We talked creative process with Rihanna and Justin Bieber's fav tattoo artist.
We talked creative process with Rihanna and Justin Bieber's fav tattoo artist.
Text: William Defebaugh
At only thirty-two years old, tattoo legend Keith “Bang Bang” McCurdy has made a name for himself leaving a permanent mark on some of the most recognizable skin on the planet—including that of Miley Cyrus, Cara Delevingne, Katy Perry, LeBron James, and more. But before he was opening his doors for Kylie Jenner or being jettisoned off to ink Justin Bieber in Central America, Bang was a long way from stardom: a self-taught tattoo artist from Delaware who, when he moved to New York, never imagined any of this. Bang’s success story is, in many ways, the classic parable of the American dream.
“I just put my head down and made tattoos,” he tells me in the ultra chic basement of his newly opened store on Grand Street in New York City, of which he designed with his longtime creative director, Jesse McGowan. “I kept doing that and then everything else just came. But even as things came, I'm not distracted. I put my head down and I make tattoos. Or I put my head down and I manage, and I build.”
Aside from his work ethic, Bang’s attention to detail—down to the artists he employs—is a cornerstone of his expanding empire. Customer satisfaction is of paramount importance, so much so that when I make my own tattoo appointment with Bang for this story, upon seeing my references, he decides that one of his other artists is the right one for the job (Kristi Walls, and he was right—she executed the design perfectly). For someone whose trade is celebrity (and has, arguably, become one himself), ego is of little importance when it comes to the creation of art.
Below, I talked to the ink icon about his creative process, starting from the bottom, and that time he got a tattoo from Rihanna before the Health Department showed up.
V: Let’s start at the beginning. Why tattoos?
Bang Bang: Why not tattoos? You know, I was the kid who was always drawing on other kids and getting in trouble. I put temporary tattoos all over me like a lot of kids do, and then before I knew it, I wanted tattoos but couldn't afford them. I'm 32 now, when I was 18 the Internet was still a little bit new. You could buy things COD, they were sent to your house and one of the things I found that you could buy was a tattoo kit. Telling you that story, I have to add the disclaimer it's not the correct way to learn how to tattoo. In fact, I did a lot of dangerous things learning that way. But that's what I did, and man, once I started to tattoo I think it gave me a lot of confidence, and it also gave me a good direction as an artist. I was always very lazy. So I would start any drawing, and I would just never finish it. So all of my art, up until the point when I became a tattoo artist, was started uncompleted, incomplete. When I started to tattoo, you don't really have a choice because you're doing it for a person, and you have a stencil and a time limit and a pain limit. It was good for me. It put a structure in place for my art to progress. And I was good at it.
So it literally gave you permanence?
Yeah. It gave me something that I had full control over because in a lot of jobs, it's very much you're working with a lot of people. You're going to write this article, it's going to go to somebody. You don't have full control of things in life. When I tattoo, I do.
Do you work in any other mediums?
I build stores. Yeah. In fact, this is as much my art as my tattoos are. Every inch of this place was given as much care in design as anything we make. Although this space and brand are truly a collaborative effort and Jesse McGowan deserves much of the credit - in designing this studio we set out to inspire artists as well as clients. I think we succeeded.
When you sit down with someone, what is your first step creatively?
I like to ask what they want because I just want to see what they'll give me. And they're going to give me all their ideas really excited, and then they're going to forget a lot of things and be nervous. I want to get to the foundation of their idea, so a lot of times people will tell me exactly what they want, exactly how they want it. I say, okay, well why? Why do you want it like that? And often, people can't answer that question. They just think that's how it should be done. And so all right, cool, great, so we get to the foundation of the reason you want the subject matter, but there isn't a reason to why someone's chosen the way they want it designed, then I know they're open to me interpreting for them. And then people generally let me run. [There’s a] lot of question asking and then I try to steer them in the direction of a timeless, iconic tattoo. Does it have really strong visual impact immediately? Is it unique? Does it fit the person, their personality, their body and the shape, their anatomy? It's a bit of a bitch because we're constantly competing with our old works. You have to make better, newer, better idea or trying to outthink our younger selves, and all of our old works. So if I do a Buddha tattoo on you, I have to make the best one I ever made.
Did or do you ever feel the pressure of permanence when you're working on someone?
Not while I'm working on someone. While I'm tattooing, I feel like Michael Jordan with a basketball. I'm very confident tattooing. I know I'll make a great tattoo because that's what I do and there's not anything that's going to prevent me. So once I commit to starting, it's already done. I know everything that's going to happen. I'm very prepared when I tattoo. I feel pressure when I stop for a moment from all that I do and think about the impact of all the people that count on me to keep this thing going and growing and sustainable for every person that's a part of it. And advancing every person's life that comes into this thing. So as the group grows, it's everybody also progressing forward because that's how the dynamic stays healthy with everybody. I definitely have the world's eyes on the stuff we do and I don't want to disappoint anyone, including especially myself.
Part of why [Bang Bang] has become so successful, is you have brought in such an incredible roster of artist. Not just yourself, but every single person who's working upstairs is top level. How do you go about finding new artists and bringing people into the fold?
First thing we do is we spot someone's work. Is it unique? Their design ability, their ability to tattoo, as well as their ability to design tattoos uniquely, consistently, and constantly. And so we invite them often, and then we see how they are because that's really what's important. Because some people suck as people and they're great at their job. I fire people who suck. So we'd rather just not hire people. We have a vetting process that's, do I want to go camping with this person? And if they answer's yeah, then all right we'll probably hire them. I spend more time with this group of people than my family. So our experience in life is really important. My experience is most important to me and I want to be around people with good attitudes that want to work hard, that are happy with life. The person is as important as their tattooing. They do a therapeutic job for people. They have to have the right touch, and they have to have great style as a person too. It's hard to imagine it as a fashion brand, but it is, it's permanent fashion. So when you walk into a place that has parallels to fashion brands you expect people to dress well, present themselves well and so a lot of tattoo artists don't. There's a lot of tattoo artists in the world, there's only a few that work at Bang Bang Bang Bang.
What are some of the most memorable tattoos that you’ve done?
God, so many. The celebrity ones come to mind first just because they are such unexpected circumstances. I never imagined I'd be in LeBron James’s house tattooing in his basement, eating dinner with his family. You look up, and you look around, and it's my reality. I didn't think I'd tour with Katy Perry twice or fly to Panama to tattoo Justin Bieber. I thought he was talking about Panama, Florida. And then all of a sudden I'm in this jungle in Panama tattooing Justin Bieber. Rihanna in the Dominican Republic in the middle of the night, bugs flying everywhere. Bieber on an airplane. I tattooed in a helicopter once. Tattooed on top of the Empire State Building.
You know I also did tattoo parties in Philly where you had to bring a gun. You know what I'm saying? So I've seen it all. I went from the absolute bottom of the sewer of tattooing to this spot where I am now. I feel like I've seen it.
Very cool. And you did all of Bieber's?
All of Bieber's good tattoos I did. [Laughs]
And how did those designs come about? Was that the type of thing when he told what he wanted or he was like, go for it?
No, I send my clients several versions of things and again, it was many questions. So Justin had a lion, a bear, a cross, and a Son of God on his stomach and it was like, okay, what's the subject of this tattoo? There isn't one. The centerpiece is a cross and so these two animals surrounding it have to become almost like your spirit animals, you know? Oh, he also had a big eagle, so three animals. I didn’t want to put a jungle or a zoo on Justin Bieber's stomach. So this tattoo is religious in nature. I just put really light imagery over his whole front, even over all that stuff. If you look at it, it's not a cover up at all. That stuff still exists, it's just trying to put a filter on it and now it looks like a cohesive tattoo. I think we ended up okay.
What’s your favorite tattoo that you have on your own body?
My daughter's portrait.
That's beautiful. Do you know how many you have on your body or have you lost count?
No, I don't know. Couple of hundred hours, a hundred hours.
What trends do you see emerging in the tattoo industry?
It's tough because we set them often. So we change our shit so much because we don't want to be doing what other artists are doing. I'll give you an example. Three and a half or four years ago I did a double exposure tattoo of New York City on a woman's face. I watched tattoo artists make careers out of that style. And now, I wouldn't do it because people do that. That was a tattoo and now I feel like I can't do those tattoos anymore because to me it's like, all right, now people do that what can I do that people don't do?
Who would be your dream person to tattoo right now?
Gosh, I've answered that question so many times and then fulfilled it. The only person I haven't tattooed that's always been on the list is Obama. I don't know what he's waiting for. He's not president anymore and he needs a tattoo.
What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about tattooing?
I think that there are so many misconceptions and assumptions about people who get tattoos, and a lot of it is created I think by an industry that the majority of is wildly under regulated. Tattooing is a bit of a joke as far as regulations go nationally. There are zero federal regulations. There are state regulations, and the state cares as much as it cares. There's tattooing in bodegas in New York City. They sell pipes. I think the neglect to regulate tattooing restricts tattooing's ability to climb out of the sewer. Because then anybody can just do it, and you're part of it and you're influencing people's idea on it. I've tattooed in New York City for almost 14 years, and one time I've seen the health department come, and that's when I let Rihanna tattoo me and TMZ called the health department. And the health department came, and they got tattooed, and they were texting some of us: Hey, we're coming down. Make sure it's all square. And it's scary to me, so I just try to push the bar the other way. If there's a lot of people influencing an unrespectable view of tattooing, I'm trying to do the opposite, trying to be inclusive to people who want tattoos. We're not above tattooing of any kind. If you want a letter, and we can do that letter very well, we're going to do it very well. We understand this is a service that we do for people. We work in the service industry. We try to give people good service. Our clients changed our lives, all of us. I came a long way. And it's because people believe in what we do.
Photos via Bang Bang Tattoo