The year 2020 is an important landmark, as Aaron Bell celebrates 25 years of his career! In this interview though, the great American tattooist confesses that he feels as if he’s “still just getting started”. Perhaps this attitude of his is the secret that turned him into one of the most popular and sought after professionals on the West Coast – and beyond. Let’s get to know him a bit better in this interview where he talks to us about the eBook he came up with for Tattoo Life.
Hi Aaron, would you like to introduce yourself to our readers?
Hello, I am Aaron Bell, owner of Slave to the Needle Tattoo in Seattle WA. This year is the shop’s 25-year anniversary. Twenty-five years of professional tattooing has been an exciting journey, and in many ways, I feel that I’m still just getting started.
When did you start tattooing and how would you define your style?
I started tattooing in Southern California in 1984, after having discovered a passion for it through the hardcore punk rock scene. I finally received a professional apprenticeship after moving to Seattle in 1993. I love working with large compositions that fit the body well. I like magical and nature-based themes and find Japanese culture to be fertile ground to learn and draw from, as it has a rich history of tattooing and bizarre cultural mythology that really seems to resonate with me.
Has your style changed over time?
I started my professional career doing a lot of New School tattooing, the popular style at the time, and gradually gravitated to the Japanese style, especially after my first trip to Japan in 2002. The more I continued to learn; the more I realized I did not know. This thirst for growth and knowledge has continued to propel me in tattooing throughout the years.
Is it important for you to also paint and draw, besides tattooing?
For sure! There are two primary components to tattooing, at least for me: 1. Designing, researching/painting, composing, and prepping for the tattoo process, and 2. Actually doing the tattoo with confidence because I’ve properly prepared for the task. Part of the tattoo preparation process for me entails keeping a few sketchbooks on hand and filling them with rough concepts and thumbnail sketches. Also, just to break away from it all at times, I like to break out the oil paints. I try to not think about tattooing when I do this, but I can never seem to shake tattooing as a central theme or subject matter. There are times I find myself oil painting a subject for an upcoming tattoo appointment in order to get a feel for it.
What are your favourite subjects and techniques?
Although I’m quite fond of most Japanese themes, I’m particularly drawn to Dragons, Snakes, Skulls and other dark and fantastical subjects. I really enjoy exploring the shadow side of things through my art. I find myself drawn to archetypal imagery and Jungian psychology. I’m fascinated by the cross-cultural images throughout history that seem to permeate from our collective unconscious.
Many of the images in Japanese mythology have equivalents in other cultures, cultures that Japan had no contact with.
Anyways, this kind of stuff really excites me and keeps things interesting… the idea that there is some big mystery behind it all, and that clues to its existence are scattered throughout the art world, like serpents representing knowledge, and numerous religious deities as metaphors for mushrooms, etc. I realize that I may have lost some readers in the woods here, as these subjects are difficult to briefly touch on without sounding kind of nutty. But I love trying to tackle these themes through Japanese imagery with large loose and flowing compositions.
Where did the idea of this eBook come from?
Although I have a preference for paper and pencil, I find myself doing more and more prep work digitally, as this just saves time, so having reference material in that format is just super convenient. It seemed like this book could be valuable for many trying to compose Japanese themed pieces. I, and other artist from my shop, use it frequently, especially the maple leaves, cherry blossoms etc. For efficiency’s sake it just makes sense to stencil off those pages and paste them throughout the composition of sleeves, backpieces, and other large tattoos. It’s really useful to have a large body of line drawings, if nothing else but to serve as initial place holders when composing layouts.
What are your projects for the future?
I’m super honoured to have done some collaborative work with artists I admire lately. We’ve talked about flash projects, and perhaps a book. I don’t wanna mention any names right now because I don’t wanna curse it, but we’ll see what happens. I’ve also been working on a third volume of Japanese Designs and Sketches, an Americana Tattoo Sketchbook, and a full colour book of prints, paintings and illustrations that will span the last 30 years of my career.
Looking forward to all of these, and looking forward to making them available here on tattooeboooks.com. This is a great re for tattoo reference, as Miki has always had an eye for quality, and a great appreciation for the wonderful art of tattoo. He has done so much to support our culture over the years. Grateful to be here. Thank you all for your support.