After establishing himself as a sought-after tattoo artist and fine art painter in Columbus, Ohio, Scott Santee took a leap of faith and moved to Golden, Colorado, a couple years ago. Scott started coming out to Colorado for snowboard trips, but the community of like-minded tattoo artists he developed while also working during his vacations helped convince him a move was feasible.
As a self-taught artist Scott’s never afraid to try new things and is always improving his tattooing and fine art through a never-ending process of trial and error.
In our conversation, Scott shares:
- How being associated with the right local community can quickly increase your fan base
- Why using better quality paints, tools + materials matter
- How to find the right tools faster + save a good amount of money
You’ve been a tattoo artist for over 15 years and also paint and create unique wood cutouts using acrylic and aerosol. When did you start producing these fine art pieces and where did the idea come from?
I was working with a friend named Paul Giovis at the Independents’ Day Festival in Columbus, Ohio, doing cutout set designs for bands and I could see how that would work for creating my own cutouts.
We were using a jigsaw and I felt it limited what I could do as far as the intricacy of my cuts. I also got a RotoZip for that festival and when using it on particle plywood I kind of thought it was junk and didn’t really think about it after that. But I later picked it up again and used it on birch plywood. It was like cutting through butter, it was awesome. Then I started to see, Wow, you can create really intricate cuts with this thing.
As I’ve started to explore that it’s opening up all these different ideas. I don’t have any formal training so how I’ve learned so far is just figuring things out myself and absorbing from friends and people I look up to.
So just kind of experimenting with different woods and tools?
Yeah, always trial and error.
Can you walk us through your creative process? And is it different for tattooing versus the wood pieces you’re doing?
There’s a lot of limitations in tattooing where there’s not with painting. I can pull off bright eggshell whites, neons and stuff like that with painting.
When I’m designing for tattoos I’m drawing for hours on end almost every night. A lot of artists will be like, Okay, I drew this rose for this person and that’s it. But I want to maximize my usability of that image and am really trying to extend that design to t-shirts or paintings or merchandise or whatever just so I’m not only getting a one-shot opportunity for that design.
So you have your tattoo design and then you extend it into your wood cutting. Is that when you draw using your iPad or do you use paper and pencil at all?
I haven’t used pencil and paper in probably five years. I feel like I kind of scratch that itch with painting — it gives you that kind of raw, primitive feel. You’re actually touching something, you’re actually pulling lines so I don’t feel as guilty using an iPad all the time. It just speeds everything up. If you’re doing a symmetrical design there’s a tool that mirrors the other side of it. And you can do color studies on the fly very easily.
I use a projector to project a lot of my images onto my pieces so that I can transform them. Even today I was doing an image and it was a little skinny on the top so I just stretched it out and made it perfectly parallel. It’s stuff like that — had I done a raw image it would have been so hard to go back and re-edit that. I probably would have had to start over.
So you project the image onto the wood and then trace it?
When it comes to concepts with your tattoos, are people giving you creative freedom or are you coming up with a lot of concepts?
They’re driving it initially and then my favorite process is where I have a consult with somebody, I draw an hour sketch, send that to them and then they usually have an edit, either taking away or adding things.
I think that kind of interaction with the customer is pretty crucial. They feel like they are part of the design process and I feel like they have a more personal attachment that way. I really enjoy having that interaction and giving them an opportunity to be a part of the design process.
When it’s a customer I’ve known for a long time and they know and trust me, I may show up to their appointment with a design and a lot of the time they’re like, Yeah, sweet, that’s awesome.
Is your fine art always derived from those initial tattoo concepts that you’ve created?
My fine art doesn’t always stem from somebody asking me to do something. This piece is a good example [points to the canvas pictured below]. A friend who recently passed away gave me a skull that fell off of the windowsill and cracked the back part of the cranium open and there was a beehive inside of it. And I’m like, This would make an amazing painting.
So I set up a little lighting studio in the garage, lit it exactly how I wanted to light it and used Alex’s camera to shoot it. This is one of the first oil paintings I’ve ever done. I’ve dabbled in oil but not very successfully.
With the cutouts, I don’t even know where my ideas come from. It could be dreams, listening to music, running or just out and about with some friends. It all can contribute and it could be from anywhere. It’s so random.
Do you have a way to capture the ideas you have?
Just getting them out of my head and down on paper as quick as possible so I can somehow formulate it into a good idea.
Do you have a notebook or where do you put these ideas?
Just an iPad.
And then you expand on your ideas as you think about them and revisit them?
Yeah. It might be months, it could be years. I think even these pieces [points to the two pieces pictured below], they’ve been sitting there for probably over a year now. One of them is done but it was going to be a split piece. I’ll probably end up finishing it at some point, but I might change it somehow. I might scrap the whole left side and just completely sand it off and start over.
I think I work pretty weird. I think some artists are pretty focused and that’s their piece until they’re finished with it, but I kind of get all over the place.
What percent of time do you think you devote to tattooing versus fine art versus all these other new experiments that you do?
I would say tattooing probably gets 80% of my time and then the rest would be fine art.
Tattooing gets most of my time because people are relying on me, it’s how I pay my bills. It’s pretty demanding. If I have a busy week I’ll spend 5 to 6 hours tattooing, come home, draw, have dinner, draw until one o’clock in the morning for the next day, repeat that cycle. That’s a hard week doing that every day until my day off. In those scenarios, I don’t get to paint at all, it’s the last thing I want to do when I come home.
How about the income breakdown for tattooing versus fine art? And are there any other income streams you have?
Tattooing would be my “responsible” one. That pays for everything, keeps me alive.
Then anything for my [motorcycle] or any sort of extracurriculars are paid through my art. I’ll save for years just to get a new bike or something, just paid from my art. Because it feels like I’m not irresponsible that way. [Laughs]
How did you start working with Til Death Denver [tattoo studio]?
I was coming out here to snowboard and I always liked to work while on vacation because it kind of ends up paying for itself and my friend Dave Tevenal knew Troy, Destroy Troy, and he got me a spot.
At that time there were maybe six people at Til Death but it’s a gigantic space so there was tons of room and that’s where I would work after I was done snowboarding. I ended up getting along with everybody and they seemed to really enjoy my work so when I started to get busier out here when I was on vacation and I was paying for my trips and then some I was like, I feel like I could probably pull this off, this could be a realistic move for me. I was pretty heavily involved in the art scene in Columbus and knowing it was the same out here, I was excited about getting into this community.
Are you an employee or a contractor at Til Death?
I’m a contractor.
Okay, that’s a pretty common thing.
It is, yeah. It’s pretty similar to cutting hair and stuff like that, you just pay booth rent.
Back piece I completed considerably quickly as my client was extremely dedicated and was coming in every two weeks — sometimes more. I believe it took around 6 months. —Scott Santee
Does being a part of Til Death help for tattoo clients finding you or do you do your own marketing?
I haven’t felt the need to market myself for a long time. Til Death does a really good job of umbrella-ing all of us underneath the Til Death name.
Instagram is amazing for it. A lot of times we’re reposted on Instagram accounts that have thousands and thousands of followers and those always help get your name out. Alex and I have been in Denver almost two years now and just in that time I think I’ve gained maybe five thousand followers. So that exposure is crazy. That kind of blew me away when I moved out here. I didn’t realize just moving to another city would give you that kind of exposure.
Do you do anything else on Instagram?
I don’t. I’m very lazy when it comes to it. But I also don’t want to be too involved in it because even with that mindset it can still hurt my feelings if a post doesn’t do very well. And I don’t like that feeling. It bums me out that it’s ingrained itself in our society so much, so I try not to worry about it as much as possible. I think that sometimes it can be unhealthy.
Do people direct message (DM) you sometimes on Instagram about tattoos or your art?
Yeah, I’ve had people reach out to me through DMs and I’ll set up painting sales through that. I’ll post stuff through my story and people will be like, I want it, and then I’ll sell stuff that way. But I try to direct people to my email, I prefer that.
What about for other commissions you’ve had for your fine art, how do those clients find you?
A lot of it is Instagram. If I accumulate pieces I’ll post on my story that I have this painting, this painting, this painting and I’ll price them out. Then people will reach out to me and I will sell that directly through Instagram.
I have a store on my website but I tend not to use it because I feel like it adds a whole extra step and it’s so easy to do through Instagram.
So how exactly does it work for selling to someone who contacts you on Instagram?
They’re talking to me and I’ll be like, Okay, give me your address, I’ll get shipping figured out and then I’ll send it out as soon as possible.
And how do you collect payment?
Depending on where they’re at PayPal, Venmo, any of those online banking things. It makes things so easy it’s crazy.
Yeah, it’s super easy.
So where do you turn for help with business matters like taxes or contracts or legal matters?
My parents are a huge help and a CPA.
You have a CPA?
Yeah, she’s actually Alex’s aunt.
This painting was done from a drawing I had made for a tattoo. It was my interpretation of a Dali x Disney animated short that began in 1954 and was completed 58 years later in 2003. —Scott Santee
When it comes to your tattooing and your art, do you want to go in one direction more than the other or do you always see both of those working together simultaneously?
I think I’m doing it exactly how I want to be doing it now. That was a huge reason for moving out here. I wanted to be able to conduct myself exactly how I wanted to.
I owned a [tattoo] shop in Columbus with a friend. It was salon-based so everybody took care of themselves, I didn’t have to govern anything. People just showed up and did their jobs. I don’t really aspire to own a shop anytime soon. Maybe when it gets closer to retirement.
What I would like to do is develop my painting style into my tattooing more. When I was a very young tattooer there were some tattoos I could look at and be like, I know who did that. And I want somebody on the street to be like, Scott did that. I think that’s the coolest thing, it’s like having a brand without having a label on it. That’s a tier of success, I guess.
How do you determine your pricing for each medium?
Tattooing I’m $150 an hour, it’s pretty easy. I have my power supply and it calculates my whole session. I hit start and as soon as we’re done I hit stop, read it out and it’s cut and dry.
Before I was using that I was probably shorting myself a lot of money. I would just be like, Okay, I think we worked this many hours and I would just kind of ballpark it. So with this I can have an exact time. I also keep it to just tattoo time. There’s usually an hour of printing stencils, making sure it fits, getting my machine set up and everything — that I don’t count.
Painting is very different because I think people aren’t seeing what you’re putting into a painting, how much effort and time. I undercut myself a lot, but I sell a lot of paintings and that, to me, is more worthwhile. I have more satisfaction in knowing someone has that in their house and they enjoy it and they don’t feel like they had to break the bank to get it. That’s more important than making thousands of dollars. I think that would be great at some point in my life, but for now it’s just cool to sell paintings.
Are they a mix of private and commercial clients?
Since I’ve been out here it’s been more personal. In Columbus I did a lot of restaurant stuff and I like that restaurants want to work with me. For those I worked with my friends to help keep prices up, not undercut so everybody is paid and happy.
How did those clients find you — by word of mouth or something else?
There’s an annual outdoor painting festival called Urban Scrawl in Ohio and a lot of those kinds of opportunities came from that.
Did you set up a booth?
The festival sets up 8’ by 8’ walls and a person would get each side. They’d have food trucks, DJs, beer, coffee and then people just paint. It’s really awesome.
I’m starting to dig the Crush Walls festival a little bit more, I feel like everybody is taken care of a little bit better and you get these massive walls which is pretty cool. And it’s not temporary. Those 8’ by 8’ foot panels were temporary — they would bust them down and maybe you could see them installed around the neighborhood, but for the most part they were just tucked away in a warehouse, which is kind of unfortunate when you spend that much time on something.
I’ve always loved scavenger animals. They are a nuisance but can be found everywhere around the world. One man’s trash is another’s treasure. —Scott Santee
What are some of your big or small successes so far?
Working with restaurants was pretty huge. I never thought of them as cool until I would bring my family out and they would be like, Oh my gosh, this is incredible that you got to do that.
I’ve had a tattoo featured on—I think it was the New York Times blog, it was part of a Polaroid exposé.
How did that happen?
The blogger who had the tattoo sent it to me.
I also had an art show in New York City, in Soho, at a gallery called Sacred. That was pretty crazy.
How did you get that?
That was thanks to my friend Dave Tevenal. I don’t even know why he chose me. We were working together and I think that he was motivated a lot by my painting and my work ethic. He invited me out there to do that show and that was pretty wild. There were celebrities there and it was surreal. My mom was there and was just blown away. So I guess I don’t see the importance of things until my parents are involved and then I’m like, Okay, this is the real deal. I think it kind of sinks in at that point.
How many pieces did you have in that show?
Maybe 12 or 13.
And how did they do sales-wise?
Well, this was interesting. I obviously had never done a show of that caliber before and didn’t know anything. When I got there the curator asked me to price everything out and I did, keeping my pricing pretty reasonable like I usually do. But then he went through and increased everything because he’s like, Dude, this is New York, you can really blow up your prices a bit more. I was like, Okay, you know better than I do. But then I didn’t sell anything and I kind of wish I would have stuck to my guns.
Do you remember roughly what your prices were and what they were changed to?
One of my prices was maybe $800 and I think he put it up to $1,500 or $2,000.
For what size roughly?
That was probably 4’ by 5’. It was large.
What kind of art was it? Was it your wood cutouts?
No, they were just large mixed-media panels I finished with resin.
I was finishing a lot of stuff with resin at that time and that really made my stuff pop. It’s kind of a pain to do, so I don’t really do it as much. And that’s what prompted me to build cradles around my stuff because for that show I was pouring everything over the sides and I wasted so much material doing that. So that goes along with that trial and error thing that I do where it was like, How do I save myself a lot of money by not losing all that resin?
What are some other things you’ve learned along the way?
I’d always wanted to use spray paint because I liked how fast it was. That Dave dude that I did that show with, I’d see him finish painting pieces in two hours and I was like, How do I do that? Then I realized that I’m not that good with spray paint, so I kind of adapted my own version of that.
Having proper tools is huge. I was making frames out of the trim you put on walls and using a hand saw jig and they were just so terrible. They were so rough and so messed up. And then I would go up to my parents’ house in Cleveland because my stepdad is a woodworker and he had a laboratory-grade setup and that opened my mind to, Okay, I just need to have the tools to do this.
Also using under-quality paint. The first acrylics I used were Jo-Ann Fabric craft paints and I remember being really frustrated with how transparent they were.
And then using a pre-gessoed canvas. I was always trying to chase that super vibrant, super matte look to a painting. I would find that exact paint I needed, the exact colors that I wanted, but it would just look messy and inconsistent. So I figured out not to gesso stuff, just to go straight into wood and then I can utilize the grain of the wood as well as build up the paint layers and have that opacity and that brightness too.
I think the biggest thing is just finding those tools that let you execute the things you want to execute.
Did you settle on a better acrylic brand that you go to now?
Yeah, but even that is still developing and I don’t think that will ever stop. I think I’ll constantly just redevelop what I use.
I just did a show with Sam Parker who I work with at Til Death and he uses Home Depot eggshell samples, like the samples you would buy for your home to paint a wall [pictured above]. Those are $3.50 for a huge jar. You can get any finish you want and you get so much paint. You can have them in gloss, semi-gloss, satin, eggshell. And they have every color you could ever think of.
I was using Dick Blick’s because of its opacity, you could cut it with water to thin it out and make it more blendable, but I’m starting to transition out of that.
Fun spin on Clint Eastwood’s role in The Man with No Name. The client let me take my approach to the idea. —Scott Santee
When you started you said you didn’t have the right tools or materials. Was some of that driven by not knowing what you needed or was it driven by your budget, where it’s like, Oh, these are cheaper so I’ll try them?
Totally, yeah. I guess I didn’t understand the quality aspect at that point. I was like, I want to paint, this is the most accessible and cheapest way to do it so this is what I’ll get. But then you struggle. And that struggle is very frustrating and you’re like, I don’t know anything. And that stops some people from painting.
I think figuring out a way to use those inferior products and still being able to make something that somebody is going to connect with drove me to continue. I would find a piece of 2×4”, do a painting on it with some crap paint that I had and a friend would want it. So then I was like, Okay, I’m onto something.
So that perpetuates and then you have money. And that’s another thing. I was saying that I would buy fun things from my art sales, but I also put the money back into art tools and supplies. Because the more money I bring in from that the easier it is to be like, Yeah, I’ll buy this $30 brush because I know it will be awesome.
Another thing I’ve learned is to talk about it to people. There are two people at the shop who oil paint and I do a lot of live painting with other artists, so I can pick their brains about what brushes they like best. Brushes are really expensive so it saved me probably 100 bucks by just asking what other people liked. Then I went and got some myself and they’re awesome.
Besides people you work with, are there any other ways that you interact with other artists?
Instagram is probably where I interact with people the most. I wouldn’t say I get the most information from that because people are kind of guarded, but you can do your own legwork. Everybody asks the same questions you’re going to ask, so if you just dig for the answers you can typically find what you want.
Some of the artists I look up to here in Denver are interactive and you can talk to them. And then it’s weird how life works and you end up in situations with people you look up to and you might get that opportunity to talk to them face to face. Or you just end up being friends with them and then you can hang out and ask any questions you want at that point, you know?
Right. So as someone who fairly recently relocated to Denver, what are some of the pros and cons of being an artist here?
Cons are just being someone new to the city, it’s hard. I was in Ohio for 12 years and I had a reputation and people would see me come up through tattooing and do things in the community. Here I kind of have to re-establish myself and that takes time. I’m more patient now and am totally okay with just doing what I do and then things will just kind of happen organically.
I will reach out to cafes. I love showing my art and being able to see people’s reactions. Within a few months of moving here I’d reached out to the owner of Crema [Coffee House] about a show and he was like, Totally. It was up for two months and they didn’t take a commission. It was easy, there was no fuss, it was totally rewarding and the response was pretty amazing. People were reposting on their stories and I sold a lot of that work.
So I’d like to keep doing that kind of stuff. Get my work out there so people get to enjoy it and it doesn’t hurt my feelings if nothing sells. It’s just fun.
Are there any particular people you looked up to here that you’ve been able to work with?
I think coming into Til Death was really intimidating. There’s 11 of us and I looked up to everybody there. And being kind of self-deprecating I was wondering if I was really bringing anything to the table. But I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I felt like I built pretty good relationships with everybody and they’re becoming not only who I look up to, but really good friends and I can bounce ideas off them. I think we all feel comfortable enough to critique each other. We’re all just trying to push each other in an upwards direction and I really appreciate that.
Casey Kawaguchi is a guy I respect 100% and now I’m getting to see his work a lot more often because he’s got murals everywhere. He just finished a mural at Ace Eat Serve and it’s incredible.
Not really a thought behind this other than reapers are metal and I’ve always tried to make the most metal imagery I possibly could. Still trying. —Scott Santee
What are your plans for the future?
It seems like Denver and Colorado in general like to work with artists, and I know that’s kind of your aim as well, and that’s intriguing to me. I would love to work with companies who support artist stuff.
I just want to keep doing art and keep having people enjoy my art. I want to continue to work with Alex [Pangburn], doing her murals. That’s been fun to be a part of and I think it’s pretty cool that she spearheads all these projects and then I can participate in them. I feel very fortunate that she trusts me enough to do that with her.
What’s your role when you work with her?
Assistant. I might go in and block shapes and then she’d come in and do all the detail work. I know that helps her relax a little bit so she can just do the artistic stuff and not overextend herself.
It’s normally me stressing out on all my stuff and I’m not as well planned out as she is. So it’s really cool to just be an assistant, I enjoy that a lot and look forward to it.
Nice. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
When I work out in the public or do a live painting people often say, I wish I could do that. And I was that person wishing I could paint with acrylic. But then I was like, How do I do this? And I sat down and slowly learned. Sure it took me many, many years, but it’s still something I’m able to do now and will continue to do and try to be better.
If somebody wants to be an artist, they probably can be in some form or another. I think being creative is a huge and important thing in humanity and makes everybody happy.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s work (images, audio and/or video) courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted. All other photographs by Kim Olson.
- Ace Eat Serve – restaurant
- Alexandrea Pangburn – muralist, painter
- Casey Kawaguchi — artist, muralist
- Crema Coffee House
- Crush Walls Mural Festival in Denver
- Dave Tevenal — illustrator, muralist, tattoo artist
- Destroy Troy – tattoo artist
- Independents’ Day Festival
- Paul Giovis – tattoo artist
- Sacred Tattoo Gallery — SoHo, New York
- Sam Parker — artist + tattooist
- Til Death Denver — tattoo shop
- Urban Scrawl — 2-day mural festival in Ohio
- Adobe Photoshop*
- Apple iPad*
- Behr Premium Plus paint*
- Dick Blick’s* matte acrylic paint
- Eternal Ink
- Tattoo power supply with digital readout
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