Baby Tattooville 2013
By Andrea Steedman
An artistic tradition in “low brow” innovation
In the current art world, it’s easy for people to feel detached from art; like they have no connection to the world of art, no connection to the artists who create the art. Some people want to break down this wall though, and make artists people who can be connected with on a one-on-one basis. One of these people is Bob Self, founder of Baby Tattoo Books, and he is busy turning the world of art on its head.
Baby Tattoo Books is a publishing house, but also so much more. Hosting the infamous annual event, “Baby Tattooville,” they completely busts open the typical art world model where people are kept at a safe distance from artists, maybe if they’re lucky catching a glance of them at an art opening, but never approaching them. Perhaps Baby Tattoo is so different because founder Bob Self didn’t come from a typical art background. Bob explains in an interview with the Weekly, how he got started in art by means of entertainment—good ol’ fashioned, Hollywood style.
Sprinkling in the Impossible
“My background is as a producer of entertainment—development for movies, TV development; I’ve also been an agent, talent scout and [done] visual graphics. I was doing on set computer graphics, the graphics on computer sets for TV and in movies; they are all created by artists. While I was doing this I decided what I wanted to do was produce. Producing is to movies and TV what publishing is to books. My background allowed me to transition, starting in 2003. A lot of my experience came from there—marketing and promoting.”
While working in the entertainment industry, Self had a unique opportunity to work with an artist he was already a fan of, Gris Grimley. “I stumbled upon an opportunity to publish a book with an artist, Gris Grimley, known for his creepy kid’s book illustrations: the book was based on his wicked fairytale characters. It was such a lucky accident, because he got to have the freedom of expression he wanted, but without all of the financial expense of self publishing because I financially backed the project.”
That was the first of many art books Self would publish, and he created the company Baby Tattoo to be the public company for these ventures. Baby Tattoo as a company has a unique perspective, publishing works by artists that run the gamut, but sticking within a specific genre. Some might describe it as “low brow,” but Self takes issue with that. “Low-brow as a term is used a lot, as a catch-all for every ‘unusual’ type of art. It is connected to artists who are in this genre but it is more specific. Same thing with pop surrealism, another over-used term.”
So what type of art does Baby Tattoo specialize in? Well that is a little hard to pin down, but Self tries, “it is often figurative or narrative in nature, it shares this commonality with illustration, but it is not just illustration,” he says. “The way we describe it on our twitter is art +entertainment + WTF. I don’t think art and entertainment need be separate. We bring people the unexpected, so they think ‘what am I experiencing right now?’ We sprinkle in the impossible.”
The impossible is just what they bring people every year with their annual “Baby Tattooville” event. Many residents of Southern California may just know this event by the public face of it, an exhibition at the Riverside Art Museum. However, this exhibition is actually just part of the story: the event that happens behind the scenes is even more exclusive and exciting. Bob Self explained how it started. “At San Diego Comic Con 2007 I set up a lounge in a hotel room across the street from the convention. I bought some food and drinks, and I invited my friends and a few VIPs to join me. Just by creating this situation, I found myself with the biggest names in the art scene I was in, like Mark Ryden, and they were all just hanging out. Sketching, making collaborations, this was how they blew off steam. I realized how fun this part of my job was, and I thought was there a product there? Could this happen on a larger scale? Could I figure out a way for the art patrons to foot the bill for artists spending time together and enjoying each others company? It was an unusual idea but I thought it seemed fun. So I started organizing it, finding the perfect place: it needed to be like a hotel, but creative people don’t like to be in a box, so I needed the perfect place. I finally settled on the Mission Inn in Riverside. I wanted this event to be a get-together for people who are like-minded, and I wanted it to be experimental, small, intimate,” he said.
Down the Rabbit Hole
“This year is the seventh annual ‘Baby Tattooville’ and people who have attended in the past compare it to the parties at Hearst castle, or the parties in Citizen Kane. It’s like getting the golden ticket in Willy Wonka. It is a magical weekend that is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a romanticized take on an artist’s life, almost like a trip back in time. It’s like a trip down the art-rabbit-hole.”
Self explained his venue choice as well . . . Riverside? “I realize the Mission Inn itself is considered ‘old news’ by some people, but I feel that Downtown Riverside is special, even the slogan about art and innovation . . . There is some type of vortex there. The Mission Inn is a great place to see art, and the place we have dinner at during ‘Baby Tattooville,’ Tios Tacos, is every bit as fascinating as the Inn. Even the mayor of Riverside, Mayor Bailey, views the city as a place that can have world class events and I agree—this is a meaningful, important place. We have someone coming from Norway for ‘Baby Tattooville’ this year; they understand how special it is. I am really passionate about where the event happens; it wouldn’t be the same anywhere else,” he says. “All the artists come to the reception: so this is the public face of the private event, the whole art community is invited to this.” Self is all about community, he explained that anyone who is a fan of the art Baby Tattoo is all about is part of their community, and he wants them to be able to participate. Even though the weekend with the artists at the hotel is so exclusive, he really wants to tell his fans they don’t have to purchase anything to be a part of the community, and have this amazing experience.
Participating artists in this year’s exhibition include: Steven Daily, Sylvia Ji, Travis Louie, Mitch O’Connell, Olivia De Berardinis, Alex Pardee, Brandon “Ragnar” Johnson, The Sucklord and Chet Zar. Originating as a hybridized “bastard” art movement, Baby Tattoo has gained an increasingly mainstream fan base, championed by well-known alternative art chronicle, Juxtapoz Magazine, as well as Hi-Fructose, Arrested Motion and numerous blogs and websites. Self describes the sentiments behind the group simply as, “Strange, fun art.” Past artists have included those involved in the first generation of the Low Brow movement, as well as many that may be considered on the fringes of or outside the movement today. Rejecting traditional notions of what is considered “fine art,” Baby Tattoo’s motus operandi draws on such influences as comic book art, hot rod culture, fantasy illustration, the macabre, retro nostalgia, science fiction and psychedelic expression.
Across the Gamut
This year’s “Baby Tattooville” will be October 4-6, and the public reception will be Fri, Oct. 4 from 7-9PM. What will this year’s “Baby Tattooville” hold in store for visitors? “This year, ‘Baby Tattooville’ will boast the world’s premiere pin up artist Olivia, artist Steven Daily—well known in movie circles, and in nerd-culture for doing licensed work for Disney and Lucas, Mitch O’Connell who is a pop artist popular in the tattoo community, Alex Pardee has a dedicated younger following, and Sylvia Ji who is a fine, gallery artist who does day-of-the-dead-themed art, and Sucklord who got a following after being on a reality TV show, he’s known for doing unlicensed action figures and toys which are controversial, often making a political statement.”
In todays art world of big names, big money and big egos, its exciting to see someone do things differently. To have the chance to tap into a different community of artists, and get away from the typical L.A. art scene for a while really is a unique opportunity. An event like the weekend at “Baby Tattooville” truly could be life-changing, and seeing the exhibition at the Riverside Art Museum is a must for anyone in the low brow or new brow art world.
“The event has a dream-like quality, a sense of a magical outside-of-reality experience, emotionally more rich than you would expect,” Self concludes. “As fun as the event is, the glow that remains, after you walk away is the best part—life experiences can be so wonderful; if you step into something but after you step out you gain something. That’s what it’s all for, whether the event or the opening; by touching this event, you grow.”
“Sideshow: Baby Tattoo 2013” at the Riverside Art Museum, 3425 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (951) 684-7111; www.riversideartmuseum.org. Opening Reception Fri. Oct. 4, 7-9pm. On view Sept. 28-Nov. 25. General admission is $5; event is free to attend.