Kip Fulbeck brings Permanence with Tattoos

Shannon Lin, AsianceMagazine.com

April 2008

More than 40 million people in the U.S. alone have tattoos, all with unique stories about why they chose to indelibly mark their bodies.

Now Permanence is the first book of its kind to combine photographic tattoo portraits with the stories behind them. Written by Kip Fulbeck, Permanence features interviews with celebrity tattooers Kat Von D (LA Ink) and Oliver Peck (Elm Street Tattoo), and hardcore music legend Evan Seinfeld along with photographic tattoo portraits with the stories behind them of Margaret Cho (Comedian, author), Slash (Velvet Revolver, Guns N Roses), Paul Stanley (KISS), Tera Patrick (Adult Film Star) and Joan Jett (Joan Jett & the Blackhearts)

“Tattoos, for better or worse, reflect the human experience. Our successes, our joys, mistakes, and failures are all recorded on our skins. And just like life itself, sometimes they aren’t perfect. Sometimes they’re even tragic. But they are real. A tattoo is just ink in skin—it is up to the bearer to ascribe a meaning or value to it.” – Horitaka

Horitaka is the author of several books on tattooing and is the owner of State of Grace Tattoo in San Jose, California. He is a senior apprentice of the world-renowned tattoo master Horiyoshi III—the master’s first and only American apprentice. He is one of the most active and well-known contemporary American tattooists, and speaks and tattoos across the country.

From joyful to tragic, and impulsive to profound, Permanence presents the myriad voices, emotions, and faces that make up the stories of the tattooed population today. With a foreword by renowned tattooer Horitaka (senior apprentice to Horiyoshi III), Kip is deeply respectful of the artistry and ritual of tattooing and proudly wears the works of Horitaka, Horitomo, and Horiyoshi III

ASIANCE: In your new book Permanance, what were some of your favorite tattoos?

Kip: Let’s see … My favorite story in the book is this young kinda punky girl with “bitch be cool” tattooed on her bicep. I love the story behind it. She and her partner had gotten into a fight and the next morning they were sitting at a coffee shop awkwardly when her partner said, “Let’s go get ‘bitch be cool’ tattooed on our arms.” She wrote that it’s a motto for life and they’re still together. It turned out her partner is Hapa and knew my work from my second book. Small world.

In terms of affect, it was pretty meaningful meeting the World Trade Center firefighter, the Survivors, the veterans … A lot of the shoots were plain old reality checks for me.

ASIANCE: Can you tell us about your own tattoos as part of your identity?

Kip: Hmmmm. For one thing, I didn’t start getting tattooed until I was in my mid-30’s. That not only kept my Chinese mother happy, it also means I don’t have a bunch of Guns N Roses tattoos on me now, which is what I probably would have gotten in college.

I’m really proud of my work and wouldn’t change a thing about it—I think that’s part of the reward for patience and really, really researching artists before committing. My sleeves were done by Horitaka in San Jose – he’s great. My backpiece is by Horitomo and was done in Yokohama—that’s a story in itself! I honestly think it’s one of the best backpieces ever done. And of course I have a haiku on my arm done by the master, Horiyoshi III.

ASIANCE: Can you give us a little insight into Permanence and Part Asian: 100% Hapa?

Kip: Permanence is a photo project about identity that uses tattoos as a jumping off point. I tried to get people from all walks of life, which is why it’s not just about great tattoos or terrible tattoos, it’s not about memorial tattoos or outlandish tattoos … It’s about people. It includes everything from complete backpiece masterpieces to tattoos that were mistakes, to survivors of Auschwitz.

These are all aspects of tattooing that people don’t always think about. I teach art and I think it’s really important that tattooing be viewed as an art form, not a subculture or a trend. It is an art form that needs to be looked at as much as we look at sculpture or drawing or filmmaking. It’s important it gets recognized that way. Just like what we do in Slam—spoken word, that’s an art form that needs to be viewed respectfully as well.

I think a lot of what I do with all my work is reframing topics in a different, more serious light. Like Hapa identity, people think, “Oh I’ve never thought about that” Well, you need to think about it. Here’s an example: in one class we have a visiting artist every week and we pay them like 300 bucks to talk about their work for two hours. So, we have painters, sculptures, installation artists, etc. The instructor asked me if I could invite a spoken word poet out. I said “No, because you would pay them only 300 dollars.” She asked, “What’s the difference? That’s what everyone else gets.”

Here’s the difference—everyone else can sell their work. You can sell your painting; you can sell your film, whatever it is, but spoken word artists, speaking is their work. You’re asking them to sell their work really cheap. It’s not like just coming and talking—it’s performing. That’s what they do for a living. The instructor got it.

The two books are really complimentary to each other. With Part Asian: 100% Hapa the book is not about race; it’s about identity and giving people the right to say who they are in their own words. The census gives us categories to pick from and most of those categories don’t fit. So it’s about making your own choices and choosing your own labels. 100% Hapa explores identity from the inside out and Permanence does it from the outside in.

ASIANCE: Your book Part Asian: 100% Hapa showcases the Hapa identity in America. Can you give insight into this identity in America, what are some groups and movements to give more awareness?

Kip: I think the key here is telling your own story. That’s really what’s going on in both books. I just did a gig in St. Louis with Frank Warren, the creator of Postsecret—which is a project I just love. And we met and were like, “You know, we’ve got a lot of similarities in how we work.” Essentially, we’re both just creating the space, the forum, the blank slate for people to interact within. A place for them to speak. Because in this country, maybe in this time as well, it’s really hard to find a forum to give your voice.

The fact that just 8 years ago was the first time the U.S. census allowed us to check more than one box to define ourselves was a huge step, and it was a very belated step in my eyes- in 2000 I was 35 years old. So, before that when they said “check one box only” they were essentially asking me to pick one identity—or worse, pick mom or dad.

We’ve got thousands, maybe millions of talented filmmakers, writers, poets, musicians, artists out there trying. And we need to see Big Momma’s House 2 get made? We need a dozen identical “reality” show contests that are obviously scripted? That’s what exciting about new media. Sure, you can get famous for screaming “Leave Britney alone!” but there’s also a vast network of great music, films, performances out there … that’s exciting to me. It’s exciting to see how much people need to tell their own stories.

ASIANCE: When you take a photo, what is the method you use to capture the essence of that person?

Kip: That’s a good question. With Part-Asian: 100% Hapa, I gave the subjects the power to say yes or no to the picture. So I would photograph them over and over and over until they got what they liked. With Permanence, I actually tried to capture them as they were.

So it’s basically more about the interaction between the subject and me than it is about just getting an image and getting out. It’s about getting them comfortable, talking to them and finding similarities and then trying to see who they really are and capturing them in that place where they let go of that public persona we always wear.

When any of us walk around, we have this look we do when we think we are being looked at. So, if a guy is looking at you and you’re a woman, you look a certain way. Or say, if I’m thinking a girl is checking me out I will try to act a certain way or carry myself a certain way that’s not necessarily the real me. So what I try to do when I portrait people is get beyond that, try and capture them at that instant when they let that go.

ASIANCE: Do you feel when you take a picture of someone you’re close with it is easy to capture that?

Kip: No it is much harder to photograph someone close to you. I’m much better photographing strangers or acquaintances. I’ve photographed my wife and parents, my friends; it is very difficult because you have so much history between the two of you that what you say and do carries a lot of weight and so forth. You can’t just drop that persona.

Whereas if I’m photographing a Hells Angel or M.M. (Mexican Mafia) member or a porn star, it’s really just trying to get them in a quick instant. It’s sort of a negotiation thing; they want to portray a certain thing and I want to capture a certain thing-you try to get to the place where you meet halfway.

ASIANCE: What was it like to work with Sean Lennon, when he did the intro in Part Asian: 100% Hapa?

Kip: I had written Sean several times. He was my first choice bar none to write the intro for that book. Not only is he a great musician and very smart artist, but he’s a very recognizable Hapa, not just for who he is but also for who his parents were and he was exactly who I wanted.

I had written his record label and his attorney and finally someone wrote me back and said he wanted to see some images, that he was considering it. So I sent some images and never heard back. Then I was on the phone one day, and there was call waiting and it was him—He said he wanted to do it!

So I flew out to New York and he was very down to earth, he came to my hotel with no bodyguard, no entourage, just drinking a coffee. And we hung out and talked about, you know, martial arts movies for half the time. He was very down to earth, very mellow. Most celebrities are actually really, really cool. There are a few who are stand-offish, but for the most part everyone was really easy to work with.

ASIANCE: Oh, can you talk about those celebs who were great to work with?

Kip: Sure. Evan Seinfeld and Tera Patrick were very, very cool. They had us at their house. So I interviewed Evan and meanwhile I look over and Tera had a hurt shoulder and my wife’s a massage therapist and here she was giving Tera a massage. Scott Ian’s amazing … Jeffrey Sebelia … Margaret Cho … Kat Von D’s a sweetheart … lots of great people. .

ASIANCE: Is the Hapa identity more recognized today than 20 years ago; are there more mixed races in America or are we just more aware of them?

Kip: That’s a good question. Well, first off I need to tell you straight up that even though the book is about being multi-racial and so forth, I always begin talks off by saying that “race” doesn’t really exist. Biologically there is no racial DNA difference. Race is something we’ve created culturally and socially. That said, yeah, it is much more recognized now and much more prevalent now.

The fact that just 8 years ago was the first time the U.S. census allowed us to check more than one box to define ourselves was a huge step, and it was a very belated step in my eyes- in 2000 I was 35 years old. So, before that when they said “check one box only” they were essentially asking me to pick one identity … or worse, pick mom or dad—and it was ridiculous.

So when I did that book (Part Asian: 100% Hapa) I had no trouble finding these 1200 volunteers. They came out in force. Because they wanted to say something. They’d been living it. You know, people still see Senator Obama as a Black candidate. People still think of Tiger Woods just as a Black golfer or Keanu Reeves as being White, you know? Tell me when you want me to stop, because I can talk about this stuff forever!

ASIANCE: Oh, no, of course not! As Kip Fulbeck how do you identify yourself and what do you like to do?

Kip: I love teaching. But I am a very, very strict teacher. So a lot of people see me when I speak around the country and say, “I’d love to be in your classes.” But I say, “Talk to my students first. They may not agree with you- (laughs).”

I’m really strict and I push them very hard. I force them to show their work publicly and we put on a spoken word final performance that’ll bring out a huge audience. At the beginning of the class, I tell them “We are doing a show together. I don’t care if you’re a performer or not. Everyone’s performing and you’ve gotta be good.” So, I train them professionally.

I love surfing, I love shopping, love my dogs. I was a collegiate swimmer and I still I swim every day. I’m going to Masters Nationals in May! It’s really fun to compete as I get older because they match you by your age division, so as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten higher and higher in the National rankings which is really fun!

ASIANCE: An athlete and an artist at the same time! So, what kind of woman draws your attention?

Kip: What kind of woman? (laughs) You know I’m married, right?

ASIANCE: Yes! I guess we can rephrase the question to just what attracts you about your wife or in a woman’s identity?

Kip: She’s here with me right now, cracking up (laughs). Let’s see. In a woman I like independence, confidence, a distinct sense of style … The ability to play feminine when the time calls for it. Certainly intelligence is huge. As is good taste in shoes and being fit.

I’m not afraid to say I’ve got my own shallowness, that physical attractiveness is really important to me. Then there’s the whole list of deal breakers like politics and smoking and physicality. Basically, she’s confident in who she is and willing to try new things. And she likes to go shopping a lot! But I love shopping, so that’s not a problem.

ASIANCE: What is the perfect date on a Southern Californian evening with your wife?

Kip: We really dig taking our dogs to the beach. That’s one thing. We’re fortunate to live in Santa Barbara where we can find beaches without anyone else around. Having grown up in L.A. and San Diego, that was unheard of. As silly as it sounds, we can just grab a couple of veggie burritos and take our dogs down there and have tons of fun letting them run around, just sitting on a rock and eating, then going in the water for a bit to play with the dogs! (As long as it’s warm).

ASIANCE: What kind of dogs do you have?

Kip: We have two pugs and one Chihuahua. Well, and a cat. You know, we met on Craigslist! And when I met Heather in person, I didn’t know she had a pug and she didn’t know I had a pug! I said, “Where is your pug from?” She said, “Little Angel’s Pug Rescue!” and that was where my dog was from!

ASIANCE: So what is the story about when you first met?

Kip: I lived in Santa Barbara which they call the “Land of the Nearly Wed or the Nearly Dead”, meaning that the women here are all 22 or younger or, you know, middle aged, divorced or elderly. So for me, dating here was always very difficult.

I’d always had long-term relationships—women living in Los Angeles or Texas or England, or wherever. But very rarely have I dated in Santa Barbara because I assume anyone I meet here is going to be a student (at UCSB.)

So, with Heather, what happened was there had been a flood at my house. And while it was under reconstruction I had to live at a hotel. I was flying out to do gigs around the country with my speaking work and I would fly out from this hotel, perform, stay in another hotel, and then fly back to a hotel. It was really depressing. It was also the time when the storms were affecting the 101 and I couldn’t get to L.A.

So, just on a random, I don’t even know what to call it—an intuition, I turned on my computer and went on Craigslist, which I never use and I randomly typed in “Santa Monica” (for no reason whatsoever) and randomly wrote out an ad. And it was completely honest and really straightforward and a little cocky in that I wrote exactly what I had to offer and exactly what I was looking for.

And I had it up for about 24 hours and all these women wrote back, really interesting people. And after I thought about it, I realized a basic fundamental of the internet: if you’re a female, you’re really hindered from putting out an ad because when you do you get immediately hit with so many desperate guys sitting in their underwear with their computer mouses, or mice, waiting to send you pictures of their penises. Men are such idiots.

So, if all these women couldn’t post without idiots responding I figured I’d just post myself. I thought what the hell! So I put it out there and Heather wrote me and she was really smart and we started talking on the phone and we couldn’t meet in person because of the freeway closure, so I didn’t meet her for a couple weeks so when I did meet her I really appreciated it.

ASIANCE: What is your style inspired by?

Kip: My favorite designer would be Ted Baker, for shirts. It’s difficult to find good shirts that fit me because of my body type … swimmer, remember? Dress shirts tend to be boxy. Jeans are easy though, I have the Chinese thing going on in my legs and it’s easy to find jeans. It’s about getting the one thing you really want.

I’m all about paying more for one really nice piece than getting a dozen different things to fill up your closet that you think are just “okay.” Like my motorcycle jacket ? I guess it’s kind of my signature piece if I had to pick one. I had it custom made and it cost an arm and a leg, but I’ve had it for years and I still love it.

ASIANCE: You’re a Slam Poet. Do you have anything you could recite? Do you do love poetry for your wife? Maybe it’s a silly question!

Kip: Well, I know there’s a bunch of stuff on YouTube ,,,

A love poem between me and my wife that I would Slam with? I’ve never done that publicly. The thing about Slam is, you have to get an audience and you have to make them sort of energized as part of the formula and unfortunately softer work doesn’t score well. She’s looking at me like, “I can’t imagine that. I can’t imagine you writing a poem for me (laughs)” I do a lot of fun things for her, I draw her pictures. Doodles. Or, I’ll go to a gig and open my suitcase and there will be something there from her. It’s fun!

ASIANCE: What are your next few projects?

Kip: I still have to spend about six months promoting Permanence. On March 20th, we’re going to have the opening in Silverlake for this project at Ghettogloss Gallery, so we’re going to have the photos up, a book launch, celebrities there and all that stuff.

And then I do one in San Jose, one in San Francisco, and then I’m pretty much booked throughout the year speaking around the country. After that, it’s onto the next book project. I’ve thought long and hard about it and have several ideas, but none that I feel comfortable putting out in public yet, someone may steal it.

One thing for sure though—it’ll be based on something that is core to me, something that I’m part of. I would feel weird if someone who wasn’t Hapa did the Hapa book, or someone without tattoos did Permanence. So, it’s always stuff that I feel I have to approach from the inside. I wouldn’t want to be a National Geographic kind of photographer where I went to take visual trophies—pictures of “other” people.

ASIANCE: What do you miss about L.A. living in Santa Barbara?

Kip: One thing I miss here in Santa Barbara is Dim Sum. I’m a big Dim Sum fan. Getting good sushi and Thai food is easy but getting good Dim Sum, I gotta go to L.A. That and black people. This city is so lily white, it really kind of freaked me out when I moved here. And I still don’t live here year-round … I go back to San Diego and Hawaii all the time.

ASIANCE: Would you like to say something to the readers of Asiance?

Kip: What is the demographic again?

ASIANCE: The demographic is Asian American women, mostly 18-35 years old or so,but it’s for everyone, really …

Kip: Well, I certainly love that demographic. It’s one of my favorites! I wish I had been interviewed by this magazine when I was single!