Traveling around the country, booking appointments on his cell phone, and tattooing “semi-legally” from hotel rooms, errant tattooer Max Kuhn‘s way of tattooing seems to attract almost as many followers as the tattoos themselves. Yet, one would be remiss to write off such travels as gimmicky; anyone who looks closely at his tattoos–bold, romantic, nostalgic interpretations of classic Americana–can feel how their imagery and facture seem inextricably bound to his life as a tattoo outsider; with thick lines and bold shading, they’re a little bit crude, but dynamically angular, clever and strong. We recently caught up with Max to talk about his work, travels, and why he eschews the tattoo “community.”
How did you first start tattooing?
When I was a young teenager and really wanted to start getting tattoos, I didn’t have any money. The (pretty naive) way I saw it was: I could try to come up with $100 and then either buy myself a tattoo or buy a tattoo kit and give myself unlimited tattoos. I had some older skateboarding friends who had tattoo equipment floating around and took turns doing stick figures and devil heads and stuff on each other. I didn’t know anything about tattoos and didn’t really get to see tattoos very often so the stuff they had, to me, looked pretty good. It seemed possible, anyway. I got some equipment and I gave myself some terrible tattoos. I also tattooed a few friends that bullied me into it but I really didn’t have any ambition to do tattooing. I just wanted to have tattoos. Doing it myself was just the easiest way to get them. I was 16 and had no idea what I was doing, literally no idea. I’d never really seen anyone tattoo before, I was feeling around in the dark. Tattooing myself was really messy and frustrating and the results were so terrible I knocked it off pretty quick.
When did you start thinking about tattooing seriously (and professionally)?
The start of my professional tattooing is closely tied into an elaborate 5-point self-improvement plan self improvement that I came up with when I was 19. Most of that is irrelevant here so I can try to explain an incomplete version:
I’ve never really been able to work a regular job. I’ve done it before, of course, but never for more than a few weeks. I don’t know why, but I fall apart when I have a job. Can’t do it. For a few years I was half supporting myself stealing a lot and either staying with generous friends or finding cheap rent situations. I’d get a job or do odd jobs once or twice a year, long enough to get a couple of paychecks to buy things I couldn’t steal. Mostly my time was my own. I could wake up when I wanted and leave town when I wanted, and I never had anywhere I needed to be, and that feels good. At the time I decided to start tattooing, though, I had become aware that, in a year or two, everyone I’d grown up with would have college degrees or at least be working a job their parents could tell their friends about. I, on the other hand, was living in an 8″x10″ shed in my friends’ backyard and I stole stacks of Levi’s jeans so I could sell them to buy minutes for my cell phone. I enjoyed things okay right then, but I didn’t want to still be relying on shoplifting and handouts when I was 30, so I started focusing my free time on developing a trade.
I started with tattooing because I was familiar with it from my experiments on myself when I was younger (but it could have been tailoring or shoe repair or whatever and would have been fine had tattooing not panned out for me). I just needed to have something I could do to support myself better and not push my luck until I went to jail. I lived in this metal shed for the winter practicing drawing and painting. When I felt ready, I stole a bunch of expensive graphing calculators and sold them on the Internet to buy what I thought was really nice tattoo equipment. I got a job as a dishwasher so I could pay rent for a real room and I tattooed on myself and some friends at night. Eventually I took a folder of really scratchy tattoos and watercolors around to tattoo shops hoping to find an apprenticeship. I was received about as well as you’d expect but finally someone let me come work at a shop.
The guys who let me in were incredibly nice, but they didn’t really seem to be able to tell how bad I was. Basically, they had me tattooing regular customers right away. I was still doing the same scratcher tattoos with the same scratcher equipment, but I had this guise of legitimacy from being in a shop. They gave me the ability to continue teaching myself tattooing in a safer environment. Of course, you can learn a lot just from being around a tattoo shop but the holes in my would-be education, even just in observing, were crazy. My boss only used pneumatic tattoo machines, the shop didn’t have an autoclave or a thermofax. Later on, when I got the opportunity to work in other tattoo shops, I’d have to pretend I already knew how to do basic things like making a stencil or tuning a machine. I used to get frustrated that that they weren’t able to teach me tattooing but now I’m just thankful for how things have eventually turned out. I’ve had a lot a great mentors since then and learned a lot from traveling and observing. People I’ve met have always shared what they know with me, whether it was a little or a lot. I don’t know why but I’m very thankful for that.
Where do you look for inspiration?
Recently I’m looking at a lot of old advertising and commercial art, political seals, etc. The tattoos I’m doing are probably looking more straight traditional than they used to. I used to do a lot of tattoos of like S.E. Hinton type characters but after a while I realized Rusty James wouldn’t get a tattoo of a slick guy combing his hair. He’d probably think it was stupid. He’d get a tattoo of an eagle or a skull with a snake. Now I’d kind of rather do tattoos that a greaser would want rather than a tattoo of a greaser. But not really. I still love to do Outsiders stuff.
I think quite a bit of your work (like the “Sorry Mother” print, which I love, or the simple act of tattooing “semi-legally”) has an element of irreverence or rebellion, but in more of a cheeky than an angry way. Can you talk a bit about that?
What attracted me to tattooing in the first place was that it seemed bad. The people I knew with tattoos were skateboarders and got in fist fights and probably kissed girls too. It was in the same category as smashing a window or shoplifting or trespassing. Like, if my mom found out I was getting tattoos I’d be in serious trouble, same as if she found out I stole. It made it exciting in an immature way. When I first started the hotel thing I tried to play that part up and make it feel criminal and dirty and something you hid from people. The truth is, tattooing from hotels isn’t so different. It just simplifies things. I don’t have to try to sell the idea to people anymore. The people who come meet me when I’m traveling are into it. My tattoos aren’t the cleanest or most solid so if people go out of their way to get one it makes me think there is something more subtly attractive about getting it done in secret. When you live in a bubble or spend a lot of time on the Internet, it’s easy to think that tattooing matters at all. You can have 15k followers on Instagram, but your girlfriend’s parents are still going to think you’re a loser, you know? I think it’s important to remember that even though people on the Internet will pat you on the back for tattooing, most of the real world still looks down upon it. Tattoos are so popular, but people should remember that they aren’t all that cool; they hurt real bad and they’re expensive and they make you look kind of trashy…
When did you start tattooing in hotels? How did that begin? How does it feel to be a traveling, tattooing semi-outlaw?
I’ve always had itchy feet and have to travel often. I started tattooing from houses and hotels initially because I’d want to get out of town and tattooing was something to do to pay for travel or trade for a place to stay. The first time I did it like a “tour” it was the same kind of mindset as any DIY tour: maybe no one has heard of your band, and you don’t know any venues or whatever, but if you have a friend who can find you a basement to play in somewhere in their town, you can try it. I hadn’t been tattooing long, and didn’t really know any tattooers. I had tattooing stuff and knew people who wanted tattoos in other cities, so I’d just go there and figure it out on my own.
Hotels are just easier to set up in than friends’ living rooms, and in hotel rooms, you’re guaranteed a trash can, a desk, some drawers, and usually a swivel chair. Because I started tattooing out of my house it wasn’t really a big leap to go back to working out of hotels. The first year I was doing tattoos, I really struggled with whether or not I really wanted to or could be a real tattooer. I was always on the fence about whether I belonged in a shop or if I should quit and just go back to doing whatever it was I was doing before. There wasn’t some sort of mental barrier I had to get through to realize I could go tattoo outside of a shop. Maybe professionals or people who are working really hard to try get into a tattoo shop or get some recognition would never think of denigrating themselves like that, but I had one foot out the door the whole time.
[“Nomadic” tattooing] is also not an original thing to do, I met a traveling tattooer when was first messing around with tattooing and he was and is still one of the coolest guys I know. I’m sure there are tons of punks traveling, tattooing out of backpacks right now. They might not have the option to tattoo from a shop is all, doing it voluntarily is probably the only difference. I did occasionally grapple with seeing other tattooers my age getting respect and opportunities within the “industry” and question my choices. I was actually whining about that one day, and a tattooer friend of mine set me straight, telling me that either you can do things your way and accept being a scumbag and having people you admire despise you OR play by the rules and hope to be accepted by the pack. This was maybe 2 years ago, and around that time I started doing the hotel thing almost full-time. Making this invisible transition to being only a DIY tattooer has made me a lot happier. I feel more like the quality and look of my tattoos and the way I conduct it as a business now is more responsible to the standards I set for myself. In my head things are separated now.
The thing I personally like about the “outlaw tattooing” how you called it, is there isn’t any false glamour. It’s easy to get caught up in a being a tattooer when you’re in a shop. You’re in a position of power. People are maybe a little intimidated when they’re in a shop. They’re maybe a little impressed by you and it allows you, as a tattooer, to get away with acting cooler than maybe you are. Not even because you’re a jerk, just because that’s the environment you’re in all day. The Internet is an extension of that. It makes you feel like a celebrity and I think you start thinking of yourself that way if you aren’t careful. When you’re in a hotel room or a secret studio there’s none of that. It’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes, you’re exposed as being just what you are and can’t get away with acting any other way.
Did you ever get caught tattooing “semi-legally?” Any close calls? Other shenanigans? Funny stories?
As of right now, thankfully not, but I’m writing this in the airport on my way to tattoo at some Hilton. It could be the one I finally get thrown out of. I used to get a little anxious but if you’re smart about it, it’s easy to be discreet. I travel really light and other than having a lot of tattoos I’m inconspicuous.
I’m also discriminate about who I’ll tattoo, not to be a dick but for self preservation. If someone texts me about getting a tattoo somewhere and their first question is, “Do you use clean needles?” they might not get a reply back from me. I don’t think everyone should get a tattoo, even in a conventional way. If you’re a little uptight or need to be reassured about everything in advance you definitely shouldn’t get tattooed in a semi-sketchy way, since I don’t know how you’d react if things did get weird for some reason.
But, yeah, its not usually too big of a deal. Then again, if you shoplift often enough without consequence you can almost start to forget it’s illegal. Setting up in hotels doesn’t feel that radical to me now. I’m pretty low key and don’t get into “shenanigans” really. Housekeeping gets some strange requests from me sometimes and I’m sure they use their imaginations when they clean up and find lots of gloves and empty tubs of Vaseline. Tattooing is probably the tamest illicit activity happening in most hotels.
I read somewhere that you grew up in Richmond; what is it about Richmond that has you coming back? Does the city influence your work?
I was just talking to my girlfriend, Mandi, last night about how I feel like I’m new in town, that I just happen to already know where everything is. People here really have a lot of love for Richmond, and I’ve never really had that relationship with it. I’ve never really been apart of a social group here. I’ve spent most of my life here so far and I don’t really know many people here and few people know me. It’s pretty enough and an easy jumping off point for the East Coast. I keep coming back here because its a place where cheap rent is easy to find, which is good for me personally and also allows people to come get tattooed really often. So many famous tattoo shops here, and I’ve never set foot in probably half of them.
I am really intrigued by your pre-composed front and back pieces. Firstly, they look awesome. But I think more specifically, it’s really interesting to me because it kind of goes against the notion of “collecting” while still adopting that aesthetic. Is there a historical precedent for these? Can you talk about how you started doing them?
Before I was doing backs and stuff, I was doing a deal where I’d fill up a person’s arm in a few days for a flat price. I think it was just a selfish thing. I’d had a few people say, “Oh, I want you to do my whole arm,” but over the course of a year or however long a sleeve takes, things change. I wanted to trick someone into committing for real so I could look at it afterward and say, “I did all that.” A lot of people actually took me up on it. I was doing the whole pieces in a few consecutive days, either traveling to them and knocking it out all at once or having them come to Richmond. As I’ve gotten a little more confident tattooing stomachs and backs I started drawing full layouts.
As far a historical precedent, I don’t know because I wasn’t there but I did see a photo of a full body suit by Joe Lieber with a caption that just said “1933-34″ or something similar, intimating that all the work had been done by him in a years time. I know there were fewer people in the world tattooing on Wednesday than there are on Friday. Extrapolate that several decades back; there was hardly anyone doing tattoos, so I’ve read. Back then if you had a lot of tattoos, chances are they were all done by the same guy because he was the only one around. I’d imagine you go in one payday and pick an eagle for your chest, next payday a ship for your belly, another day you get some flags and some flowers to connect the two. In 2014, if you want the same aesthetic I don’t think it’s that much different to just decide it all beforehand and then get it, if that’s what you want. Some people have strong opinions about how long it should take to you to get covered in tattoos or how many different people should do your tattoos or what body parts should get tattooed before other body parts or whatever else. I always wonder, if people like that know and care so much about rules and etiquette, why they like tattoos in the first place. As if there’s a proper way to do an improper thing, right?
Do you have any tattooing or art projects on the horizon?
I do have plans for something that I’m excited about, but since people can’t help but steal any halfway clever idea, I’ll just try to get it done quickly and not say anything just yet.