Ladies dripping with pearls and drops of blood, gold filigree and encrusted with deaths ghostly glow; Christopher Conn Askew has made a name for himself by creating layered pieces that stun with their beauty and aesthetic complexity. In this interview with SekretCity, Chris speaks about his artistic background, his resolve to be resilient, the importance of feline fur babies, and more.
First, the question that everyone always asks but that we always want to know, how did you get into tattooing? Why was it something that you felt intrinsically drawn to?
I had been interested in tattoos from an early age from having seen them in person and movies as well. I started getting tattooed when I was 17 but it never occurred to me to take it up as a job until about 1988 when I first saw the Tattoo Time “Music And Sea” magazine. That totally changed the way I looked at tattoos. I thought your only option was to pick off the wall which I was happy doing, but when I saw the incredible breadth and scope of what Ed Hardy was turning out, and the bold vibrant tattooing that Bob Roberts was doing at the time, I thought to myself, "This is something I can see myself pursuing."
At that time I had had a lot of different jobs and had brief experiences with studying radio broadcasting and industrial electricity. Even though I had always been skilled in drawing I didn't go to art school so I didn't think anyone in the “real” art world would take me seriously, and I didn't really like hard work, nor did I have much passion for anything other than music, art, and drugs, so I really didn't see any future in the careers I was aware of at that time. Tattooing seemed like the perfect option: late hours, eccentric lifestyles, and a mysterious outsider vibe made it all very appealing. It wasn't until 1989 when I moved from So Cal to SF that i managed to jockey myself into position to get an apprenticeship with Henry Goldfield.
Your aesthetic has an incredible depth to it; you mix Japanese elements, Art Nouveau, and more, yet your voice is always very clear. How has your style, technique or choice of mediums developed over the years? What visuals and artists have influenced you the most?
Well, as far as technique, when I started painting I had been taught to water color in the flash painting style and as a kid most of my art was in pencil, so I just combined the only two things I knew how to do. Later, as I began to experiment more, I began to add other elements, like gouache, gold leaf, nail polish, and anything else thats laying around that looks useful.
As far as influences I could go on for hours about the wide array of artists whose work has inspired and guided me throughout the years, but certain artists, including Suehiro Maruo, Felix Lebisse, and Clovis Trouille have left obvious imprints in my style, as well as early 20th century propaganda art, grand guignol, militaria, old movie posters, alchemical illustrations and the work of many of the Symbolists.
You’ve become an icon within the tattoo industry, and in the fine art community as well. What does success mean to you? What was the best advice you received along the way?
As far as art is concerned success simply means a state where I can sell enough of my art to allow me to buy the stuff I need to make more art, and to feed the kittens of course. As far as life is concerned, being the person you're meant to be, in the place you're meant to be, doing what you're meant to be doing. Fulfilling your destiny to its fullest.
Best advice I ever received was to stick to your guns. Follow your vision even if no one else gets it, eventually they’ll catch up. Do things the way you think they ought to be done, not the way other people tell you, stay true to your aesthetic and ideals. Don’t compromise too much.
You’re also known for the secretive aspect of your work, which sort of mirrors the inclusivity of underground art scenes and tattoo communities. What about the secret or mysterious attracts you? How did you come up with the name “Sekret City”?
I’ve always loved mystery and secrecy; it’s so exciting and full of endless possibilities. A world without any mystery, with no secrets left would be terribly boring, right? I think that’s why I’ve always been attracted to the darker side of things. SekretCity is about the secret little world I carry around inside me, where all the paintings come from. It’s not always a nice world, but it’s mine.
Though you’ve experienced serious trauma, loss and illness, you continue to be incredibly inspiring, positive, and supportive. What advice do you have for others to continue living, working, and creating even in the face of extreme difficulty and adversity?
Well yes, the last few years in particular have been the hardest of my life. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s this: you have to make friends with pain. It’s never going to go away, so you need to learn to be thankful for your suffering. The more you evade it, the worse it gets, the pain, the fear. Embrace it, let it flow through you without resistance, like electricity. Savor it. It’s the fire that tempers your soul.
Music seems to be a huge part of your creative process, but I usually find that what I listen to while making work is way different than what I listen to when I’m stuck on a plane for 5 hours. What do you listen to in the studio, while tattooing, and while traveling? What artists do you wish more people knew and listened to?
Music is crucial not only to my creative process but to life as well. When I’m tattooing, it depends on the situation, the customer, the feeling at the time, but I usually tend to go more upbeat, punk rock or dancey electronic stuff, because it makes me work faster. When I’m painting, I tend to listen to darker, more melancholic music, sometimes more cinematic or atmospheric. Current 93, Death In June, Der Blutharsch, Novy Svet, Soft Moon, Drab Majesty, Shinjuku Thief, Spiritual Front, Muslimgauze, and of course my daughter’s band, Them Are Us Too, and SRSQ, which is the new solo project of her musical partner and best friend (and my “daughter” as well) Kennedy Ashlyn.
Not only do I love the work you put out, but I also seriously enjoy all the pictures you post of cats. I’d love to know all the things you love about your kitties, and cats in general!
Well, cats are a very important part of my life, they are the best antidepressants in the world. I have three cats, Michi, Lilly, and my fiancée Abby. We spend so much time playing and cuddling...it makes me happier than anything else. They are very strange cats, as you’d expect: Lilly, the dainty little grey Persian, also known as Mugwort, The Carpet Goblin, The Yeti, Swamp Thing, or Mothwülf, loves to wear a red silk scarf, is definitely Daddy’s girl, and has a more nihilistic viewpoint on life and the world around her. Michi is a spastic little calico who never stops purring and destroying and likes to be thrown into backflips in the air and going for walks while on Mommy’s shoulder. They both enjoy a good shaking and plenty of malt. If you want to witness their daily adventures, go to Lilly and Michi on insta. My third cat, Abby, loves Club Mate and cigarettes, sits like a cat, sleeps like the dead, asks way too many questions, and makes me laugh more than anyone else.
Are there any travel plans, projects, collabs, or anything else you’d like to share?
I always have way too many plans at any given time...I want to try everything! In addition to continuing to paint and tattoo, I’ve been writing horror and erotic stories. I’m interested in learning about printmaking and bookbinding, and plan on setting up a publishing company in a few years. I do plan on returning to the jewelry making at some point in the near future, and I’m very interested in working with certain people on music and film projects. I’m open to all kinds of things, and if there’s anyone out there with an interesting project, please drop me a line. I have toyed with interest in fashion, set design, and pretty much anything that lets me create and express myself. Abby and I have begun to collaborate a bit on some projects, and there will be more of that in the future. I definitely plan on traveling all over Europe in the next few years, and would LOVE to go back to Japan. The problem is, there’s just so many things I want to do, and so little time, especially for someone who spends most of his time chain smoking and staring at the walls, LOL...