Johnathon Vaughn Interview
Do you remember the first time you saw a tattoo, and what your reaction was?
The first tattoo I noticed was Billy Idol's "Suzy", a tattoo of a woman with a star on her forehead. I thought the design was cool and miles more unique than the biker style heart and dagger tattoos that were common at the time.
Do you have any tattoos yourself?
I do. I started out with smaller pieces in my punk rock years but now I wear one large tattoo—a quasi-traditional Japanese bodysuit (shoulder to shin), which will be completed in early 2011.
As a photographer, do you approach shooting a model with body art any differently than a model without tattoos?
It depends on the goal of the shot. The photographer and the client need to decide if the tattoo will be a compliment or distraction.
How did you approach the Tattoo Project weekend?
I asked our models to describe their tattoo in three words and used the camera to capture visual representations of these cues and keywords. My photographs are macro views and captures of the tattooing process: the desire to be tattooed and the physical application. Many photographers treat the tattoo as a glamour or fashion accessory, they don't address the violent act of putting ink under the skin. I wanted to show an up-close look at the body, the skin, the pores, the tattoo, the injury and restorative process that takes place on tattooed skin resulting in beautiful body art.
After the fact, do you think your concept was successful? Did you get what you wanted from the weekend?
Based upon the images, yes, I did achieve my goals. I feel I was able to combine the beauty of inked skin with the memory of the tattoo process of the individual model.
Any tips for other photographers, for working with models who have tattoos?
Talk to the model about their tattoos and be inspired by the personal anecdotes they may share with you. Most people with body art, no matter how scary some of the subject matter (or the subjects) may seem, LOVE to talk about the art!
Are tattoos and body modifications a problem in other work that you do? Do you ever have to shoot around tattoos or use cover-up make-up? Do you ever Photo Shop out tattoos?
When deciding on models for our work, we discuss the photographic goal with the client beforehand and cast accordingly. We try to capture as much of the final shot in camera so we are not using Photoshop for adjustments that could be looked after at the exposure stage. When it comes to Photoshop and post-production at our studio, I have had far more requests to add tattoos digitally than I have had to remove them.
What is it about a particular tattoo or an individual with tattoos that you find interesting? Have you ever seen a tattoo, or a person with tattoos and said, "I have to shoot that!"?
People who have tattoos have all experienced a painful rite of passage. This "ceremony" brings tattooed people together. Sometimes a tattoo can let you know that you share a unique interest with someone who is a stranger. Tattoos can be interesting conversation starters. I enjoy asking seniors where they got tattooed and who tattooed them. I find the history of tattooing fascinating. It's also interesting to see how a tattoo ages in the skin after many decades. To have an opportunity to record this, is fascinating.
Was there a particular tattoo or tattooed person who stands out in your memory from the Tattoo Project weekend?
Yes, a crude, home-made, hand tattooed East Van cross brought back nostalgic memories of the old neighbourhood I lived in as a youngster.
As a photographer and visual artist, what defines a good tattoo in your eyes? What design and aesthetic qualities are you looking for?
The best tattoos I've seen are large, original designs, with bold line work and bright, harmonious colours. I'm especially interested in traditional Japanese work and how the use of colour, symbolism, compositional balance and flow can create a walking, breathing piece of art.
What would be your advice to someone who wants a great photo that shows their body art to its best advantage?
I offer some valuable tips in an upcoming video about Tattoo Photography on the Vanishing Tattoo website. Check it out!
What is the biggest difference between shooting editorial work - say for someone like Bob Baxter at Skin & Ink - and working in a studio?
Editorial work is often on location, so the lighting scenarios are unpredictable and less controlled than the lighting in a studio setting. For editorial photography you should arrive prepared for anything!
What do you think of the growing numbers of celebrities and models who have tattoos?
Celebrities used to broadcast how edgy they were by wearing tattoos, but now, I think celebrities and models get tattoos to hold on to an aspect of themselves that they aren't able to express in their highly publicized, day to day lives.
What tips would you give to the home photographer, tattoo enthusiast or tattoo artist who wants to take a great photograph of a tattoo?
Try and get your hands on an SLR camera. Get rid of your on-camera flash. I also offer some valuable tips in an upcoming video about Tattoo Photography on the Vanishing Tattoo website. Go check it out!
What would be your dream tattoo photography assignment?
Visiting Shige's Yellow Blaze Studio in Yokohama, Japan or if I could time travel, I would drink a Mai Tai with Sailor Jerry (RIP) in post-war Hawaii.
Was there any one thing in particular about participating the the Tattoo Project weekend that surprised you or that stands out as a truly memorable moment?
I loved hearing about everyone's tattoo experiences and stories; the recollection of tattoo pain, their inspirations for getting a particular design, catalysts and life changing moments. Laughter and tears. All those stories run the gamut of human experience, some stories were uplifting, some heartbreaking, some were downright funny! People can surprise you too: a tough looking father showed me that his son's hand was tattooed on the inside of his own palm. It was a touching father-son moment which revealed the loving heart of a man with a tough exterior.