Meet James Kern, Winner Of The 2012 Chaudesaigues Award.
An American in Paris? Well here’s a very old cliché for you, but this cliché doesn’t really belong to the pages of Inked. In this case, the American in Paris is no other than the most talented James Kern. With his pal Yall Quinones at his side, Kern enjoyed his visit in the city of lights, taking photos under the Eiffel Tower, visiting all the famous tourist attraction and indulging in some of the local street delicacies such as crepes with banana and chocolate. But you didn’t see James Kern wearing an ‘I Love Paris’ shirt or a backpack overflowing with street maps and museum brochures.
The fourty year-old Saint Louis, Missouri native (the town where Chuck Berry was born) is an art lover and wanted to make the best of his stay in Paris. His passion for art started early. “Our family didn’t have much money when I was a kid, so me and my brother had to find ways to occupy ourselves. So I started drawing for hours on end under my mother’s watchful eye.” She supported James all the way and thirty years later, she can be proud of her sons: both twins are pro tattooists (his brother Tim works with the legendary Paul Booth). After drawing in his spare time and reading comic books as a kid, Kern went to art school at the Art Institute in Chicago, where his life took a turn that would eventually lead him to where he is today. “When I say I love art, I mean to say that I relate to many forms of art, from comic books to renaissance painters. Attending this school was an amazing experience for my friends and me. In fact, five of these guys have gone on to become tattoo artists.”
Once he graduated, Kern started tattooing, even if his first experience slinging ink wasn’t the most memorable. “I tattooed my first client in my kitchen. It was a guy named Craig and that’s all I ever knew about him.” James covered his own arms at first and started working on his friends in 1994. Two years later, he was hired to work in a tattoo studio and in 1999, he opened his first studio, No Hope No Fear Tattoo. More and more clients line up to get inked each day in the studio he shares with a partner. The two stay very busy, sometimes working on pretty odd requests. “This guys walked in one day and wanted me to tattoo a light bulb on his forehead,” he remembers. This is by far not the strangest request Kern has heard, but from now on, he asks that customers contact him first via his website to set up an appointment. “I feel fortunate to work with clients who have interesting ideas and an appreciation for my art, so I no longer have to deal with completely off-the-wall orders.”
Known for his attention to detail and his dedication to his work, Kern has been hard at work developing his own style. If his tattoos are unique, Kern actually has a hard time defining what makes them so special. “When I started tattooing, I was trying to mix old-school and new-school, but my work evolved past that. I like to think that I draw inspiration from all artistic forms rather than from any particular style of tattooing. For instance, I like Alex Grey’s psychedelic art as well as Dali’s Bosch or Kris Kuksiand. I also hold in high esteem tattoo artists like Victor Portugal, Robert Hernandez and Stéphane Chaudesaigues, but I’m not trying to become them; I work to develop a style of my own.”
Kern’s unique touch caught the attention of Stéphane Chaudesaigues and of the Jury who award the talented American the first Chaudesaigues Award earlier this year (see last month’s issue). Kern is emotional as he recalls winning the award. “I have worked hard to become a better tattoo artist since I got started in the business and I always gave it my all. So receiving this sort of acknowledgement was an amazing feeling for me.”
When asked about his plans for the future, James Kern is quick to respond. “I would like to expand my studio, have more artists work with me, print a new edition of my book with more illustrations and produce an instructional DVD aimed at tattoo artists.” About his style: “tattooing is in constant motion, so we all have to evolve with it and keep up. I can see two distinct directions right now: a turn toward more realistic work and at the same time a current that heads toward abstract forms of expression. I find all this fascinating and I never knew we would be seeing this kind of artistic variety when I started slinging ink back in the day. And when I first encountered Stéphane Chaudesaigues’ tattoos, I saw proof that tattooing could truly be seen as art.”