Interview and introduction by Durb Morrison
In a world filled with many amazing tattoo artists, there are certain artists that have really pushed the limits, taken it to the next level and brought an entirely new approach, look, feel and inspiration to the art form of tattooing. Nick Baxter is just that man. When one mentions the name Nick Baxter, they associate him as one of today’s living tattoo masters—on skin and on canvas—and they couldn’t be more correct. With his astounding abilities, he has definitely earned his mark within a community of artists looking to attain that look and feel to their own tattooing and artwork.
At 29 years old, Nick Baxter has worked nonstop over the last decade to bring the tattoo community unique visions and beautiful tattoos that create a sense of soft, organic and realistic emotion. His subtle color palette is one that defines his work, giving the viewer a sense of being able to reach out and touch the textured effects on the skin as well as on canvas. He is a man that is incredibly focused, educated and motivated. Over the years he’s produced a large body of original work, and more recently has started producing books and teaching seminars about his techniques and unique approaches to tattooing. Many of today’s tattoo artists study Nick’s vision and application as a way to draw inspiration for their own artwork. Nick is not only an influential tattoo artist, he is also an accomplished painter, showing his fine art around the world in many art galleries and tattoo studios. Nick exudes everything that the word “artist” embodies.
I recently had the pleasure to sit down with Nick while getting a large piece of Nick’s jaw dropping tattoos on myself, literally. Nick has been working on a large throat tattoo project on me, so I had the chance to really get an in depth look into his world, artistically and philosophically. Nick is not only inspirational with his artistic talents, but he is also inspirational with his words, which are as powerful as the images he creates.
Durb - So Nick, let’s start with where you were born and raised?
NB - I was born in New Haven and raised in Cheshire, Connecticut, USA
Durb - What got you interested in the art form of tattooing?
NB - At first, the social rebellion and unique artistic applications possible with the tattoo medium were what drew me in. The rebellion part has since faded and now it’s about the self-expression.
Durb - What does tattooing mean to you personally?
NB -The opportunity to make a good honest living doing something I love. The opportunity to explore my visions, explore the world, and express myself, to create meaning and beauty.
Durb - So you’ve been on the tattooing scene for a solid decade now. Where did you get your start?
NB - I started as an apprentice under Mark Savaikis, owner of Tattoo International in Wallingford, CT. I continued my beginner’s learning afterwards at Darkside Tattoo in East Haven CT. New Years day 2011 will be my 10 year anniversary! I’m pretty happy about that. It’s been a crazy ride!
Durb - Tattooing sure is one crazy ride with many opportunities, when did you get your first tattoo?
NB -A few months after turning 18, I jumped right into a sleeve project by getting almost my whole forearm done. In typical fashion, both sleeves are now laser-removal projects.
Durb - What styles do you prefer as well as other styles you draw inspiration from?
NB - I draw inspiration from anything that is done well, with artistic vision, honesty and passion. These are the same qualities I try to embody in anything I do myself, regardless of “style.”
Durb - I’ve noticed over the years that your art and way of living coincide with each other, what are your tattoo ethics in general?
NB - I strive to conduct myself with simple honesty and integrity, and make sure my work is inspired while also pleasing to my client. This is an extension of my lifestyle in general, which is to say simple, sober and drug-free, dedicated to meeting my full human potential and experiencing as much of the world as possible.
Durb - So, do you have a background in fine art? Did you go to art school or take classes or are you self-taught or simply just a natural?
NB – Haha, well, yeah, I was always coming at tattooing, and wanting to tattoo, from a fine arts perspective and background, so that’s what I can relate to most…as opposed to the more traditional, “from the streets” aspects of the tattoo world. I took art classes throughout childhood, went to a special half-day arts program during my senior year of high school, and then went to 3 semesters of art college before dropping out in order to start a tattoo apprenticeship and continue my artistic learning on my own.
Durb - So since you dropped out of college to tattoo, what would you say is your artistic specialty nowadays?
NB - Maybe, something approaching realism, with a healthy variety of other subtle influences creeping in. I try to draw from many disciplines and genres in order to fully realize my artistic visions and hone my craft. In college I was a graphic design major, and I still like to draw upon sound design principles in my tattoo compositions, photography and paintings.
Durb - Your art has a very unique visual appeal, what makes your approach to tattooing so unique?
NB - I try to implement a “holistic” approach, which is to say, open to variation, experimentation, and intuition, i.e. non-linear thought, and not dictated by specific or dogmatic “tattooing rules.” I attempt to approach every tattoo project as a unique entity or an individual challenge, with many variables, culminating in a result that’s born from natural and self-selecting artistic intuitions and application techniques. I guess that’s just a fancy way of explaining how I try to apply one of my favorite principles, which is “reasons, not rules, make us stronger.”
Durb - Over the years you’ve worked with many talented artists. Which influential tattoo artists have you worked with or along side?
NB - I came up more or less under the wing of the legendary Darkside Tattoo, where guys like Eric Merrill, Julio Rodriguez, Lou Jacque, and later, Joe Capobianco and myself all worked under one roof. This opportunity shaped my early career success and sort of put me on a “fast track” to learning. Since then I befriended, worked with, and learned from guys like Adrian Dominic, Sean Zee, Jeff Ensminger, and more recently Guy Aitchison.
Durb - You are well known for your amazing work and unique style. Do you have plans to continue with this type of work or should we expect to see something different from you in the future?
NB - I don’t see any drastic shifts or departures on the horizon…just a natural progression in order to refine and further develop what I already do.
Durb - Yet, your progression is clearly evident, how often do you get to paint? What mediums do you prefer working with?
NB - I paint on average, several days or nights per week. Nowadays I paint as much as I tattoo and enjoy a nice freedom to switch between the two as I choose. I paint in oil, on gessoed MDF or Masonite panel.
Durb - What is a typical workday like for you? Walk us through one of your days if you don't mind.
NB - A typical day in my life is extremely exciting. It starts sometime in late morning with my extended morning routine which consists of feeding my hungry cats, eating one or two breakfasts, a bit of reading or meditation, followed by some yoga, jogging or some kind of workout, then attempting to catch up on emails and social networking and other brief internet time-wasting and random chore-doing. After lunch I get into any errands I have to accomplish that day, or start preparing for the day’s tattoo appointment, or begin working on a painting or some other kind of personal project. Usually I stop for some kind of dinner, more miscellaneous chores and incessant distractions, and then get back to some kind of project until bedtime. Sometimes I actually hang out with friends, and usually one or more of these typical activities is combined with that. Group painting sessions and studio time are the norm—combining camaraderie with creativity is a great way to meet multiple needs and desires at once, and helps with staying motivated or inspired.
Durb - Do you feel that there are any misconceptions about your career? If so, do you do anything to defy this?
NB - You know, I try not to pay attention to distractions like gossip and rumors or what people think, so I’m not sure, but I commonly hear shock at my apparently young age, or my no-frills lifestyle. I get great amusement whenever people assume I’m some wise old man, or that I’m living some type of fabulous rock star lifestyle.
Durb - What is the ideal equipment out there today in your opinion? Name your sponsors? Why do you use what you use?
NB - There are many great machine-builders nowadays; I’ve used machines by Pulse, Fallen King Irons, and Aaron Cain that have been great for me. I’ve really been liking my Critical digital power supply recently, and I’ve always used pigments made by several companies, like Starbrite, Eternal, Unique, and now Fusion. I don’t really have any true sponsors, I’ve sort of tried to stay away from that whole aspect of the business, but lately I’ve formed a non-exclusive cooperation of sorts with Fallen King Irons where I use his machines, free of charge. But in return I’ve given him artwork, t-shirt designs, and advertising exposure. It’s all on a friendly basis with neither of us bound in any way to the other.
Durb - You have definitely made a name for yourself. Did this take place through the normal avenues, such as magazines and conventions, or was there more to it?
NB - I think it was mainly through the normal avenues you mentioned. It also didn’t hurt to start out at a young age, with a prior art background, a quick, no-hassle apprenticeship, and easy access to Darkside, one of the leading studios in the country at the time.
Durb - What is your philosophy towards work?
NB - I believe that work should be combined with enjoyment and personal fulfillment so that the traditional Western concept of “work” and the capitalist work/play dichotomy become obsolete. Therefore, I could be characterized as a “workaholic” because usually, I’ve been successful at making my work cease to be “work” and thus want to do as much of it as possible. This phenomenon of combining “work” and “play” is more of an attitude shift than a specific action to take or avoid.
Durb - What projects do you hope to tackle next?
NB - More paintings, at larger scales than I’ve ever attempted. I’m trying to develop a tattooing seminar, followed perhaps by another book project, more tattoos, and of course, a multitude of other life projects, not the least of which is slowly positioning myself as far outside this culture of death, the global corporate capitalist grid, as possible.
Durb - What are some of the changes in the industry that you have seen as an artist throughout your career?
NB - I’ve seen a massive shift towards mainstream entertainment media and consumer culture. Tattooing has become a marketable, trendy lifestyle and a consumption-based identity, much more so than even when I started out, which wasn’t too long ago.
Durb - Tattoos have definitely become more mainstream and a big part of acceptable society. Do you think that's a positive or negative thing?
NB - In some ways it’s positive—in general it leads to more compassionate and inclusive societal attitudes towards heavily tattooed people and tattoo artists. In many other ways it’s negative, because I personally believe our modern society is in a very unhealthy, unnatural, unsustainable, and downright harmful state of decay. And so who in their sane mind would be groping for a cozy place in all of that? Anything still considered to be on the fringes, that corporate America hasn’t chewed up and spit out yet, has a golden opportunity to go against this grain and embody some ultimately healthier attributes, which is something that tattoo culture, when it was still a fringe subculture, largely failed to do. So I don’t think it’s all bad now that it’s more accepted, but I think the cultural fringes in general are rapidly disappearing, as global capitalism needs constant new resources and fads to exploit, in order to perpetuate itself. The French philosophers from the 1960’s, the Situationists, did some groundbreaking work establishing this type of critique that I encourage anyone interested in going deeper than my gross generalizations, to try to learn about.
Durb - Conventions are a huge part of the tattoo industry. Do you attend many conventions? What do you feel they do for tattooing and the industry?
NB - I don’t work or attend many conventions, though I try to maximize their benefit to my career by attending certain ones in certain areas, or ones that feature certain attributes that I find interesting or inspiring. In general they’re good for promoting our craft, our art, and our vision and passions to others, the “outside world” if you will. But in the U.S., I think they’ve hit an over-saturation point in recent years so even these benefits are dwindling, perhaps because so many people already “know the deal” now that tattooing and being tattooed have become so much more commonplace. Because of this, I think much of their benefit is shifting inwards towards the industry itself, by becoming a gathering of the minds and talent, where we tattooers can go to continue our learning and expose ourselves to new ideas and inspirations.
Durb - What tattoo-related goals do you have for the coming year?
NB - My number one goal is simply to keep producing inspired, innovative work. A second huge goal, now that my instructional oil painting book is finished, is to develop a seminar on advanced tattooing technique and strategy, which incorporates some learning approaches from my painting book. Along with this seminar curriculum, my goal is to become a more dynamic and engaging public speaker and teacher because I really love to help and teach other people despite my quiet, reclusive ways.
Durb - What is your long-term goal as a tattoo artist?
NB - My overall goal is simply to push my craft, my vision, and my skills to the highest realm possible. Part of that goal is simply staying healthy and resilient enough to accomplish that.
Durb - Where do you see tattooing going and how do you see yourself fitting into that picture?
NB - Like society in general, I see the industry splintering into factions and sub-genres as it grows too complex, popular, and widespread to accommodate any kind of unified, uniform structure. For example, you have the TV stars and media-driven groups, the art-nerd/fine-art oriented groups, the undergrounders, the mainstream “respectable” businessmen, the convention circuiters, the venture-capitalist empire-builders, the hard-knocks old-schoolers, and on and on. And I actually see this mostly as a good thing—everyone can find their place, or do their thing, their own way, and find happiness with their own version of success. Artistically, I think certain styles and techniques will continue to develop, because of the aforementioned variety of participants, and that’s a really good thing. And just like with photography, the equipment we use will get more and more advanced, creating a further distinction between the new innovations (ala digital photography, becoming omnipresent) and the old-fashioned purists of the tattoo craft (ala film photography, relegated to the fine art world). All in all, tattooing in the new millennium is a really vital and exciting thing to be a part of, and fun to speculate on. I’m not sure about my place in it all, but I do see my life heading ultimately in a direction that is very different from much of the surrounding society and cultural norms.
Durb - Any final thoughts, any current new projects that you are working on?
NB – Yeah, I’ve recently finished a 132-page instructional painting book, called “Sharp-Focus Realism In Oil” that was published by Guy Aitchison’s Proton Press and is available through www.tattooeducation.com. This book is a great learning tool for any tattoo artists who want to know the basics of oil painting, or for anyone who simply wants to collect a book about my art, as it features many of my paintings from the last 10 years. You can find out more information on how the book came together on my website.
Durb - Awesome Nick, you are a true inspiration to tattoo artists worldwide and we look forward to seeing you push the boundaries of your art even more in the future.