Obasi Springer: Artist on Skin
A drummer with Trini Rock gods Orange Sky, turned tattoo artist, he is probably the best kept secret in Trinidad and Tobago’s body art world. Chances are you may have seen his handiwork, but don’t know the man, 26-year-old Obasi Springer.
Outlish recently sat down with Obasi (in the supermarket on a Sunday afternoon, mind you) to get to know the man behind the already legendary tattoo of Lord Ganesh, adorning a young woman’s back, which is still a work in progress, and his take on skin as a growing medium for Trinidadians and Tobagonians to express themselves.
Outlish: Let’s start with the generic stuff. How did you get into tattooing?
Obasi: I always liked to draw, from small. And one night, while I was on tour with the band, one of the guys, a tattoo artist himself, started heckling me saying with all the drawing I was doing I can’t do a tattoo. And the other members were like, you should buy a kit. So I got it, and I looked at it for a few hours and asked myself, what am I supposed to do with this now? The tour went on, and everywhere we stopped I would check out the tattoo studios there, check out the work they were doing, the techniques they were using. And the rest is history. I’ve been doing it for a little over a year now, and I’m loving it.
Outlish: So, you’ve been only doing this for a year and a few months, and not many people know about the level of work you do. What’s your business plan, or more, your strategy to get yourself out there?
Obasi: Well, right now, I don’t have a specific place; I normally go here and there. You see, what I’m trying to do right now is to try to stay away from the walk-in clientele. I’m purposefully setting up my portfolio to be fully custom – everything designed be me, drawn freehand specifically to your body, following your curves, having as much flow as possible. So when I’m ready to open my studio, it won’t be somewhere on a main road where it’ll be visible to everyone; it’ll be there for those people who know the artwork, quality of artwork, and the sanitary and sterilisation methods I employ, so that when you leave you leave with exactly what you envisioned or better.
Outlish: So your work right now is entirely custom-made?
Obasi: Yes. The reason I don’t want a visible walk-in studio is that I love to work that way. I can’t have a shop where there’s a lot of currency flowing – currency, in terms of a lot of jobs, because, people will get fed up of waiting, and I want to be able to have the freedom to work on the client in front of me. We’re all human, and if I see I have a line waiting I might eventually try to cut corners to achieve what I want faster. I want to know that I have a certain amount of time, and I’m able to work in a comfortable manner, nothing going on afterwards to distract me. I see some people doing it, their work comes out brilliant, and they could have dozens of people day in, day out. I just can’t. I want to be able to concentrate on the piece at hand.
Outlish: Do you see yourself staying in this business, though?
Obasi: I don’t know. But the last thing I want is for the thing I enjoy to become tedious. As soon as something becomes tedious, I stop doing it. I would wake up one morning and say, “That’s it”. But if it ever happens, I hope I would have left a serious legacy in terms of some mad pieces, and people saying, “Aye, there’s this local guy that doing tattoos as if you went Miami or Los Angeles and got it done”. I must say, right now, I love the challenge part of it. I need that kind of rush, that kind of motivation, or else I’d get real depressed.
Outlish: What do you think is the biggest challenge for you?
Obasi: I would have to say, the actual process of doing a tattoo – getting yourself in that frame of mind to say, “This is going to come out great”, and being able to tell someone the same thing and actually mean it. I mean, I get to be on my toes all the time because even a simple thing like drawing an arc or a perfect circle may look easy, but try drawing it with the equivalent of a nine-pound vibrating brick! It’s weird, but I love that daily rush.
Outlish: Have you received any kind of flack, or criticism concerning your work?
Obasi: I want to be criticised harshly; I want someone to come up to me and say, “Aye, your tattoo looking like real nonsense”, because to me, all criticism is good. What you or I may think is a brilliant piece of art a man might see as total nonsense. But that’s the nice thing about doing custom work – the people seek you out, looking for your vision, looking for what you’re capable of. It’s not for them to walk in and hope their vision becomes reality; it’s for them to find this boy, because they’ve done their research, and I’m looking forward to making that vision become real.
Outlish: That would mean you have a great support base then.
Obasi: You could say that. I’m very own-way. My parents realised at a very young age to leave me alone. Let him do what he wants. “Seems like he could take care of himself, he ain’t starving”, they would say, so I always get mad, mad support. And I can’t forget the clients themselves. Just the gratitude I like it. They sense the honesty when I tell them I’m proud of the piece, and I want to take a picture and put it on the Internet for the world to see. And it’s not because it’s just another piece done by Obasi, but because I want the world to see this. It’s not an ego trip, but a kind of moral boost, a thrust forward, in terms of the gratitude and the actual “Yo, I have to come back” vibes.
Outlish: And what about society, do you believe the acceptance to body art has increased?
Obasi: Of course. You used to see only gangsters and sailors getting tattoos; now mothers and daughters are coming to be tattooed together. Just recently a woman asked me to do a half-slave for her 14-year-old son, as a memorial for his grandfather. Imagine this boy going to school with a tattoo; it shows the level of acceptance now. So I’m able to do the artwork, which I love, and make somebody’s dream come true.
Outlish: Have you done any collaborations recently?
Obasi: No, I haven’t. But there is a new thing in the world of tattooing where, say we were two artists, you would work on a piece, and I would work on a piece at the same time, on the same person. But I am looking forward to hooking up a scene like that soon. We won’t be doing the same piece, but we would need to tie in. I’m doing the chest area, and the other guy will be doing the upper arm, and we’ll be meeting at the shoulder, so the two of us will have to come together, and design this stuff. And the client will be getting double trouble, so we must be confident enough to trust that when our pieces combine, they would make one cohesive piece, even though it’ll be made of two completely different components and two different styles.
Outlish: I take it you know your stuff, evidently from what you’ve said so far.
Obasi: (Laughs) I’m a nerd at heart; I read a lot of literature on tattooing – learning about the skin, its elasticity, exactly how much ink to place for maximum clearance and so on. And I experimented on myself as well – both arms and most of my legs are covered. And I’m also a gearhead, so the minute I get something I take it apart, so I constantly customise my machines – placing my own coils, cutting out metal and making machines from scratch, putting on different capacitors using different needle sizes and configurations – all in all trying out new things, but researching it enough to make sure I’m compliant with the usage and terms of each component.
This extends to the ink as well. I always found red to be a tricky colour to work with on dark skin, and I also try out different brands of ink in a quest to find the perfect combination. So I may start out a tattoo with 14 different inks – not to say we will have a finished product with 14 different colours, but because I would blend certain colours together to get different textures and tones. So just like you would paint, I would do washes, and shadows to give the tattoo a more realistic look. It’s the little things I learned from the beginning and developed because of the amount of work I got over time. ‘Cause if you don’t learn, you don’t grow, and if you don’t grow, you become stagnant.
Outlish: Interesting what you’re saying about growth; how do you guarantee you keep at the same level or go higher?
Obasi: Anything you do that’s not just for you, especially if it’s a service you’re providing, must have some sort of excellence to it. You must never question if you’d love your final product if you were on the receiving end. And to me the measure of a successful tattoo is whether or not the client is happy. So the goal is to please both the client and myself. More me than them, actually. (Laughs) But the true mark of an artist is constant growth. The minute you say, “I’m a boss”, that’s it – you start to fall already. So you keep learning, keep growing.
Outlish: What would you like to see happen with comrades, the guys out there who are doing what you do?
Obasi: I’d like for people to compare my work to those other boys’ work, and have them on their toes, because I would love to see everybody in the game doing some out-of-this-world kind of work. You go out there and see some tattoos that make you want to find out who the artist is and just knock him down. Sometimes you have to ask, “Yo, you paid for that?” So I would like to help raise the expectancy level, the sanitary level, the cleanliness level. I would just like to raise the level of tattooing in Trinidad from being a flat thing you see on Popeye to living, walking art.
Outlish: Alright, let’s end the same way we began, with something generic. What advice do you have for someone who wants to get into tattooing, or has already started?
Obasi: Being able to inspire confidence is a big thing. And having the confidence to say something is a bit outlandish, or that you may not like it is also a great asset. It doesn’t hurt to have a little contrast as well. Don’t stick to only one style or one set of colours; show that you can do a wide range of stuff. Be at the top of your game, but as I said, don’t make it too tedious. Look at me – I wake up in the morning and do what I love to do. The way I see it, once you can catch your jollies, and make some money at the same time, you’re more or less set.
Photography by Mark Lyndersay of http://lyndersaydigital.com. Mark is a professional photographer and writer working in Trinidad and Tobago since 1976. His column on personal technology, BitDepth, has been continuously published since 1995. He is currently pursuing a photo essay series about how Trinidad and Tobago pursues its culture and festivals called Local Lives. Both series are archived on his website at http://lyndersaydigital.com.
Images of tattoos courtesy Obasi Springer.