That resonated with me in a way I don’t think I realized at the time. In college, I was stuck in a very complicated abusive relationship which was closely tied to strong dysphoria. I lost all sense of myself and clung to my one repeatable skill which was, and maybe still is, making abstract art. It was the only way I felt I could understand and interpret what I was experiencing. During that time a friend offered to buy me needles, ink, and gloves in exchange for tattooing her, and I started tattooing myself and others. I was instantly taken by the adrenaline of making a permanent mark on my body, let alone someone else’s. The idea that we could be in control of how we experience our bodies on an individual basis really clicked in my head at that time. Over the next few years I learned how tattoo safely in a shop environment and how to work it back towards an abstract fine art practice.
It’s important to me that I’m able to empower that sense of control in other people by making work that they can connect with, and administer it to them in a way that’s personal and considerate. From a creative point of view, tattooing allows me to make artworks that speak to my own creative goals which are accessible to the people who will best understand them. As I’ve honed my voice and found a place in underground art, I’ve found myself working more and more with people who make work that speaks to me: visual artists, musicians, performers, designers, etc. Participating in that conversation—as opposed to trying to “make it” in the hyper-capitalistic fine art world—has been invaluable to maintaining a practice that I think has integrity. I am humbled every day by the trust that I’m granted in the relationships I have with the wearers of my work.
I love that I feel like if Anselm Keifer and Louise Bourgeois did tattoos, they’d look similar to your work! But who inspires you? What art movements or visuals, books or films capture the ethos you most connect with? How would you describe your aesthetic to someone who is blind?
Thank you! What an amazing compliment. Both of those artists are definitely inspirational visually. It’s hard for me to connect with fine arts pedagogy because the stakes and audience are so alien to me. Like I consider myself a maker of fine art but have no interest or ability to participate in the bourgeois fine art world. I think that I’m in conversation with it, though, by taking a conceptual approach to an art form that has a craft or low-brow character and cultural history, and which is inherently more ephemeral.
With that said, I’m informed by artists whose work has deep visual gravity and ironically often institutional scale. Michael Heizer is a big one; Richard Serra; Beuys’ felt installations; Ana Mendieta’s Silueta series; Antoni Tàpies; Agnes Martin. As a kid I spent a lot of time in the free Yale Art Gallery with more painterly and gestural works by Cy Twombly and Robert Motherwell. I liked being able to see the process and the artists’ hand, and share space with their decisions. I’m aesthetically influenced by a lot of northeast noise musicians and sound artists including my friends Tim Johnson and Suzanne Yeremyan, two artists who create heart-rending work in multiple media. The work of Bernd and Hilla Becher shares an honesty and ambivalence with biological taxonomy and museum cataloging that I try to evoke with the documentation of my work.
I’m sort of obsessed with sedimentary coastal rock formations as a visual language. Something about these ultra-complex systems of texture and form, existing for millennia without any preconception, is haunting and profound. Most of what I make outside of tattoo are sequences of prepared and carried out processes: combustion, decay, fungal growth, etc…depictions of entropy and the passage of time. In my tattoo work, I try and design systems of abstraction that mimic and simplify those processes and their assumed character into the binary form of black ink and flesh tone. I look for the balance between making imagery that appears organic and uninformed, and letting my work have a handmade character. I would describe my work as angular and bleak—cold and heavy and spare, like a low sawtooth wave or a dirty cement floor...a chunk of broken concrete with a rusty piece of rebar jutting out of it.
For me, your work seems very much about mental health awareness, transformation and reclamation. Can you talk about these aspects of your work, and perhaps some instances where people sought you out for that specifically?
Yeah, I feel very lucky that my work resonates with people in that way. A lot of contemporary underground tattooing is geared towards empowering the wearer in a more empathetic way than has been the case historically, which is one of the reasons it attracted me in the first place. I have two relationships with tattoos: one as a maker and one as a wearer. As a maker, I have creative and aesthetic goals for my work that may or may not be related to how the wearer experiences it. As a wearer, tattoos are deeply important to my sense of self determination and autonomy, and control over my performance of personhood. They are medicine for dysmorphia and dysphoria. In that way, I am always hoping to serve the same function for the people I tattoo. I never want to tell people how to view my work or the reasons they should wear it, but I allow space for them to come to their own conclusions and process it as something that’s deeply personal to them, whoever they may be. Many of the people I tattoo are trans, gender non-conforming, otherwise LGBT or gender-oppressed, victims of self-harm or institutional violence. I’ve done many scar coverups for self-inflicted trauma, some for trauma done by others, some for scarring related to gender-affirming surgery. Maybe most notably have been the scar blackouts I’ve done, where an individual wants to reclaim their scars, as a deliberate and constructive choice, by filling them in with black ink and wearing them as a piece of art.
There’s also this idea that your work, which is beautiful, it’s also really brutal. How do you view the dichotomy between what we’re told is beautiful, and what we actually feel is truly beautiful? How can people distance themselves from taught philosophies towards authentic realities?
I would agree that it is definitely brutal in that it’s not cute or comforting to look at, but it’s not my goal to make imagery that’s angry or scary or something like that. I think the brutality comes from a cold unfamiliarity—a feeling of consumption by an unknown force. I photograph my work in raw, harsh light so it looks gross and painful. It is gross and painful I guess, but there’s honesty in that. The honesty of liminal spaces—an abandoned shopping mall or a remote landform—is stirring in its disregard for the individual. It can be symbolic of obsoletion and disposal, the unsympathetic inertia of time, eons of existence without you or anyone. It forces us to be alone with ourselves and take stock of our narrow slice of time and space. I think there are things that are innately beautiful to us as humans in that they fire the synapses that our lizard brains interpret as being safe, exploitable, or nourishing. It’s important, I think, to challenge yourself and let yourself face those uncomfortable, lonely thoughts. There’s profound hope in remembering the universe has no interest in you.
More simply, in the current state of being constantly bombarded with dogmatic philosophies on how to exist socially and how to construct an identity for yourself, it can become harder and harder to decipher what you actually value. It’s dangerous to spend your time sorting through objects or experiences to decide whether or not they represent you. For me personally, it’s important to make time to be in nature and face its blank stare and remember that there were beautiful things before anyone decided that there were.
You’re very adamant about wanting tattooing to evolve beyond Traditional Americana. Why do you think people are so drawn to this specific style, and why do you think we should move beyond it?
I’m a notorious shit-talker of more “mainstream” styles of tattoo, but I think my feelings on this have evolved. I’m not against people doing or getting Am Trad tattoos, by any means. Some of my favorite tattoos I’ve ever seen have been old Paul Rogers pieces on circus performers, or Jack Dracula’s fucked up face tattoos. The stories they carry, and what they say about who the wearer was at the time—the rawness of expression—really transcend the content or look of the tattoo. Also, of course, there are people doing new and beautiful things in a style that is adapted from AmTrad (toothtaker comes to mind).
What I don’t like is when the visual style is sterilized in a way that trivializes any subversion it ever came to represent. It’s the same reason motorcycle jackets are cool, or old photographs of steelworkers building skyscrapers. They’re utilitarian icons of a version of American history that romanticizes and aestheticizes a white working class and military without having to actually address the enormous racialized class disparity and resultant atrocities. People want to access that feeling of object-permanence when everything wasn’t so disposable and hyper-stylized. The worst version of this to me is the trendy post-gentrification trad shops who do hundred-year-old flash designs on movie stars for 10000% of the original price and then make a whole extra paycheck merchandising their shop to tourists. Those are the same people who yell at my friends on the internet for not apprenticing, which of course half the guys they’re emulating never did. But also, we should put an end to tattoos of white-coded ”girl heads” wearing Nehiyaw war bonnets or stereotypical Romani garb, or any other bastardizations of colonized cultures by white people for other white people. It’s not cool or interesting or nostalgic whatsoever, it’s just racist. Of course, outside of that, do whatever you think is cool and don’t let anyone tell you what to like. There’s room for every style and they’re not in competition. Just please stop getting racist ass imagery on you forever, for the love of god.
Where do you think the future of tattooing is going? What aspects of this community do you think are most relevant, and most worth advocating for?
To me, ‘the tattoo community’ is a sort of amorphous category that includes many different cultures and subcultures existing within it, or that are defined by it. In the same way that graffiti writers and watercolor artists are not part of a shared ‘painting community’ but rather exist within communities defined by their relationship to painting. This may be an exaggeration, but it serves my point in describing the increasing distance between experiences within tattoos.
Historically, tattooing is split between being a medium of art and a service industry. For the last few decades, the trends in tattooing—and therefore the skill sets developed by tattooers—have been defined by the demand of the client base. As tattoos became more socially acceptable and the client base grew to include more “normal” people than who had previously gotten tattooed, you didn’t really have to know anything about tattoos, you could just go in and have something installed expertly. Being a good tattooer meant being able to do whatever custom work walked in the door, all day, every day and render it as accurately as possible. I think that’s taken kind of a weird trajectory where it lost a lot of the working-class, outsider attitude but continued a populist aesthetic, to the point where now you can get a hyper-realistic portrait of a comic book character for the price of a used car—and that’s considered by many the zenith of what can be done in the medium of tattoo.
To me, it feels like we’re on this sort of bleeding edge in the art form where there’s new room to subvert what has become mainstream, and the underground is really flourishing in response to that. There are exponentially more voices constantly creating and sharing new ideas, styles, and schools of thought, many of whom are self-taught and had to invent or discover every part of their practice. A lot of us are trying to establish that you can be a poor, marginalized, or otherwise outsider individual and own a piece of visionary art and use it to identify yourself.
Of course, constant social media exposure heightens that. It used to be that you had to make huge sacrifices to learn how to be a successful tattooer, and I think that’s coming back in a very good way, updated for the contemporary landscape. If you don’t have access to—or choose to opt out of—an apprenticeship or an art education, you have to make something damn good and original, and know how to market it well. You have to keep it underground in a world where everything is photographed and geotagged. You have to learn how to travel internationally. And of course you have to learn how to do it clean and affordable, in an environment that feels safe to already vulnerable people. It’s always funny when seasoned tat men yell at me online for “ruining peoples’ bodies” with what they think is “an eyesore” or “edgy bullshit”. Literally repeating verbatim the epithets that people have given tattoos before stock brokers wore them.
I’m excited to see tattooers and tattoo collectors continue to subvert, the way the best tattooing always has. I hope that the artists trying to push the medium forward and pouring everything they have into being good at it stop getting dismissed as scratchers for working independently, while toxic street shops get away with endangering their clients and exploiting their employees under the protection of licensure. I hope we can whittle away some of the copycats so we don’t have to wade through hundreds of the same tattoo online every day; and I hope more media publications and online curators start taking risks and supporting visionary work that they haven’t actually seen before. I hope we move away from extremely tired ”tattoo-cringe” content and public shaming of bad tattoos. More free machine, more abstraction, and more importantly, more industry support and visibility for BIPOC tattooers, clients, and movements.
Is there any sort of ritualistic or performance arts side to your tattoo practice?
I am very intrigued by tattoo as performance, and have done several in the past. I have others tentatively planned for the future as well, but it’s important for me that it says something that hasn’t been said yet, which takes time and careful planning to get right. I think my practice can be ritualistic; receiving a large piece of free-machine blackwork is a deeply intense and heightened experience, and I allow space for my clients to engage with it in any spiritual way they may choose. Personally I think that so many of the themes I deal with are about existing outside of human intention and simulating irregularity that my work is actually in contest with ritualism.
Any projects, travel plans, collabs, etc. coming up in 2019/2020 that you want to share? Any artists or studios you dream of working with?
I have a bunch of yet-unannounced travel coming up. Just got done working in Austin at Jack and Julia’s space and definitely hoping to go back there. I’m also headed to Baltimore in November to work with Sylvia. Working out dates with Bandit in Brooklyn for the end of this year. Also starting a residency in Boston with a few other sick New England tattooers who I love a lot, so I’ll be there more regularly. I have collab plans with my friend Briar Lake who I’ve collaborated with in the past. Focusing a lot on non-tattoo work including a design collaboration and a book project that are still in development.
There are tons of places I want to go work and lots of artists I want to meet and get work from! Michele Servadio is like the master of elevating tattoo into a fine arts and multimedia realm. Would love to do a needle-making workshop with Caro Ley. Inksist in Milan is doing really important things, run by some of my favorite tattooers. Also shout out to Studio Superficial, which many of my other favorite tattooers are involved with. Would love to guest at Pleasure in London. Ash and Ivory in Chicago, Tapestry in Toronto. Mostly I wanna work at underground spots, those tend to be my favorite travel experiences. There’s like too many sick places in the US to even list, but definitely plan to return to Somewhere and Spitball in Brooklyn in the future. Got freaks to visit in Denver and LA, and hopefully people stop getting shut down in Philly.