Johnny Smith {E} Tattoo Artist Feature

by Christina Diaz

“Off the Map”

Born and raised in South Mississippi tattooer and painter Johnny Smith bounced around doing some of the worst jobs he could’ve ever imagined doing in his early twenties. After he left Mississippi he traveled across the country and did everything from packing 60 pound boxes of frozen chicken in the belly of a Russian cargo ship, to being a repo man in the projects of south Mississippi. He wound up in Southern Oregon where he’s been for about 10 years now. “Needless to say, I feel very blessed to be able to tattoo, and live an enjoyable life,” he says. “I love so much about tattooing. My clients, the shop I work at, the fact that people will travel thousands of miles to get a tattoo, and trust me to make the right choices on what they will live with forever. It’s the best career I could have asked for second to painting, and I hope to do it for a long time to come.”

{E}: What, or who, got you interested in art?
JS: My grandmother was a well-known painter in South Mississippi. I would spend my summer breaks with my grandparents on their farm. My grandmother’s art studio was a big red barn that my grandfather had converted for her. While my cousins would spend their summers fishing and hunting I would spend mine in her studio, watching her paint and listening intently on everything she had to tell me about art.

My father was a very strict, religious person, so artistic expression was not encouraged for me. That being said, some of my fondest memories of my grandmother were how much she pushed me to think for myself, and create from my heart. She was also cool enough to let me look through all of her art books when my dad wasn’t around. I don’t think I would be an artist if not for her.

{E}: Were you artistic as a child?
JS: I was a very artistic kid; as soon as I could pick up a pencil I was drawing pictures. Like I said before, art wasn’t highly encouraged by my father, so I actually made a false bottom in my dresser where I would hide all my drawings, and work on them at night. It’s crazy to think that I use to have to hide my artwork, but I honestly don’t think anything would have stopped me.  I haven’t even thought about that in years. Now I live my life surrounded by easels, and artwork, constantly working, and reeking of oil paint. It’s quite liberating actually.

{E}: Are you self-taught or did you attend a trade school?
JS:  I’m a self-taught artist, other than the lessons I would get from my grandmother. Everything else I just made up myself. None of the grade schools I attended ever offered any art courses, so I would study comic books, and any other art themed item I could get my hands on. Now, after years of hard work, I have the honor of working with Jeff Gogue, who is incredibly inspiring, and infuses every sentence he speaks with his experience, and knowledge. I treat my opportunity to work with Jeff as an art school of sorts.

I like to think of being self-taught as an advantage, rather than a missed opportunity. If nothing else I feel it has given my work a unique look over the years.

{E}: Tell us how you got into the industry. How long have you been tattooing?
JS:  Well, I’ve been tattooing professionally since 2008, but unfortunately the first time I ever tattooed someone was at the ripe age of 13. As I recall the first time I ever saw a tattoo in person was when I was in the 6th grade. A classmate of mine had a father who was a tattoo artist in Mississippi, and he came to school one day with a screaming werewolf tattoo that I thought was the coolest shit I had ever seen! Why his father decided to tattoo his adolescent son I have no clue, but that’s where my love affair with tattoos began nonetheless.  After that point, there was no turning back.

{E}: How has your art e-volved over the years?
JS: I think my artwork has e-volved much like many others, It began with absolutely no knowledge or understanding, but I was so incredibly passionate about it, I refused to stop. Whether it was the persecution of my desire to even be an artist, or repeated failure, after failure in my work. I have struggled with all of these things, but I found that failure only brings knowledge.

My biggest breakthrough came when I decided to stop emulating others work, or attempting to design things in others’ style. Salvador Dali once said “Begin by learning to draw and paint like the old masters. After that, you can do as you like; everyone will respect you.” That quote always stuck with me, and I felt the time had come for me to move on from emulating others, and develop my own style.

{E}: How would you describe your artwork?
JS: Because I began with fine art, it has definitely shown in my tattooing. I didn’t become remotely satisfied with my work until I changed the playbook, and started tattooing in the same way I paint pictures. That’s when I started noticing a hint of a unique style, and ran with it. I try to use plays on focus and sharp contrasts to trick the mind, and eye into believing a sense of realism and depth in both my painting and tattooing. It’s the same thing the master painters have been doing for centuries; I just use it in my own way, and apply that theory to skin. I’m actually teaching seminars on these techniques, and theories at different conventions throughout the year.

{E}: What inspires you?
JS:  I try my best to find inspiration in every aspect of life. I know very well that statement sounds passé, and incredibly cheesy, but if you turn down the noise of everyday, shitty life, and really search for what it takes to become the best artist you can muster to be, it becomes more legible.

The masters of art such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Dali weren’t born with special powers that you and I do not possess. They achieved their eternal greatness, because they undoubtedly found inspiration in every single aspect of life. From the way a moth lands on a windowsill, to the way the light reflects off a spoon. I can guarantee they took the time to think of those moments in such a way that would be a direct reflection in the work they produced. Now I’m not saying I draw inspiration from every waking moment of life, but based on how these artists found theirs, I can only aspire to do the same.

{E}: Whom are some of your favorite artists and why? Both ink and fine art.
JS: That’s definitely a daunting question. I guess if I had to narrow it down, some of my favorite tattoo artists are Russ Abbott, Timmy B, Ralf Nonnweiler, Cory Norris, and obviously Jeff Gogue. These artists are really setting the bar in the industry, and I’m honored to work in the same field as such great tattooers.

As far as modern fine art goes, I am greatly inspired by the work of Drew Struzan, Joel Rea, Derek Harrison, Shawn Barber, and Jeremy Mann to name a few. Honestly, I wouldn’t have even known of a few of these artists if not for E-volved, so thanks for spreading the good word.

{E}: If you weren’t a tattooer what do you think you would be doing?
JS: If I weren’t tattooing, I’m sure I’d be living in a tent or a vehicle somewhere with stacks of weathered sketchbooks, pencils worn to down to stumps, and a bag of old hand me down clothes. I only say this because I spent many years in that very circumstance, only because I chose that over working a 9 to 5 that I didn’t like, and a normal existence that didn’t desire. I would choose that life over not being an artist every time. Luckily, after years of work and effort I became a professional artist, and didn’t have that issue any longer. Tattooing really has been my salvation, and everyday I’m thankful to do what I do, and not live by those means anymore.

{E}: Where and when did you get your first tattoo? Who did it? Tell me about this first ink experience.
JS: Unfortunately, the first tattoo I ever got, I did myself, on the back porch of my best friends house when I was 13. It was a horrible Rage Against the Machine, fuck the system inspired, banger on my chest, complete with misspellings and shitty line work! A tattoo of epic proportions, at the time I was incredibly stoked on it! That is until someone actually looked at it, and I realized I had made quite the poor decision. As horrible as that experience might sound, it was an introduction into tattooing regardless. I’ve definitely come a long way since those days, and I look forward to working my ass off, and progressing as much as I can in the years to come.

Catch up with Johnny on the interweb at
Instagram @johnnysmithart

Johnny Smith {E} Tattoo Artist Feature