Late last January during men’s fashion week in Paris, Scott Campbell was busy painting the bodies of a bunch of models in the hallowed grounds of one of the city’s most prestigious museums for the autumn/winter 2016 show of menswear label Berluti.
It goes without saying that this was a far cry from the usual haunts of the Louisiana-born tattoo artist. His studio, Saved Tattoo, is in the hipster haven of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York, where scruffy beards, motorcycle jackets and worn-out Converse sneakers are the everyday uniform of its denizens.
Berluti, which since 1895 has been one of the most respected shoemakers in the industry, made its first foray into ready-to-wear five years ago. It Commissioned Campbell to contribute a few of his designs on a series of shoes, fine leather goods and apparel for the autumn/winter 2016 collection.
This, however, wasn’t the usual one-off collaboration between an artist and a luxury brand, something that’s become something of an industry cliché. Berluti has in fact been tattooing shoes since 2001, when it began to offer clients the option of customising their Venezia lace-ups, a signature model, with ink designs. Unlike faster processes such as laser etching, Berluti actually tattoos the leather, a painstakingly slow process that takes place in the company’s workshop in the northern Italian city of Ferrara.
It therefore made perfect sense for the brand, which is part of the LVMH group, to reach out to Campbell, one of the most respected tattoo artists in the world. From Josh Hartnett to Orlando Bloom and Helena Christensen, the list of his high-profile clients reads like a who’s who of showbiz and fashion A-listers.
Furthermore, as Campbell revealed during a post-show interview, this collection, for which he came up with a series of geometric and snakelike patterns, is only the beginning of a long term partnership: Campbell is now updating Berluti’s tattoo “recipe book”, adding new designs to its already-rich portfolio, starting with animal shapes. The affable Campbell, who’s one of the few tattoo artists to branch out into fine art, is thrilled with the results of the first iteration of the project, which he got to enjoy from his front-row perch at the show. “It was one of the most fun collaborations I’ve ever done,” he explains. “They were so respectful; there was never a moment when they expected me to accommodate their vision. They just gave me a place to begin and wherever that went, it went, so I feel it’s a lot stronger in the end because of that.
“At Berluti they have such an appreciation for materials; they really love leather,” Campbell adds. “They’re obsessed with the perfect texture, the perfect colour. Obviously for someone who’s been carving into skin for 20 years there’s a big parallel. It’s not just about what’s the easiest way to put the designs there. When I sent them designs, they came back a week later with 20 different ways of applying them to leather: branded, embroidered, printed … and then we chose which ones communicated the message the strongest.”
Although you’d think that drawing on a body is not the same as drawing on leather or a garment, Campbell says the process is not that different. “With tattoos you never have a flat surface; it’s never like drawing on a piece of paper; everything you do is a reaction to the curves of the body, and it’s the same thing with clothes,” he says. “It’s never a rectangle. When I draw things I always think about how it’s going to move and wrap around. It’s kind of a natural thing to put it on people’s clothes instead of their bodies.”
You can’t deny, however, that tattoos still have a sort of rebellious connotation, which makes one wonder if putting them on high-end clothes and shoes deprives them of their anti-establishment symbolism. “I think it’s less about rebellion and more about people taking control of their destiny,” says Campbell. “Getting tattooed is a way of saying that for all of life’s influences, for all the things that we don’t have control over, you can keep this tattoo and in one little symbolic way it will change who you are for the rest of your life.
“You may not be able to control whether or not this person is going to break your heart or whether you’re going to fall in love, but if you get this heart then for the rest of your life you’re a person who’s got this heart on his hand and that’s empowering in a way. I don’t think it’s rebellion but a matter of choosing who you want your identity to be and claiming it. We’re also at a moment in history when people are willing to accept that tattoos deserve the same kind of consideration that other artwork does.”
He’s definitely been instrumental in changing the perception of the tattoo on the art scene. Whole Glory, his most recent project, involved asking a series of random participants to be tattooed by the artist without seeing the design first. Campbell was hidden behind a screen and could only see his volunteers’ arms, which they stuck through a hole.
“Every day, 400 people showed up and they had to stop them because the fire department wouldn’t let people in,” reminisces Campbell. “It was out of control. When you hear the concept, you think I’m just back there, doing whatever I want on them and having fun, but the reality is that I took it so seriously, the trust that these people had in me.
“If you ask me for a tattoo and you come up with an idea, if it’s not amazing, it’s kind of your fault too,so I can say it was your idea. But with this one it was all me, so it put so much pressure on me. I wanted every person to pull their arms out and be so happy that they trusted me.
Afterwards, I hosted a dinner and invited every person I had tattooed and met them. When I was doing it, I had their arms and was tattooing them and even though I couldn’t see them, I couldn’t help but make up a story of who they were in my head, imagine who the person was so when I met them, it was like going to Disneyland and all the characters took off their masks. “I ended up doing 23 tattoos and every single one at one point during the dinner pulled me aside to say thanks because they ‘obviously got the best one’. It was so cute. Each person thought they got the best one.”
It’s a lot of trust to give one man, no matter how famous and respected he is in his field. But when you witness Campbell’s enthusiasm for the project, you understand why Berluti also gave him carte blanche for a collaboration that, at least on paper – or shall we say, leather – feels like a match made in heaven.
“I love tattooing; there’s a spontaneity and intimacy to tattooing because tattoos are for one person. If I tattoo you, it’s yours; it’s never going to be at Sotheby’s or Christie’s,” explains Campbell. “There’s something so pure and sincere about that and I love it, but it’s also very finite, so it’s satisfying to do work where I can take the symbols, the narratives and the superstitions of tattooing, but work them into things that resonate further and reach a larger audience.”
And this is definitely a different audience from his habitual clients:men who may not be keen on having their arms inked with snakes or dragons but who wouldn’t think twice of having one of their beautiful pairs of Berluti customised with a ferocious beast or a bird taking flight.