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INTERVIEW

camille mcmullen

february 9, 2019

richmond, virginia



Adele: Are you a cat or a dog?
Camille: I’d say I’m a dog because I get really, really excited about stuff and I’m very social. I like hanging out with all kinds of people, all the time. I never get tired of it. And I’m also really cuddly, too! [laughs]
Adele: Yes! Those are all really good dog traits. I don’t know that cuddly has been used to describe a dog person before, but that makes sense.
Camille: Like once they’re at home, with someone that they’re really comfortable with, dogs are so cuddly! So sweet! It’s the best.



Adele: Yeah. Truly. I went camping last weekend—oh my god. I bought the van!
Camille: The van?!
Adele: The van that you and I went to go see together!
Camille: So good! So good.
Adele: I thought about that when I was riding up here and I was like, I can’t wait to tell her! So, I bought the van and I went camping in it last weekend for the first time, which was so amazing. More amazing than I thought it would be. So spacious! The backseat is on a motor, it’s called a power sofa. It goes down really slowly, which is wild to me. It was really cold but still, so comfortable in there. I’m totally in love. I can’t wait to get on the road and have some adventures.
Camille: That’s so great. I’m so glad to hear that. Yay!
Adele: Why did I bring that up—oh yeah, it was freezing. It was like, 20 degrees that night. I went to Powhatan State Park with my dog. So speaking of cuddling, I sleep happily in my bed every night, alone, because of my dog. She’s so good at cuddling and she’s so warm. That was a very long digression from cat-dog, but yeah, cuddling dogs: great. Love the van, also. I was so stoked to tell you.
Camille: Yay! That’s great.
Adele: I’m so grateful that you came to look at it initially with me.
Camille: That was so much fun. I look back on that fondly.



Adele: Will you describe your studio practice as a party?
Camille: Well, I would say it’s kind of a low-key little party with my friends. It’s happening at my house. I’m hosting the party, so there are all my decorations and all my art and stuff around. A lot of colors—colored lights, shiny decorations, disco balls, lava lamps—I love colors! I invite people in and some of them I know and some of them I don’t know but I just try to make everyone comfortable. Usually when I’m actually hosting a party, I’m a pretty hands-off host, like, "everyone have fun!" I feel like I kind of do that here, too. I’m just like, have fun, and if there’s anything I can do, let me know! I let people get used to the space. I visit with everyone, you know, and have conversations with everyone, or try to. There’s dancing, of course. All kinds of music. Weird mix of music. All over the place.
Adele: Yeah. If there are lots of different people there, you’ve gotta make sure everyone’s pulling their own moves.
Camille: Exactly. And I listen to music all the time, so it’s like, I’ve gotta find new stuff and not get bored.
Adele: That sounds really nice. I would come. And I felt that during the tattoo that you gave me, that conversational vibe, getting to know everyone, feeling comfortable in the space.
Camille: Definitely. That’s all I try to do for people, is make them feel comfortable. So I’m always glad to hear that.



Adele: Could you describe your queer tattoo collective?
Camille: Yes. I share the studio space with my studio partner Soojin. She’s applying for med school right now.
Adele: Wow!
Camille: Yeah, so she’s very busy! We met through a mutual friend and became closer through tattooing and eventually, we decided to get a studio space together. There are a lot of queer DIY tattooers in bigger cities that are forming these underground collectives that are going against everything the tattoo industry stands for. I noticed that didn’t really exist here, and that really bothered me because the tattoo industry isn’t very welcoming to a lot of marginalized people. So I wanted to create a space that felt comfortable for any kind of person to come into. Soojin and I are both queer and a lot of our clients are queer. Our clients are the kind of people who want our tattoo style, or just something that’s not the norm for tattoos. So yeah, that’s kind of what it’s about. Just being very open and welcoming and comfortable and doing things a little differently than they normally get done.
Adele: Yeah, I mean, that’s definitely a reason why I came here, too. It’s like, ok, cool, queer-friendly, I will go there. That’s my spot. And creating a safe space for queer art is really important. We believe that at corner office, too. It does exist here in Richmond, but in varying degrees, and in fits and starts. I just learned what the hashtag #qttr [queer tattooer] is.
Camille: [laughs] I know, it’s like, very shortened.
Adele: Yeah, very abbreviated!
Camille: I like that hashtag. I think it’s a very shortened but all-encompassing description of what we do here.



Adele: Can you talk about your decision to hand-poke? How did you get into this work?
Camille: I started hand-poking because it’s much more accessible to start out that way. But I still mostly do hand-pokes because I really enjoy the whole process. It’s calm and quiet and meditative. I usually choose to do hand-pokes for people’s first tattoos, if they come to me for that, because they’re a lot gentler than machine tattoos. For a lot of people, it’s less painful. I think the whole concept of like, “oh, if you can’t take the pain, you don’t deserve to get tattooed”—I think that’s a bit discriminatory.
Adele: That seems like, very macho.
Camille: Yeah, yeah. Very masculine. I think that people experience pain in different ways, and for some people, machine is better, and for some people, hand-poked is better. I like being able to offer both, just to make a person more comfortable. I usually end up hand-poking because it’s gentler, but I like giving someone the option, or I say, like, “I would prefer to do this one with hand-poke and this one with a machine, what do you think about that? Is that ok with you?”. There really aren’t that many hand-poke artists here in Richmond, so it feels good to be able to offer that to people if that’s what they’re seeking out.



Adele: This is a side question. Some people say that hand-poke is not as safe as machine tattoo. Could you respond to that?
Camille: Yes, that is a common misconception. I actually had someone DM me the other day and ask if my hand-poke tattoos were permanent, which doesn’t really make sense because they are tattoos, but I get questions like that a lot. Hand-poking has a lot of stigma behind it because of instances where friends give each other tattoos in unsafe environments, you know. They just like don’t follow correct sterilization procedures and they don’t really finish the tattoo, so a lot of times they fade or get infected. I think that contributes to the associations people have with hand-poking. I’ve heard a lot of people say, like, oh, anyone can hand-poke, or that they’re not as legit as machine tattoos. But hand-poking is the ancient process of tattoo. People have been doing it for centuries and I feel very fortunate to be able to participate in this tradition. I think that it sometimes takes more skill to hand-poke, because you don’t have a machine making the lines for you. Some of my favorite tattooers are hand-pokers and they kick ass! You’re doing everything with your hands, with this person. You spend a couple hours of really intimate time with your client and everything is just—it’s just you! Just you and your hands. As long as you follow correct safety precautions, it’s just as safe as machine.
Adele: I think the element of intimacy really validates hand-poking. There’s no interface of the machine between you and the other person. Every dot is so finely attuned. Yeah, it’s quiet and ritualistic and super intimate. I think there’s a ton of validity in that intimacy. I love it.
Camille: Yeah, that’s one of my favorite things about it.



Adele: Where do you draw inspiration for your flash? Actually, what is flash? It would be nice to have a definition from you.
Camille: It’s funny because the concept of flash doesn’t really exist if you’re a hand-poke artist. Traditionally, flash is a sheet of designs that an artist draws that they can just do really quickly if you walk into a shop. You can see flash on the wall and say, oh, I want that, and they can do it for the shop minimum. It’s just a quick design that’s simple and it’s the artist’s own thing. It’s not custom. That’s kind of like, the “real” definition of flash. It doesn’t really make sense for hand-poking because nothing’s super quick, everything takes a little bit of time. The way that I use it is for designs that I have been thinking about, or things that I want to try. A lot of times it’s like, new ways of going about tattooing that I want to practice. I’ll draw a sheet, and sometimes I have a theme, and sometimes I don’t, but then I have these designs ready as jumping off points for people, or they can decide they actually want exactly what I drew. It’s just to give people an idea of what I like to do, what my style is, and what I could do for them.



Adele: Could you give an example of when you’re using your flash to explore a new way of tattooing or drawing?
Camille: Yeah, I’ve been doing that a lot recently. I used to just draw with felt-tip pens, it would be solid lines and that’s it, it was simple. But then I started using ballpoint and I drew one sheet where I did light shading with the ballpoint pen, kind of as a way to explore more emphasis on shading and less emphasis on linework in tattooing. Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of stippling with ballpoint, which I actually think looks a lot more like how tattoos end up looking anyway. With the needles, the shading is stippling, it’s less smooth than say, shading with graphite. I think that not only does it more accurately represent what the tattoo would actually look like, but it’s also exploring this concept of using less lines and using more planes of shading to depict an object, which I’ve been really into lately.
Adele: What kind of objects have you been drawing?
Camille: I’m very influenced by retro-futurism and 80s chrome art. I’ve been drawing a lot of reflective objects and a lot of things where I can play with not only the actual object but the surface of it and what’s reflected in it. You know, it just gives me so many things to explore. It’s super fun.
Adele: Yeah. Also, that seems really challenging!
Camille: Yeah, it is! I used to be very into realism in my drawing style, back in high school. I did really detailed graphite drawings. During art school, I totally strayed away from that and did a lot of abstract work, like manipulating objects. Now I think I’ve taken all that I’ve learned, and gone back to realism. Manipulating objects but still making them look real.
Adele: The mirrors! It goes back to the mirrors that you’re collecting, too, that are like, reflecting this world in reverse. It’s a manipulation.
Camille: Yeah, I’m always collecting mirrors and reflective objects and things that I can use as reference for drawings.



Adele: Could you describe the collaborative nature of tattooing? How do you navigate it and define it?
Camille: Every tattoo I make is a collaboration between me and the client. I like to have it be a back and forth between us, with everything. Like, what do you want, when are we going to do it, and then once they get here, I like to make sure that everything—design, placement, details, everything—is perfect, that everything is exactly how they want it, because it is such a permanent thing. Besides all that, like, besides my clients and studio mate, it is a very solitary thing to practice because I’m self-taught. I had to learn everything on my own and I’m not really accepted in the tattoo community because of the way I learned, so it’s really hard to find other people who are doing what I’m doing and I can talk to them about it and collaborate and, you know, even just be like, “hey, I like your work.” I’ve met a handful of other Richmond-based DIY tattooers recently, but for a long time I was the only one doing it. I’m really glad that I have a practice that relies so heavily on clients, because I love working with other people and I feed off of other people a lot. I get really sad when I’m working in my studio alone all day. It takes a toll on me. I’m really lucky to have tattooing as such a collaborative thing with people who are willing to collaborate with me, if that makes sense.
Adele: It’s very much a shared space and experience and atmosphere. You’re putting your work on someone else’s body. It’s so collaborative!
Camille: I know, it’s such a weird feeling to put so much into these images and designs and then spend so much time with a person and put it on their body and then usually never see it again. It’s so strange. All I have is like, a photo on Instagram, you know?
Adele: Yeah, whoa. I never thought about that.
Camille: Yeah, and just knowing that this person’s going to carry this with them everywhere they go for the rest of their lives—it’s a very permanent thing but a very fleeting thing.
Adele: Yeah, for you it’s fleeting. When you’ve made connections, how have you made them? How do you envision yourself building that community?
Camille: As much as I hate to say this, I owe a lot—a lot of what I’ve learned and the artists that I’ve met—to Instagram.
Adele: Yeah, that’s awesome! Instagram rules for artists.
Camille: It’s great for creatives. It’s how I get most all of my clients and how I can reach new people with my work. I mean, it’s how I’ve found like, every tattooer that I admire. Like I said, there’s not really a strong DIY community here in Richmond, because it’s such a small city. There’s not really that underbelly—
Adele: Which is funny because there are so many tattoo shops, and so many people with tattoos.
Camille: I know, I know. It’s pretty ironic. I’ve met people in other cities doing the same thing as me, through Instagram, and that’s really helped because it’s given me a sense of community, even though it’s online. But I hope to travel around and actually meet these people and get to tattoo with them and see their spaces and how they’re similar to mine, and see how the scenes vary in different cities. Yeah, forming a community long-distance.



Adele: What are you excited about?
Camille: I am really excited that the days are getting longer, honestly, and that there’s more sunlight. I sometimes forget this but being outside is so important and healing for me. Being able to go places and do stuff makes me happy. So, that, and the little trips that I’m gonna take, and going camping, and the summer—summer is just the sweetest time. Yeah. That’s mostly what I’m excited about. Just the sun, mostly. Seeing the sun more. Spending more time in the sun.