Tat2X Interview with Seattle Tattoo Artist Jeff Cornell
Posted on November 04 2016
Tat2x: How long have you been involved in the tattoo business?
Jeff and April Cornell are co-owners of Hidden Hand Tattoo in Fremont, and are the hosts of this year’s annual Seattle Tattoo Expo, Monday, Aug. 3, 2015.[/caption]Jeff Cornell: I started getting tattooed in 1993, when I was 21. I lived in Iowa at the time and there weren’t many shops around that interested me or I would have started getting tattooed a lot sooner. It wasn’t until after I moved to Seattle that I got apprenticed and started tattooing. That was in 1996. So, that puts me at just a few months shy of 20 years tattooing now.
Tat2X: What made you decide to become a tattoo artist?
Jeff Cornell: Tattooing for me started as “Plan B”, if you can believe that. I wanted to be a rock star and hadn’t really planned for much other than that. As I was reaching my mid-twenties and the rock star thing was not really happening, I decided it was time to find a better way to support my music habit than working in kitchens and painting houses, which had been my main forms of employment up to that time.
Tat2x: How did you learn the art of tattooing? Did you apprentice?
Jeff Cornell: My good friend and bandmate Chad Hartgrave had started tattooing a couple of years prior and ended up as the manager/lead artist at a little shop called Atomic Garden. Keep in mind that at this time, tattooing wasn’t something that people went and got into or looked at as a career with any regularity. I was used to being broke as hell and didn’t expect to get rich. I just wanted to be able to make a living, be a freak and have a flexible schedule so I could do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it.
This shop was a crappy little spot in the U District above a used record store, but we had the run of the place. Chad agreed to apprentice me, reluctantly, as he wasn’t exactly experienced at the time, either. He taught me what he knew and put me through my paces as best as he could. We worked together and improved the shop until it was a pretty nice little studio. In the end I did more of an apprenticeship than most of the people I know from that era. We ended up hiring a guy named Louis Martinez who was very willing to help me learn, as well. I spent as much time as I could at the shop and learned everything i could as fast as I could and within a few months, was doing better tattoos than any of the “artists” who came looking for jobs, so I was put to work.
Tat2x: Are there any artists tattoos or otherwise that you admire?
Jeff Cornell: The first artist who’s name I remember learning was Frank Frazetta and I still consider him to be one of the all time greats. Of course his subject material is right up my alley, what with the buxom women and the brutal characters and monsters, but his approach to his painting is what really amazes me. It’s so visceral. I always see his brush strokes as the marks of a weapon wielded with accuracy and deadly precision. He is definitely a favorite.
Other artists who I find inspiring are William Bouguereau, Gustave Dore, Arthur Rackham, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Leonardo DaVinci, Salvador Dali, M.C. Escher, H.R. Giger, Alex Grey, Robert Williams and Michael Parks. This is a short list of very well known and famous artists who’s works have enriched my own abilities and talents over the years. By no means is this meant to be a complete list. As a tattooer, you learn to use whatever you have at your disposal to create designs, often on the fly, for your clients. It is often said that any tattooer is only as good as their library.
As for tattooers, I have my close friends and acquaintances who have inspired me and who continue to inspire me and drive me to keep working to improve what I can in my work. At first I was really drawn to the work of well known artists in the magazines and the guys who were drawing the greatest flash, but I really tend to like to look closer to home for my heroes. Early on I was fortunate to land a job at Slave to the Needle when it was still very young and hungry and was able to work closely with Aaron Bell and Damon Conklin. That experience was huge in my early development as a tattooer. Over the years, I have also been blessed to work alongside Brad Ramsey, Jesse Roberts and Matt Arriola, all of whom were driven and talented and who therefore helped to keep me driven and inspired. These days I have an amazing crew of talented artists working at my shop who not only excite and inspire me, but who also keep me on my toes so as not to fall into lameness and irrelevancy. They are Jamie King, Mike Tidwell, Asher Bowers, Marco Sullivan and my lovely and talented wife, April Cornell.
Now, since this is the name dropping part of the interview, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention at least a few other tattooers who made big impacts on my life so here goes- Chris Gay, Atom Messmer, Derek Noble, Jimmy the Saint, Ernie Gosnell, Telisa Swan, Dan Dringenbergh, Louis Perez III, Nate Drew, Henry Lewis, Marco Bratt, Shawn Barber, Geoff Gogue, Big Gus, Cory Norris, Omar Edmison and Scott Schafer.
Tat2x: Has any individual in particular influenced your career?
Jeff Cornell: Many individuals have influenced my career. Look at the list above and imagine about 100 more artists I’ve met over the years. Hell, I’ve probably forgotten as many names as I remember. The real answer to this question, however, would be my wife April. Meeting her and having our daughters has been the single most impactful series of events on my career, by far. They have made me more driven and more purposeful in every aspect of my life and have truly inspired me to make the most of myself for them and our future. I think anyone with a family can understand how that goes.
Tat2x: What would you say is your favorite part of the job?
Jeff Cornell: There really isn’t much about tattooing I don’t like. I have had the great fortune of having numerous normal jobs prior to tattooing, which allows me to never forget how absolutely blessed I am to be in this industry. Seriously, I don’t get how tattooers can bitch so much about their work. Its got to be the most amazing way to make a living ever. And now it’s cool. When I started tattooing, it wasn’t cool to anyone other than the few people who thought it was cool- and I mean FEW. Some of my friends thought it was cool until i had to start charging them. Other tattooers didn’t even think you were cool. No one believed in it as a career choice. My mother cried when I told her I was going to be a tattooer. She told me it was a waste of my talents. Ha! I told her drinking away the irritations of wage slavery while drawing dirty pictures on bar napkins was a waste of my talents.
But if I had to pick one thing that is my favorite part of tattooing, it is the experience of improving someone’s self image. You take someone from this point of wanting to have an image, a power symbol, a memorial put on their body. They want it but they may not even know what it looks like yet. You create this image and then you take them on this journey and along the way they change- you change them. And at the end of that journey, they have the image and they know that they are different and they know that they are capable of something that they weren’t sure of before. You have helped them make themselves better. Like I tell people, your tattoo may or may not change the way others look at you, that will depend on them. But it will definitely change the way you look at yourself.
That’s a big part of why I love doing fix ups and cover ups. People come in with tattoos that didn’t do that for them. Or worse yet, tattoos that they hate or that are reminders of negative experiences. When you can take something like that and turn it into something that they are happy with and that they want to show off out in the world, you just changed that person’s whole life for the better. You just made their dreams come true. There is nothing better than that.
Tat2x: How would you describe your style? Is there a style you prefer or enjoy?
Jeff Cornell: I don’t like to think of myself as having a specialty, but I definitely have a natural leaning to realistic illustrative. Meaning that I like to draw pictures of things. I am okay with the more graphic kinds of designs and whatnot, but I definitely feel more comfortable with proper subject matter. Beyond that, I really like to do black and gray work and I feel like I get a lot of requests for it. I am also very good with color, but I guess I lean towards the black and gray look.
I learned at a time when you really just had to be prepared to do whatever came in the door. The idea that you could specialize was something reserved for veterans who had put in a lot of time building a reputation and a clientele that would sustain that, so I really became proficient in as many styles as possible.
Tat2x: What’s the most unusual request for a tattoo design you have ever had?
Jeff Cornell: I am not really sure I can answer this question anymore. After 20 years, there isn’t much that surprises me or that I consider unusual. I don’t really attract the wild and weird clients these days, which is fine with me. I’m not much into the side show tattooing crap, as I call it. I just want to do good, clean, cool tattoos of power symbols that enhance people’s visions of themselves. The most unusual thing to me these days is how many people seem to consider the tree to be their spirit animal.
Tat2x: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists tattoo or otherwise?
Jeff Cornell: Turn off the TV, ignore the trends and rock stars and follow your heart. Find what is inspirational inside you and follow that.
If what you want is to be famous then get famous. If what you want is to be rich, then get into tech, business or banking. If you want to be an artist, of any kind, then shut out the noise, put your head down and get to work. Put your time in and make it count for the people you touch with your art. This world is so full of information and imagery and too many people are mistaking that for knowledge and inspiration when most of the time its a bunch of self aggrandizing bullshit. Get in touch with who you are and be authentic. That will see you through for the long haul. And thats what it is, a long haul.
Tat2x: What kind of music do you like to listen to?
Jeff Cornell: I am a rock and roll and heavy metal guy, for the most part. I am also old enough to be most tattooers’ father, so I don’t listen to much that was recorded after 1985. Although, I am very happy that there is a strong and authentic resurgence of roots metal and doom these days, which is nice. After the grunge craze of the early ’90’s, it was very difficult to weed out the starfuckers from the real rockers. Now that the feeding frenzy is over and most of the big label influence has abandoned metal and heavy rock, its all authentic and mostly driven by fan based excitement.
I also enjoy some old country and the occasional country/bluegrass/punk kind of stuff. I try to stay open minded as I get older. I don’t want to turn into an out of touch geezer.
I’m lucky to have some real music hounds around me at work and elsewhere, or otherwise I would keep searching back through the archives for old cool stuff I haven’t yet heard. Or I’d just keep jamming the ’70’s acid rock and the bands that were inspired by it.
I also have a few very good friends in the music biz and they keep me up to date in some regards and i get to see some pretty great shows from the side stage. Thats nice. It’s pretty cool that most of the new music I buy is straight from the merch tables at the shows I got to.
Tat2x: What are your favorite foods?
Jeff Cornell: Unfortunately, my favorite foods are mostly things I can’t really eat much of anymore. If I could eat the way I used to, I would be gobbling barbecued ribs and garlic mashed potatoes and drinking expensive whisky a few times a week. I would be breaking up the barbecue monotony with fried chicken and baked beans with cornbread and honey, sushi feasts with bottles and bottles of sake, big farmer breakfasts with 3 meats and both pancakes and French toast as sides…..
But alas. I have had to abandon this diet. A combination of vanity, age related health concerns and an increasingly agonizing consciousness of my carbon footprint have changed the way I eat dramatically. I refuse to put a label on my dietary leanings, but I primarily eat organic fruits, vegetables, grains, roots and legumes. I also eat a lot of nuts. I am very lucky that I live in an environment that very conveniently supports these leanings. Very close to the shop is a great Coop grocery with an amazing deli and there are a great many restaurants in the area. I love it all, really. I’m kind of a foodie.
And I am absolutely helpless in the face of good pastries. Especially Scandinavian pastries. Kringle, yum!
Tat2x: What do you do to relax when you’re not at the studio?
Jeff Cornell: For relaxation I like to read, play my guitar and write songs. I spend as much time around home as I can. I have 2 daughters and between running the shop and tattooing and doing drawings for tattoos and them being in school and trying to have their own lives, any time I can spend with them is precious. I like to try and make meals for them and eat together at least a couple nights a week. We have dogs and cats and so our house is kind of chaotic, but it’s still a safe, peaceful place and I do like to relax there.
I’ve been jamming with some guys lately and I am hoping to start playing music more again. That’s something that I haven’t been as active in for the last decade, so I am looking forward to that.
I do read a lot. I much prefer it to movies or video games. I read a lot of non fiction stuff. Politics and history interest me. I get into the hidden history, the alternative narratives that are available. I also like to rummage through the classics. I didn’t do humanities in school, so I am trying to make my way through all of the literary standards eventually.
I also golf. Sometimes I golf a lot. During the more temperate months, I often keep my clubs in the car just in case I get a cancellation or something. I will go to one of the regular courses around town and walk on for 9 holes. It’s like yoga for me.
And I have rediscovered the value of working out regularly. I have found that keeping up with a few kickboxing classes a week does wonders for my health and my disposition.
Tat2x: Is there anything else we should know about you or your studio?
Jeff Cornell: Well, you should know that we are located at 3516, Fremont Place North. It’s in the heart of the center of the universe, Fremont , Seattle, Washington. You can also find us on the Internet at www.hiddenhandtattoo.com, on Facebook and on Instagram by searching for Hidden Hand Tattoo.
You should know that we have a great crew of very talented and very down to earth, humble, nice tattooers. We have great counter people who work their asses off for us! They work their asses off for our clients, too. Bryan and Michelle really make it so that we artists can just come in, do our drawings and make tattoo dreams come true. It’s pretty great.
You should know that we stay pretty busy so call or email ahead and set appointments.
Lastly, I guess you should know that April and I, as well as all of the great artists we’ve worked with, have put a lot of love and hard work into this shop and we are very proud of it. If you get the chance, you should check it out. It’s a cool space.
More About Seattle Tattoo Artist Jeff Cornell:
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