"Skulls are a primal image that have fascinated and inspired artists throughout history, I feel that they represent life as much as death. Its kind of a weirdly modern Western view that death is a negative thing to be feared and not talked about."
Jon MDC is the artist behind MDCIndustries, a practice made up of work that traverses live and static canvases, illustrating brilliant art for Redbubble products and working as a tattoo artist after completing a degree in Fine Art. I recently had the chance to catch up with him and discuss his respect for the history of tattoo art his obsession with drawing skulls. With a keen eye for detail and highly skilled composition, Jon’s portfolio of products is one to watch out for.
How long have you been drawing, illustrating, and working as an artist for?
To be honest I’ve been drawing my whole life, I can’t remember ever not having paper and pencils around me. So I guess you could say around 38 years! I had a love/hate relationship with art through my school years but some how ended up with a degree in Fine Art. After a lot of misspent searching, playing, and working I found myself with some opportunities and started to make a living from my artwork about 8 years ago. In that time I’ve created 6 books of artists’ reference, been published in various books worldwide, had art shows in Germany and the UK.
Are you self taught or have you studied art?
I have several qualifications in art but consider myself in the most part to be self taught, I had 2 apprenticeships when I started tattooing but again didn’t really start to learn to do what I do until I’d went out on my own. But I don’t think that you ever stop learning to create.
What’s your favorite thing about tattooing?
Hands down my favourite thing about tattooing is the trust every client shows when they let me create a piece of art on their skin. It’s truly a humbling experience when a stranger approaches me and asks to get tattooed because they’ve seen my work on the Internet. I held back for a long time before I learned to tattoo as I had become disillusioned with the art world through my degree. Spending time around many different tattoo shops helped me to gain a love for art again and to appreciate how artistic skills are really developed through learning to use your tools and media to the best of your abilities, something my fine art tutors seemed to shun.
I notice you draw a lot of skulls, why do you like drawing them? Are they always symbolically representative of death?
I can honestly say that music has been one of the biggest inspirations in my life, I grew up listening to heavy metal and the album art was always fascinating to me. Hours spent staring at works by Pushead, Derek Riggs, Ed Repka, and so many others just cemented the imagery in my subconscious. But being a child in the ’80s I think skulls, death and apocalyptic imagery were just a standard for every comic, story, and movie.
It wasn’t until I started my tattoo apprenticeship that I really focused my art on skulls though. A simple challenge from my teacher to up my skull game has sprouted into an obsession, the last 8 years or so have seen me pulling together a collection of books, photographs, sketches, and actual skulls. In all honesty I never thought I’d still be going with the subject but I just don’t get bored of drawing skulls, getting to tattoo them is always a massive bonus too.
Skulls are a primal image that have fascinated and inspired artists throughout history, I feel that they represent life as much as death. It’s kind of a weirdly modern Western view that death is a negative thing to be feared and not talked about.
What’s the biggest misconception about working in illustration and tattooing?
The biggest misconception is that if you can do one, you can do the other. I’ve known some great tattooists that are awful at working on paper and the amount of artists that thought they could make the jump to skin but failed to appreciate the difficulties of working with a live canvas! I takes a lot of work a discipline to become good at either, let alone both, and I consider my self to have a long way to go still.
I love your designs of signs with long histories/stories behind them – anchors, roses, snakes, illuminati pyramids, eagles, and swords. Do you feel like when you design with these motifs you’re adding to a narrative or history yourself?
When it comes to the use of symbols and recurring subjects in my work I’ve always been careful about researching and trying to make sure that I portray them in the correct context. I think it’s really important to understand the background stories to imagery before you start to use it in your work. I’ve seen so many people get called out on the use of powerful symbols, when it’s obvious they’ve just copied them from other popular artists. That’s not to say you have to know everything about every motif but it does help to do the research, especially if you are working for a client.
A lot of the earlier work in my Redbubble portfolio is directly linked to my journey through traditional tattoo imagery, I travelled around the South of England meeting and talking to many tattooists about the flash art they had and the stories around the pieces. The links between naval ports and tattooing are many and helped to bring classic designs from all over the world into some relatively quiet little places. I’ve been tattooed with many of the simple themes myself as a way of keeping myself connected to the history of it all.
How would you define your own style?
I’m not even sure myself how I’d define my style. I like to work from real subjects but veer off into fantasy ornamentations and highly stylised imagery. My current work is mainly involving pattern work, mandalas, and of course skulls, typically I’ll work in monotone and create images and tattoos from a simple stippling technique commonly referred too as dotwork. However I still do large scale painting, mixed media, and digital work as I feel it’s important to try and challenge yourself in order to not become stagnant. My work has changed vastly over the years and hopefully will continue to develop and grow in directions I don’t even know about yet!
It’s interesting how “underground” or certain subcultures will never die — why do you think that is?
Tattooing has been with us as a race since time began and is documented in every corner of the world. The idea that it can be considered as “underground” is kind of amazing when you think about it. I think that there is a primal urge that underlies the whole experience, the need to test ourselves, show allegiance. The dissemination of tribal peoples around the world has created a kind of cultural vacuum that we try to fill with manufactured tribes or subcultures. Wether it be getting a tattoo of your favorite band’s logo or a loved one’s name or criminal badges, it’s a way of recreating what would have been a necessary rite of passage in an older time.
What advice would you give to artists who want to get into designing for tattoos? What do you wish you had known five years ago?
Honestly I’d encourage them to go get tattooed and talk to their artists about designing. It’s generally a job best left to the tattooist as most artists don’t have a good grasp of what actually makes a good tattoo. With a living, breathing canvas there are so many things that just don’t translate across from paper. The ability to create a flow for large pieces or leave enough space in small designs to allow for the aging of a client’s skin is something that only experience can really teach. A design with too much intricate detail might look great for the first 6 months but ink generally spreads over time and after a few years be completely unreadable. 5 years ago I wish I’d had more confidence in my work and pushed myself harder.
I remember reading the Russian Prison Tattoo Encyclopaedia and thinking about how we use symbols and motifs and in a way they use us too — to be transferred and kept alive. What symbols are you passionate about keeping alive, that you could draw forever?
The concept of memes, the viral transmission of cultural ideas, symbols and practices, is something I’ve been interested in for a long time. The curious thing with Russian Prison Tattoos is that while there were/are similar subjects the actual meanings were very specific to each prison. Take something as simple as the tear drop tattoo, it’s common place around the world but means many different things. It can represent a murderers victims or the loss of a loved one, seemingly opposing concepts but the same image tattooed in the same place.
As far as a symbol that I’d like to keep alive I think it’s fair to say that I’ll stick with my skulls, everything else comes and goes but they remain constant for me. I spent a long time drawing insects and dead birds and recently finished an artist’s reference book of mandalas and pattern work but the skulls always seem to creep in there.