Here’s what it’s like to get a mystery tattoo from a celebrity tattoo artist
Famed New York–based tattoo artist Scott Campbell is known for three things: his tattoos (obviously); his celebrity clientele (he’s inked such stars as Sting, Orlando Bloom and Robert Downey Jr.); and Whole Glory, his occasional experiment-slash-art installation, where he tattoos the forearms of complete strangers through a hole in the wall. He can give you whatever tattoo he wants—and you have no idea what it looks like until it’s branded onto your body forever.
Campbell recently visited Toronto to launch his collaboration with Hennessy—a limited-edition bottle that he designed—by inking a few tattoos at Hermann and Audrey on Ossington. I was one of his victims. His visit wasn’t quite Whole Glory: I had the opportunity to consult with Campbell on a design in advance, choose my tattoo placement and watch the work being done. (I’m not the first media type to receive a slightly modified Whole Glory: earlier in 2016, when Vogue writer Kristin Anderson was tattooed by Campbell in L.A., he was told that her arm was connected to a journalist.)
But when it came time to provide Campbell with a tattoo idea or design, I mostly opted out. When he contacted me ahead of our meeting to ask if I had anything in mind, I left it entirely up to him, Whole Glory–style. (Well, almost. I gave him the only stipulation that I probably would’ve whispered through the hole in the wall: no skulls, please.)
At Hermann and Audrey, Campbell was seated across from me rather than behind a wall, and we could talk to each other. But I still didn’t know what he was going to tattoo on my arm. For Whole Glory, Campbell prepares a book of designs he plans to use, but often scraps them once he sees the arm of his willing subject. He had drawn up a design for me the night before, and finished it off the morning of our appointment. When offered the chance to see the design he’d prepped in advance, I declined (and tried my hardest not to peek as he printed it out as a stencil).
Campbell, who has been tattooing since his early 20s and currently works out of Saved Studio in Brooklyn, conceived of Whole Glory out of a longing for some untethered, spontaneous expression: he’s also a painter and, though his tattoo clients give him plenty of free rein, he doesn’t often get to do work that’s completely free of creative limitations (which made me feel kind of bad about that “no skulls” thing).
About halfway through the tattoo (it took an hour total), I began to get the sense that my new ink was going to be much, much larger than I’d expected. Campbell was using up what was beginning to feel like all of my upper arm. My confidence in Campbell’s artistry gave way to a bit of anxiety. What if I didn’t like it? Would I be able to hide it from Campbell?
Finally, it came time for the big reveal. Campbell gave my arm a few wipes to remove any excess ink, then I took a look. Here’s what I saw (and what I looked like while I was seeing it):
It’s an abstract design, so I asked Campbell if it had any particular meaning. Campbell pointed to the small asterisk-like burst at the base of the tattoo, and explained that, when he was just starting out as a tattoo artist, he’d add one of these to his designs to indicate that it was something “fancy.” Over the years, he’s come to associate the little spark with positivity or inspiration—the kind you might have as a writer, for instance. The spark on the tattoo grows upwards and reaches outwards, just as a good idea, thought or action (or, really, a bad one) has the potential to do.
So this intricate design stuck to my arm is, essentially, a permanent reminder to be mindful of what I do, because I never know how far it’ll reach. It’s a decent message, and one I’ll be happy to tote around for the rest of my life. It helps that it looks super cool.