Interview: Gene Coffey

Long Island City, NY

The text of a pre-shoot interview with Gene Coffey

What follows is the text of a pre-shoot interview with tattoo artist Gene Coffey. Watch the film here.

RA: How did you start out?

GC: When I was like eleven or twelve, I found a tube of oil paint in the garage. I was like, “What’s this?” So, I’ve always been painting. But, it’s only within the last couple of years that I feel like I’m a real artist. Tattooing allowed me to do that, to make that transition from having a job to having a lifestyle. It’s not like I get to retire from doing this. You don’t get to retire from being an artist. When you’re an artist, you do it until you die.

RA: Were you always into tattoos?

GC: I didn’t get a tattoo until I was around 25. I was just super poor. I thought tattoos were super expensive and I didn’t think I could afford it. I didn’t want some gnarly punk tattoo, and somehow in my twenty-year-old brain, I equated having a good tattoo with spending thousands of dollars.

RA: How did you develop your own tattooing style?

GC: I had a traditional apprenticeship. The guy I apprenticed for had a very traditional street-shop mindset, so I had to be able to do everything. Whatever the customer wanted, I had to be able to do that. My personal work was not very tattoo-able. One day, one of my customers was going through my sketch-book and she says, “Would you ever tattoo this on me?” It was this non-objective, messy blob of ink, and I said, “Hey, let’s do it.” It was a horrible tattoo. I mean, in retrospect, it was pretty ugly but nobody else was doing anything like that. Everybody at the shop was kind of disgusted by what I had done but she was totally happy and I was totally happy.

RA: Your paintings and your tattoos are very different.

GC: Well, the mediums are very different. With tattooing, you only get one pass. There are no corrections or happy accidents. I’m known for doing watercolor tattoos with colorful, abstract patterns but the technique I use is very traditional. Each drip or abstract blob must be tattooed on. Painting on a canvas is just a much different process.

RA: What are the influences for your paintings?

GC: I guess my paintings would fall under the category of pop art. Lately, I’ve been painting crowds of people that I assemble from photographs. Each of these people is witnessing something horrible, like a murder, a lynching or a public execution. It’s subtle, but I want that horror to come through. It’s my commentary on the world right now. As far as influences, I love Roy Lichtenstein, Wayne Thiebaud, Edward Hopper, Street Art, Comic Books. Comic Books have had a bigger aesthetic influence on me than anything else.

RA: So, tattooing facilitates the painting?

GC: Yes. Definitely. Tattooing has allowed me to start painting nonstop. I tattoo three or four days a week and then I paint a couple days a week. I’ve started selling more and more painting the past couple of years, which is great.

RA: What’s your goal with your artwork?

GC: Obviously, I’d love to get with Pace or some fancy gallery. But, it’s so hard to get your foot in those doors. It’s sort of like this incestuous community where they pilfer artists from other galleries. I’m not very good at the socializing part of that. I’m a bit of a hermit. But, I don’t really care, that’s the great thing. I sell paintings here and there, but I don’t need to because I sell a painting every single day. It’s just on somebody’s skin.

Written By

Roderick Angle is a photographer and filmmaker based in New York City.

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