Currently reading : Talking with tattooer Javier Betancourt
Tattooer Javier Betancourt recently came to Sang Bleu London to do a guest spot and we met up to speak about his work, the evolving state of the tattooer and the new zine that he is creating.
So you come from Miami?
Yeah, born and raised in Miami.
Why are you in London?
Well, I’ve been to London before, but this is my first time actually working in London. I wanted to come to Sang Bleu because I’ve been following them since I started tattooing and had never been to the studio. I’m a fan of a lot of the artists here, so I see it as a good opportunity to work with like-minded people.
What shop do you work at in Miami?
I have my own shop in Miami called Ocho Placas Tattoo Company. We’ve been there since 2001. I took over in 2009 when my mentor passed away and I’ve been running it ever since with my business partner, John Vale.
So why haven’t you left Miami?
I love Miami. Miami’s home. There’s no place quite like it.
Have you ever lived anywhere else in America?
J: No I haven’t but I’ve travelled enough for work that the urge to move away is satisfied by travelling and guesting. I just pick up and go whenever I feel a little cooped up.
Where are some of your favourite places to tattoo?
I love New York.
Where do you work when you’re in New York?
J: I was guesting at DareDevil on the Lower East Side and then when my best friend-practically my brother, Jason June- went to Three Kings, I followed him there. He’s at Kings Avenue now, but yeah, that’s how I met some of my favourite tattooers, like Tamara Santibañez and Daniel Albrigo.
So who are your favourite tattooers at the moment?
Anywhere, broad question…
Yeah, it’s a very broad question.
You probably have someone that came to mind first.
Yeah, my favourite tattooer right now is probably Regino Gonzales. He’s out of New York and works at Invisible. He can pretty much handle anything that’s thrown at him and execute it perfectly. I admire that.
Do you think being incredibly skillful as a tattooer is very important?
Depends what you are looking for. I find that some tattooers, as far as design goes, could be almost naïve in the way that they approach things, like the hand-poke stuff. We’ll all look at it like, that’s an incredible tattoo, that looks so cool, but technically it’s fucking wrong. So I dunno, it really depends on the style because some just look better when they are a little rough because they have more character, more personality. The other side of that, like what I can’t take myself away from, is the technical application. I have to pay attention to my lines. I can’t get loose. I’m a little rigid when it comes to my work.
How long have you been tattooing for?
Since 2006, so going on ten years.
And you’re still enjoying it after all that time?
Yes, it comes in waves. There are times when I’m highly motivated and into tattooing and I’m trying to push the next thing for me, trying to come up with something new and something fresh. Then there are times when I just want to sit on my couch, or like right now, I’ve taken a month off from working at my shop and jumped back into photography, and I’m trying different outlets to grow and express myself artistically outside of tattooing.
How important do you think it is for tattooists to do that? Because I feel like a lot of tattooists get very stagnant and bitter because they don’t ever push themselves out of their comfort zone.
Everybody needs to do something to unwind and take their minds off things If you do something every fucking day, you’re gonna burn yourself out, so be healthy if you want to have longevity in this industry. This shit will take a toll on you, physically and psychologically. You need to do something to take your mind off the day-to-day.
Can you give me some examples of other tattooists who you think are doing stuff outside of tattooing that you think are interesting?
One of my biggest inspirations in my career is Scott Campbell. He’s somebody who has done everything. He’s an incredibly sound technical tattooer and then his ventures into the fine art world, fashion collaborations with Marc Jacobs on numerous projects, his earlier graphic design projects-he’s just somebody I admire. Maxime’s another one. It’s a different side of tattooing. He’s always doing something. A lot of tattooists want to be a famous tattooer, an Instagram-famous tattooer but it’s not about that. It’s about creating a legacy for yourself. What are you giving back to tattooing? Maxime is very progressive in the sense that he’s developed a look and feel for his brand that makes his work stand out far from the rest.
Do you think the role of the tattooer is changing, I kind of feel like it is, like creating your own really great flash isn’t enough anymore.
People like Tamara or Will Sheldon, people who are really grasping and using their skills in a much more dynamic way, which maybe the tattoo world isn’t so used to. I mean the tattoo world is such a bitchy place, it really looks down, because there are so many tattooers now that people really have to evolve outside of it.
Absolutely, the world of the tattooer has grown so much because in this industry you touch so many levels of life, from the lowest street kid coming in wanting some punk tattoo to make them look tough, to the highest levels of society. You never know who you’re gonna meet. The opportunities will just come to you, you could do anything with this; travel and do anything you want to in this industry. It’s incredible.
When did you decide you wanted to travel?
When I first started seeing certain tattooers coming out of Europe, crossing over into the art world, it started opening up my eyes. The first issues I saw of Sang Bleu opened up my eyes to a lot of possibilities. I saw the contributors, the variety of work that went into the publication, from tattooers to photographers. One of my favourite photographers, Ellen Von Unwerth, had that spread in the last issue, so that was a huge inspiration for me. There’s a playfulness to the aesthetic that I like to work off of. It’s probably around that time that I started seeing that everyone’s kind of connected and that I would love to be part of that world and explore those outlets and really indulge in it and see where it would take me.
Let’s talk about the zine that you’re making at the moment?
The zine is a vanity project where I started to think about curating things through my lens, really focusing on a certain aesthetic that I want everything that I touch to have. It started off as a tattoo thing. I started reaching out to tattooers that I admire and asking them to collaborate. Once I started doing that, I started picking Tamara’s brain and Daniel [Albrigo]’s brain. We sat down and did some interviews, took some photos, and then started looking for contributors. Then at one point during the layout process the project just kind of took a turn and I realized that I didn’t want the focus to be on tattooing. I wanted to branch out and explore other things that I find visually interesting, like fetish culture, or erotic photography. With either of those things, you tend to find people that are a little older and their age has allowed them to become more comfortable with their sexuality. The kind of characters I hope to portray possess that self-assuredness but have the luxury of youth. They are wise beyond their years and subsequently have the best of both worlds. However, they’re loners and with this project I am trying to frame that deliberate emotional disconnection in a romantic light because what’s expected of someone who is emotionally disconnected is apathy and jadedness. However, this character believes in romance as a beautiful intangible. They’re fascinated by it but can’t engage in it.
How did you find these people?
Some of the earlier models were girls I tattooed and friends of mine, and they lent a very natural, organic quality to the photos that achieves the feeling of verité and voyeurism that I’m trying to convey. As the project has progressed, I’ve been reaching out to professional models via social media, mainly because they have the right stuff for the look and feel of THIS IS MEANT TO HURT YOU: young, cold, and beautiful. I’ve been working on a shoot out here that’s been going really well…
I’ve been working with this one model, Jordan Ebbitt. She has the look I’m going for. She’s both cold and magnetic and that creates the kind of intrigue that I can capture visually.
Has it been printed already?
No I’m going to print in October.
How big is it gonna be?
Approximately 2oo pages. It’s fun because I get to practice certain elements of design that I don’t get to do every day.
So how many are you gonna print? Where are you gonna sell them?
I plan on printing 500 copies that will be available for sale during the launch event and there are a few retailers that have expressed interest in carrying it.
Are you going to have a launch for them?
Yes, yes, I’m working on a launch show, a collaboration show in Miami. It’s going to coincide with Art Basel Miami. I’m actually renting out an entire motel. It’s ten units and each one is going to be set up as an art gallery.
Oh my god, that’s huge.
Yeah, it’s gonna be a lot of fun. It’s a lot of work right now, trying to get all the permitting and coordinating with all the contributing artists. We have Tamara Santibañez and Daniel Albrigo, the tattooers I mentioned earlier. I interviewed Jason Boyer who is a tattooer and plays in a band called Nerve City. Photographer and filmmaker Chase Lisbon is also contributing, as well as his girlfriend, photographer and model Hattie Watson, and my friend Jose Leyva who is contributing photo and video as well. Each one of my rooms are meant to represent the characters in the narrative of THIS IS MEANT TO HURT YOU. I chose a motel as the location because motels have so many implications, such as the need to escape, to shut oneself away from the world, to primal sexual urges, to loneliness, which is the last emotion that I want to convey. I’m going to set up a sleeping beauty installation where visitors will enter the last room and find a beautiful woman sleeping inside.
Why? What’s going on with that idea?
I want you to think about the type of person who would pay to watch a woman sleep.
Right okay, people are going to do that. Can you explain that a bit more?
Going back to what I said earlier about the romanticized emotional detachment, I want to establish tension between intimacy and isolation.
Where have you found this girl to sleep?
I have a few people in mind. It has to feel right.
How do you feel this project has affected your tattoo work?
It hasn’t affected my tattoo work but as the project has gained more attention on social media, I think that it’s changing the way I’m perceived by the tattoo community.
Do you think it’s actually affected the way you’re tattooing, or just how people are perceiving you?
I think it’s how people are perceiving me because I’ve always tried to keep myself invisible as a person and wanted my tattoo work to speak for itself. I never really talk about my personal life, and now this project might expose some part of my personality that had been private throughout my career.
But now you’re interested in humanising yourself?
Yes. I’m not very outspoken but I’ve found that photography is a comfortable medium of communication for me. So, yes, it’s a vanity project.
Vanity projects aren’t a bad thing…
It can sound self-indulgent but I want to see this grow. Although I plan on taking this project on the road and abroad, I’m acting locally and trying to solve the lack of a real subculture where I live. Miami is not like London where you have a niche for everything, where you can find anything here and a community for it and I want that. If I can make it my own and put my personal stamp on it, all the better.
How is the tattoo community back home reacting to what you’re doing?
The tattoo community in Miami is not tight-knit. There are a lot of shops but they are all very disconnected. I don’t know if it’s because Miami is a younger city than London, or New York for example and there hasn’t been enough time for the tattoo community to find its cohesive regional style. I’m not sure if the tattoo community will give a shit about what I’m doing, but hopefully the right people pay attention.