Member Spotlights are an on-going series of interviews with talented people from our community! You can learn more about becoming a member here. For this instalment we introduce Vancouver-based muralist and tattoo artist James Acrow. Photo above shot by Albert Law.
Jeff Hamada: Where in Vancouver did you grow up? Can you share some of the stuff you were into as a kid?
James Acrow: I was born and grew up in Fort Langley and Vancouver. As a kid I was really into toys comics and animation. I was always into drawing and I’d come up with my own comics with my friends. We would buy the official blue line comic pages and use blue pencil crayon as the sketch and then ink them. At the time I didn’t realize it was non repo blue but I was just mimicking the original comic pages I’d seen. I also grew up skateboarding which exposed me to the art of Jim Phillips and Sean Cliver. Skateboarding eventually led to painting graffiti when I was about 13.
JH: What made you want to start tattooing?
JA: I think it’s funny because throughout my life I’ve always gravitated towards the same art. Tattooing was just a natural progression from skateboarding and doing graffiti. I liked the fact that with tattooing, it’s kind of a melting pot of various types of imagery and draws from so many cultures and art forms. In my early 20’s I was making a living mainly by doing murals and a lot of those murals were just commercial art jobs painting album covers etc. At first it was a challenge to pull off the art technically and at the scale I was working but, pretty quickly it became something uninspiring and was kind of crushing my soul a bit. Tattooing kind of saved my soul artistically and gave me something to apply myself to that was much more personal and rewarding.
JH: How does the experience of getting tattooed for the first time compare to the experience of tattooing someone else for the first time?
JA: Well, the first time I tattooed someone was the first guy to open the door for me and apprentice me. Jesse Wark. I didn’t even know how to set up the machine and I know that’s crazy but, he just threw me in the deep end. It was a “figure it out” kind of apprenticeship. He was also the first person to tattoo me.
JH: At what point did you feel like you had found your voice as a tattoo artist?
JA: I think it’s always evolving. In a lot of ways I still don’t feel as if I’ve found my voice. I think one reason is that I came from the era of tattooers where it was really hammered into you to be able to do any style of tattoo that comes through the door. In some ways it’s good to explore various styles but on the other hand it’s important to distinguish yourself I think and create something that’s recognizable as your own. Tattooing is funny in that sense because it’s up to you how you want to approach it. You have to be aware of the type of projects you take on and be able to say no to the work that doesn’t excite you. Especially as you get further into your career.
JH: When we talked before you mentioned that you’re sort of returning to painting and “fine art” after a decade and a half in the tattoo scene, tell me about this place you find yourself in now.
JA: Really all I’m doing now is trying to take a step back from tattooing or a step to the side I guess. I want to spend more time on personal art. I don’t exactly know where I see myself fitting or where pursuing personal projects will take me but for now what’s important to me is being creative and inspired to make work for myself. After tattooing for fifteen years full time I feel I’ve earned that and it’s what I need to progress. I think that with the way social media is changing things it’s exciting to see all the freedom you have as an artist and it seems like now more than ever there’s so much opportunity to get your voice heard.
JH: Is it tricky to make work purely for yourself now, without having to have a client in mind? I remember that was hard for me after I’d freelanced for several years.
JA: It was initially hard to decide what to make when staring at a blank page and no guidance from a client. It’s an easy trap to get into. It’s more of an investment when it’s all you. What are you saying? Why are you creating this? What does it mean? Who cares? Art for the sake of itself is a little like staring into the abyss. It’s a lot more comfortable to be creating something for a specific reason. Someone wants to have an album cover or a skateboard graphic. Someone needs a mural for their business. Someone wants a tattoo because their grandma passed away or they beat cancer. It’s easier when there is a reason and it’s serving a purpose.
JH: I know James Jean is a huge influence for you, can you talk a bit about your interest in his work?
JA: I think one of the reasons I really like him as an artist is that he seems to be able to navigate effortlessly between his commercial and personal work. Whether its comic art, fine art or fashion he manages to have the work be easily recognizable as his own. He’s one of the people that’s pushing the line between what’s considered illustration and whats considered fine art and it’s exciting to watch.
JH: What else is inspiring you these days?
JA: Honestly, I’m inspired by so much. Personally, the most exciting and inspiring thing right now is exploring digital as a medium and incorporating that into my workflow. The freedom you have to experiment is worth the investment of time.
JH: This doesn’t have to be specific to tattooing but who is someone you’ve learned a lot from?
JA: I’m fortunate to have had a few great friends/mentors throughout my life but someone that stands out is Steve Moore. Easily one of the best tattooers in the world and also one of the nicest, most humble and genuine people you will ever meet.
JH: What are you most proud of at this point in your life?
JA: That’s a tough one. I think that I’m most proud that I’ve been able to create a lot of freedom in my life. I don’t have to do much that I don’t want to do and there isn’t much that I want to do that I can’t do. Freedom is important and having less limitations I guess.
JH: What’s one thing you want to accomplish this next year?
JA: This year my main focus is to work on personal art. Into the abyss!
JH: And what about one thing you want to accomplish in your lifetime?
JA: I just want the freedom to pursue what interests me. Wherever that takes me, I’ll have to wait and see.
James has a couple prints available of his recent mural designs, if you’re interested you can reach out to him through his Instagram.
Text by Jeff Hamada
Photos by Albert Law (in addition to artist’s own images)