The Best Tattoo Artist in Dallas
I have shifted the focus of my column this month to include a very well respected artist from outside the tattoo industry. I took the opportunity to interview him last year when he came in for a traditional tattoo from me. I had planned on asking him five quick questions, and was going to call the article “The Law of Five” but that quickly blossomed into a full-blown interview, his words flowing as fluidly as his work, his passion evident as he strongly and thoughtfully opined as we talked. So without further adieu, may I present to you:
The Carl Block Interview
Q: How did you develop your iconic face jugs that a lot of us in North Texas are so familiar with?
A: Well, there’s a long tradition of sculpting on pots. Now, the first face jugs were found in Egypt. So, I mean, It goes that far back. I’ve always been drawn to sculpting on things. So, you got a pot, it resembles a head in the form, and so, if you put a face on it, there’s more of an association with the viewer. I guess it’s just from not being able to leave well enough alone. People see it, and they don’t have to know anything about art, they see it, and it’s a face, and they are looking at it with their face. So they can relate.
Q: Wow, I thought I could keep up with you, typing while you spoke! I’d rather just record this and listen and learn.
A: Well, I’m long-winded too. You get me talking about, you know, my craft… As you know, I’m alone in the studio a lot, I mean, you’re always with a client…But I’m alone a lot, and so, you have a lot of time to… to think and to not think. Things cross your mind when you’re alone all day. But my best work is when I don’t think at all.
Q: What comes to mind for you, as you compare creating music to creating art?
A: Oh man. You know, the thing that I think is attractive about music is playing with others. I’m a hack. I wanna play, I don’t want to practice. When I’m playing with other people, I try to play at the level they’re playin at. Music’s about sharing. Making my art, being alone, is about just me. That’s one kind of beauty but sharing is a whole other kind of beauty. And so that’s what I think about when I compare and contrast- because when you play music you want everybody to be having a good time, and being successful. When I’m making my stuff, I dont want any interference or anybody’s input or anything like that. It’s two sides of a different coin. I love making music, and I love making art. I figured that out, that’s the difference. Was that the question?
Q: Yes, and you answered it in a way that I would’ve never thought of. I really enjoyed that response. I’ve got another one for you- this one may take you a little by surprise, but I know that you turned a friend of mine onto this concept- can you talk about the Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi?
A: Nothing lasts forever. And everything is in decay. And so, aesthetically, it’s the appreciation of imperfection. My work is never perfect in the context of super tight craftsmanship, really anal stuff… Like, you’ll always see… I always leave four lines – I call ‘em maker’s marks- so people can see where things were put together. You’ll see score lines, you’ll see finger marks, you’ll see this you’ll see that- my work is full of marks like that.
It’s interesting to me because, when I took some pots to Japan to trade with other potters, I would hand ‘em the pot, and they would look at it, and they’re like… And I’d go, “wabi-sabi”, and they’d go “Ohhhhhh!!!!” And then they would get it, but you know, it’s kind of- being a craftsman, there’s a tendency in craftsmanship to beat the Wabi-Sabi outta stuff, but to me, it’s the real beauty of things. It’s why Barbie isn’t perfect. It’s why another woman is perfect because they’re not perfect. Seeking Imperfection.
I don’t ape Japanese wabi-sabi-ness, I found my own path. By aping, I mean, just copying. I’m not trying to be Japanese, I’m not trying to be anything I am not. But, there’s a huge influence there. I don’t do anything perfect. My bicycle’s wabi-sabi, my old motorcycle is wabi-sabi- I like everything in its natural state, where it is in time. My motorcycle’s a ’74 and it looks like a ’74, you know? Everything is slowly deteriorating, myself included, you included- it’s just appreciation of that, that nothing lasts forever. When I roll that around in my head, I can appreciate this moment right now, because it’s not going to last forever. I’m glad we’re doing this, ‘cause this is the moment. And I’m paying attention.
If I had to teach a student, which I did teach students, about wabi-sabi, I would just say that it’s the beauty of imperfection. You know, I teach the kids out in Waxahachie- “ you know when you’re driving to school and that cool old barn that’s falling down? You know why it looks so cool? Wabi-sabi. And they’re like “Oh, so when I’m out shooting dove, and I go down into the creek, and I see all the different layers of rocks, and there’s a tree down from a flood or somethin’, is that Wabi-sabi?” And I’m like “There you go!” That rock with the hole in it that’s got water from the last rain. What you find in nature, in nature’s natural state of impermanence.
Q: That’s great. Knowing that you were into that idea- there was an imperfect line that I drew in your tattoo that I thought about covering up, but then I thought- well, here’s somebody who can appreciate that imperfection- that’s also a maker’s mark, it’s done by hand, the lines have to join in some way…
A: There you go. When I sit down, and I say, you know, I don’t know about the proper placement for the tattoo. None of the tattoos have ever come out like I thought it would. But that’s part of giving your body over to the artist. It’s like I told Little Linda, just do your deal. I want an eyeball jug but do your deal. And I know artists like that. You guys hear so much “I want this exactly”- I try to kowtow – I don’t want to sound wishy-washy- it’s like “what do you think about color?” And I’m like “I don’t know”- but that’s me kowtowing to you because you know. And I’m letting you know that I don’t know. Out of respect to you. You know, when people come to me (for my work), they show kowtow. You know? Does that make sense?
Q: Absolutely. Sticking with that line of questioning- I’m surprised that you had to identify to the Japanese what you were showing them. I would think, in my thinking of the Japanese, that they would automatically respond to that.
A: Man, it’s a funny thing. That was one of the things I was stunned in Japan about. I went and I saw several potters, I had dinner at a really famous guy’s house, a potter… I was the great American who came to Japan on this trip- not that I wanted that- It’s just like “This guy’s coming, you know”- So I got to go to some famous places, and see some stuff, I got toured around… But anyway- I was amazed at that too.
But you know, in the clay world, the Japanese have a really big chip on their shoulder, and I don’t know if it’s this way in the tattoo world but in the clay world, they have an ax to grind, that – their ancestors left a footprint they have to stand in. So, they ape wabi-sabi, or they ape Mingei, or they ape whatever movement in times associated with that pottery town. Because towns were built where veins of clay were. And they would have a communal kiln. It all makes sense, you know- if you wanna raise crops you gotta be by water. They would feel the shadow of having to make the ware that was associated with that town in a particular historical context. So they really felt trapped. Their creativity felt trapped. So, they could’ve been roofers, or they could have been anything else, but they were potters, making the same shit that got made 3oo years ago.
And so when I would show ‘em something that was out of context with what they knew, it really threw ‘em off. They understood aesthetics, but… It’s the same thing with tattoo art. There’s guys tattooing every day for twenty years that don’t know Bert Grimm. I mean, they would not necessarily get it right away, but they got it once you said “Wabi-Sabi” -because they learned that in school probably because it was important historically in Japan. But they would still have to look at it, because- it’s like me saying I’m an old Buddhist- I’m an old western Buddhist. I’m not a kneel and pray, you know- it would not fit their criteria – I couldn’t go to Japan and walk around the monastery and they’d ring the bell at three and you’d get up, sweep, and all that,- I’m not like that. I take what I need and don’t worry about the rest. It’s a western thing. To see what western wabi-sabi is it had to be a little bit translated for them to see it. It was a good experience for me. It was very enlightening.
Q: You mentioned a certain time period, a certain potter…
A: Yeah- famous kiln sites- It was in Mashiko, near Mashiko, where Shoji Hamada had his- and Shoji Hamada is a big potter, he’s the guy that reached his hand across the ocean to England- Look it’s all Bert Grimm and all those- It’s pottery bible stories just like there are tattoo bible stories, is what I call em. He’s a very very historically important guy, that matters in a very small pond.
Q: You said, like, Mingei, or?
A: Mingei. Mingei is like folk art, it’s the art of the folk. But, it’s intellectualized art of the folk. There’s a really good book called “The unknown craftsman”. It would relate to any artform. It’s about furniture, it’s about lacquerware, it’s about pottery, it’s about weaving. It’s really, really good. Soetsu Yanagi wrote it, he’s a big Japanese art historian. So if you are interested in that stuff, I’d highly recommend it. It’s righteous, man.
Is that five questions?
Q: No not yet, and you’re making me ask more! Which is good and bad, cause I’m gonna have to go in here and write all this stuff down. But, I think it’s worth it-
A: There’s probably a program…
Q: Hell, if there is, I don’t know about it!
A: Haha! Yeah, I don’t know shit about computers…
Q: This is really fun, this is enlightening for me. We’ve talked about all this art, we’ve talked about your craft, we talked about maker’s marks- your words- And something I definitely also associate with tattooing- so, I wanted to ask- Describe what you love about tattoo art.
A: I do like the impermanence of it. It’s gonna fade, that doesn’t bother me. I tell ya whats funny- and I don’t know if this is an I like or a I don’t like- It’s been interesting the way people look at me, it’s changed. I’ve never really felt like I fit, in life, as a person, so it’s interesting that tattoos have made me fit less. And that’s fine. But it’s an interesting thing.
I like the craftsmanship and I like the linework, I like the tradition of the old stuff. American Traditional is not my favorite, but, I like that image (that I asked you to put on me). I like imagery, I like logos- I’m attracted to those things cause I see things through the artist’s eye- that’s when I saw that you did that image- I had seen it before- I have that patch on my jacket and I like that image a lot.
I guess it’s like liking Picasso or liking Alexander Calder or Shoji Hamada- there’s things I like about this guy, there’s things I like about that guy, it may not be that I just like tattooing. You know what I mean? It’s artists and it’s styles that speak to me, visually. It’s abilities and skills- you know, Little Linda’s linework really speaks to me, in that it’s so feminine and it’s so beautiful. The traditional stuff speaks to me in a different way. It’s just art, man! And I just have a respect for art.
I can look at the woodcarver stuff- I don’t separate it from any other art. I think what’s super cool about it is there’s probably more people making a living out of tattooing than maybe just about any other art right now. I really think that’s great, that art has once again found it’s niche, to survive. You know what I mean? Because only rare people buy nice coffee cups to drink out of. Like handmade stuff. They just go get that one cylinder set with the bad handle- that’s got whatever on it- there’s a million of those. And people don’t cook in pots anymore, they use different stuff- they use Tupperware for their lunches- you know lunchboxes used to be made out of clay in Japan. You know, they stack em. So, that lost its footing, because time-wise and economically wise that’s not the thing to do. But tattooing has regained its footing because it’s- I’m telling you, man, it’s everywhere.
And, it’s got a standard, I like that it’s got a standard. Good artwork should have a standard. And that’s why I was saying, the guy I told you about- I don’t think he was very good, I don’t think he has a standard. That’s one thing I like about this operation. I think even before Oliver got famous, I think he set a standard for this enterprise that you guys all kinda feel the need to adhere to. That there is a standard- good work. I think that’s a beautiful thing in tattooing. That there is a standard to go by, craftsmanship is involved, it’s not just- you’re not just a hack. You gotta know your tools, and you gotta know all that stuff.
Its art, man. To me, it’s art at it’s highest level, cause you gotta know your stuff. And so, I like supporting that! I think it looks cool. I like it, it makes me happy. I’m takin a shower, and I’m washing my arms or moving something heavy- you know, it’s nice to have art always. I think it’s just a beautiful thing. In a million ways.
Q: So, the standard. You mentioned maybe Oliver setting that up for us. But you also talked about the standard in more of a broad way- what is the standard you are speaking of?
A: In craftsmanship, you know, there’s art, and there’s craft. That’s the major division, and its been the division since time eternal. By definition, craft is something useful. Art is something useless. You can remember that, as I tell my students- If I’m the jeweler- this necklace is made to adorn a woman and make her more beautiful. If I’m a potter, this mug is made to hold coffee. If I’m a furniture maker, um, this is made to hold socks. So, all of those are crafts. But, if you’re an artist… How can I say this? Craftsmen are in debt to the public, ‘cause it has to perform the function. Artists are not in debt to the public, artists are independent operators. They can do whatever they want. They can piss in a jar and drop a cross in it, and take a photograph of it. That’s why those guys are outrageous or pissing people off or people just don’t understand, because, they’re not indebted to the public to make a living. You’re making a living by following your own thing. There’s not a relationship there. If it is, it’s a weird one.
But, to be a craftsman, which I think tattooing is- you have to know your tools- these are the standards you have to have. You have to know your tools, you have to know your inks, you have to know your washes, you have to know how to run the machine, you have a standard you have to adhere to do good work. I’m sure you’ve seen bad work. As someone who’s been doing it a while, as you have, you can probably see where somewhere along the way, they dropped the standard. This is where they missed.
I can look at a coffee cup, and I can… And I did today- I went by an old student’s house, she’s starting to make work again- she wanted me to critique her kiln mug. So I was nice… You know, she’s not there yet, but- we just talked about technical problems. And one of the standard things I talked to her about was she signed her name on the bottom. When you scratch through clay it’s all cool and groovy, but when it’s fired- then it becomes something that when you drag it across the counter, it’s gonna scratch the surface. You cant do that. But she says, well I got this pot from so and so, he’s been making pots for thirty years, and his does that. It’s fine if you want to do that, but just because he does it wrong, doesn’t mean that you should do it wrong.
And so having standards, so that another craftsman can pick it up, another tattoo artist can see your work and say- this is on! This is right. It’s not aesthetic, it’s the mechanics. American traditional tattooing may be my least favorite kind of tattooing, but your application, your craftsmanship, the way you work your tools, all that. I can see that you’re adhering to the standard of good craftsmanship. There’s a famous essay called “Towards the standard” by Vernon Lee, and it talks about having a standard. And that’s the ground that all craftsmen stand upon.
I’m more of a craftsman than an artist. That’s the ground you stand on, that’s the ground I stand on- having a standard of doing good fucking work. The reward of that is the work gets better. It gets better and better because you adhere to a standard. I adhere to mine, but it’s mostly common sense. I adhere to mine through my intuitive eye. You cant have an intuitive eye until you know your shit. Once you know your shit, then your intuitive eye can take over and you don’t have to worry about what’s right and wrong- you can see instantly what’s right and wrong. That’s what a standard is.
Q: That’s amazing. I definitely think there is a standard in tattooing, and I try and follow that.
A: And that’s why I watch Ink Master. Number one, I love Oliver, he’s a lodge brother. He’s done more for the lodge than anyone that I know. And he’s one of the most decent people I know. Number two, when those guys are critiquing- they are talking about the standard of tattooing. That’s why I told students, this is a great art show. Because that’s the criteria. It’s not, oh I hate fairies or don’t tattoo a wizard on somebody. You know, it’s like, if they come in and they want a wizard, do a great fuckin job on that wizard. That’s what they talk about is- it’s always the standard. That’s their critique.
The linework, the saturation. All those things. Those are the standards that have to be met, and that you’re judged on. As a tattoo artist, when people are looking at your work, they’re like, wow, he really saturated that red in the eyes. That would be the standard, instead of how come the red looks like that? There’s more red in one than the other- and you know, that’s not wabi-sabi- that’s just not being a good craftsman. Wabi Sabi’s gonna be, what it will look like in 40 years. That’s gonna be wabi-sabi. It’s starting to deteriorate already. But that’s what you’re judged on. That’s what I’m judged on.
Potters look at my stuff different than patrons. Potters go in places and pick things up- you always know a potter cause he’ll walk in the gallery and pick things up- they look at the bottom, they feel the weight, they feel the balance and all that bullshit. And I can do it. I don’t sell to a single gallery that understands any of that stuff. They don’t understand any of that. And that’s ok. But I have to meet that standard. That’s something I impose on myself because I want to do great work. That’s important to me, that my legacy is “that motherfucker did good shit.” I don’t want to have to ask anybody for it. “Don’t you think I do good stuff?” After I’m gone they can look at it and go “god, man, look at this, this is right on.” Or they may go “man, put that in the dumpster.” You just never know! And it’s nothin to worry about.
While I’m living and able and capable of understanding the criteria that makes something great I’m gonna adhere to it. And that’s not a shadow. That’s just being a good craftsman. And that’s something I’ve taken on, I didn’t want to be an artist just throwing shit together and it doesn’t look right. And I’m not that deep, where I can put a cross in a jar of piss and photograph it and it means something, because if I did that it would just mean a cross in a jar of piss.
That’s another nice thing about being a craftsman- you don’t have to be intellectually deep, you just have to adhere to the standards of the craftsmanship, whatever craft it is. I can see it with Dan (Phillips), you know brother Dan that makes the furniture- I see that stuff on Instagram man, and I’m just like “Hot shit! What a knockout!” And I don’t know a damn thing about woodwork. But I mean, it is gorgeous. I can tell when he’s showing joinery and all that stuff, he’s got that shit down. And that’s what that is. That’s just like gettin into that shit. I’m not near that meticulous, but I can really appreciate that in Dan. And I think Dan can appreciate my wabiness- you know, stuff isn’t like, exact, like a porcelain princess or anything. I think he can appreciate that. He understands my standard.
Q: That’s excellent.
A: Aren’t you glad you didn’t have to type all this?
Q: Yeah! I can learn something too if I just sit here and listen.
A: And here’s another thing- Nothing that I said, I don’t impose that on anybody else. If they ask me, like the girl this morning said- “well, so and so does this”, and I’m like, Well, since you asked me… I’m not going to impose my standard on anybody else.
But I’m also not going to get a tattoo from anybody that doesn’t have a standard. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to go get anything from anybody that doesn’t have a vision or direction. That’s another thing about tattooing, I mean, there’s a lot of bad pots. Probably not as many bad pots as there are bad tattoos though. But there is a lot of bad clay work. And just because you’re working in a material doesn’t make you get better. And just because you tattoo it doesn’t make you good.
On my body, I want to have nice shit that is well done. That’s what I want. That’s my standard for you. You do nice shit that’s well done, or I wouldn’t have called you.
What I was trying to say and I got off track is I don’t impose any of these beliefs on anybody else except myself. I’m not intellectual, I’m not gonna stand there and look down my nose. I respect that people are doin stuff, even if they’re doin it terrible, I think it’s great. I’m not gonna buy their pot, I’m not going to get their ink on me, but I think it’s great they’re doing something.
There’s a famous ceramic teacher named Don Rice, and when Don was teaching, he built a scale out back. The scale would go to two thousand pounds. One one side of the scale was where you hook the weights, and on the other side of the scale was a basket. At the end of the semester, Don weighed all your work. Fifty pounds was an F. A hundred pounds was, let’s say a c. I’m being arbitrary about this. A thousand pounds would be a B, and two thousand pounds would be an A. And Don’s reason was, “who am I to say you’re doing good work or not?” If you’ve done two thousand pounds of work, you’ve learned a lot. You know, who’s to judge? I don’t stand in judgment over any artist.
But, when I do the Odd Fest Sale, in Waxahachie, I have a standard of artists I want there. I want people that have a vision and they have a direction. And so, I invite those artists. That makes a solid sale. I hate going to those sales where it’s like great artist, great artist, -and then there’s some crappy Iron work- brought up from Juarez- It’s like What is this? It doesn’t belong there.
I try not to be an asshole. But everything’s practice. I catch myself, and sometimes I have to apologize. I don’t want to be judgmental in the context of “I’m better than you”. I want to be judgmental in “This would be really great if…” “Since you’re asking me, This would be better If”… Or “Try this”, or “Think about this”… I don’t want to sound like I’m sitting on the mountain looking down on the world like, I’ve got it right.
This is all me, this is all on me. I don’t put it on anybody else. I taught for 21 years. I understand how to teach, and how to put kids on the path. If all they do is do fairies or Pokemon- or something- You’d have kids where that’s all they’d do. So you try to knock em off it a little bit, try to open that window to something different- but- if you couldn’t knock em off it- then do the best damn Pokemon you ever did! I tried to help everybody attain perfection in their goals. That’s what I did as a teacher. Don’t be a little me. Be yourself, man, figure out your own path. Do your best.
Q: Wow. You’re talking about finding your own path as an artist, and you talk about earlier, – you know, the shadow of something that you need to be bound to- almost the shackles of having to create what you think you’re supposed to create. You talked about breaking out of that in your own artistic journey. How would you advise your students to break out of their own chains?
A: Basically, I let them get started and I let them go in their direction. I help them technically. We have conversations about what they’re going for… If they are going off into a ditch I will say “This is really bothering me”, and point out something to try and get them back on track.
With people that don’t make art every day, it’s difficult, because they don’t do enough to get in the flow. And the flow is so important. Because the flow leads to unconscious creativity, which brings everything to flower. It ramps up the flowering of your abilities. If you don’t get in a flow, you don’t get it. That’s how it works for me.
You work all the time making art. You probably know that after you get back after being off for two weeks, there’s a little rust. When we played that gig on last Thursday, I hadn’t played the mandolin in quite a while, I’ve been playing guitar a lot. And so, there was rust. But two or three songs into it the rust came off. If I hadn’t played it in a year, it would’ve taken longer than that.
People that don’t make a lot of art- they haven’t even gotten to the point of having rust yet. Now other people that I teach, that do make art every day, they’re a lot more interesting to talk to and to visit with about stuff, because they can tell you in-depth what is going on- why this is this, and that is that, and its sort of like- circling back to the question “Why do you like tattoos” -Well, I don’t necessarily like tattoos, I like this from this person, I like that from that person. I like your respect for tradition- and so, I look at the individual and try to stand on their path, to help them go down that path, instead of moving them to my path.
There’s a game I used to play, and I still use it a lot, called “If I could do 3 things different”. So, you’re sitting down with Ben Graham and he’s got this drawing, and you go, Ok Ben, we’re going to play 3 things different. What would you change? You don’t have to do em- it’s just brainstorming- you can play that game with people. Man, I’ve come up with some great shit. Each person comes up with 3 things. It opens up the door to thinking about things differently. The nice thing too- and here’s a problem with a lotta people- They take their art so personal. It’s like you can’t separate them from their art. But when you say- what are 3 things you could do- That separates them.
Sometimes you gotta pull outta that rut. Just try something different. It’s ok to go back to the rut, I get it. Most of the problems my students face are technical problems. They don’t know how to do it technically correct, or they don’t have the balls to do it technically correct- it’s not a creative problem. A lot of people have great ideas, but they can’t put it down. They just don’t make enough.
I’m sure there’s days you tattoo all day, and as you’re flowing, it’s just better and better, right? The flow is huge. I work as a craftsman, and I think, with craftsman, the flow is huge. I’m not waiting for lightning to strike. When it does though, you get a great idea… I pay attention to what is going through my mind- it’s like the other day I texted you I had a vision that you wanted to do a buddha because you’d been thinking about it for a while- that just came through my mind. When that happens, I pay attention. But that doesn’t happen unless I’m flowing.
A melody will come to me, or a vision of something I’m supposed to make out of clay will come to me. I can be making pots and ideas come to me- but you gotta be paying attention. My artist’s statement is- I’m almost down to the Keith Richards statement- “I’m just the antenna”. If I’m paying attention, then things are always coming by, and occasionally something enters my antenna… I did that with this upcoming show (at Webb Gallery)- I came up with some really fresh, new work. Some of it’s the same, but some of it’s new. And man, it was just like, righteous! It was righteous!