Due to an extra ordinary portion of luck Gordon Claus was able to interview the amazing tattoo legend from Canada, Brett Schwindt. Based in Calgary he opened his shop StrangeWorldTattoo to the public decades ago.
You can gladly read part of the interview I made with him. You can read the complete article written in German language, issue 42 of Tattoo Kulture Magazine.
Do you know the feeling when you get lucky and cross paths with special people?
Brett Schwindt is one of them!
He is a prominent Canadian tattooer who helped pave the way in our industry. He loves taking it straight back to the 80s with an evolution including the future. With an extreme high scale of imagination, mixed with the ability to perform, he resides in the hall of fame “all time favourite tattooers”.
Very fortunate for his clients that he’s in the luxury possession of two magic hands that make things look easy.
Let’s join him in his fantasy realm.
Hey Brett, last time we saw each other was at Miki’s London convention two or three years ago? Real good solid fun. Back then it was already clear that you would be a good candidate for an interview. Time to catch up and let the readers know what’s behind your legend.
Please introduce yourself. What’s up?
Hey Gordon, it’s really good to hear from you!
Well I’m not sure where to start. I guess I’ll go right back to where my interest in tattooing began.
I was that kid who always had a pen in my hand, right from an early age. I thought any surface that didn’t have an image on it, probably should. So closets, books, floors, nothing was safe from my scribbles. As I got in to my teenage years some of my friends parents had visible tattoos. My mind was blown! Finally a surface that they couldn’t clean up after I was done with it. This led me to start buying tattoo magazines and anything I could find that had tattoo related information in them.
My parents brushed me off, thinking for sure it was a fad. But my interest kept growing.
So having grown up in Calgary, Canada, home to one of tattooings legends Paul Jeffries at smiling Buddha tattoo. I decided at 16-17 years old that I would march down and ask them for a job. Well, having never been in a tattoo shop before, I’m pretty sure by the time I walked in the front door my pants were filled with shit.
So 3-4 years later, after spending a couple years in art school I finally got my chance at a different shop called jokers wild under a guy called Lil’ Vic.
He told me to go away the first time I showed him my artwork. So I went home and did more, next day I went back. He told me go away again, so I went home and did the same thing. This happened 3-4 times, then he finally told me I was in. Unfortunate for his existing apprentice who lost his job.
At one point during my apprenticeship Vic and I drove to vancouver in his beat up old truck. Surviving that trip was almost as lucky as surviving the drive with you and Jenny to London! Anyway, his friend owned a street shop and his artists got up and left, so we went out to help bail him out for a week or so. At this point I’m not sure I’d done even 50 tattoos. The shop was busy and I pretended I had more experience then I did. So I got thrown in to the deep end, head first. I was really broke at that time, the apprenticeship was of course a non paying position, and I didn’t have a penny to my name. I was sleeping on this old dirty sofa in the front room of a tattoo shop in downtown Vancouver at 21 years old.
It was all worth it though. I was busy for 10 days, I doubled my tattoo experience, and I made some money finally. This was the turning point for me, this is where I 110% knew that I would do this for the rest of my life.
Vic was not an easy guy to work for though. I
Wasn’t allowed to mop the floor, I had to use a rag on my hands and knees. I did all of his drawings, needle making, clean up, errand running, you name it, he had me doing it. Always with a scowl and a heavy hand, it’s just the way it was back then. You had to earn it, and he made sure I knew it every day.
He had a box of pirated flash from some of the big names at the time. Guys like Ed hardy, Bernie Luther, guy aitchison etc. He had me do line drawings for them, I think it was over 300 sheets. Man that was freaking awesome! I got to in depth look at and study so many amazing artists styles and concepts. What a damn good way to learn about tattoo flash, and probably more importantly I learnt tattooing wasn’t just roses and skulls. I think this probably helped me keep true to my style, and taught me that the skies the limit.
It was around 8 months and Vic in one of his foul moods threw a dirty tube at the back of my head. I’d had enough, so I packed my shit up and left. This led me to approach my dad, whom was recently retired and ask him if he wanted to partner with me in opening a tattoo shop. Lucky for me it didn’t take much persuading. 4-5 months later we opened Eternal image tattoo, which at the time in 1994 was the fifth shop in Calgary. I think now there is over 200.
I ended up working at smiling Buddha for almost a decade. These years were super rewarding, but challenging. You see, the shop was busy, super busy. You were expected to be head down, ass up from start to finish each shift. This was a tattooing pressure cooker! I enjoyed the pace, for a lot of the years, but at the end I was probably feeling a little burnt out. It was insanity some days, one walk-in Saturday I did 17 tattoos in 6.5 hours. I was tearing down and setting up for the next one in under 5 minutes! The experience was irreplaceable, the best way to get better at anything is repetition. And smiling Buddha had that in abundance.
There were a lot of influential and inspiring artists that have worked at smiling Buddha over the years. Trevor Mcstay, Eddie deutsch, henning Jorgensen, Kerri Irvine, Luke Atkinson,Ken Cameron, John the Dutchman, James Tex and the list goes on. That small little house, had a lot of tattoo history come through it. I am proud to be a part of that legacy.
In the 90’s when I joined the team, I believe the industry was in its golden years. I would probably get some argument, but it was becoming a global phenomenon. Guys that I really admired were pushing the envelope like never seen before. The SAN Francisco new school was everywhere, driven by Marcus Pacheco and primal urge. large format portraits and black and grey demonic pieces by Paul booth. filip leu…. I mean really. Every time I saw one of his tattoos my mind blew up!
I miss waiting for tattoo magazines every month. Besides conventions it was the only way to see what everyone was up to. Nowadays Instagram is overwhelming visually, and I find it hard to keep up with what I looked at 5 minutes after I put my phone down. But, each and everyone of those magazines I knew front to back. I studied them, and tried to find value in each photo.
The majority of what I was tattooing each day was flash, so when I had the chance to do custom work I really tried to make it my own. My style was influenced by a lot of artists, but I always just did what what felt right to me. For years I would draw a new set of flash and take it to conventions. It was always very humbling to know my artwork would be hanging in some shop half way around the world. Thinking about some of the flash I really learnt a lot from was Mauricio teodoro’s work from Brazil. So much energy, and expression with every piece.
I think when I look back chronologically at my work, it seemed to me that I was getting just a little bit better after each set was complete. It would take me 120-140 hours to complete a set, and I would try to do at least a couple hours after work each day until it was complete.
Every year I was at smiling Buddha we would attend the national tattoo association convention. These were really great, they had a lot of the old timers with the new up and comers attending. It was a tough scene to get accepted in to, but once you did it felt like a family.
The first show I went to, Larry Romano came up to the booth looking to buy new flash, which apparently he did every year. He saw my set and asked Paul who did it. Without even a glance at me he said he would take a set. This happened the following year, but this time I think I might have a head nod. Then the next year, he asked me personally if I had a new set. I was so happy, I felt like maybe, just maybe I’m starting to be accepted. For however many years after that at the nationals, I felt like I deserved to be there. Those were great times, you had to prove your worth and it was not an easy group to get in with.
Anyone who has ever known Paul, knows he loves to have a few wobbly pops. It was not uncommon for the smiling Buddha crew to roll in and drink the place out of jack Daniels. The problem was that it was 3-4 times a week haha, I’m not sure how I survived. Paul on the other hand was an Ironman, I think once out of all those nights did he let on the next day that he was in rough shape.
Paul also would not put up with complaining about how bad you felt. He was not especially concerned with our well being, show up to work and do your job…..and let’s do it again tomorrow!!
That’s the best. When you look back after the years and still have a thing for those who made your path.
At a certain point I realized it was time to move on, to do my own thing. So in 2006 I opened up strange world tattoo. I did this with my wife mona, who for years was behind the scenes doing the books, taking care of advertising, and basically holding things together. Nowadays she’s doing that and working in the shop everyday. She’s a huge part of why our shop runs so smoothly and she irreplaceable! My sister in law George is also another piece of the shop that we couldn’t do without . She is the shop manager and piercer, and in house crazy lady!! She has been from the start a integral part of our success.
The shop is busy, and we try really hard to focus on customer service and keeping egos in check. We had a good buddy of ours Zoio, come up from Brazil a few years ago, and he thought it was the busiest shop in the world. I’m pretty sure that’s not the case, but it was nice to hear.
I think it’s important to have a variety of talent. We like to be able to cater to any person that walks in the door.
What made Mauricio so special, was all of his work had so much flow and energy. He’d capture a moment that was filled with tension and grace. Plus his colour palette was always perfectly balanced. I spent a LOT of hours looking at his work and trying to dissect it and store it in my memory.
Marcus Pacheco brought this neocubist approach to tattooing. Crazy bold lines, and interesting subject matter. I remember the back lighting was what had the most influence on my style. It’s a tricky thing to do, thinking about two light sources in different colours. But the end result was something cool and new in tattooing.
The most important part of maintaining structure and longevity of a tattoo is contrast or solid line work. Both the Japanese and American traditional fully understand this. It’s something that Paul always emphasized, and I always try my best to make sure every tattoo I do looks good in the future and not just at the moment of the photo. Something I feel may have been lost nowadays.
Hmm, my imagination. I’m not sure where a lot of imagery comes from when I’m drawing or painting. A lot of the time when I sit down to draw, I don’t have a concept in mind. I will try to start and then build a story or narrative. It’s a real fun thing for me, I sometimes find myself shaking my head at myself and asking what the hell is wrong with me! But, I’ve never shied away from being true too myself. Wether it works or not, I’m not sure haha.
I do have a lot of interest in sci-fi, fantasy and pretty much anything that basically has no rules. Creating new creatures, environments and stories that have no limits really appeals to me. I’ve never really like being told what to do! So no one can say I’m wrong if what I’ve drawn is not based in the real world. They can tell me the drawing sucks, but they can’t tell me the concept is wrong.
Having all the ideas in the world, doesn’t matter if you can’t get it to translate on skin. Skin as far as I’m concerned is the toughest medium. It varies client to client and even after almost 30 years…