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Top tattoo artists find mainstream work pays off

It has been several years since even Ozzy Osbourne could see that tattoos were overexposed: "To be unique, don't get a tattoo. Because everybody else has got tattoos!"

Yet despite the fact that tattoo imagery is everywhere -- serving as the basis for reality shows, as a de facto part of NBA uniforms and, increasingly, as an element in marketing -- it retains its appeal as "an authentic and real part of culture," one advertising executive recently informed The Chicago Tribune.

What's surprising about the popularity of tattooing is that it won't seem to go away -- that some tattoo imagery still seems authentic, even when it's mainstream. Scott Campbell learned the tattoo trade in San Francisco, starting at a "scratcher" shop there before spending several years in Europe and, eventually, New York. He studied the history and lore of tattooing, learning the classic, old-school styles of Norman (Sailor Jerry) Collins and others, and adding his own twists.

In 2004 he opened his own shop, Saved Tattoo, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Set up like a boutique, it has clients that include ad-agency art directors and people like fashion designer Marc Jacobs and actor Heath Ledger.

Still, Campbell loves the "romance" of the now-gone two-fisted clamor of the Honolulu Chinatown district where Sailor Jerry made his name, when a tattoo was a mark of something quite the opposite of hip fashion.

"The stories are amazing," he says. "You wish it was 1950 again -- and you were that tough."

In 2005, Campbell was approached by Gyro Worldwide, a Philadelphia ad firm, to create art for a campaign on behalf of Camel cigarettes. It wasn't his first brush with marketing, but it was his most significant: His poster designs all carried his signature, and they led to work on behalf of Nike, Volkswagen, and other brands. He's creating artwork for ZZ Top's tour merchandise, and recently a bunch of Comcast executives visited his tattoo parlor to talk about the work he's doing for their new Fearnet channel.

Campbell and some of the other young tattoo artists who contributed to the Camel campaign also did some designs for Sailor Jerry. Not the man, who died in 1973, but the apparel brand, which was founded in 1999. The owners of the Sailor Jerry brand lean heavily on the idea of authenticity: Its owners secured the rights to use his images on clothes and accessories from the two Sailor Jerry proteges to whom he left his estate.

Promoted in venues like tattoo conventions, and with advertising that runs to the squalid and debauched, its sales are around $16 million a year. There's also Sailor Jerry rum -- 92 proof, and more likely to be found in a red-state biker bar than in a trendy lounge -- and a Sailor Jerry documentary on the way.

But this is where the tattoo/authenticity/marketing nexus gets weedy. The Sailor Jerry brand is owned by Gyro, the ad agency that hired Campbell to work for Camel.

Apart from serving as a kind of alternative-marketing skunk works for the agency, Sailor Jerry has attained a strong-enough identity to land a co branding deal with Converse, which has released more than a dozen models of Sailor Jerry sneakers in the last couple of years. (The deal is strictly about Sailor Jerry; Converse does not use Gyro as its ad agency.)

Steven Grasse, Gyro's chief executive, says the Sailor Jerry brand has earned its place precisely because of the (authentic) way Gyro has built it. And thus marketing becomes not a leech on tattoo culture, but an arbiter of it. Grasse hired Campbell, for instance, because he liked the way his work fit into a tattoo style that he considers analogous to American folk art, and something else: "What we notice with tattoo artists, versus other kinds of indie artists, is that tattoo artists like making money. It's their business."

The Camel campaign "opened my eyes," Campbell says. "I made phenomenal money watercoloring these same pictures I'd been tattooing on people."

Lately he has been applying his aesthetic to household objects by way of a laser-etching machine, and formed his own creative agency, Mama Tried, so he can work with new clients "from the concepting stage," consulting on a brand's entire image, rather than just doing illustrations.

When I spoke to Campbell, he had just finished a pitch that would involve working with Gyro on a new alcohol brand.

Admittedly, all of this means that he has others to handle the customers at his boutique now. There's one thing Campbell just doesn't have much time for these days: actual tattooing.

Rob Walker writes the Consumed column for The New York Times Magazine.