Interview: Tattoo Artist Luke Wessman

Luke Wessman Approved PhotoLuke Wessman is a world-renowned tattoo artist. He’s also a music lover. Now, Luke has joined HeadCount’s #GoVote campaign by creating artwork for the On The Run Tour: Beyoncé and JAY Z. HeadCount’s Jane Henderson recently sat down with the self-made artist. During the interview, he talked about his road to the tattoo world, his favorite hip-hop artists (which include JAY Z), the #GoVote campaign and the importance of awareness in the world.

HeadCount: To start, can you give us a little background on how you got into tattooing?

Luke Wessman: It’s such a long story. My history is all over the place. I've moved around so much, I've been around so many different people, that my story isn't very easy to tell. It’s not super complicated, but it’s got a lot of weird turns and travels and places and people.

I got tattooed because I was growing up in a rougher area and to me, if I looked tougher it was easier to get through the area I was in; it was like armor. I always say it’s like street armor. So luckily I got into tattooing through my older brother whose friend tattooed all the neighborhood out of the house, so I was getting tattooed illegally at like sixteen. I got my neighborhood tattooed on me, and it built the armor. Then I really got into tattooing and started seeing it as an art form. My life took me into that culture a little bit, and through the neighborhood stuff, then moved on to that guy getting a job at a local shop, me going in there, seeing other art, seeing artists, becoming friends with some of the different tattooers, and learning about tattooing as a culture and an art form before it was recognized as that. I became really good friends with a guy that was tattooing me. We started surfing together (it was a beach town). He just asked me if I wanted to learn how to tattoo one day, and I never even thought about it—it wasn’t a profession that you saw as a profession—it wasn’t doctor, lawyer, firefighter; it was a hidden weird outlaw profession, and I kind of grew up by myself without my family around so I needed stability.

I love the creativity and the art. I grew up as a young kid around a lot of creativity and my parents are artists and musicians, and I loved that. I worried about the stability. It made me go, ‘okay, if this is what I’m gonna do for a living, I’m gonna work really hard at being good at it or really good at it.’ So I’m just still working on it; still trying to keep it evolving and pushing. It’s been an interesting transition, trying to be a businessman but keep the respect for the art and the growth of it and the passion of it all. So it’s been a long journey, but I guess that’s my history.

Would you say tattooing and art became an outlet for you growing up in a rougher neighborhood?

The cool thing about art and tattooing was I was able to sit in the middle and deal with all the types of people that were in that area, and be in this neutral point. It was all on me, and it didn't rely on anybody else. I was able to be in this really wonderful neutral point with art, and it kept me cool with everybody, which was nice.

How did music play into you growing up? 

Music is such an important part of life—it’s one of the most important. Even just working—we did a little bit of TV stuff here, and when we film we can’t listen to music, and it’s just painful. Where you have an eight-hour day with no music, it’s really hard because you don’t realize how much it’s a part of your life. Sometimes you don’t even realize how much you appreciate it until you don’t have it for a whole day, when you’re used to having it. But for me, I really got into hip-hop and rap, just because I related better to the struggle and the hustle, and that was more the scene I grew up in. My older brother listened to a lot of metal and punk, and then my younger brother listened to a lot of hardcore. But for me personally, it was a little bit of gangster rap and a little bit of that time period of the nineties that was happenin’ with NWA and Ice Cube and a lot of stuff that was a little more gangster. I kind of went away from that and got into smarter stuff like Wu-Tang and JAY Z and people that were eloquently putting words down and doin’ it in a real likeable way. So I’ve always just been a really hip-hop guy.  But also working in a tattoo environment for almost twenty years, you work with other people that listen to other kinds of music, so I get to have a lot of insight on other stuff. And so I’ve been schooled by a lot of friends and really learned a big appreciation for different styles. I always say if it’s made with passion and talent I can dig it—as opposed to something that’s just made up for the market.

You mentioned that you’re listening to Jay. What other artists are you listening to right now?

It’s pretty dark. I listen to tons of early 2000s hip-hop: Gang Starr, Wu-Tang, Pac, a little Biggie, a lot of Jay, Common, a little Kanye, Styles P, Nas, of course, a little bit of Eminem. That era was really an integral part of my growing up, so I still refer to that a lot for just musical enjoyment. The modern stuff’s a little harder for me to get into. I still do, and now I realize, being older, that sometimes music is just an escape, and it doesn’t have to be super smart. It can just be a release, and it can be just for the music. It doesn’t have to be for the lyrics. It can take you away, you know? Music does so much on so many different levels, but for me I’m kinda stuck in the early 2000s and late nineties with a lot of what I listen to all the time. The ‘Golden Era’ of hip-hop.

Wessman.GoVoteSpeaking of music and JAY Z, let's talk about the artwork you created for the #GoVote campaign. Can you tell us about your creative process for it?

I stayed up here late and I was waiting for everyone to leave so I could just have the whole shop to myself so I could think clear. And I just thought, scan in your brain as an artist. What imagery works for voting? Luckily you have Google, so I Googled up a little bit of voting stuff to spark some ideas of what kind of imagery would work and get the basic stuff, like a voting box and maybe a voting ticket or something to represent putting it in. Then you mentioned that it was gonna be tied in with the JAY Z tour, so I wanted to tie in the imagery with that—not overdone, but something that somebody that knows what’s up would know. So I thought, oh cool, I wanna get his ‘throwin’ the rock up’ sign with a ticket in the middle. I had one of the guys that was working here, our shop guy, hold a little piece of paper and give me a frame of reference on how the hands would be, and how the ticket would work, and I took a little photo of it for reference. So I mocked up his hands and made the fingers, and I just wanted to figure out how to cap ‘em and give ‘em an ending so they didn’t just disappear, so I did that weird ornate stuff. And then I always do roses a lot; it’s a very timeless tattoo thing, so I was like, okay, I’ll add a couple roses or something, and then I liked the idea of the bird, of some sense of motion and being active. I tried to piece that stuff together and then do it in my style, which is classic tattoo imagery. And I always love tying in the hands like that: something away from tattooing, and doing it in a tattoo style, ‘cuz it’s fun. And then I tried to color it bright. I was working a marathon in Dallas, which was like a tattoo-a-thon where it was a Friday the thirteenth thing—twenty-four hours of straight tattooing. My game face for that convention was on. I sat down, took a few hours, made it work.

How do you feel about being a part of JAY Z’s tour with your artwork encouraging people to get out and vote?

I’m super honored. I really appreciate his work ethic and his business mind and his rap genius, so to be tied in with him on any capacity is a big honor, and I’m really, really excited about that and proud of it for sure. The idea of just bein’ tied in on any level with him is really cool—it is a big honor.

If you could give a message to somebody going to a JAY Z show, what message would you give them?

I think we forget sometimes that we have these little bubbles of our lives, but the big picture is we’re all in this together, we’re all on the planet together, and a consciousness of unity is important. We all get blinded by work and our little families and these nice bubbles that we try to build for our lives, and sometimes you neglect that we’re all working together in this. I luckily have a good group of friends: we are like-minded and conscious about we’re not the only people on the planet; there’s a lot of people here. Now a lot of my friends are having babies, which also gives you a new perspective on future and the world, ‘cuz it isn’t just you as a person. You’re raising kids, and the kids need to be here when we’re gone, and so it’s a huge big picture that a lot of people tend to forget. Especially young kids, ‘cuz they’re just building their lives and developing their social interactions and themselves as adults or young adults, so to just remember that we’re all in this together - we all gotta pay attention.