LIVING Jack Yan talks to Spencer Harrington, a New Zealand-born tattoo artist who’s gaining an international reputation for his work
Main photograph by Taylor Kuykendall
Jack Yan is publisher of Lucire.
There’s a very talented New Zealander on Instagram who has been posting some astonishing tattoo art. Spencer Harrington is a sought-after artist who has shown himself to be highly adaptable, tackling subject matter from Japanese-influenced art to memorials, to American Traditional fare such as roses and skulls. Harrington has a highly stylized approach with a rich use of colour and strongly defined shapes, and he is steadily gaining more recognition in the world of tattoo art.
His work in tattooing didn’t come instantly. Harrington spent 12 years as a visual art professional, and has listed painter and muralist among his job titles. He had been tattooed himself since he was 17, so he had been exposed to the world, but saw first-hand that it was a profession into which one needed a great deal of devotion, and hadn’t considered it for himself initially.
‘When I did get into it, I learnt very quickly that unlike many other genres of visual art, tattooing required an all-or-nothing approach,’ he recalls. ‘I saw the dedication required for an apprenticeship and the emphasis put on knowing the history of the craft, as well as the motifs themselves. The extremely important knowledge of cross-contamination and the customer service and confidence required to take someone’s idea and create a visual that’s worthy for them to wear on their bodies for the rest of their lives … all of this meant that until I felt like it was indeed the next direction in my lifelong pursuit of art, I would hold off.’
While in his early 20s, he lived in Tokyo for two-and-a-half years. During that time, Harrington took part in collaborative art exhibitions, not just in Japan, but also China, including Hong Kong, and became the art director of a collective art space in Shibuya, Tokyo.
That solidified his desire to travel more outside his native New Zealand. In 2012, he moved to Toronto ‘to chase a Canadian birth certificate through paternal relations and spent the next year without a social security number. Finally at 27 years old, it seemed like the time had come to put my all into a full-time, unpaid, tattoo apprenticeship.’
It was from there that Harrington began getting noticed, and he wound up basing himself in Toronto full-time.
Being based in North America agrees with him, as his favourite style is American Traditional: ‘the style and motifs made popular by soldiers and sailors getting tattooed around the world during all the major wars of the 1900s—pin-ups, eagles, clipper ships, swallows, roses, skulls—I have fun tattooing all that stuff, and in my opinion the imagery is timeless.’ Harrington wants his clients to be able to look at the work 20 years later and still love it, ‘which is more than can be said about a lot of other styles getting popular in tattooing today.’
He believes that there are more criteria that mark out what a good tattoo is, as opposed to a lot of visual art, which can be highly subjective. Longevity is one: ‘All tattoos should be done with the future in mind, whether that means making sure the tattoo has a enough black in the right areas to give it strength, or holding back from unnecessary detail in areas of the body that get a lot of wear. Every tattoo requires specific care by the artist during design, sizing, placement, and execution, to make sure when that person is 70, 80, 90, they can still look down at what will be an “aged” but legible piece.’
Being based in Toronto has also put him nearer Los Angeles, where he finds an attraction toward Venice Beach. ‘Being a skateboarder my whole life, I was visiting my Mecca, and it really did feel like I needed to be there. During some of my earlier visits, I did live body painting and made live art along the boardwalk just to be amongst it all. And now I’m tattooing, I find myself guest-spotting at shops on the strip years later, so I guess something keeps pulling me back. But I could say the same about most of southern California … so, so many reasons, even just for the blue skies and palm trees.’
It also puts Harrington closer to the sources of the imagery he likes. ‘I’m learning about how rich the tattoo history is there and the huge military and naval presence means I’m actually learning about the motifs I tattoo regularly and the meanings behind them from the personnel themselves.
‘These are images I got tattooed in New Zealand and Australia, and produced myself in Canada, mainly because they were tough and timeless, so it’s very humbling to be marking an American serviceman with a tattoo similar and on the same coastline to a USN sailor about to sail off to WWII or Vietnam. I make a living making American traditional tattoos, so it kinda just makes sense,’ he says.
Harrington has expanded his repertoire recently to do more realistic portraits. Dogs are the most requested subject-matter. ‘Being able to tattoo realism means a lot of the tattoos done in portrait style are extremely meaningful to the client, more often than not being a memorial piece to honour the memory of that person or pet. It has added another layer to the reasons why I put 100 per cent into tattooing, for sure.’
Over the last year he has tattooed in London, Edinburgh and Tijuana. ‘It’s such a big world out there, with so many experiences yet to be experienced and sights yet to be seen. I find it crazy not to be making the most of my travels before the responsibilities of future family and career have me slowing down. It’s a life that definitely requires constant hustling, but it’s only getting better.’
The travel has helped solidify Harrington’s reputation. He didn’t rely on social media, since Instagram wasn’t as big in 2012 as it is today, and he only began an online presence when he was working full-time. ‘All the opportunities I got before then were from traditional methods: sending emails, chasing up conversations, going into galleries and shops and festivals and actually shaking people’s hands. These are skills a lot of people are losing in this recent “online world”, but it gave me the foundations to build from. So when I did start pushing an online presence, that hustle remained.
‘But ultimately, you’re only as good as your portfolio, so I do like to think that is the main reason I’m so requested, and everything else is just icing on the cake to get that next job, or next client.’
Earlier in 2019, Harrington returned to New Zealand to do a tattoo tour. It was only his second trip back in six years, with a skill set he did not possess before, allowing him to work with some of the country’s best tattoo artists over the summer. He travelled from Invercargill and headed north. He volunteered at the New Zealand Tattoo Convention in New Plymouth, before finishing up his two months in his home town of Auckland. He had a week’s stint in Brisbane before he flew back to Canada. ‘I think it solidified future visits back home for sure,’ he says.
He will remain in Toronto for the northern summer, before looking forward to a month in Tijuana, and expects to be back in New Zealand come the end of the year. As to the future, Harrington says, ‘Who knows? I really have been flying by the seat of my pants for the last three or so years and I guess, as long as people keep wanting my work on their bodies and studios around the world keep letting me visit, I’m gonna keep saying yes. I’ve only got one of these things called life (as as far as I am aware of)—I might as well try and squeeze the most out of it.’ •
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