Hi Cecil, thank you so much for giving me the honour of interviewing you!
Thanks for wanting to, it’s always a pleasure to share my story with people.
Tell me, how did you become interested in art and tattoos?
I think I have always been interested in art. As a kid growing up in the Midwest, I was never encouraged to do it – you-know? It’s all sports and when I was a kid you were basically told you would grow up, go work at the factory, buy a house, have a family & then retire. It wasn’t until my Dad died when I was 12 that art became something I could do with no one trying to steer me in another direction.
My mother moved us to where her family was from, as a kid at a new school I had no friends. In the back of my class these kids always drew and as a way to get their attention I would go home draw some things then leave them out for them to see. My plan ended up working and they asked me to come join them and I haven’t really stopped since.
I had a rough childhood and as a way to escape my demons I did art. I tell everyone, fantasy and comics saved my life. As for tattooing that’s a little bit different…I wanted to be an illustrator, but had no idea how to do it. I was 16 living on my own and just trying to survive so I got a real job, I hated it but I had to live, you-know? It offered great benefits and so on, then the economy went to shit and they started to take it all away and I was thinking, that’s the only reason why I had a job like this so I quit. I decided if I was gonna struggle then I would do it on my terms. I would do any kind of art job I could and eventually I realized if I could only put what I do on paper onto skin that I would be alright. I had seen plenty of people make okay money doing them, so I figured why not.
I find that majority of great tattoo artists that have been around as long as you have are primarily self-taught. Are you the same or did you go through a formal apprenticeship?
I am self taught yes, though I wouldn’t recommend it. To be honest back when I got into tattooing the talent pool was more of a talent puddle. Great art was a rarity then, at least way more rare than it is now. It wasn’t hard to become a name, all you had to do was be decent at something. In today’s climate there are so many amazing artist and I mean kids man, just well trained in academic art and just hungry to get out there and kill it as a tattooist. That was not the case when I started. I would advise anyone today is to go to a good atelier and learn art, bring that to the medium and you’ll do well.
Do you think that getting an apprenticeship is the best way to learn?
I believe if you can get under the tutelage of any artist you admire and know to be great, then yes. I don’t think going to your local shop, paying a huge amount of money to learn how to make coffee and go on food runs for a year is going to do anything for you, except give you a chip on your shoulder. Just because someone offers you an apprenticeship doesn’t mean they should. Go to some kind of learning environment understand the fundamentals of art, then go find a good apprenticeship from a great artist.
If you weren’t a tattoo artist, what do you reckon you would you be?
I’m an artist man, tattooing is another medium I love to do. If I never learned this medium not much would be different as far as my work goes. I would however have missed out on some of the best parts of my life and because tattooing has given those things to me, I am always grateful to the industry, the fans, and the clients.
Did you ever experiment with a different style of tattooing before sticking to colour realism?
When I started I had no style. At first I believed art and tattooing to be two different things. So I did what I believed a tattoo was, you know the cherry creek flash stuff and things of that nature. Of course it was all horrible, it wasn’t how I drew. I was forcing designs that I didn’t like and knew weren’t sound. I tried new skool briefly, it’s fun but also not how my brain works. I love to throw around my crazy colors and I can bluff a decent new skool piece but it’s not so good when you compare it to guys like Jesse Smith or Frank La Natra, so I don’t try. Other than that I learned a long time ago realistic rendering is what I love, its what I’m best at so I have no other reason to do anything else.
In your opinion, what is the hardest part of being a tattoo artist?
Gosh that’s super hard. For me Its a few things, the ridiculous hours, the fact that it’s one of the few kinds of art there is no residuals to be made, and the egos you have to dance around. There was a time not long ago I was doing 18 hour days in the chair 6-7 days a week. I don’t screw around either, I’m not the ‘take an hour long break kinda guy’ you-know? It was rough on my body, my mind, and most importantly, my relationship. Now that I am a dad I only do a max of eight tattooing hours. Still with setup and breakdown it ends up being 12-15 depending on the stencil, sometimes more. And since no one is buying a print of a tattoo, I only make money while I work. So I work, a lot.
Your portraiture work is legendary and some of the best in the game. The way you make the colours blend and jump out the skin is unparalleled in my opinion, how do you manage to make them so unique and different from everyone else?
Thanks man that’s kind of you to say. The short answer is, I study. I’ve spent the better part of 10 years concentrating on teaching myself how to use color the way I do. It’s second nature now but it was a ton of work to get there. I would never do a portrait using dark brown, medium brown, peach, tan, white. Ugh, to me that’s not good. Skin isn’t any of those colors. We have different layers of skin, all absorbing and reflecting different hues of color. We have a circulatory system pumping blood though our skin. All of this giving us the illusion of skin tone. Atmosphere causing variations in that tone. Light, shadow, etc. I take what I see or what I want to see and I ramp up the saturation is some areas to get attention. I play with the chroma scale to lead your eyes where I want them. There’s a ton of other things, but you can see why I couldn’t limit my palette. Once you understand those things and where a color is on the value scale the possibilities are endless.
You have done a few guest spots in your time, do you have a favourite studio?
Yes Main Street Tattoo in Wishaw, Scotland. It’s owned by some of the best people I’ve ever met in my life and when I go there I feel more at home than anywhere I’ve ever been.
I’m absolutely loving the characters and their backstories you’re creating for the book you are working on, is there any information you can tell me about it?
I’m creating a whole universe, multiple books in multiple formats. I have one of my best friends Cig Neutron sculpting some busts and a former Weta artist doing the figures, both for the kickstarter. I have worked on this world for years and really want this to be my main Intellectual Property. Originally it was only going to be a graphic novel but it’s become so expansive now that it’s a graphic novel, art books, a lore book, and a trilogy, all in the works.
The first book will be told as though you are reading a journal of an alchemist who is traversing this world to rediscover and chronicle as much information as he can. It takes place 150 years after the war in the graphic novel that destroys the world’s technology. Along with it, their history, knowledge of species, races, topography and tons of other things. It’s really my lore book to introduce you to the world. It’s done as though the alchemist does an entry and paints an accompanying piece of art along with sketches to further tell the story of the land and its inhabitants. It starts out basic enough but quickly they anger an evil entity and it becomes more of him chronicling the band of explorers struggle to survive while lost in this unknown land.
As well as tattooing, working on your book and general life, you made the decision to attend the great art school, Watts Atelier. How has this experience been for you?
As hard as it is rewarding. I have no art training what so ever. Everything I know is self taught. To be in a classical environment learning art the way I should have all along is challenging to say the least. I have had to relinquish my current proficiency to acquire a greater proficiency. That’s pretty devastating to be honest. I’m drawing worse than I have in decades and it is honestly painful. I can look at my art I have done, pieces I have been hired and paid to do by various art directors and then I look at the crap I’m churning out there and it is heart breaking. It will really highlight and gaps you have in your knowledge and ability. However the track record of the school is insane. Every artist that sticks to the format just comes out of there incredible. Some of the guys I admire and want to paint like either went there or went there and now teach there. I know its a 2 steps back to take 3 forward and everyday is a small victory, I’m learning so much, I only wish I had done it sooner. The teachers are all so compassionate and really take a hands on approach to helping you improve. Eric Gist, Lucas Graciano, and especially Jim Hahn have all given a ton of time and energy to help me out. Jim has been a tremendous help with both my art and myself as a person. I admire his artistic ability and his dedication to helping his students, artistically and on a personal level. Honestly its the best decision I’ve made.
As a self-taught artist your artwork is already amazing, is there reason you sought out to learn art professionally?
I always wanted to learn art properly. I either never had the money, or once I was doing well as a tattooist I was caught up in traveling and enjoying life. I’m 37 now and if I don’t do it, I won’t. I want a more refined look to my work. Not a fine art look mind you but a look that only comes with a proper foundation and skill base. I want to learn edges and mapping, the kind of things that give you art that polished look that I can’t seem to get being self taught. I want to be the best artist I can be and with out proper training that’s never going to happen.
Is there anything or anyone who you take inspiration from?
Are you kidding, haha. I will list a few but man it’s pretty endless and always growing. A lot of Directors influence me, such as Guillermo Del Toro, any really visual storyteller with a good rhythm and pacing to their films. Artistically I grew up looking at a lot of UK comics. So guys like Simon Bisley were a huge influence, especially his Slain stuff. Glenn Fabry is another giant influence to me. His preacher covers amaze me, I have stared at them for hours on end. Rockwell and Leyendecker are amazing in there draftsmanship and storytelling. Drew Struzan was and is one of my first heroes in art and his composition and ability to nail a likeness is some of my favorite. Basil Gogos has been one of my biggest influences in how and why I use color the way I do. Paul Bonner is amazing at the level of detail he achieves and the frame in which he picks for his painting is always the one with the best visual impact. I have loved him since I was a teenager and his influence is probably the most evident. Tony Diterlizzi, what can I say, my first introduction to both D&D and fantasy art at 12 years old in the hallway of a schoolmates house were both because of him. His art will always occupy a special place with me. Jim Murray, I have known his work since Batman/ Judge Dredd but in the last 5 years or so I have become obsessed with him. I can’t get enough of his work, if there were a magic combo for me it would be him plus Bonner. Man if I could do art like that, that’s the dream buddy.
Safe to say you have a lot to be thankful for when it comes to comics! Haha, What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Neal Addams told me “There will be two styles of art in your life. The one you do well, and the one you want to do. Learn to love the one you do well and you will be happy and successful. Understand that the reason you want to do the other is because you can’t”…That was when I started to embrace realism as an artist and it changed my life.
What advice would you give to someone pursuing this career?
Ask yourself if this is the one thing you are most passionate about in your life. If you hesitate dont choose this career. Art is a lifelong journey and its not an easy one if you want to be good at it and successful. If you are passionate you will naturally want to work as hard as it takes to become good. It takes sacrifice and dedication, if its not what you are truly passionate about then you are doing a disservice to the craft and yourself.
What has been the hardest moment in your career thus far, and what has been your favourite?
Hmmmm. The hardest was just probably taking the risk to choose art as a career. The favorite is choosing art as a career.
Blank full-body canvas, unlimited freedom- what do you do?
Aside from tattooing, what are your other interests?
My family and my art are my life.
What do you see the next couple of years being like?
I just want to find a balance between being a great father, a great husband and honing my craft. I hope to gain a fan base that allows me to further develop my world. Mostly I just want to continue to make a living doing what I love.
Finally, what is your current wait list like and how would someone go about trying to get a tattoo from yourself?
It varies right now due to classes. usually between 3-5 months. The only way to get in is to E-mail me through the website. Ashley is amazing at really taking care of all my clients on a personable and professional level. I wouldn’t be half the artist I am without her. We really care about our clients and want to be sure they receive as good of an experience as they do artwork.
Thank you again, Cecil. It was amazing getting to know your story. All the best with your studies and your book!
Thank you. It’s been a pleasure telling you a little about myself.
Interview for TattooFan Magazine UK by Tim Drummond
Photos from Cecil Porter’s social media.
Cecil Porter Fanpages: Facebook & Instagram