For anybody new here, from around 2009 to 2020, I was the editor of the biggest, baddest, greatest tattoo magazine of the 21st century (that’s fact, not opinion). It was a decade in which I traveled the world and spoke to more people than I’ve ever spoken to in my life. After the first year or so, I got picky over who I would speak to simply because I wanted everything I did to mean something and maybe even stand the test of time.
Anyway, I was digging around in my archives and I found this interview with the artist Greg ‘Craola’ Simkins, whose work I rate so highly, there isn’t even a scale for it. Rather than let it sit in a folder/live on in some back issues of a magazine that’s no longer available, I figured I’d post it here to see what the world makes of it. I hope you enjoy it - and if you did, let me know. I’m only ever two steps away from independently going back down this path again:
The world outside is an odd place at the best of times. Recently, the media appears to have become aware of tattooing and ‘related’ fine art – or to be more precise, how tattoo culture has seeped into a world it perhaps shouldn’t have. To this I say: “just because you’ve recently noticed it, doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening before.” Thus, with great pride and other wholesome things, I sat down with Greg ‘Craola’ Simkins to figure some stuff out… and got more than I bargained for:
I have admired this man from afar… very afar. Then I admired from slightly closer, but the book I was admiring from, was still quite far away. To find yourself in the eye of the hurricane however - up close and personal - while digging on a story is the best feeling in the world.
A family man first and foremost these days, the former graffiti artist, Greg Simkins – better known to the world as Craola – is startlingly easy to get along with. That’s no surprise to be honest. I’ve come to learn that if you are able to digest a person’s work properly, you’ll find that when the work is intense, the person is not. If the work is lacking, the frustration remains with the artist.
The purpose of my stay here is to do what I love doing and that’s trying to figure out the inner workings of a word class artist. As a writer, I don’t plan anything. I turn up at the page and see what the page wants to do. I may have a vague idea of where to start, but I find planning ruins most things for me and takes away any spontaneity that is likely to happen. As for working when other people are around – that’s a major crime around here.
“I understand what you’re saying and I feel you to a point. I look at my sketch time as my writing time and my painting time, as the editing of those ideas I came to when drawing. I also don’t fully flesh out a painting at drawing time, because I love discovering new things that the painting is asking me to do. You just start seeing new things in the rendered shapes once the paint goes on; that’s the time to be spontaneous and I love that part of painting.
“I share my studio space/warehouse with four other dudes though - Kevin Pasko, Bob Dob, Graham Curran and A.J. Dia - so there’s never a dull moment. There are plenty of guys to bounce ideas around with and they aren’t afraid of being honest with a ‘that sucks’ at the appropriate moment. I do see some differences with my work prior to having people in the studio, but it is hard to gauge if the work has altered because of that, or if it’s just the natural progression. I do get away to draw though. I prefer being ‘alone in public’, like at a library or a coffee shop to draw. A change of scenery is always good.”
We’re bandying the phrase and concept of ‘work’ around here like it’s something everybody understands, but one look at any (take your pick) of Greg’s pieces reveals that not to be the case at all. The concept of originality in a world in which the obvious paths have been worn dry is tough. Personally, I deal with it like this – I smash opposing concepts into each other – things that have no right to go together and make them work. I wonder out loud if that’s the way Greg’s brain works? Without consciously thinking about it anymore?
“Wow, that’s almost exactly how the pieces come together. It started making more sense to me when my interest in coral reefs collided with forest wildlife, and wanting them to ‘meet’. After that, everything was game and there were no more boundaries. Composing the morphs has become almost unconscious and more about textures colliding than creatures. It is a license to try anything and everything out and make them fit seamlessly.”
I dare say that a vast percentage of readers will be somewhat surprised to learn that Greg is a Christian. A church-going man who finds a spirituality there that fuels a very large part of his work – whether that be conscious or otherwise is in the eye of the beholder. I didn’t know this beforehand, but once learned, I went back to Greg’s work and came out with a different view than I came in with. Funny how knowing a person even a little changes how you look at what they do. So would I be a million miles away from the truth if I were to suggest there were subtle themes of ‘giving’ and ‘taking care of each other’ as a primary themes?
“You are correct. I am a Christ follower, I would say I am Christian – and am – but the term has become loaded and trampled by so many people in the media. And I believe rightfully so in some cases - they’re professing to be Christians and then doing everything in their power to expose their ignorance to anything that is in the Bible they claim to believe or of Jesus, whom they profess to follow. Just watch TBN (Trinity Broadcasting Network) for a few minutes and you’ll get my drift. It’s a carnival sideshow that has no idea what it’s doing.
“Sometimes my work is taking a shot at this very picture. I have a piece called ‘Prey’ that I recently painted which showcases a lamb walking into a room full of wolf snakes draped in sheep skins. It is loosely based on Matthew 7:15. The Lamb is representational of unblemished purity boldly walking into a horrible fate by those he knows to be liars and murderers. These wolves are described as people professing to be ‘believers’ and the passage is directed to ‘the Church’.
“As far as the majority of my work goes however, I don’t approach it theologically. I don’t attempt to put messages in most pieces. ‘Prey’ and ‘Here Stands Matt Riddle’ are exceptions. I enjoy creating narratives about interactions and relationships between worlds that wouldn’t normally meet under any other circumstance than popping into my brain. I believe my world view seasons my work and that comes out in instances while drawing and painting without a forceful push. I have said it in the past; I am attempting to explore the depths of creativity that we have all been given in the likeness of a vastly imaginative Creator.
“I am amazed that we can even be contemplating things in such a way with our minds totally irrelevant of the natural world. Things that don’t make sense somehow manifest just by daydreaming. It’s pondering ideas of time, eternity, infinity, minds, souls and the basic question of ‘Why are we here?’ that has me battling back and forth daily. As much as I’d like to just believe we popped into existence out of absolute ‘nothing’ - and I mean real nothing, not particles, or vacuums, because that would be something - I can’t buy into it.
“Even the multiverse discussions I have heard just push back the ultimate timing of the Big Bang and ultimately, you have to ask the question, where did the Multiverse come from?
“Watching William Lane Craig debate Lawrence Krauss on these topics and similar discussions is inspiring. These discussions also give me great ideas for creating my own imaginative worlds and ask the question, what would be going on in another universe separate from our own, what would we see there? Then topics such as relationships, love, longing to be loved, heartache, suffering, regret, courage and as you have pointed out, giving, and ultimately sacrifice, seep their way into the narrative as I draw ideas. These thoughts are just there and I am sure are a result of what I take into my mind – be it through discussion, reading, podcasts or sitting and pondering the world before my eyes.”
That’s pretty heavy, but in a world in which people think putting a pineapple on a bed and drawing a square around it is art, also relevant and worth pointing out by not editing down any part of that segment. On a totally different subject, when you work like this, one idea must surely lead to another that doesn’t fit into what you happen to be doing at the time. Do these ideas get put to one side to become something else or are they simply let go?
“Each painting has a life of its own and the time frame can go from one day to many months. I tend to jot down notes and sketches in my little sketch books so as to never lose my ideas. Sometimes I scan them and put them in ‘idea’ folders logged under whichever show I am working on. That becomes a time stamp for the idea. I then either leave it there to address later, or copy and paste it into future folders so as not to lose the thought.
“I am discouraged that I won’t be able to paint the majority of ideas I have stored away in these folders. There isn’t enough time in the day to address these sketches, and at times I find myself irritable. By not being able to visibly kick out an idea, I am left to wonder about it. It consumes me sometimes.”
Let’s talk about mistakes and criticism. Are you able to live comfortably with both once a piece is finished? Most great artists I know are incredibly hard on themselves. The good criticism you are grateful for but pay little attention to – and the bad, you take very much to heart and analyse it to see if you can better yourself or whether that person just didn’t get what you were trying to do.
“I have a lot of critics in my life surrounding me closely. Be it my friends/ studio-mates, family members or acquaintances. I also know my limitations. I am nowhere near where I want to be. I am always frustrated… always. A lot of times, it is my drawings that kill me. I am in such a hurry at times because I can’t wait to see the painted version, that I push the drawing out. It usually takes a few weeks after I finish a painting that I can begin to enjoy it – especially the larger ones. I tend to like to paint the big ones way more than the small, but I still need to separate from it for a while before I can engage it again and begin to enjoy it. I am excited to have my new book out right now, but am totally unable to look at the early chapters of it. Most times I feel like a huge phony and that I am going to be found out as being a horrible artist. I think I definitely fall into the trap of being my worst critic.”
Ah, the old impostor syndrome that all true originals feel on a daily basis. Here she is again, doing her thing. Is it harder or easier as you go along to make a decent living and put food on the table? Do you find that – particularly after a successful period – you wonder how you can ever better yourself or progress forward fast enough? I see this a lot in the tattoo industry. A lot of artists once thought they were safe and these last few years have really seen some fantastic new talents come along and kick ass in the world. Do ever feel like you’re, er… what’s a good way to put it… only as good as your last piece of work?
“That’s a great question. I always live with the realisation that I need to be a good steward of what I have. We live very thriftily, stay well within our means because what I do could disappear in an instant. Buying art is a luxury item for people and not on the top of their lists if times get rough.
“I am not performing necessary surgeries, or anything like that which will always be necessary. So thinking realistically, I have to do the best job that I can and work as hard as I can to be honest to my work, but also to provide for my family. It is hard to contemplate these things, but necessary. We are grown-ups now, it’s important to take things seriously. It’s important to progress and learn as much as I can as I go so as to better myself and my work. But that’s half the fun of it, so it weighs in my favour.
“The journey is scary and awesome at the same time. I don’t want to go back to not painting full-time, but if that was to be the case, so be it. There are things far more important than art and keeping my family safe and fed is way up there on the list.”
There’s a good question in an interview online in which Greg says: “I have this fear that if I get too stoked on one moment then that’s where my growth ends.” I like that and it sits well with me, but is it possible to improve forever? Is anybody able to project themselves forwards and see themselves in ten years, twenty years, and even begin to imagine what they’re capable of? I guess the big worry may be that one day, you do a piece that is so good (to you personally) you have to wonder where on earth you’re going to go next.
“I still feel that way. I want to progress until I die. If my technique ever gets polished to where I want it to be, maybe I’ll be able to fully realise the narrative end of things and the conceptual side in more depth. Perhaps that side will take over and my interests will become more abstract, who knows? I’m taking each day at a time and chasing after concepts that haunt me and trying to add new things to my tool belt everyday.
“I hate my limitations though. It makes me sick that I can’t do certain things with my drawings. More exploration is in order.”
Time can be a cruel mistress. It runs out for everybody eventually, but I have one final question and it’s a good one if not only because I’m curious for myself: I like a lot of the same things as Greg, literature and art-wise – I’m a spiritual kind of guy for sure, but not a Christian – so I’m interested as to what an artist like Greg makes of a writer/ artist like Clive Barker (and similar), who kind of exist on the same plane but approach the art from the darkness as opposed to the light. Is the artist part able to appreciate things like that, or is it preferable to stay away from them as not being something wanted or needed to influence your work, no matter how good they may be?
“That is a good question. My studio-mate, Kevin, is a huge Clive Barker fan and talks about him all the time. I still haven’t read him. Just synopses of his works or what Kevin describes. And, of course, I appreciate works that come from other angles than what I hold. I appreciate the technical skills and creative flow of thought very much.
“The fact that there is even an approach that would be considered ‘darkness’ versus ‘light’ and that the two sides of thought are in opposition drives my creative juices. How are these things grounded if there were no ultimate good? These things bounce around in my head all day long.
“But to get back to your point, I do personally favour fiction which is fantasy based, and balances good versus evil. The entire back story of my White Knight hero (some of which I have written just to document for myself) is about the grey areas we find ourselves in between the two sides, but trying to strive towards ultimate good in an otherwise dark and scary world.
“My interests have been leading me these days more towards things that I find beautiful and fantastic as opposed to horrific and depraved, and then past that to why do we consider such things beautiful or depraved, what gets us to that point?”
Those must remain questions for another time – another life even. Right now, my head hurts a little from being enlightened. I sometimes wonder if people only look at pictures in magazines and that’s something that comes with the territory, but just this once, I really hope that’s not the case.
The World Outside originally appeared in issue 226 of Skin Deep.