With Halloween behind us, some of you dark romantics (like myself) may be feeling gloomy about waiting a whole year before the spooks, skeletons, and zombies rise again among the spider webs and fallen leaves of autumn. Before you bury your heads in the cemetery dirt, tattoo artist and sculptor Jason Stieva is here to save the day with awe-inspiring dread delivered in the delightful form of framed assembled miniatures and expertly placed grey caustic bones.
Beautiful.bizarre author Jennifer Susan Jones brings you a “horror encore” fresh from the grave (Shallow Grave Studios, that is) as she speaks with Jason about his artistic influences, his favorite sculpture, and how he amassed a whopping eighteen thousand followers on Instagram.
Jennifer Susan Jones: You are a well-established, award winning tattoo artist as well as a sculptor and assemblage artist. Which came first, the skin art or the sculptures?
Jason Stieva: I am a full time tattoo artist and have been for almost 25 yrs. I opened my tattoo studio Sinful Inflictions back in June of 1994. I’ve always been intrigued by art and gothic architecture as far back as I can remember. Then I was introduced to the country of Europe in 1997 – I’d never flown before, but I went ahead and bought a one way ticket and a train pass, and headed out on a solo mission. I was instantly hooked on the atmosphere, the people, the architecture, the art galleries, the churches, the graveyards, and the catacombs. I loved the big cities as well as the small towns – it’s just a different way of life and it’s a big inspiration behind my tattooing, sculpting and most of my art in general. I make a point of making regular pilgrimages back to Europe to recharge and get away, and come back inspired and hungry to create.
I’ve been doing mixed media sculptures for roughly twenty years. I’ve always had a love for antiques, garage sales, auctions, flea markets and just about every roadside oddity I can find. So, that being said, I enjoy hunting for supplies which takes up a bit of time lookin’ for those bits and pieces to make each piece that much more unique.
I’ve been doing a lot of custom frames mirrors and skullys (skull sculptures inside altered frames) lately, but always try to have some assemblages in progress at the same time so I can work on whichever piece inspires me that day or that I get an idea for overnight! It’s always been a hobby for me but in the last four years or so it’s been growing into something a little more and now find myself dividing my time for both mediums.
You have over seventeen thousand followers on Instagram. How did you get so many followers and what’s your advice for new artists looking for more exposure?
It’s always cool when you get people that dig what you are doing and follow your work. It’s even cooler when they send you a message and tell you they want to buy it. For example, I was at the Toronto Tattoo convention a few years ago with my tattoo studio Sinful Inflictions and the Sullen Clothing booth was right across from me. I really like what Sullen are doing in the industry – supporting tattooists and artists alike all across the globe, so I went over and introduced myself to one of the owners Jeremy Hanna and told him to keep an eye on the mail. I told him I’d be sending him a piece based on their badge/logo. It arrived months later and they really dug it. They posted it on their social media sites, and it generated a bunch of exposure and got my art in front of the right people that are into that kind of thing.
Then two years later I debuted at the Toronto Tattoo Convention and it couldn’t have gone any better. I sold a bunch of pieces, got to meet a lot of people, and I did some networking to spread thy Shallow Grave word. When I’m not tattooing full time, pretty much all my time is spent in the workshop or hunting for material (no animals harmed). So for all new artists it’s not so much a hobby or just something to do it’s a lifestyle for me. I’m involved in art pretty much most of the time between my tattooing and my sculpting. Hustle every day and have fun, work hard and always try new ways to creatively market yourself. Social media is definitely a marketing tool that can’t be ignored when trying to get your work in front of the masses.
You and Sullen sound like a match made in heaven. Thanks for the great advice for new artists. Your artwork evokes feelings of dark wonder, and a powerful, foreboding sense of dread. How do people react to it in person?
So far the general reaction to some of my larger scale pieces is especially wild. The conversation usually begins with, “How long did it take to make this?” then, “What’s it made of?” then on from there. I’ve always kind of been attracted to the darker wonders you can say. I bought my first hearse when I was 22 and have been collecting post mortem antiquities for roughly twenty years: coffins, human skulls, taxidermy, oddities, antique medical instruments, Victorian death photos and all that fun kind of stuff.
The catacombs, cemeteries and churches of Europe are something I’ve always been interested in and I feel they all play a big role in each piece I create. Ideally my goal is to hopefully get a chance to have my first solo exhibit in a funky gallery with some cool lighting and gnarly character, then I could get a true reaction with so many pieces under one roof at one time. If anyone knows of any galleries that would fit the bill let a fellow know, cheers!
Mailing work to galleries and collectors can be stressful and expensive. How much does it cost for you to ship one of your average-sized sculptures?
Shipping these pieces can always a bit nerve wracking, especially some of the larger ones. I also make the custom crates which I ship all my pieces in, and that takes some time. Then there’s customs, and you hope they don’t take interest in your crate – you never know what happens when they get their hands on it. So far so good. Shipping “Leviathan” Ark of the Apocalypse was by far the most stressful day at Shallow Grave and we only had to drive a half an hour to deliver her. She’s pretty big at eight feet tall (on a seven foot custom display table), two and a half feet wide, and roughly 200 pounds. She took me 14 months to complete. In the end we got her there in one piece. As for costs it all depends on size and weight of the crate and if it’s going air freight or rolling on the ground.
You told me that “Piper and the Wisemen” was one of your favorite pieces. What is it about that piece that makes it a favorite? Also, can you tell me a bit about how you build your artwork?
Piper and the Wisemen is definitely one of my favourites because it was my first large piece. I made it in my little old workshop in the basement of my house and there wasn’t much room down there. I had just acquired a large collection of antique clocks, clock maker tools and instruments from my antique dealer (that got them at auction from and old clock maker that passed away). I took three of the clock cabinets and came up with a way to put them all together to act as the frame and just let it roll from there. The vision usually changes from the time of conception to when I complete a piece, but the overall balance – a hint of blood red velvet with gold and silver highlights up against the taupe tone and deer skull – really made this piece work. I called the piece Piper and the Wisemen because, if you look at the very top, you’ll will see what I refer to as the pied piper with his arms outstretched casting a spell for all his motley minions except for the three wisemen that are on the second tier that work together devising the master plan. That’s sort of where the name came from.
“Leviathan” Ark of the Apocalypse took roughly 14 months to complete and is eight feet tall. How long does it usually take you to complete a piece?
Depending on the size and detail of the piece pretty much determines how long each piece will take to complete and how much tattooing I’m doing at the time as well. Obviously the frames and smaller pieces aren’t nearly as time consuming as some of the other ones I’ve done taking well over a year to complete. I’m about to start a new larger scale piece which is going to require a bit of time just searching for the right figures for the assemblage. This new sculpture will be based on one of my favourite movies when I was a kid – “Time Bandits” – and should take me a few months to complete. I’m really looking forward to this one. I’ll also work on some smaller “skullys” frames and mirrors in between.