Jesse Smith :: Warped Perspective

by | May 12, 2010 | ART

JOHN: How did you get started? As far as art in general?
JESSE: I used to copy Garbage Pail Kids and skateboard designs out of thrasher magazine and pretty much my dad would ground me, he’d send me up to my room and I would just spend the whole time copying stuff.
JOHN: Really? What age was that?
JESSE: I got this sketchbook that I started when I was 12, so I’ve got pretty much artwork from 12 all the way to now.
JOHN: When did you start to go off on your own direction with art?
JESSE: I probably didn’t start really going in my own direction till I was 18 when I moved to Germany. That’s where I was first exposed to graffiti. It was everywhere. I would buy graffiti magazines and just copy all the graffiti stuff.

JOHN: How did you get started? As far as art in general?
JESSE: I used to copy Garbage Pail Kids and skateboard designs out of thrasher magazine and pretty much my dad would ground me, he’d send me up to my room and I would just spend the whole time copying stuff.
JOHN: Really? What age was that?
JESSE: I got this sketchbook that I started when I was 12, so I’ve got pretty much artwork from 12 all the way to now.
JOHN: When did you start to go off on your own direction with art?
JESSE: I probably didn’t start really going in my own direction till I was 18 when I moved to Germany. That’s where I was first exposed to graffiti. It was everywhere. I would buy graffiti magazines and just copy all the graffiti stuff.
JOHN: What do you think of the connection between graffiti and tattoo culture?
JESSE: I think one of the major connections between the two is that they are both relatively new artistic movements. Tattooing has definitely been around for a long time, but it wasn’t until recently that it has become more commonly accepted as a legitimate art form. Graffiti on the other hand is only about 30 years old.
JOHN: Do you think there is a certain rebellion to it?
JESSE: I never looked at it as a rebellion. I was just doing it because I really was into the way it looked. I would get people who weren’t into art to come out and paint with me. So, I would paint this really elaborate piece, at least elaborate for that particular point in time, it wasn’t really that big of a deal but then my buddies would go out and spray pictures of tits and dicks all around the piece.
JOHN: (laughs)
JESSE: It would take me a half hour to do this and then within that half hour my friends would run off and just hit everything, just tits and dicks all over the place.
JOHN: (laughs) So how long were you in Germany?
JESSE: I lived there for about 3 years. I graduated high school in ’95, spent a year tryin to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and eventually ended up joining the Army.
JOHN: Did you do much graffiti while you were in the Army?
JESSE: I still drew a ton, but didn’t do much painting because the repercussions were a lot more intense and I really didn’t want to get kicked out.
JOHN: I heard you used to draw caricatures, how did you get into that?
JESSE: While I was in the military I met this fella who was drawing caricatures at Busch Gardens. He suggested I try and get a job there. I honestly never really thought I was good enough of an artist to work there, but he assured me that I was more than qualified. To my surprise I ended up getting hired. They shoved me through an 8 hour course on how to draw caricatures and then threw me to the wolves.
JOHN: (laughs) I can’t imagine you drawing caricatures…
JESSE: I know right? So I’m sitting there wearing one of those little red, French hats and a blue striped shirt…
JOHN: This is great…
JESSE: …and I’m drawing my first caricature and IT LOOKED HORRIBLE!! It looked like that character Sloth from the Goonies. So I’m sitting there stuck behind this horrible sketch, super embarrassed, and this dude behind me says “Holy shit, that is awesome! Did you hafta go to school to learn how to do that?” I’m a pretty paranoid person so my first thought was that Busch Gardens had hired this guy to stand behind me and say these things to boost my confidence.
JOHN: You thought they planted him there just to boost your confidence??
JESSE: Yeah, that’s the way my brain works. Kinda crazy huh? So this happened randomly for maybe a week or two before I finally got somebody who was a bit more honest with me.
JOHN: Uh oh..
JESSE: So, just as I’m starting to gain a little confidence, this African dude asks me to draw his two little kids. So I started sketching. I was pretty happy with what I had sketched so far and then it came time to color. At this particular point in my artistic career I hadn’t drawn any black folks, so without putting much thought into it I scooped up the Black Prismacolor stick and started coloring. It didn’t take long before I realized that I had made a bad artistic decision, but at this point I was too far invested to start over. I started to hear the African guy muttering stuff under his breath behind me and he eventually said “What dee fuck eez dat! Dees don’t look like my keeds!”
JOHN: Oh… (laughs) so he was an actually African guy?
JESSE: Yeah. So he continues to yell out loud, “What dee fuck eez dees? They look like two burnt matches!” I’m pretty embarrassed at this point. So I try and redirect him to another artist. And he’s like “Fuck dees sheet! I’m not paying for dees sheet!” He scooped up his two kids, walked away angrily and I found my ego planted firmly back on the ground.

JOHN: So how did you end up getting into tattooing?
JESSE: While I was drawing caricatures at Busch Gardens, I ended up meeting this fella named Carlos who tattooed out of his house. I was really impressed by his ambition and spent a lot of time over there drawing and bullshitting about art. He eventually taught me how to make a ghetto gun and I ventured out to do my first tattoo.
JOHN: What was the gun made of?
JESSE: It consisted of a pink toothbrush that I had gotten from the dentist for free, a ballpoint pen, a Walkman motor, a sewing needle, some electrical tape, and the eraser from a pencil.
JOHN: That’s ghetto, man.
JESSE: Yeah, I had to go over every line 7 times to get even close to a line you would get with one pass using a professional tattoo machine.
JOHN: So what brought you to Richmond?
JOHN: Did you continue tattooing out of your house when you moved to Richmond?
JESSE: Yes. When I first moved to Richmond I didn’t know anyone to tattoo so I got a job delivering pizzas at Pizza Hut. I would always carry business cards with me and give them out to anyone I felt might be interested in getting tattooed. I eventually ended up building a pretty consistent group of gangstas that wanted cheap tattoos. I remember sitting there with five gangstas chillin out in my house with their guns layin on the table, watchin Belly and thinking “What the fuck am I doing? This is fucking retarded. I need to get into a shop before I get shot!” Getting into a legitimate shop was always a dream of mine, but I didn’t quite have the confidence in my work to actually approach one for a job. I eventually realized that I didn’t have much of choice. I didn’t want to continue working like this, so I tightened up my portfolio and went around to all the local shops to try and get a job.
JOHN: Which shop did you end up first working at?
JESSE: The first shop that I worked at was Thunder Arrow. They told me that they wanted to run me through a quick two week apprenticeship to make sure I really knew what I was doing. A week and a half later they fired me and told me I wasn’t good enough. My ego was pretty stunned, but I didn’t give up. I tattooed out of the house for another 6 months, tightened up my portfolio and eventually landed a full time job in Petersburg tattooing at a place called Altered Images.
JOHN: How long ago was that?
JESSE: It was about 11 years ago.

JOHN: So let’s talk about your style a little bit. I notice a lot of cartoon influence in it. Have you always been drawn to cartoony type work?
JESSE: I’ve always been really attracted to tweaked out cartoony type stuff. My early influences consisted mostly of Garbage Pail Kids and graffiti characters.
JOHN: Yeah I see that in your work quite a bit. Ah.. So what’s up with the squirrels and rabbits?
JESSE: About 4 years ago I tattooed a squirrel holding a bomb behind its back on this dude’s thigh. I had never drawn a squirrel before and really liked the cute/evil feel that they have. They look all cute and shit but they’re always up to no good. I soon started developing this little world of battling rodents, squirrels and rabbits seemed to dominate the scene.
JOHN: Nice. I love that stuff.
JESSE: So I’ve got all these characters battling one another in this little world that I’ve been developing, and as time goes on it gets more in-depth. The rabbits hate the squirrels, the squirrels hate the mice, and the mice hate the rabbits. It kinda creates this circle of chaos. It illustrates how in certain scenarios you’ll be the bully and in others you’ll be the victim, but every character plays every role eventually from another character’s perspective.
JOHN: Have you always been a strictly custom tattoo artist?

JESSE: Not at all. It wasn’t until about 2005 that I decided to only tattoo my stuff. Before that I did a lot of flash and reproductive work. I used to have two portfolios, one with all custom work and the other with portraits and more realistic stuff.
JOHN: Looking at your site today I can’t imagine you doing that type of work. What made you shift completely?
JESSE: I had always wanted to be a full custom artist, but didn’t really have the clientele to do so. Once I finally realized that I had enough clientele that was interested in my stuff specifically, I quit doing reproductive work.
JOHN: Do you find that when you are working with people on a tattoo it is like a collaboration? How is the process?
JESSE: Definitely. I always sit down with every client for a couple of hours to discuss their idea prior to booking their first appointment. During this time I’ll ask them questions like “What is it that you are trying to illustrate with your idea?” or “What does this tattoo mean to you?” I try to learn as much as I can about them and figure out ways that we can personalize their idea to suit them specifically. We toss a few ideas back and forth and eventually come up with something that we are both stoked about. So it’s definitely a collaboration.
JOHN: If someone were interested in getting tattooed by you, how would they go about doing so?
JESSE: As of right now I am no longer taking on any new clients. I try to keep my client base down to about 20-30 clients at a time. This allows me to give my current projects my full attention. I will continue tattooing these clients until they run out of skin or they get sick of my company.
JOHN: So how long is your waiting list then?
JESSE: I usually pick up a new client every 2-3 months, so if you’ve got a killer idea then your chances of getting in are pretty good.
JOHN: Ok, so let’s get to the use of color in tattoo, you have certain people that like black and white with good shading. I see those who like dull tones, and use muted tones in their work. Then I have seen very vibrant and colorful stuff which is something that drew me to your work. What is your feeling on color? And how has that changed for you over time?
JESSE: It’s changed immensely. Back when I used to draw skateboard designs everything was super vibrant. You remember that Sims Staab skateboard with the Parrot and Pirates??
JOHN: Very vibrant
JESSE: Super vibrant… that was back when Ocean Pacific was…
JOHN: Dude, I had Jams.. do you remember jams?
JESSE: Yes I had Jams… Skids? Do you remember Skids?
JOHN: Oh yeah, I had a Swatch and I had Jams and my mom has pictures of me in them and that’s the worst.
JESSE: [laughs] Remember Gotcha and Ocean Pacific? With bright green, the brightest chartreuse green you could find and then hot pink and all these really bright colors?
JOHN: I wish I could stop the world and put everyone in Jams for a day and go out. Just go in my car and ride down the block, listen to Miami Vice, and see everyone. It would be so awesome. I would be so in to that.
JESSE: [laughs] Skids dude….
JOHN: Where were we? …
JESSE: So colors!
JOHN: Yeah that’s right.
JESSE: So of course everything was bright back then, skateboards were bright, everything was kind of bright. I moved into the graffiti world from what I’ve seen doing murals and from other graffiti artists. So you are trying to use every technique you can to make that thing pop, using your darkest blacks, whitest whites, using your brightest colors, putting outer gels to pull it off the wall.
JOHN: How has using color changed for you over time in doing tattoos?
JESSE: Initially, when I was doing a lot of graffiti, my goal was to try and make the tattoos pop off the skin as much as possible. I really wanted people to think my tattoos were stickers.
As I’ve gotten older my goals have shifted. Now I try to create a cohesive composition with a unified color palette that works with and compliments the body.

JOHN: So now bring this all back to Richmond. Tell us a little bit about what studios you’ve worked at and which artists you feel have influenced you the most.
JESSE: After tattooing in Petersburg for a bit I eventually made my way back up to Richmond and landed a job at Enigma Studios (this was back in the latter part of 2000). It was there that I met one of my first major influences in the tattoo world, Greg Agner. He had a graffiti flare to his work that I really admired and was also one of the first people to tattoo me. I really owe him a lot of respect.
I soon moved on to Red Dragon, Southside, and had the privilege of working with Scott Calcaterra and Mr. Frank Mills, who never missed an opportunity to tell me how much of a parasite on the industry he thought I was. After working there for a bit I jumped on an opportunity to work at Red Dragon, Broad St. with Brandon Saunders and Jeff Eden. Both of these guys were very inspirational and super awesome artists.
In early 2001, I left Richmond for a couple of years to go work with Bug’s in London. When I returned to Richmond I found my way back to Enigma where I befriended Fred Pinkard, Katie Pinkard and Mike Moses.
JOHN: The Salvation Tattoo crew right?
JESSE: Yeah. Katie and I had gone to VCU together and she never missed an opportunity to flatten my ego when it got outta hand. Fred taught me a ton about machines, while Mike helped push my color theory to the next level. Fred and Katie eventually went on to open Salvation, where I ended up working for the next year.
I eventually left Salvation and made my way over to Tattoo 702 where I got schooled on the tradition of tattooing by Drew Manley. And that is where I met the lovely Thea Duskin.
Thea and her mother opened Ghostprint Gallery in November of 2007 and I’ve been working there ever since. Thea has helped me soften up my style a bit and has acted as a major influence in the direction that I am currently taking my art.
JOHN: What is your opinion of Richmond’s tattoo scene?
JESSE: I think Richmond has one of the best tattoo scenes in the world. I’ve tattooed in a lot of places and from what I can tell, Richmond has some of the best overall artists per capita.
JOHN: Aside from the people you have worked with, what other artists in Richmond do you think have made Richmond one of the best tattoo scenes in the world?
JESSE: All the fellas over at Absolute Art, Sean Harrington, Amy Black, Bexx, Matt Brodka, Heroes and Ghosts, Shorty, and Will Kirby. I’m sure there are a ton more that I’m missing, but it doesn’t mean that they are not good, I’ve just got a bad memory.

JOHN: How about artists outside of the tattoo scene that have influenced you? (i.e. graffiti artists, painters, etc. etc.)
JESSE: When I first moved to Richmond there was this graffiti crew called D.O.S. It was chalk full of super talented artists. I definitely gathered a lot of influence from them. James Callahan has always been an inspiration for me. Not only is he a killer artist but he’s also a really nice guy. My buddy Larry, who used to own this airbrush store called Fresh Air over at Cloverleaf Mall played a huge role in helping me develop a tolerable script style.
And lastly, VCU has influenced me immensely. I had the opportunity to work with some of the best illustrators in the world (Mr. Meganck, Sterling Hundley and George Pratt).

JOHN: So tell me a bit about these art nights you’ve got going on?
JESSE: Every Tuesday night at around 9ish I hold art night at Ghostprint Gallery. Currently art night mostly consists of just Bexx and I, but every once in awhile someone will drop by and keep us company. I would really love to get more artists involved. I miss working around a lot of artists and feeding off of everyone’s energy.
JOHN: So can anyone come?
JESSE: Yup! The more the merrier!
JOHN: Oh and I guess lastly, you know you are wearing… Ed…
JESSE: Yes, yes. An Ed Hardy hat. So I’ve never been an Ed Hardy fan as far as clothing is concerned. I always thought it was super ugly. And I dunno…
JOHN: It’s super flash…
JESSE: Super crazy ugly flash—there’s fucking fake diamonds on here, it’s so nasty….but if I wear this hat in public it’s the center of conversation.
JOHN: Oh absolutely. Like now.
JESSE: Ed Hardy as a tattoo artist that has influenced a lot of people and has done a lot.
JOHN: He just ended up going mainstream… that’s what happened.
JESSE: That’s what happened.
JOHN: It’s just so sweet [laughs]… I would wear that hat so much …
JESSE: Would you? It’s so fucking ugly!
JOHN: That’s what’s awesome about it!

Jesse Smith is a nationally respected tattoo artist working out Ghostprint Gallery. You can see more of his work at


R. Anthony Harris

R. Anthony Harris

I created Richmond, Virginia’s culture publication RVA Magazine and brought the first Richmond Mural Project to town. Designed the first brand for the Richmond’s First Fridays Artwalk and promoted the citywide “RVA” brand before the city adopted it as the official moniker. I threw a bunch of parties. Printed a lot of magazines. Met so many fantastic people in the process. Professional work:

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