Rob Noseworthy went from a childhood spent playing outdoors to tattooing under the guidance of Albert Caine in 2005, eventually tattooing full time in 2006. Over the years, he has learnt to be patient towards the pursuit of an individual style. Noseworthy discusses the fine line between influence and copying, and the importance of encouraging a younger generation of tattooers to be original and experimental.
What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
My name is Rob Noseworthy, I was born in Ladysmith British Columbia, Canada in 1974.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
I grew up in the small rural town of Cassidy, B.C. in Canada, and have lived my entire life within a 25km radius of there. Cassidy has a population of under 1000 people, located between Ladysmith and Nanaimo (where my shop is) on Vancouver Island. It’s actually quite a large island, about the size of Belgium, though not nearly as populated. I grew up in a trailer park, with my two loving parents and two siblings–an old sister and brother. We didn’t have a lot but we wanted for nothing. There were a lot of young families there so it was a great place to grow up, lots of kids around. We would explore the great outdoors with almost no boundaries, the island being almost completely forest, dotted with lakes and rivers, and quite mountainous. I was an active and social child. I always played various team sports and had a strong social group. It was also apparent at a young age that I had a strong natural ability to draw, though I didn’t use it as much as maybe I should have as I was always drawn to the outdoors.
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
I currently work at Black and Blue Tattoo in Nanaimo B.C. This is in fact the only shop I have worked at, excluding guest spots of course.
How long have you been tattooing?
I started as an apprentice in late 2005, under Albert Caine, and was tattooing full time in the spring of 2006. I purchased the shop from Albert in 2010.
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and what did you initially learn how to tattoo?
I came across tattooing as a career late in life. I had no real strong magnetism to it, just a vague awareness of them from biker magazines and the odd relative that had one. I liked tattoos of course, and always wanted them, but never did get any until I started tattooing. Because of my ability to draw, enough people had asked me (naively) to tattoo them, to the point where I finally started exploring how to get my hands on some tattoo “guns” at the age of 32. My friend Russ Morland had recently got an apprenticeship with Albert, so I asked him how to get some equipment. At this point my knowledge of tattooing couldn’t have been more basic. Thankfully, Russ opened my eyes to how much was involved. Fortunately, I never scratched any tattoos into anyone previous to our conversations. Russ encouraged me to ask Albert to take me on as an apprentice and luckily, he agreed. With my wife and stepdaughter, and our new son at the time, it was quite a leap. I had no idea what I was getting into. I started by committing one day a week at the shop on my day off from my job as a log scaler until I was able to take a layoff. At this point I was able to commit full time to learning tattooing, while having an income from employment insurance. I think Albert saw that I was a hard-working, mature adult with a family, that didn’t need the hard life lessons that a younger apprentice might need. Therefore, he sort of fast tracked my apprenticeship and got me working pretty fast. I still had the typical duties of an apprentice, but I think I had it pretty easy compared to most apprenticeships; I wasn’t made to trace flash and study the old masters. Albert’s approach was more organic, and his focus was always on custom work and exploring one’s own vision. This led to a lot of horrible tattoos of course but I think it really sped up my learning curve. It got a lot of stuff out of my system so I could find my own voice a lot quicker than if I were to have dwelled on traditional tattooing more. I’m not sure it was better, and sometimes I wonder if it might have been useful being more versed in tradition, but either way I’m happy mostly with where it has got me, and I’m thankful for the freedom Albert gave.
Have you previously studied art in an institutional setting? If so, what level of training did you reach and in what disciplines?
I started a bachelor of fine arts degree at a local college when I was around 20 years old. I did courses in painting, drawing, sculpture, and photography. I dropped out after a couple of years. Having no money, funding it on my own, and without being able see what a fine arts degree might mean for later employment, I gave up on it and never really found much time for art over the next decade.
Did that training help as you learned the mechanics of tattooing?
It certainly didn’t help at all with the physical mechanics of tattooing. It maybe has helped in some way with the artistic end of things, in that it got me working at art more than I would have if left to my own devices. It also got me used to working with a deadline. However, I was young and a lot of that was lost on me I think. In a perfect world I would have liked to do it later.
How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
When I was new to tattooing I desperately wanted to have a style, a signature that was uniquely mine, but I didn’t know how to achieve it. My mentor Albert reassured me that I really didn’t have any choice in the matter–it would happen whether I liked it or not. He told me he had been spending a number of years trying to get rid of his own style! That helped me be a little more patient with it. I also think I probably had a style of my own long before I could recognize it myself.
As far as my influences, my mentor Albert Caine was my first big influence before I started to explore the wider world of tattooing. There was a book by hanky panky kicking around the shop, 1000 Tattoos or something like that, that I would pour through. It was my first introduction to the broader scope of tattooing and what it could really look like, beyond the biker tattoos I had been exposed to most of my life. My love of Filip Leu’s work started then. I also had my first exposure to large Japanese work; I think there was a lot of work from Horiyoshi in there if I remember correctly. I started buying tattoo magazines, where the works of Trevor Ccstay, Henning Jorgensen, and Mick Tattoo, among others, made a mark on me. I also bought a book, I think it was called Tattoos from Japan to the West. It had a lot of the San Francisco guys in it, and Horiyoshi and some of his other students, Horitomo etc. This was my first introduction to Grime’s work and he is now one of my biggest influences. From those early influences I was drawn to the sort of “European” (and I suppose “Australian”) approach to large Japanese work. However, I always had an eye on how it was “really” supposed to be done, by way of the countless amazing traditional Japanese tattooers. Naturall, this led me to a love of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. It also fueled my desire to go straight to the source of Japanese tattooing, getting what I could directly from Yoshitoshi, Kyosai, Hokusai, etc.–instead of emulating the way other tattooers approached the Japanese style. That is sort of one facet of my tattooing.
The other side is the more illustrative approach. The influences for this aspect go back to before I tattooed–to comic books, graphic novels, and album covers. Frank Frazetta maybe at the top of this list of influences, with countless other great illustrators following.
Inside of the tattooing lens, maybe my biggest influence comes from a guy that in my opinion has led the way for Canadian tattooing in the modern era, Steve Moore. Steve moved to Nanaimo from Vancouver, and opened a private studio up the road from my shop around 2013. That changed tattooing for me, and really made me realize how high the bar can be set. He agreed to tattoo my leg and I can’t explain how much I learned from the experience. We’ve become friends, and I am fortunate to have his guidance still. Seeing his process and his generosity towards answering my questions has elevated my work simply through exposure. It is inspiring to see the amount of work and commitment to get to that level. I’m not sure anyone does it better. But, if you had to make an argument to that, you could argue for James Tex, another of Canada’s leaders. He is the hardest worker in tattooing. What I’ve learned from becoming friends with James is what appears to be his pure talent, and I don’t doubt he has lots of it, has less to do with what he was born with and has everything to do with relentless hard work. To say, “he makes it look so easy” couldn’t be farther from the truth. His influence on me is vast and I’m fortunate to say that through trading tattoos with him, collaborating on a number of large tattoos and paintings, and travelling together, I would not be the tattooer I am without him in my life.
I’d also be a fool not to acknowledge the influence Grime has had on me. His unique vision, unparalleled in style and quality, is a cornerstone of modern tattooing. I was fortunate enough to be invited down to Skull and Sword for a guest spot. Getting to spend time and build a friendship with him has been a gift.
What do you look for in a shop?
More than anything I look for the right personalities that I feel I want to spend countless hours with. The work needs to be good of course, but being a mellow, kind, intelligent person is top priority for me. No drama.
Do you have any hobbies outside of tattooing?
My hobbies outside of tattooing include spending time in nature, woodworking, growing things, and landscaping my property. I also do a little sign painting when I get the time. random construction projects around the house.
What inspires you generally?
I’d say I’m mostly inspired to spend time at home, with my family, on my property, building things and honing the landscape of our little oasis.
Are any other forms of media, traditional or digital, important to your work?
I’d say sign writing is important to my work, guys like David Smith and Noel B. Weber, and historically speaking comics and graphic novels have had an impact. As a kid, I’d collect the Conan magazine style comic and Heavy Metal Magazine, Batman and Wolverine, plus anything by Moebius, among others. Later as a young adult, Hellboy and anything else Mike Mignola did, as well as anything by Simon Bisley. I’ve also been influenced by traditional illustrators such as Frazetta, William Stout, Bernie Wrightson, J. Allen St. John. and some from the past like Mucha, Arthur Rackham, Andrew Loomis, and Howard Pyle. More modern illustrators that have inspired me include pushead, Aaron Horkey, Brandon Holt, and Victo Ngai. I also find that creature design and video game character design are fantastic inspiration when developing characters for tattoos.
Is traveling important to you? If so, where do you usually travel? Do you have any interesting experiences abroad that you can share?
Traveling is definitely important to me. I feel it is invaluable to get out and see what other tattooers are doing and have a conversation with them about what interests them. It opens doors to further travel and means you can experience what life is like in different parts of the world. Although I love to travel I haven’t done as much as I’d like.
Helping raise a family and run a business has meant investing time in other ways. But in the future I’d like to make travel a bigger part of my life and find a nice balance between being at home and experiencing the world before it dries up.
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
The main challenge of tattooing today is breaking the habit of copying people’s styles too closely. Flipping through Instagram, it’s become increasingly difficult to recognize the artist if you don’t see the name attached. I don’t understand the desire to make a tattoo look so much like someone else’s. Standards have risen so high for the technical side of tattooing, to point where it seems like every single millennial can apply a flawless tattoo, yet they all look virtually the same. How is it that, with all the new faces in tattooing, there aren’t more people pushing the boundaries, and raising the bar? Maybe I’m just too old to see it, but I feel the same people who were leading 15 years ago are still the ones leading today. With the exponential growth the industry has seen there should be the same growth of new leaders. It seems the new talent is wasted, in my mind, on making it look like they think it’s supposed to, rather than how they’d like to see it look for themselves. There are exceptions to be sure, some wonderful younger tattooers making a mark, but my point is that there should be way more than there are.
Ideally, how would you like to see tattooing evolve? How do you think it will evolve realistically?
I would like to see tattooing evolve into having more originality. Originality is hard and too many people are taking the easy way out. I’d like to see more taking the hard road. I’d like to a blurring of the lines between “styles”, where a traced woman’s face with a bunch of beads and a traced flower and a traced hand doing pretty much nothing just doesn’t cut it anymore. In an effort to sound less critical, I’d like that for myself too. iPads have made it increasingly difficult to keep other’s work from having too much of an impact on my own. It’s hard to get away from the convenience and speed, the amazing tools that the digital world offers–how much time it saves me on a daily basis. But in the future, I’d like to work on real paper more. Realistically though, I think the digital world will continue to reign supreme. The commerce side of things and the hashtagabilty of one’s work will mean more than the creative genius, except to maybe a few outliers.
How do you think the tattoo community could encourage young and upcoming tattooers to be experimental and find their own style rather than copying others and sticking to a normative approach to tattooing?
That’s a tough one. It’s hard to encourage, because it comes from one’s own morals. It would need to be less socially acceptable to copy or emulate too closely other people’s style. Right now, people seem to be fine with it–other than the people whose work is copied of course. There is a fine line though between influence and copying. One could probably find a lot of things I use in my work that I’ve gathered from my influences. But it’s been a long time since I’ve used an existing tattoo and just reworked it a little. Maybe encouraging the use of actual photos or illustrations of the subject they’re working on, rather than tattoos of the subject, would be a start. However, I feel like that should be second nature, it shouldn’t need to be taught. A trusted friend once taught me to try drawing a subject with no reference at all, just purely out of your head, and then bring in visual references at the end–to just hone and tweak things so they are more correct. In this way, you are keeping the essence of what your mind created. I think that is very wise, though I don’t always have the guts to do it that way.