Isaiah Toothtaker first came on our radar during Highsnobiety magazine Issue 14, which explored factions—both physical and digital—and the evolving nature of counterculture. Tattooing has been associated with an outlaw mentality and deviance—but also is held in a certain regard by religions and tribes around the world.
Of course, modern conventions have made tattoos more acceptable than ever, but what Toothtaker does through his work is re-contextualize the art’s past with a current perspective influenced by hip-hop culture and the tattoo traditions of his hometown, Tucson, Arizona.
“I had been getting tattooed since age 13, and from 15 in shops,” he admits in our magazine story. Tucson’s tattoo culture revolved heavily around a biker aesthetic, with influences from prison tattoos, gangs, Cholo culture (owing to the city’s large Mexican population), as well as skulls, religion, and classic script.
But Toothtaker didn’t see himself becoming a tattoo artist. He has an underground rap career that spans over 13 years of releases with Anticon, a label synonymous with genre-bending music and radical hip-hop. Although he grew up exposed to a predominantly punk scene, he became turned off by the community and culture it represented—which is why he connected more with rap.
“Rap was something that seemed very intellectual. It was interesting to hear talk about things artfully and skillfully,” he says. “I wanted to be known for making good music…Tattooing was my welfare, but not my love.”
Last year, Toothtaker opted to sell his Tucson shop, Staring Without Caring, for a work life that takes place exclusively on the road. He takes up guest spots at different shops, and updates his whereabouts on his Instagram account. He also did a stint at Europe’s Us By Night festival, sharing his creative process with thousands, and capped off 2017 by tattooing prominent artist Scott Campbell.
He also co-founded a creative agency, FAYKE. He describes it as “a venture in design, perception and communication, helping to magnify messages that deserve wider reach.” Recently, he’s worked with Nike on imagery for the Kobe AD and a whole other slew of projects in film, music, and design—like a series of letterpress prints with Raking Light Projects. Some of the art chosen for that collaboration are his signature pieces, like “Thug Tears,” that he has retired from his tattoo repertoire.
We asked Toothtaker to look at some of his most notable tattoos from 2017, and share a bit about the stories behind them. Check them out below:
“A guy traveling cross country stopped in my shop and wanted a small tattoo. I told him I wasn’t doing small tattoos today, but I will tattoo this skull on the middle of your forehead with flames escaping the top of the skull’s head wrapping into a crown around an eyeball exploding a prism of colors from it in dispersion.”
“A classic rose design in the style of ‘American traditional’ tattooing. A tattoo doesn’t always need to have a profound meaning to provide purpose or value, sometimes you might just like how it looks.”
“A tribute to modern mythology and a homage to the king of comics Jack Kirby.”
“Can’t remember if this guy is an executioner or a sex freak…I drew up various punk rock designs and this dude was amongst them. It’s also placed above an amazing tattoo done by the legendary Bob Roberts, which was part of the reason I even took the walk-in on a fully-booked day.”
“Reimagined Tattoo Peter flash from the 1905s, Netherlands. Recently I was tattooing in the Red Light District around the corner from Tattoo Peter’s shop in Amsterdam and dropped by between appointments. His son was tattooing and wouldn’t let me take photos and didn’t care who any of us were and didn’t want to talk to us. It was pretty cool.”
”Gamble with death you might lose your life.”
“‘Too Tough To Die’ Sailor Jerry design and; my weird ‘Thug Tears’ face thing tattooed on my man Nick Schonberger (of Nike and formerly of Highsnobiety) after he survived a heart attack. This was the last time I tattooed the Thug Tears design, never will again. Years ago I did this random little face and to my surprise it became wildly popular in the tattoo community. lol idk. Although I no longer tattoo this design there are some limited prints of it released with Raking Light Projects.”
“It’s said Hippocrates believed the brain is the organ of the mind and one of three souls found in the body. Playing with concepts of psychology and the zodiac this design can correspond with spirituality or a variety of relationships on the human in the universe.”
“Lucifer dancing on the minds of man. The consciousness between the terrestrial and celestial realms and themes of the tarot are often at play in my work. I enjoy exploring that symbolism and learning the mysteries beyond the known world.”
“Entire half sleeve done in one sitting.”
“Tattooed upside-down and backwards on a fellow tattooer’s throat. I tattoo a lot of tattooers. This was done in Nashville on a guy who traveled 8 hours for his appointment, since I am now only available on the road during guest spots. Last year I sold the building and closed my shop after 11 years of operation to work on the road for the remainder of my life.”
Now check out how tattoo artist JonBoy made custom tattoos inspired by Nike’s Air Max sneakers.