Bailey Hunter Robinson
Posted July 18, 2016
Interview by Andrew Chen
Photos by Ray Spears
New York City is not for everyone.
No one knows this better than Bailey Hunter Robison, a native Alabaman who’s played an integral role in the city’s tattoo scene for over a decade. Clients travel from across the world for his unique style of ’20s-‘30s classic Americana tattoos that embrace Native American and Western Frontier themes. He’s worked at some of the city’s best shops but for the past few years, Bailey has been tattooing out of his private studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
In meeting with him for this interview, Bailey shared with us that his experience with NYC had run its course and that he plans to move west to seek quieter, more comfortable surroundings that are closer in line with his Southern upbringing. In learning more about his past and his struggles to get to where he is today, we discovered that the Japanese ideology of finding beauty in imperfection applies to more than just the well-worn items we all own.
Table of Contents
Can you explain where your personal interests grew from?
Instagram and Pinterest (laughs). But really, it was my father. He was born in 1931 in the same house I grew up in. I’m a 4th generation Alabaman; my great grandfather was a deputy sheriff in Wilcox County. My dad was a big sportsman and collector – he spent a lot of time hunting in The Yukon, Montana, Colorado, and Alaska. He even did glacier hunts up until he was in his 60’s, which is crazy. He had a great eye for stuff and he was always collecting; I always heard him say, “You don’t own anything, you just get to have it for awhile.” I grew up in a house with crazy antiques, not the junk I have now but fine European antiques. We weren’t wealthy by any means but he had good taste. Every taxidermy animal we had in the house was one he had killed. In 1983, he killed the world’s largest barren-ground caribou. We had full-size grizzly bears, bobcats, deer, you name it. I used to go hunting all the time with my dad.
We lived in a town of 3000. I was always around older people, never kids. On the weekends, classmates would be like “Oh we’re going to play soccer” or something to that effect and I would always say “Well I’m going to my dad’s hunting camp.” I’d just hang with my dad and his buddies. They would drink scotch, watch football, and then go stalk hunting for deer or wild boar. In the summer, we would plant food plots. I was just doing old people shit.
That explains your fascination with old things.
Yeah, I collect old junk – probably because I grew up around it. I like old clothes too, but have moved on somewhat from that. I have a few old things that I still wear but with the progression of modern techniques, vintage items are not as necessary. For example, I don’t have to look for 1930’s Chippewa boots – I can buy some newer ones and send them to this guy Brian in LA and he can put all the classic touches on it. They won’t fall apart either, because they’re brand new and his craftsmanship is amazing. Sometimes it’s cool to not have old stuff, but rather products that are designed with a nod to the past. I don’t want my bikes to be period specific; I love 60’s choppers and the details on them but do enjoy a few modern components as well.
I stand corrected – would you say that you’re into well-made things?
Yeah, I’m into things that are made well. If you pick up clothing from newer Japanese denim brands, you can easily see that it’s something that will be here 100 years from now just like a pair of Big Smith overalls that someone busted ass in back in the 30’s. You can’t say the same for mass produced Levi’s that are falling apart as soon as you put them on. Putting on a well-made garment that I paid fair money for makes me feel better about myself.
Growing up I wore shirts from Dollar General or whatever, and the fucked up thing is that back then they were made so well. I didn’t grow up wearing super fancy stuff; growing up in Alabama there really wasn’t much to choose from. But the stuff all lasted.
Is there something to be said about tattoos that stand the test of time as well?
Yes and no. I’m not trying to relive the 30’s or 40’s, but I do look at the tattoos from that time period and think they are special. At the same time, I want to improve on them – or at least what I think is an improvement – while keeping the classic skeletal system. It’s the same way with jeans: you can find people throughout the last 100 years making the same style of jean and they probably weren’t looking to simply recreate something; rather, they were basing it on something they thought was excellent, and finding ways to make improvements where necessary. As far as tattoos go, I believe it’s important for one to look good for longer than 10 minutes or 10 years; hopefully it looks good forever.
Do you feel that your southern upbringing has influenced the subject matter that you enjoy tattooing today?
I do think you are a direct product of where you’re from, or even where you’ve lived for a while. I’m staunchly Southern as far as heredity goes: there were certain things I saw growing up and things that my father or grandfather liked that are ingrained in me. You can see the things they treasured in what I enjoy today.
I’ll tattoo anything, but I work best with imagery that’s close to me. That being said, your tastes can change and as you become more informed about what you’re into, you’re able to broaden your offerings. As I get older and learn more, I hope that my output – output being tattoos – continues to improve.
What was your first tattoo?
It was this cool Chinese dragon, it was so shitty but yet so awesome. All of my friends were getting crust punk tattoos like Initial State or Antischism album covers. I was looking at guys with old tattoos and they didn’t have album covers, they had a cool dragon. I just saw it from a different perspective, I guess. The idea of quality didn’t even exist back then; the only thing on my mind was getting an image tattooed on me. I remember the high I felt after I got that first tattoo – I was 16. The dude charged me $60 bucks, and halfway through he just looked at me and said, “You got that $60, kid?” I called him afterwards and was like “You changed my life, this is awesome” and he was basically like “Oh yeah it’s a big deal. Your life changed. Now fuck off.” I was getting good tattoos when I was younger; then at some point I just got covered in garbage. Not sure what happened.
What’s a good tattoo and what’s a bad tattoo?
This is just my opinion; like who the fuck am I, nobody. But in my humble opinion, tattooing is craft, not art. Artists can tattoo for sure and that’s important to note; but there is a right way and a wrong way to do a tattoo. At some point tattooing became subjective where people began to say “Oh that’s just their style” but the edges are ratty. I think a good tattoo should have a certain amount of black, a black outline and the skeletal structure that is necessary for any tattoo, whether it be a small butterfly or an insane Borneo tribal or traditional Japanese. They all share fundamental elements; you can’t just go breaking the rules! There are technical reasons for these fundamentals. It’s like learning to ride a bicycle: once you learn with training wheels, you take them off and you ride without them, and then with no hands, and then eventually you ride double fisting 40’s.
I am pretty far removed from what goes on in the world of tattooing. I tattoo and I have my opinions but I don’t like to voice them. I have strong opinions about the industry which are shared amongst some, but a lot of people don’t agree with me and that’s fine. I am super fortunate to be able to do what I do for a living – it’s gotten me anything I’ve ever wanted in my life. I work really hard at it.
You said once in an interview that tattooing was just a job for you.
That was just me being an asshole; the truth is, it’s my everything. It affords me the ability to buy food and take care of my kid. On a larger scale, tattooing takes care of my brain. If I didn’t have it I would probably be crazier than I already am. It’s super cheesy to say, but tattooing is zen. As long as I’m tattooing I am happy, but if I go weeks without tattooing I’m a real grump, not that I’m a treat in the first place. I’m fortunate to work at the places I do alongside guys who are my idols. When I go to Portland I get to work at Atlas, it’s crazy. Dane Gilsworth, Jerry Ware, Lou Hess, all of them – just an insane list of dudes who are crushers. Or Rock of Ages with Thomas Hooper, Steve Byrne, and Tony Hundahl. I got lucky.
I am most comfortable tattooing what I love. I only want to tattoo things that I am passionate about because I want to put love into the tattoo. I probably miss out on a lot of money because of this philosophy, but I’d rather enjoy what I’m working on and who I’m working on. I might not have a lot of money, but at least I have fun. I’m not rich with monetary stuff but I’m rich with experience. I guess I’m just a tat nerd.
You must have had your share of tattooing things you didn’t want to in the past.
Oh yeah, absolutely. Sometimes I’d prefer not to tattoo something in particular but the person is so awesome and cool that it makes it fun. That’s really what I care about. I care about someone I get along with. They could get something super mundane but it means something to them and they are cool, so I enjoy it. But sometimes people want a photorealistic piece, for example, and I want to ask – have you seen my tattoos? I cannot do that. I would if I could, but I can’t.
I’ve worked in shops that were so miserable to me that I’d hide in the bathroom for half the day to avoid everyone. Then, over time, I realized not every shop is like that. You just have to be around the right people in the right environment. As a client, you will have a wonderful experience in an environment you click with. If you try to force it to work you won’t have a good time.
Do you feel that by tattooing out of your own studio that you’re able to shape that environment better?
Yeah, for sure. I enjoy working in my private space; I almost hate to charge people because we hang out and relax alongside tattooing. Clients just come in, take their shoes off and hang out – they are my client for the day and they have my entire focus. Unlike getting tattooed at a shop surrounded by several other artists and customers, the only energy here is myself and the client. There are less variables to affect the experience. You also get to look around and see all of the stuff that I’m into, all the junk that I collect. Plus, I’m a brat – I like to listen to what I want when I want. I wasn’t raised like that but that’s how I like it (laughs). Probably the reason why I’m 34 and single. There’s also the element of dedication that comes into play when you’re getting tattooed by someone privately. When I was in a shop taking walk-ins, customers might not always get their pieces finished or whatever. Now you have to jump through some hoops to find me; I guess you must want to get tattooed pretty bad if you do end up coming to me.
That being said, I love doing guest spots at some of the best shops in the country. I absorb and learn so much from guest spotting. Whenever I get a hankering now to go somewhere, I head somewhere for a week. I have a lot of friends who are really generous to let me work in their shops and take care of me. I’m looking forward to going back to a shop full time.
In your opinion, what’s one of the biggest changes that’s happened to tattooing?
I think that social media has altered people’s realities. This whole “give me everything now and it needs to be perfect” attitude that has surfaced is terrible. Nothing is picturesque in life; it’s okay to have little imperfections here and there. But social media has created unrealistic expectations and short attention spans. Your tattoo might have a little blowout or it might not look as perfect as it did on paper, but in my opinion it’s good for tattoos to have a little soul. It doesn’t have to look like all the other ones you’ve seen on Instagram. Tattooers got out of bed in the morning and went to work, just like you – but for some reason we all believe now that tattoos will forever look as good as they did on your iPhone. You’re not young forever; you get old and your body fails. That’s why I love old tattoos and seeing how they age, but a lot of people these days don’t feel the same way.
Your tattoo might have a little blowout or it might not look as perfect as it did on paper, but in my opinion it’s good for tattoos to have a little soul.
How long have you been riding motorcycles for?
It’s probably been 5 years of riding seriously. I got into motorcycles from bicycles; I love bicycles. I remember my mom taught me to ride a bike, and although I didn’t get along that well with my mom, I was so thankful for that. Riding a bike is like your first taste of freedom. Not only can you come and go as you please, but you are propelling yourself on human power. You just pedal and steer and you’re on your way. I was always obsessed with it. Later on in life, I got into road bikes and track bikes. I had some of the best times riding track bikes all around. I still have a Plume Vainqueur track bike. I ride a 1969 Schwinn Paramount now; it’s one of their randonneur / touring bikes. I love it. I have a Johnny Coast randonneur that’s far too nice for someone like me.
I got into motorcycles when I was living in Florida. Where I was from, though, the guys who rode motorcycles were exactly who I didn’t want to be: basically, 40-year-old jocks. Despite that, I always wanted a motorcycle and an old truck. And when I started working, I realized I could get those things. They are by no means practical but they are cool. I remember I used to have this truck and when I would take a turn with my daughter in the car, she would slide all the way down the bench seat and scream “stupid truck!” and kick the dashboard.
Can you tell us about your paintings?
I’m not a painter per se, I just paint tattoo stuff and watercolors. I also use gouache sometimes, drawing ink, and a nib pen to outline. When I first started, it was all tattoo flash – just the way it’s supposed to be. Once I got the fundamentals down, I got a little braver. Now I love to paint flash but have also worked some other stuff into the mix.
Beyond art, painting is like therapy for me as well. Six or seven nights a week I’m just home painting after I’m done tattooing for the day. I have cardboard boxes full of paintings; it’s just for me. I’ll give some away but that’s not why I do it. I would love to learn how to oil paint one day. I love George Catlin’s old west paintings and other no-name paintings as well.
Did you paint before you tattooed?
No. Well, I tried; short story, I sucked at it and I still did even when I started tattooing. It’s been a slow process and for me, consistency is one of the hardest things to achieve as a painter. Sometimes I look at an old painting and honestly wonder “How did I do that?” Other times I don’t paint for two weeks and when I pick up a brush it feels like I’m starting from scratch. Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.
I’m still learning how to paint. A few weeks ago I was with Jacob Redmond and we stayed up until 4am every night painting these big pieces; I spent so much time just watching him and his techniques. I learned a lot of new stuff from him.
4 New York City
How did you make your way to New York?
I’ve moved up and down the East Coast a lot. I did my first tattoo on myself in Pensacola – Mike Van Ness was tattooing me and asked me “Hey, you want to do a star on yourself?” so I did. I bounced around, did an apprenticeship, and ended up tattooing in Tallahassee by the time I was 24. My friend Chuck Donoghue from Kings Avenue hit me up to do a guest spot at Fun City, and I had so much fun that I decided to move here. I was living out in Bushwick at the time; I remember getting on the roof and seeing the city. It looked like a blip, and I just kept thinking we were really far out there. It was sketchy and industrial. We would ride our bikes around all night all through the city. It was pretty liberating.
As far as my tattoo shop journey goes, I went from Fun City to Daredevil, from Daredevil to Hold Fast, from Hold Fast to Saved, and then from Saved to doing my own thing.
Visible tattoos are pretty commonplace here in NYC. What’s it like for you when you go back down South, given that you’re so heavily covered?
It’s funny, I’ll get hassled by tat bros here in NYC who look at me and try to figure out who I am with all the tattoos. I’ll be on the train and someone will say “Damn, you tatted up fool” or something. I dress like a kook too which doesn’t help. But then I go home to Alabama and no one gives a shit what I look like.
I rode from Austin to Baltimore this past November. I’m a crazy looking guy on a crazy looking bike riding down 65 and yet people were so nice to me; so kind. I would be getting gas and have a real conversation with somebody. I feel like when you go to places that are ‘real America,’ like the America that people don’t want to talk about, those people are generally awesome. There’s something special about them. I’ll go hang out late at night in Asheville with homeless guys or crazy train hoppers and have these cool conversations. I just love real conversation.
Why is that rare here?
We live in New York City, it’s a joke here. My rent is silly. No real person pays that kind of rent. I’ve met a lot of amazing people over the years, but a lot of those people got priced out and have since moved away. It used to be so cool and fun. I’m not an old head New York dude, but I was enjoying myself here. It’s changed, though – and so have I. Williamsburg used to be filled with artists and skate rats. Even if we didn’t agree on most things, there seemed to be a similar ideal structure in place. At this point, I’m sitting in a restaurant and the people next to me who are the same age are super uptight and they don’t want the same things from life that I do.
I’m moving west in a few weeks. I truly don’t make the amount of money necessary to sustain a viable life here. I want to live in a smaller town; I need some nature.
But career-wise, NYC was good for you.
Oh yeah, it was so good. I was here right when the resurgence in New York tattoo came back. It was the right place at the right time. I’m very fortunate. New York has been very good to me. It hasn’t crushed me or spit me out like it’s done to others. But I want to breathe some fresh air, maybe have some pet goats or something. I love guns and tractors. I didn’t need that when I was younger; I wanted to live in the city. At 24 years old, NYC was rad – but inevitably, I was going to want something more natural, closer to my roots. Hopefully people will still want to get cool tattoos from me wherever I go.
Can you talk about your daughter?
I love her to death; she’s my little buddy. We all have this idea of how things should be, and they never are – but that’s life. I think with my kid I had an idea of how things would be. She doesn’t look like I imagined, but she acts just like me. She’s like a cat; she doesn’t like being touched unless she wants to be. I’m the same way. She even dresses herself and has a cool style. She’s like a strong little woman, it’s pretty nuts. She’s the coolest: really sure of herself and confident.
I’ve had to go through some crazy legal shit. The way you are treated as a father who wants to be involved is pretty abhorrent. The system doesn’t like you to be involved – they want you to either disappear or pay up. It’s not designed for a father to be around. I love my kid and I wish I had her all the time; it’s been difficult. I’ve learned a lot about myself through it though, and when I see her I try to make the most of it with her. We’re talking plow ups, motordrome shows, nature centers. I hope that when she’s older she will want to be with me half the time. That would be great. That’s another reason I wanted to move out of New York: I wanted to be able to afford to see her more and be down in Asheville more often. It was difficult for me to see her sometimes since I needed to work all the time to afford to live in NYC.
We all have this idea of how things should be, and they never are – but that’s life.
How has being a father affected your approach towards your work?
I want to be something she is proud of. My father wasn’t always the nicest – super tough to deal with sometimes, no bullshit at all – but he left a lasting impression for sure. As you get older you start to see your parents as people; in other words, you humanize them instead of just fearing or idolizing them. I want my to daughter to look back and think “My dad worked really hard and he loved me and we did cool things together.” Hopefully I won’t die before she’s too old for us to go on some really cool trips. I was around her constantly when she was really little, but she doesn’t remember a lot of that which is a bummer. I think when you’re around your kid all the time you get desensitized to certain things, but since I’m not with her all the time, I react more intensely. It’s all magnified. Like if she’s crying I almost start crying just because she is.
What are some of your hopes for her as she continues to grow up?
That she never becomes a stripper. Just kidding, that’s a fine profession (laughs). Really though, I want her to do whatever she wants and to be good at it. I don’t care about what she chooses to do as long as she enjoys it. I want her to be really creative and artistic. She already is – I mean, her attention to detail even when she talks is great. She will be like “Oh I don’t particularly care for this part of a lamp” or something.
I just want her to try to be happy. You need money to survive, of course, but I want her to do what she enjoys and to be good at it. I don’t want her to settle for less. And I want her to find someone who will inspire her creatively and who she’ll have fun with.
What continues to push you to become better at your craft?
I don’t want to get better just for better’s sake. It’s hard to explain, I want to get better for my sake. It’s like an obsession. Tattooing is all I have. I don’t have anything else. I can hardly add, if I’m being perfectly honest.
I always want to get better. I never want to be complacent. I never want there to be a moment where I’m like ‘well, that was my pinnacle’ – fuck that. I want to continue to improve until I physically can’t tattoo anymore. The most important thing about tattooing for me is to keep learning. I’m thankful that the people around me are also the people I look up to. It means a lot to get help from them. I feel like this special fire has been handed over to me every time I learn something new; the slightest tip gets me so pumped. That’s how I got started using rotary machines for color and stuff. I wasn’t comfortable with them but I kept asking questions and stuck with it and now it’s all I use. I’m always hungry to learn something, and I’m never satisfied.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I think every parent should try to leave a legacy. Your parent’s character should be more important than the job they held. I want my legacy to be that my kid thinks I really did the best I could. I’m no one that should have a legacy in others’ mind as far as that goes – the fact that anyone knows who I am blows my mind. It would be cool to be remembered for tattooing. I work hard and I enjoy what I do, I hope people remember that. If you get tattooed by me, I want it to be a rad experience and I want you to love your tattoo. But I am a human being; I don’t have the highest opinion of myself. I wasn’t raised to. I’m bummed out and depressed at times, and sometimes my depression will make me not very nice. It’s hard to manage others’ expectations of me – I mean, it’s not the Bailey Robinson show. But that’s how it is, I’m a human being and a bit of a kook.