Interview by Carol Civre
I met up with self-taught tattoo artist Carson Foley in his Cooper Union studio space to chat about fine art, DIY culture, and permanently marking people’s bodies. Carson, also known under his tattoo name “Bonne Chance,” gave us an introduction to the youth and queer oriented DIY community of self-taught tattoo artists, a peek into his other-worldly comic book series, and shared his plans to open a tattoo studio with other DIY tattoo artists in NYC.
CC: Hey Carson, tell me a little bit about yourself and how you initially became interested in art and then how you became interested in doing tattoos?
CF: My sister recently reminded me that she is the reason why I’m good at drawing. She used to babysit me when I was younger and she would sit me down at a table with markers and go off and do things with her friends because it kept me busy. In high school I was at an orientation for a foreign exchange program in Russia. The program director made us go around in a circle and say what we wanted to do with our future and I didn’t really know what else to say except “I really like to draw and I think I want to be a tattoo artist.” I actually got a really negative reaction from her because everyone else was talking about being a physicist or being in the state department. I didn’t even have any tattoos at the time and didn’t know anything about them but I just felt like tattooing complemented drawing. Then I came to Cooper Union for school and I started seeing people do shitty stick and pokes in the dorms or at people’s parties and I kind of put two and two together.
CC: Your tattoos and your artwork are interrelated. Can you tell me a little bit about how they feed into one another?
CF: Until this summer I saw tattoos as just being for fun but as I started doing more and more of them I realized that I approach drawing and tattooing in similar ways. The way I draw is very heavy-handed. I put that same weight on a person’s body when I’m tattooing them. Even though I don’t view my tattoos as “fine art drawings” I use the same elements in my tattoos as I do in my drawings. I think the culture of tattooing is getting a lot closer to fine art drawing. People are starting to seek out individual styles of designs a lot more than they used to.
CC: What is your favorite part of tattooing?
CF: Meeting people. Every time I finish a tattoo, I’m surprised that somebody would want such a wacky, weirdly specific thing on their body. Why would you get a snake shattering through a glass window being sucked into a vortex over a pool of water on your body? These things are just drawings in my planner, and it’s interesting to meet people who would want these drawings tattooed.
CC: There is a really wonderful and interesting community of DIY tattoo artists residing in New York City and beyond. Can you talk a little bit about this community, how it works, what it’s like to be a part of it?
CF: I think it comes down to people who don’t have the means to start out in a shop or don’t have the money to pay for an apprenticeship. That goes for anything – like self-taught painters or self-taught musicians. Most punk bands are just friends who get together because they’re good at music and enjoy the same music. This community is similar to that. I met a lot of this community at events organized by these tattoo artists; like fundraisers or merch sales. Now we just all keep each other in the loop about events or parties centered on tattooing. The good thing about it is that it’s really accessible. DIY tattoos are very friendly, and this accessibility makes it a lot more doable for young people – especially young queer people and young students who don’t have the resources or the bravery to walk into a tattoo shop and say what they want.
CC: So would you ever want to move your practice out of your bedroom and into a shop?
CF: Well there’s a spectrum of DIY that needs to meet profession, and it’s hard to figure out what that space looks like – where DIY becomes capitalist. A goal of mine once I’m out of school is to open a studio with other DIY tattoo artists in the neighborhood. Another thing that would be interesting is traveling and doing guest spots at tattoo shops that reach out. Right now I am tattooing out of my bedroom, and I have been for the past three years, but there’s something really appealing about tattoo shops because they offer consistency. However, at this point in my career, I would only work in a shop if it’s with similarly-minded people.
CC: You’re self-taught so can you tell me about your learning process when it comes to doing tattoos?
CF: My first tattoo I ever did was on my self, followed by the first dozen. I think that’s the best way to learn – first start on yourself because that’s the best way to see how it works and how they heal. I started with shapes and lines and focused on making these very ordinary designs my own.
CC: You did an artist residency in Iceland last year, during which you took time off tattooing and created a comic book. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience?
CF: Iceland was very quiet. I wanted to go to Iceland because I felt like I needed the space so I went to the farthest corner I could find. It was great for my work, but I was totally alienating myself. When I got back to the city, I published my comic, which is a series of drawings based on “digging.” The narrative follows this glass sphere that is digging through an earth-like space rock. The idea is that it resembles earth and everything that has happened here, but this glass sphere is totally objective and doesn’t know anything about earth – it is just uncovering it. I started working on the second volume, which I hope to have done by this summer. Each volume represents a different layer of the space rock, a different era of the rock.
CC: Most of your tattoo portfolio is on Instagram as of right now. How useful has social media been to your practice?
CF: It’s just been a great way to get the word out. It’s also a way to learn about other people who are doing tattoos.
CC: You tattoo under the name Bonne Chance. Where does this name come from and why did you pick it to represent your art practice?
CF: The term is French for “good luck.” My mom grew up in France; she’s a French lady. She would always say it to me when I was leaving the house: “Bye, love you, bonne chance!” Whenever I needed an example of text in a drawing, I would use “bonne chance” just because it was in my head already. I always say “bone chance” though because it reminds me of a twangy American way of saying it… “bone chance!”
CC: You’re permanently marking people’s bodies. Although you are doing your own designs most of the time, you do get people making specific tattoo requests. Do you have any personal restrictions on what you will and will not tattoo on someone?
CF: Tattooing is all about boundaries! A good transaction is all about each person knowing what they’re comfortable with. There are definitely things people come to me with that I can’t do because one, I don’t think the way that I draw would complement this idea or two if it’s a place on the body that I haven’t tattooed before I prefer trying on myself or on my friends first. Palms, feet, heads, I don’t do faces….yet. I’m really down to do a face tattoo…but not yet.
CC: Are there any projects you have coming up that you are particularly excited about?
CF: After I leave Cooper Union this winter I hope to open that tattoo studio with two friends of mine. I’m starting to hear from people in different places for travel opportunities, so my goal for next year is to travel to a new place for the last week of every month to do tattoos. Apart from that, I’ll always be drawing and continue to work on my comic series, which I anticipate to be a five-year process to create seven volumes.
Click here to see more of Carson’s work.