Interview by Scott Campbell, photos by Andrew Peters
What happens when you put two tattoo artists in the same room and press record on a Dictaphone?
You get a couple hours’ worth of tattoo shop libber-jabber. If you’ve ever gone to get a tattoo (you’re a special person if you haven’t), you’ll be familiar with tattoo shop chitchat. It’s fun, a bit bitchy, and everyone throws their two cents. And that’s what we have here—or had here. We had to cut 30,000 words of tattoo shop prattle to make room for the pertinent stuff about Nathan Kostechko, the artist and subject of this interview. Email us for the full transcript.
Okay. First question: How the fuck do you say your last name?
There’s two ways you can say it. I was told that the English way is Kostechko.
And the European way is Kostechko.
How does your mom say it?
My mom and dad say Kostechko.
Kostechko? And when you go to the DMV, you say?
Okay. So, Nathan Kostechko?
Got it. Middle name?
Andrew. Got it.
After my uncle who died on the way to the bathroom one Christmas.
That’s the story I heard. I could be wrong.
Top three formative childhood experiences?
Top three? Meeting the Hennings family when I was a kid. We moved to a new house, and I was hiking around in the neighbourhood. I saw these blond-haired brothers building a mini ramp. And then, the next week was first grade and I sat down next to one of them. And I was like, ‘Hey, I saw you building a mini ramp the other day,’ and he’s like, ‘Oh, dude, come on over.’ So, we were instantly best friends. And they were this crazy Mormon family. It was Steve, Dave, Aaron and Julie. Steve was my age, everybody else was older, but he ripped it skating, he could play fucking Jimi Hendrix, drew amazing waves, he was awesome. And he taught me how to surf, skate, and draw. And at the time, his brother was an artist for Billabong. So, when I was like five, I watched this guy drawing graphics for a company and I was like, that’s what I want to do. So that was a huge moment. I stayed friends with him forever, until… They were Mormons…
I was going to say, that’s a small family for Mormons. Only seven kids?
[Laughs] Yeah. I hurt my ankle when I was a teenager and started getting really into smoking pot and stuff like that, getting into trouble, and our friendship kind of fell apart. I started doing drugs, he continued being a good person. So, there’s that. And then, in junior high and high school (I was) getting noticed for making art, and realised I could have a career with it. I was asked to paint a mural at the junior high, and then I was the high school comic book artist in the newspaper… I actually graduated high school because of making art.
Yeah. I got kicked out of high school. And then I ended up doing the work at the continuation school. My teacher said if I painted murals in the classroom, she would give me credit. All I had to do was show up. As long as I showed up for ten minutes, I could leave; the murals just had to be done by the end of the year. So, I did that and graduated high school. I kind of finagled my way through by making art.
As a fellow dropout, having a diploma is really critical to get into tattooing.
Okay, so it sounds like drugs were a big fork in the road as well?
Do you love drugs?
Yeah, I think they’re amazing, but there’s this romantic thing about them. Every person you’ve ever looked up to was a complete drug addict.
I know you well enough now to know that drugs aren’t really a part of your daily life anymore. And the only reason I feel comfortable even asking you about it is because I know you’ve reconciled your relationship with drugs.
There were two profound moments with you, and speaking to me about drugs, that helped me get through it.
So, back in the day, when I used to come to New York and guest spot at Saved [Tattoo], I remember one night I was working late and it was just you and me, and we barely knew each other. I finished up tattooing, and you were working on art in the back. And you were like, ‘What are you going to go do?’ I’m like, ‘I’m going to go fucking party, dude! I’m going to go into the city,’ and you’re like, ‘Dude, don’t. Stop fucking partying and make art.’ And I was too young and stupid to realise you were giving me really good advice. And then, later on, when you moved to L.A. and opened the shop out here, you talked to me about working there. And you asked me personal things about my life and I was like, ‘I’m trying to stop partying and doing drugs and drinking and shit,’ and you’re like, ‘Well fucking do it, you’re blowing it, you have potential.’ There’s a few people and friends in my life that said things like that, that got me to cut it out. So, yes, I did love drugs, but I hate them very much. They’ll ruin your fucking life.
Yeah, it’s not a sustainable lifestyle.
It doesn’t help you. I get super annoyed at the portrayal of creatives needing to have this drug-fuelled, chaotic life to find inspiration. Like, you have to get out of your body in order to do better work.
Like it’s going to bring some sort of genius.
Yeah, it’s like Dash Snow was such a beautiful person and that idea, the romantic idea of the artist on drugs… killed him. And it’s killed a few of my friends. It’s just dumb.
You’re saying that idea influenced him to continue on that path?
No, I never want to put words in Dash’s mouth because he’s not here to speak for himself. But I think there is a tendency to romanticise creatives who die tragically, you know? Like, an alcoholic artist is a stereotype for a reason.
Perfect example—it ruined him.
Yeah. I understand in the history books you go down in a blaze of glory but, fuck it, live for yourself.
Can you imagine what Dash would be making right now? Or anyone who lost their life early to drugs? If they got clean, to see what would have happened or what ideas that would have come from their pure, clean self. I think it’s good to experiment, but just don’t let it take over your life and ruin it.
For artists, it’s tricky because it’s… I don’t know. I’ve dabbled in the fine art world, as you have, and… I think all the gallerists that I’ve worked with, even the ones I like the most, secretly hoped I would die while they were representing me.
Because they’re like, ‘Oh, we love this painting.’ And it’s like, ‘Oh you don’t do drugs? Shit, well, you’re not going to die a tragic death soon, so your market value isn’t going to go up.’ I think that’s why gallerists can be particularly evil because they all kind of want their artists to die young.
They want you to play the part.
Yeah. They’re like, just die young because I have all this work of yours.
They’re like, ‘Oh, you like cocaine? Here’s a shit ton of it.’
Every opening, they push that shit. Anyway, so how’s your art show going?
[Laughs] It’s good. I’ve honed in on the subject matter and style…
Tell me about the show, where is it?
It’s here in L.A., at the Monster Children space on March 3rd, 2020.
Where’s their space?
Chinatown. It’s called 1700 Naud, which is the address.
They host a bunch of events and art shows there. The show came up because I’m coming out with the Emerica shoe soon and we wanted to do a release of it. I wanted to have something more than just a shoe sitting in a giant room for people to look at. So, I’m creating a body of work that coincides with the shoe and isn’t too serious. Just more like, a stream of consciousness on paper, not too planned, just letting shit fall onto paper.
I know in the past, I’ve definitely felt a pull from the art world and tattooing. Sometimes they pull me in the same direction. Sometimes I feel like they’re pulling against each other. What’s your relationship with tattooing? Between tattooing and fine art, is one a priority, and how do split up your time? Do you see yourself ever committing to one or the other, or…?
Well, it is super hard to separate the two.
And the tattooing world doesn’t take the fine art world too seriously, and the fine art world doesn’t take tattooing too seriously. So, you’re kind of fucked and stuck in the middle of the two. Trying to create a body of work that is more digestible for one group or the other, and trying to separate them is what’s the hardest part. I feel like I’m two people living in one body. And I’m a Gemini, so it kind of makes sense, and might help a little bit. Luckily, I have a studio now, I have an art space and a tattoo space. So, I can go in there every day, spend my mornings painting, drawing, working on personal projects or art-related projects. And then basically set an alarm so that when that goes off, it’s time to start tattooing. I mean, I fucking love tattooing. It’s the only reason I’m doing what I’m doing and what I have in my life. So, I’ll always do it. But there’s something very satisfying about painting. I could see myself growing old and doing that and being fine with it. Tattooing is very demanding.
How so? What makes tattooing harder?
Becoming more popular, you end up having a higher demand for work, and you have to schedule that. So then you have months of appointments and have to stick to a schedule. I wanted to tattoo so I didn’t have to get a real job, and now it’s become a real job.
Do you feel more inspired sitting down in front of a blank canvas, or sitting down in front of a blank arm?
Honestly, it depends on the person. That’s the thing.
You can meet somebody, they come in and you just fucking click and they get it, and you’re like, this is going to be so much fun. I can do whatever I want right now. Or they’ll have good feedback and we’ll come up with something great. That’s the beautiful thing, is sometimes you’re scrapped for ideas and that person’s got ‘em. When you sit in front of the canvas, it’s not going to be throwing ideas at you. But when I wake up, I’m usually thinking, ‘God, I want to go make a painting right now.’ Not like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to go tattoo.’
It’s true, though, sitting down in front of a blank canvas can be… You have to figure out where to begin. But when you sit down with a person’s arm, you never really have a blank canvas because you always have that person to react to.
Exactly. The beautiful thing about tattooing is, our portfolios look like we have these crazy ideas, but I’d say 80 per cent of it can be the client’s input. Like, ‘Man, that was such a fucking cool Grim Reaper’ or whatever, and you’re like, ‘Well, they asked for it to be standing with its back to you and looking back with a grin—so, that wasn’t my idea.’ But painting is all on you.
Do you have painters that you think about when you sit down in your studio, do you have a top five most inspiring painters?
What do you got?
I have a pretty good collection of books that I tap into all the time. I’d say Gerhard Richter is top of the list. He’s got a good couple different types of styles he works in, which makes me feel more comfortable with having different styles… This is a good question…
If you’re sitting there and you’re like, fuck it, I don’t even know where to start today, what books do you go to, to get the juices flowing?
I’ll look at Gerhard Richter… Filip Leu. He’s not a painter, but I’m inspired by Filip Leu the tattoo artist. I’ve looked at The Leu Family’s Family Iron book probably every day for the past fifteen years.
I’m trying to think what books I’ve been pulling out lately, because I’ve been doing that. Sometimes it’s not necessarily their work, but the person. Something about them and the way they compose their works inspires me… Danny Fox, I love looking at his work.
Yeah, he’s awesome.
It’s grown on me over the years. I feel like I’m finally getting it. I love Wes Lang’s work, too. It fucking rules.
And honestly, you. I’ve always been a huge fan. I dig your shit.
That’s really what I was fishing for.
I mean it. I love your shit, dude. It’s fucking great. I don’t have lasers, so I can’t do that sci-fi shit that you get to do, but maybe I’ll get them one day.
Well, mi laser es su laser, anytime. Let’s see… It’s hard interviewing another tattooer because I have such strong feelings about it. I feel like I enjoy tattooing 20 per cent of the time, and hate it 80 per cent of the time. No, okay, that’s not fair. I’d say it’s 50/50.
20/80 is pretty spot on.
Tattooing is a fucking hard business. And it’s really interesting because tattooing is now such a part of pop culture, and its cultural impact is fucking enormous, but the people doing it are still fucking broke ass, blue-collar workers. I’ve said it before, we’re strippers of the art world: you get into it because you’re young and you want to dye your hair green and listen to fucking punk rock all day long and draw skulls. And here’s an opportunity where you can do that and not go hungry. It’s amazing. You’re like, the king of the gutter punks. But now here we are… I’m over forty, no health insurance, my glasses are getting thicker by the minute; I feel like a stripper who’s trying to figure out how to get off the pole.
You’re gonna end up at the Clermont Lounge.
[Laughs] How old are you?
Okay, so you’re young. Do you feel pressure—obviously, you’re doing a lot of collaborations, a lot of other things—do you feel pressure to put other irons in the fire for the sake of surviving after fifty?
Yes. I was thinking about it this morning like, is tattooing going to fucking keep being as good as it is to me, you know, in the future? Am I going to have this going on forever? I say yes to every tattoo because I feel like it’s the last fucking one someone’s going to ask me for. It’s getting so popular, so many people are doing it; anybody can tattoo now. All you got to do is go online and get a tattoo machine. And you can come up with one little style and figure out how to tattoo that, make a career from it and charge a lot of money. But I got people who are charging the same hourly rate that don’t have… You and I could tattoo super-fast but these people tattoo slow and they’re charging the same rate and making double, it’s crazy.
True, but anybody can also paint, and make T-shirts, and design shoes.
Yes, true. Okay, good point.
But, you have inherent magic sparkle dust.
[Laughs] Yeah, thanks, I like that tattoo sparkle dust. But I think it’s important because it will make tattooing not be such a thing that… I don’t want it to become something that I resent or don’t look forward to doing. If I have multiple things going on, I can take time away and come back with a fresh pair of eyes and be psyched about it, because I love tattooing. I grew up in a tattoo shop.
Okay. Surfing. I know surfing is a big part of your life. Anything surf-wise you want to get off your chest? I’ve never surfed. But there’s all those studies that show colouring books improve your emotional wellbeing? You know, they have those adult colouring books?
I really feel like tattooers are lucky because we get to spend so many hours of our day drawing, and I really love the meditation I get when I draw; it’s really grounding, emotionally. I feel like I process a lot of my life stuff while I’m drawing, and I’ve always imagined surfing has a similar effect because you meet surfers and they seem so emotionally well-balanced. [Laughs] I completely agree with that. And that’s a huge reason why I do it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten way more into it.
Do you feel like that’s because your anxiety has gone up as you get older, so you need more surfing to balance out all the anxiety?
Yeah. I think the anxiety has gone up. Also, when I was a kid, I’d ask my dad how he’d wake up at 5AM, and he’d be like, ‘I just do.’ I’m like that now—not partying or doing drugs or anything, and I naturally wake up early and have way more hours in the day. And have better health. So, I can get up early, when the waves are good. And it takes a lot of work to go do it. It’s not just like, get up and walk down to the beach—I’ve got to drive an hour, I’ve got to do it at five in the morning to get there in time for the sunrise to get the right waves.
And that water is cold.
And the water is cold. The waves are good in the winter, so you got to go surf in the winter and it’s cold. It’s challenging but it’s very satisfying because you put in that fucking work to get it. And there’s this weird, what’s the word, like, when you have to go through a sequence of things to get ready…
Ritual. That’s the word I’m looking for. But the ritual, you know, you wake up and you pick out what board you’re going to ride, you get your wetsuit and all the crap you need to go down there, you pack up your car. Driving there from where I live in Echo Park, I’d take a route where I’d go through the Malibu mountains, so it’s a beautiful ride, you’re in the city, and all of a sudden, you’re not. Come out of the mountains, it’s so foggy and then the beach appears, you get down there, you kick it for a minute, watch the waves, figure out where you want to go. I like to go by myself because you can listen to music and just not talk to anybody…
And then by 9 AM you feel like you’ve already accomplished something.
Dude, totally. By 9AM you’ve had a full-blown workout. You’ve been breathing super-heavy, your arms are cooked. And if you at least get one good wave… I can’t really explain the feeling. Also, my favourite part about surfing is sitting in the water and facing out at the ocean, waiting for waves to come. Your back is to the world. You’re literally putting your back towards everything that you deal with day to day and you’re just facing the ocean’s vast, open, nothingness, waiting for something maybe.
You kind of just sold me on surfing.
It’s the shit.
Will you take me surfing sometime?
I would love to.
See more from Issue 65 of Monster Children by picking up a copy online or at your local newsagents, and check out Nathan’s work on his website or Instagram @nathan_kostechko