Back in 2016, at Cairo’s French Institute of Oriental Archaeology, researchers discovered over 30 individual tattoos on Deir el-Medina mummies using infrared technology, dating back 3,000 years. Expeditions in the South Pacific led by James Cook in the 1700s also saw a proliferation of tattoos etched on the salt-encrusted sailors, who saw the skin art as mementos of their travels. For years regarded as a taboo, deviant defilement in the American imagination, tattoos have become a visual queue transferring aesthetic agency back to the individual. Yet worldwide, indicated throughout history, tattoos are quite literally rooted in the human experience. There’s a deeply intimate, even emotional relationship with the person on whom the design rests, or in Scab Shop’s case, the person and the un-rendered tattoo asset.
Beginning tomorrow, Scab Shop—the alliance of Josh Hubberman and John Robson of creative studio CTHDRL; and tattoo bellwether Scott Campbell—will reveal works from ten genesis artists. With Campbell’s blessing and vision for tattooing’s future, industry titans like Dr. Woo, Mister Cartoon, Henry Lewis, Nathan Kostechko, Sasha Masiuk, André Malcolm, Sean From Texas, Spider Sinclair, and Tati Compton have assembled and joined the movement. Unlike painting, murals, tapestries, or a litany of artistic media, skin is somehow precluded from the conversation, and tattooers don’t wield the institutional leverage that someone working with different materials would—and yet patrons can travel thousands of miles to have the privilege of sitting at an artist’s chair, prepared for the blood and the buzz.
In our increasingly digitized landscape, how can places like Scab Shop bridge the gap between an analog art form to something intangible, decentralized, and digital? Zora Zine’s Editor chatted with Josh Hubberman and Scott Campbell to dig below the surface.
Liam Casey (ZORA): How did the concept for Scab Shop materialize?
Scott Campbell: Ian Rogers has been a longtime friend and client of mine. He's usually the smartest guy in any room, and always been at the merge of creative culture and technology: he did Beats with Jimmy [Iovine] and Dr. Dre, all the digital strategy for LVMH for a while, and now he's running Ledger, the crypto security company. He left a voicemail on my phone about a year ago, he was like, ‘Scott, you got to do NFT tattoos,’ and then I just hung up. I was like, ‘That's some gobbledygook.’ It took me a few days to listen to his whole voicemail, all five minutes of it. By the time I got to the end of it, I was like, ‘Holy shit, this changes everything.’
It solves problems that I've struggled with my whole career. With tattooing, we have huge cultural relevance, but the actual thing we do has a very low ceiling. I'm creating original artworks, but I'm charging by how long it takes to apply to your skin. I'm still like a plumber or electrician in the way the transaction works, but I've tattooed some of the most powerful creatives in the world and I have their trust and their attention; but the only way I've managed to scale what I do is by taking that energy and that excitement around my tattoo career and rubbing it on different products, like, ‘Oh, I'll do a Louis Vuitton collaboration,’ or, ‘I'll start a wine company and design the label.’
When I really thought through the mechanisms of NFTs, I was like, ‘Now I can shift the way what I do is valued.’ I started building a version of it, and hired a development team to do it. There were five tattoos, and you're buying the image with the option to get it tattooed. I realized in trying to make something really versatile and open, it got f*****g boring. It felt really corporate and dull and it didn't really feel like something I was excited about.
I knew FWB and then got connected with the CTHDRL guys through them and Ian. From our first meeting, they just got it in a way that not many people I interviewed did, and then we course-corrected. I was like, ‘I don’t think the entire tattoo industry is ready for this,’ but for the top 1% of artists who have the biggest cultural following, it really makes sense for us and then we set a precedent. The industry will change when it's ready.
LC: Scott, you were initially averse to the idea. As someone with that kind of authority in the tattooing community, were you able to be that extra push to convince others to move in that direction, too? The worlds of tattooing and NFTs are so disparate.
SC: Some of them, yeah. It's all people who I had a relationship with for a while. I've been the kind of tattoo artist that’s had a legitimate fine art career and been able to cross that membrane successfully; I've coached a lot of other tattooers and our hands and eyes are going to start going out at 60—we’ve got to start moving this stuff into other lanes. A lot of folks are just people who trust me. But there's people like Mister Cartoon and Dr. Woo—a big reason why they're so successful is they can see outside that bubble and they don't look at themselves in the context of the tattoo world; they look at themselves in the context of the entire world. The first time I walked them through it they were like, ‘Yes, that makes sense.’
LC: Josh, can you touch upon the mechanics of Scab Shop and how things unfold logistically?
Josh Hubberman: Part of the way we built our mechanics is thinking about something like street art, which is now considered fine art, and tattooing which happens on the skin. Your skin dies, and it's difficult to translate that out. The first thing in thinking about these 1-1 auctions around art is that the art is valued first, right? Through an auction mechanism you now have these artists that are able to say, ‘Hey, look, I'm an artist.’ The tattooing becomes an optional piece to the puzzle by design, so every auctioned piece comes with a tattoo appointment.
Part of the gating mechanism in our Discord is that owning the NFT unlocks specific artist channels so that you have direct access to Scott, Woo, or Cartoon, but you don't have to get it applied. Let's say you buy a piece from Scott and that you're going to go get a tattoo. There's a signed transaction that Scott, having minted the original NFT, will do once he applies it to your skin. That forever alters the shape of the NFT. Now the NFT changes form from un-rendered to rendered, and it no longer carries an appointment with it. Your wallet hash is now emblazoned as a piece of the NFT, so you're forever marked as being the wallet that had gotten this tattoo applied to skin. That becomes an interesting context as well: Is a tattoo NFT more or less valuable if it's been applied or not applied? Or who it's been applied to?
LC: It’s interesting considering the proprietary nature of it. Is there something explicitly stated in the smart contract that prohibits the piece being reused somewhere else?
JH: This is what's both exciting and daunting about a platform like this. You think, ‘If I go down with my homies to Austin, I would love to get a group tattoo with 10 of my people,’ right? Wouldn’t it be interesting if, once you get the tattoo applied to your skin, you’re no longer able to transfer the NFT, it's just in your wallet? It's permanent. It's part of you. We've talked about this idea of, if someone lived in Ireland and they’re a Scott Campbell or Woo fan and want to buy a piece of art, can somebody else tattoo that art on their skin? Is there some link there? I think the broader context is really trying to elevate the storytelling around the art form. So when you think of why you go sit in a chair and what these sort of markers and time mean to people, we want to editorialize and talk about that.
LC: Tattoos obviously have this innate relationship with skin. As you've mentioned, after buying the image, there’s the option of having it “rendered”; perhaps some won’t even have it tattooed. Scott, you spoke of transforming the industry. Is this redefining what a tattoo is? What, for you, defines a tattoo?
SC: A few things happen. If the image is what they connect with, what they purchase, and what they actually own, they also own that image in a deeper way than if it was just on their arm—they own that asset. They can get it tattooed if they want to; they can buy it just to speculate. I'm really trying to pull the value from the application process to the artwork itself, and in doing that, everything changes. I have art collectors who buy paintings of mine who would never get tattooed: this is a way for them to participate in my world without violating their religious beliefs, and that's super interesting for me. Also, just claiming the authority that any fine artist has where it's like, ‘No, I'm not taking requests, this is it, this is the way into my world.’ Creating editorial around each piece is really important, the same way you would at a Sotheby's auction. They're saying, ‘In art history, here's what this work/artist represents,’ and then you have a video of the artist talking about their intention. It’s an opportunity to really fall in love with a piece and connect with it. It puts these works on a pedestal in a way that they never have before.
LC: What exactly were you looking for when choosing artists?
SC: There are people who are tattooers in the sense of craftsmanship and then there's people who are really tattoo artists. There are people who have millions of followers who do photorealistic tattoos and they're f*****g incredible, but at the end of the day they're taking screenshots from movies and rendering it—what's captivating is the level of craftsmanship, but translated in NFTs isn't as powerful. I'm interested in tattoo artists who have super distinct styles all their own so that those drawings, when removed from skin, still have power and still grab you. The ten that we're starting with really represent a range of styles that, even on paper or on canvas, are engaging. That was the first thing I looked at: Is it actually a new idea? Is it actually compelling?
It’s also people who see the opportunity in it, because a big part of marketing NFTs and Web3 in general is participation. I have no interest in working with anyone who's just trying to do a cash grab—this is an engagement. It's a way for you to engage with your clients on a deeper level. And a lot of it is just people who are excited to have a direct line with their fans, because right now, the only way to communicate with their audience is through Instagram. If there's a community of people where it’s like, ‘Oh these are all people who have paid to own one of my images, let's chat; let me show you what I'm working on,’ then collectors really appreciate that kind of insider relationship.
LC: The vast majority of people who procure tattoos, who reference certain tattoos or learn about artists, are via Instagram—peak Web2. If that platform didn’t exist, imagine all the careers that would just be over.
JH: Totally. And Twitter is the Web2 platform that Web3 happens on. It's interesting because we're also, at the same time, transitioning a bunch of artists who have huge Instagram followings into two spaces in which they don't yet have huge followings: Twitter and Discord. Discord has a real utility because of access to artists in a real 1-1 way.
SC: I am uncomfortable with the power that Instagram has over my career. It makes my skin crawl that that's my only channel. I've posted things that weren't vanilla enough and my engagement is instantly throttled back. What that does for art as a conversation sucks, because there's no room to step outside of main street. I can see where that goes and it's not interesting. Every tattoo artist I know is sick of hearing me talking about it, but I’m like, ‘Guys, you need to f*****g get on Twitter or Discord; we need to migrate our audience to other platforms, because if Instagram decides they don't like you, you disappear.’
LC: This is, of course, Scab Shop’s first season. How do you determine seasons, and what could they look like in future iterations?
JH: So April 7, season one, the 1-1 auctions we start rolling out of genesis art are only able to be auctioned on by Shop Pass holders, which are essentially community memberships. Part of that is really wanting to curate a community that's interested and excited about the concept. We also just had a pop-up tattoo shop at the ZORA party in Austin. We hope that in season two, we onboard other interesting artists that see what we're doing and understand the space; they feel like they can add some other context or value to it, and we can continue to grow and spread.
LC: Do you have any metrics of success for the project?
JH: Our metrics of success are not necessarily hard metrics. There's no direct monetary value or things we're looking to place it on. I think we're really thinking of this as a paradigm shift for an industry and a rethinking of an art form. I think more success metrics that we're looking for are, is there a feeling that we've transitioned and bridged the gap between this analog art form to digital? And does the art form of tattooing have a place as a fine digital art?
LC: How do you envision Scab Shop in five years from now? What changes are afoot that could affect the industry as a whole?
SC: As our identity and our self-esteem migrates from the physical world to the digital world, I want to be able to carry our tattoos with that. Mister Cartoon and I did all the tattoos for Grand Theft Auto, so whatever avatar you have in any digital space can now take those tattoos that you have and you identify with, with you. As you curate your physical appearance in the digital world, I want Scab Shop to be a big part of crossing that membrane.
It's nice having an archival version of your tattoo and a certificate of authenticity. That's the way that I see tattooing as a whole benefitting. Even I'd be like, ‘Oh, you come, you get tattooed here. I'm going to mint an NFT from my wallet of your tattoo design, even just of the stencil, so you have this accredited version of your tattoo.’ When you die, your grandkids can go through your wallet, 'Oh f***. Here's this tattoo. We were wondering what that thing looked like 30 years ago!’ Anything that has emotional value is relevant in Web3.