Thomas Hooper was born in Hastings in East Sussex (UK) and started tattooing in 2001 whilst studying Drawing at the London Institute of Art and Design. After a short period of tattooing at Frith Street Tattoo, Hooper moved from London to New York to further pursue art and tattooing. He went from Saved Tattoo in NYC to Rock of Ages in Austin, Texas and has now returned to East Sussex (UK) to live full time, continuing Tattooing and Art.
Hooper's style is deeply influenced by Tibetan iconography, nature and ornamental art from around the world, alchemical and early scientific illustrations, traditional woodcuts and mystic cosmology. He has has always been interested in exploring themes and imagery connected with death, the cosmos and our natural surroundings, often his work will just take a ornamental path with no literal meaning except to create something beautiful to look at.
"I am a tattooer, an artist, a husband, and a father. My sensibilities as an artist are defined by how I may incorporate and blend these identities into my tattooing," Hooper says.
Today Hooper's work draws its influences from many things, the sanctum of nature and natural forms, the unconscious, mathematical and geometric patterns, cosmology, and eastern religious images. He tries to incorporate these ideas into intricate patterns and symbolism using complex pointillism, repetition, and detailed line-work with the hopes of creating a visual language that is both meditative and pure in form. It is his belief that a tattooist should always be striving to improve his or her skill and to be conscious of how their tattoos may relate and ultimately contribute to the surrounding world of tattooing. Hooper is constantly exploring new ways to improve the skills and options available to him, and finding new ways to develop techniques and tools beyond what is already necessary. Given that the skin is his primary material, the path forward for his craft to expand and improve is to find new ways to illustrate and decorate the people he is fortunate enough to tattoo.
For his debut edition, Thomas Hooper joins us for the first release in our Moonlight Meditations collection with his latest piece Temple Sonar. Available in gold and silver variants, each 6-color screen printed edition features metallic inks hand pulled by Nightswim Projects in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Read on as we sit down with Thomas Hooper to discuss the inspiration behind his latest editions, his process, tattooing, moonlighting, meditation and lots more...
Moonlight: Tell us a little bit about this piece, how did it come about?
Thomas Hooper: When I was drawing it, the idea was that everything was quite loose with no particular direction, a lot of themes that did come to mind was a sort of a temple kind of feeling. Almost like you've walked through a temple, and there was a pathway that you walk through and once you've got to the other side that was the light. A lot of the are I’ve been making in the past few years are meant to be beacons, or temple-like focus points in the sense that they are meant to be the opposite of the things that we inadvertently worship, our little black mirrors. Hopefully a kind of thing to draw us away from the doom and gloom that is constantly thrust upon us digitally.
ML: Does this piece fall into an ongoing series that you have in this style?
TH: It's more that it's an ongoing contemplation, an intention in what I'm drawing, to give it that feeling. But it is mixed with the experimental idea of, what does this do when it sits against this shape and these lines, or if I go over the top of that etc. There's this experimental found element that I can have in printmaking and in art, that I can't have in tattooing.
ML: How was this piece created?
TH: This image was a mixture of drawings, and paintings cut up. I did the original drawings for it, then I used existing paintings that I chopped up and collaged them together to create something new, something that would be different from how I would paint. I like to chop these things up and kind of approach it in a different way. For this piece I wanted to say, how can I use this and make it different from all the other ones? Take some elements from other paintings I have done and approach it in a completely different way, where it's informing me and making me think 'oh, I should paint like this.' Selfishly, I wanted it to be exciting for me.
ML: So is that something new that you're doing, as far as approaching collaging these different elements and mediums back and forth?
TH: Yes, there's some stuff where I did a hand drawn element then I did a second layer on top. If you look at the center triangle, you can see a bit of deterioration, like in my paintings. I drew it deliberately so that it was off registered a little bit. I drew the triangle pattern, and it was all a bit too perfect, so that’s why I made a loose second layer, it’s kind of scribbled, it kind of looks quite sketched and drawn very quickly, intentionally.
You've got the light blue with that almost black layer on top of it. It's set off a tiny bit, so it just looks a little bit off. I want to make it feel like something I wouldn’t want to do with a print normally. There's lots of rough edges, there’s the rays of my paintings which are normally very perfect. Here in this one, there's some black rays on top of a pinky orange color, and that's a little pixelated and jagged. That was quite deliberate, to make it a little rough, then there's a hand drawn mandala element that's a black over a light blue, that was hand drawn very nice, but then I photocopied it, scanned it, and messed with it so it became really noisy, like old flyers and Xerox posters. I was kind of messing with that area for that.
Then there are the golden rays that have a lot of texture. There are some scrapes straight from a painting and then that's the piece that's behind is the piece. There's some linear pieces that are behind things in different circles, there’s a sun over an ocean, a linear plateau shape, I was making small little drawings that I was doing that are these sections, they are unplanned, no pencil, dip pen and ink, to experiment with lines and my ideas of structure. In my head these little things have a narrative, this is a sun setting on some sort of shifting plane that could be the ocean of rain between two worlds or two realities, I always have these little narratives in my head.
ML: How long did this piece kind of take from start to finish?
TH: I don't really know, it was over a couple of months, if I was to quantify all the time, all the time spent, there is a good chunk of 40-50 hours in there, playing with it. Some of the drawings were drawn…I dunno…10 months ago, with no intention of being for this print. But I would put them up on my wall and look at them every day. I remember I was trying to do something else for the print and it just wasn't working. I was looking at these drawings, and I thought maybe I should pull this off or change this.
I like temple architecture, people striving to create shapes and structures that have a resonance, that vibrate, they give people a sense of space and stillness. There is a lot of repetition in my work, sometimes it feels like I’m trying to distill something ,extracting something from the Ether…
ML: Yeah, definitely. In the revisions that you sent us it’s been very interesting to watch this piece come together.
TH: I think I quite enjoy sending things off like that. Well, maybe enjoy is the wrong word, I find it very helpful because of my tattoo workflow. For instance, quite often when I have a customer come to me, and they say, I want X, Y and Z on my whole arm, leg, torso etc. They want to know what it is I want to do, but I need to find out what it is that they want me to want to do……. Maybe I make it more complicated in my head than it needs to be, but I like it that way. So if I don't have any ideas, or I kind of feel a bit uninspired, or I draw a blank, I’ll ask if they can come in and we'll do a little drawing together on their body. I'll sit them in front of me, we'll chat and I’ll come up with a concept that works very quickly, because they are there, I have the inspiration, the human interaction and the pressure to do my job. I need to have them there and have some real interaction for my brain to start making this stuff, you know, so by sending it off, it makes that process kickstart maybe for me.
ML: The idea of the collaborative side of things with whoever the other half of the equation is, do you think that was something that you started pulling into your art practice kind of automatically from tattooing?
TH: Yes, its been my practice now for 23 years! There’s the pressure to perform, to deliver on a creative aspect, on a day to day amount with your customer there with you. It creates certain working practices, some may be good, may be not so good. So when I have an art project like this, it’s a little bit more like how can I make this about something? I don’t really want it to be about me, am I overthinking it all? yes.
ML: When we had originally started discussing working together on something we were building around the idea of meditation, how does that fit into your work?
TH: Yeah, for me meditation is many things. It can be a the obvious, like mindfulness of breath, another is the idea of being on a path of just practicing, and that ends up being in my daily life with my tattooing, the idea of being mindful and present in your daily actions also. I remember one of my meditation teachers years ago talking about the idea of meditation as widening the gap in your mind between an action and your reaction to that action. I think meditation is quite universal, but at the same time, it's completely individual. So half the time when I'm working I feel like it can get a little distracting, so these pieces are definitely there to pull me away from that, to create a space to be and not over think. The idea is to create a space where I’m not trying to not grasp onto my thoughts and the irony is, to get to that point, I think about it a lot.
There's a quote by Max Richter, he's a musician/composer, and he'll talk about making music with the purpose of creating a space to think. I really like this idea, that he's trying to create a physical space with music to think. Especially in a technological world that seems like everything is designed around making us stressed and full of fear etc. I really like the idea he's using these invisible, vibrating sound waves to create a physical space where you can stand and be with your thoughts, rather than being surrounded by all the noise and tumultuous interference that’s thrust at us constantly.
ML: Yeah, I remember seeing a few of his songs on your posts, do you typically find yourself listening to music like that while you are painting? What’s your working environment like while you are painting?
TH: It’s a big mix of everything. It’s not always perfect, sometimes chaotic but I like it. I feel like I'm constantly trying to extract every last minute of every day. I tattoo five days a week, and I make art at night or whenever I have time off if im not with my family, almost like I’m moonlighting. I listen to a lot of music from all over the spectrum, lots of off the radar independent stuff where I find the process of the musician very interesting, lots of ambient, droning classical based music, I think music is a crazy, wonderful, powerful thing.
ML: You touched on some of it earlier, do you find yourself returning to any recurring themes? What are the some of the things that you find yourself bouncing back to?
TH: There's a lot of stuff to do with mortality, looking at this idea of what time do we have here? It can end up looking quite macabre and dark, but I find this interesting, art that is there to remind you that you are going to die, so you make better use of your time at that moment. So there's a lot of that. Then things switched during the pandemic, I started making art that made me feel good and positive. I didn't really understand it at first, but I just kept with it and now maybe understand it more but it is evolving always, what I've been doing lately is thinking about the opposite of gravity, levity. Gravity gives us life, but at the same time it's slowly pulling us down into the ground. So I’m kind of thinking about the opposite of that, looking at just trying to create art that gives the viewer you a feeling of levity. Energy and forward motion, or upward motion.
ML: What was your kind of first medium? What was your kind of childhood like, as far as the arts were concerned?
TH: Well, my mother is an artist, so I was always around a lot of art and exposed to a lot of it. She always had a lot of music in the house, recording all sorts of different radio shows, classical jazz, everything. I was very fortunate to be exposed to a lot of culture early on. I used to draw a lot, but early on I didn't really have an interest in art. Maybe because she was an artist and my sister was, so I wanted to do something different. I rode BMX as a kid, teen and still do! I was sponsored when I was younger, so I was surrounded by a lot of independent people traveling and trying to create things they could make and use in that world. Once I discovered tattooing, art really drew me back in, my first medium was drawing, just working on normal art school type stuff, but it was tattooing that really gave me the inspiration and access to the arts, through the other artists I met. When I was learning to tattoo I got the opportunity to tattoo whilst I was going to university, I got a Bachelor’s in drawing, it’s always been a massive thing for me, it gave me a totally different perspective on critical thinking. To really see what it is you’re drawing, and then thinking outside of that box. I had a really good teacher and he had a quote that I really liked that was ‘Drawing is just taking a line for a walk.’ I always liked that.
ML: Were there any early influences that you had any that still kind of carry through today?
TH: Yeah, a lot of artists that I discovered whilst I was in school I still find inspiring. Most are very different from what I do, but some of the early ones that are still with me are Anselm Kiefer, Andy Goldsworthy, Agnes Martin and Richard Serra. One that I discovered more recently, and really kind of resonated with me is a Swedish artist named Hilma Af Klimt.
Lately music has been a big inspiration, especially these more contemporary experimental and classical musicians, I really like a lot of repetition and the use of motifs to come up with language forms and just repeat them in different ways. I find that really interesting.
ML: How does tattooing kind of play off your art and vice versa? how would you say they kind of feed into one another?
TH: With art it's so objective, that I only need a few people to like it. But with a tattoo, I need that one person to really love it. I have to also think of every person that they come across, and they show them their tattoo. I don't ever want that person to be like ‘Oh, why does that look like that?’ and have a negative feeling towards it. Because then that person carries that tattoo, I want the tattoo to just have this complete positivity throughout their entire life. But with art, it can be a bit more objective, someone can think, ‘I don't like that, that looks shitty, I don't like the colors.' but with a tattoo, I don't want that. I want it to just be a home run, The tattoos are safer yet require way more pressure on me to deliver.
ML: Would you say your tattoo work is a little tighter, less experimental, just because of the medium or…
TH: It’s not only tighter in how it's tattooed, technically, or how it's drawn, but also tighter in my approach to the ideas. Because I can't just say, ‘Okay, let's see if this works...oh right. well, that didn't work.’ I can't redo it. It has to work every time. With a piece of art I can be 'I'm not sure if that works. Let me put it on the wall and look at it.' I can do that with a drawing for a tattoo, but if you're already questioning it, I don't really want to tattoo that.
Tattoo by Thomas Hooper on the back of Brandon Boyd - photo by Kacie Tomita
What's happened now is that I’ve started to create art as an escape from the art that I tattoo, just as a place for me to just have some fun, with no intention of ever tattooing. But then some of my customers will say, 'well can I get that as a tattoo?' So now I’m tattooing some of the stuff that was meant to just be my personal space, and now I'm starting to paint this stuff with the idea of tattoos in mind. So it's really just like a positive feedback loop. Where one thing was meant to not inform the other one and would just be to get some release, but now one thing is informing the other and vice versa. I feel very, very lucky and fortunate to have such a simple and adaptable conundrum like that.
ML: Do you have any advice that you have gotten from other artists that resonates with you? Do you have any advice to offer other artists?
TH: One that I really liked was from a friend of mine who's a musician. He was trying to refer to himself as not being talented, which is not true, but he was talking about how it's not often about talent, it's about finding that right moment. Finding when you have connected with other people, seeing that moment and then choosing to work, really just work, work, work at creating what it is you want.
I would say that, you know for me, tattooing is a gift. It supports me and my family, and it's allowed me to meet countless friends and be creative my entire life in many ways. I do it a lot, and I find it to be almost like my comfort zone that needs to be tapped into. It’s where I feel the most at ease, even when it's stressful, and that's 23 years of having done it for many hours and hours a week. That’s not a complaint or a kind of boast, that's just how much I kind of just ended up eating, sleeping, and breathing it.
ML: Do you have anything coming up on the horizon you want to share?
TH: I have a few exhibitions in the pipeline that ill post on my social media and a great collaboration with my friends at 3sixteen.com
ML: Anything that we have left out that you you want to share?
TH: Not really, just that I'm really so grateful to enjoy what I do so much.
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