He's documented his rise from an under-the-radar tattooer to megastar with all of the art and team members that have been a part of that journey in his new book out today, Bang Bang: My Life in Ink — a must-have for anyone that loves tattoos, or anyone who just likes looking at visually stunning images. We caught up with Bang Bang at his Broome Street tattoo shop earlier this week where he was celebrating the book's launch to talk about what made it in and how he could possibly choose the craziest moment in his career — so far, anyway.
What made you decide to do a book, and why now?
There was a time in my career, about a year and a half or two years ago, when I was thinking about opening [the Bang Bang tattoo shop], and I was working on building my team, training people. We wanted to open a place that was different from every other tattoo parlor, so it took a long time to craft it and get it ready. And during that time, I had some free time, so I thought, "Let me reach out and see if I can do a book."
I literally cold-called HarperCollins, like, "Hey, I'm Bang Bang, I have this kind of career and this kind of life, and I'm interested in writing a book." That phone call got me an e-mail, that e-mail got me a meeting, that meeting got me a book deal. Before I knew it, we were writing the book all day, every day.
With all of your incredible art throughout your career, it must have been really hard to choose what to put in the book. How did you go about deciding?
Picking the tattoos was really difficult, especially because so many of them have been so dear to me throughout my whole career. I've had such a long career and I've done hundreds of thousands of tattoos and photographed so many of them, so it was very difficult to choose what went in. But I obviously had help from my managers and my editors — we were trying to think of what ones defined each style [I have]. It's mostly, at least later in the book, more of my recent work. I tried to have a few sections where I showed multiples of styles I really love or do really often. There are also ones in there by my team, because I always tell people Bang Bang is not me, it's my team. I can't do this by myself.
I always tell people Bang Bang is not me, it's my team. I can't do this by myself.
When it comes to running the shop, how do you find the balance between running a business and being an artist?
I do one at a time. When I'm being an artist, everyone knows to leave me alone, that other issues have to wait. My art needs my full attention and I can't come out of my flow to answer questions about how we're going to respond to an e-mail where someone's pitching us a TV show. I spend two days a week doing that [business side of the] job, and I spend four days a week doing [the art side of the] job. And I'm also a dad, so I have three full-time jobs. That's a lot to juggle! But it's what I signed up for. It's who I want to be.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a tattoo artist, and how did you go about getting started?
I didn't know I wanted to be a tattoo artist until I was [already] a tattoo artist. I wanted tattoos in high school but I couldn't really afford them, so I bought a tattoo kit and, being an artist, figured maybe I could do some simple things — tattoo my friends, tattoo myself — and I did that. And I never stopped. I loved it. I really fell for the medium. I tried every medium I could think of, but never had the passion to really pursue it until this. Tattooing is such a challenge because there are so many variables. It's absolutely impossible to tattoo well [laughs]. Even when the world thinks you're great at it, you're not. As an artist, I'm my biggest critic.
So when you do something that the whole world thinks is amazing, are you still looking at it and seeing ways you could be improving?
Absolutely, every time. That's why I'm able to get better at tattooing and keep improving. I always say that as long as I can do my best tattoos, I'll continue to tattoo. And so to this day, I still do the best work I've ever done. I'm very critical and I compete with my expectations of myself, which are higher than anyone else's expectations of myself.
How did you go from under-the-radar to inking celebrities?
I met Rihanna early in my career, about three years in. She wasn't like a super-mega-pop star at the moment — she was just becoming one. We became friends, and she trusted my ability to design and tattoo. It's a vibe. We connected really well. And that relationship gave me other friends in that industry and in her circle.
Generally, I'm a really real person. I'm honest and up-front about who I am and I know myself, so I connect with people who are the same way. It doesn't matter what walk of life you're from — if we get along, we get along really well. So meeting her at that point in my career was the benchmark for the time in my life when people started to know my name and I started to get press, and I started to experience a different side of being a really well-known artist.
You've had a ton of crazy moments throughout your career. What jumps to mind as some of the very craziest, that people can read more about in the book?
There are so many — tattooing Justin Bieber on an airplane, touring with Katy Perry multiple times, tattooing Rihanna in the Dominican Republic, tattooing at LeBron James's house, Cara Delevingne at the Met Ball...there are all these moments that are just really such huge milestones in my career. And in those moments, I'm the most calm and confident, because I have a tattoo machine in my hand. It's what I do, and it's what I'm good at. It's when I'm done with those moments and I leave them and I come back to my real world, I think "Wow, that was amazing."