It’s a smooth Friday night in May, and the World Tattoo Gallery is rocking. Hundreds of people dressed in everything from evening clothes to almost nothing at all are crammed into the third-floor gallery in an old warehouse at 13th and Wabash, flaunting their hipness or hoping a little of Tony Fitzpatrick’s might rub off on them. The party is a celebration of the gallery’s one-year anniversary and the opening of its spring show. The crowd spills into the room across the hall, used occasionally for poetry readings, once for an Elvis impersonators’ contest, and as the dance floor at openings. Tonight, men and women seven deep ogle a New Orleans stripper, here billed as a “performance artist.”
Fitzpatrick himself is uncharacteristically dressed in a double-breasted suit and tie. People gravitate toward him, yet at the same time shift their bodies to let him pass as he moves about, working the room like a politician.
Fitzpatrick is riding the crest of a wave that’s brought him from years of self-destructive anonymity to one-man shows of his art in Paris and New York. Famous collectors and dealers scramble for his work. Famous bands ask him to design album jackets. Famous directors toss him into movies. Throngs of beautiful people surge through his openings. A week earlier, his one-man show opened at Carl Hammer Gallery, just in time to draw dealers and collectors already in town for Art Expo, where more of his work is on display and has already sold out. It’s been a long time coming, and he had to leave town to get it, but Fitzpatrick has finally succeeded in gaining the recognition he’s always craved from his hometown.
Generous to a fault, Fitzpatrick is the kind of guy who rarely fails to pick up the tab for a meal or a cab ride. To someone who might protest he always insists, “It’s been a good year.”
If you imagined that Fitzpatrick was ten years younger than the 40 years or so his expressive, lived-in face would suggest, you’d be right. And if you figured that at six-three and over 200 pounds he’d thrown his weight around less genteel settings than art galleries, you’d be right about that too.
Named after the patron saint of lost souls, Fitzpatrick was born in 1958, the fourth of eight children. His father James, a burial-vault salesman, says the Lombard neighborhood his children grew up in was “suburbia–you know, tree-lined streets. Tony had a few scrapes with some of the neighborhood kids. He was always a pretty big kid–when he was small, he was big.”
When he was 13, Tony carried around notebooks, where he’d sketch whatever caught his eye. He called them “insane drawings,” and says he didn’t care when the neighborhood tough guys ridiculed him. Every Sunday he’d pore over Dick Tracy, hooked on the stylized, dense imagery. His younger brother Kevin recalls “Tony was always into artistic stuff, and the earliest I remember, maybe 15, 18 years ago, he got into the birds–falcons and hawks and things like that.” Tony kept a screech owl in the basement and another time had a sparrow hawk in the backyard.
At Montini Catholic High School Fitzpatrick flunked art, and by his own account barely passed enough classes to graduate. He boxed a little there, though his strongest memory of that is one of humiliation. After high school Fitzpatrick fell into a succession of temporary jobs: bouncer, cabdriver, caddy, trucker, day laborer.
In his off-time he began hanging around south-side gyms and clubs like LaJolla and Windy City, sketching the fighters there. “One day somebody’s sparring partner didn’t show up,” Fitzpatrick remembers, “and they looked at me and said, ‘Hey kid, why don’t you throw those gloves on and move around the ring?’ I held my own. I had some power, I could hit, I could take a punch.” Over the next two years, Fitzpatrick fought in 21 “barely professional” bouts, mostly against unskilled club fighters. He racked up a deceiving 18-3 record–deceiving because most of the fights weren’t sanctioned, weights weren’t verified, and sometimes Fitzpatrick, a middle heavyweight, fought guys more than 35 pounds heavier than him.
Muhammad Ali was his idol; Fitzpatrick was drawn not to Ali’s flamboyance but to his grace and skill: “That was the thing. I had no style, no rhythm, I didn’t know how to avoid a punch.” Reality eventually got the better of him. There was the time he tried to psyche out an opponent, who responded to Fitzpatrick’s taunts by finishing his bologna sandwich, just minutes before their fight was supposed to begin. “Can you believe that, he’s eating a fucking sandwich? That’s when I knew it was over,” Fitzpatrick says.
Fitzpatrick had another problem, one that contributed to his unsettled life-style: an increasing dependency on alcohol and drugs. Ricky Viscosi, a friend then and now, says “He was always a good artist, and he always wrote really well, but when he started drinking he’d black out. He’d do things he normally didn’t do, he would get obnoxious, he was disgusting. He didn’t want to go to work, he’d be bumming money. He looked like a slob, he didn’t dress right. He didn’t take care of himself. Tony was staying with his folks, but he spent most of the time sleeping in the restaurant I bought. When he wasn’t drinking he was fine, but then he started drinking and he would disappear. You’d have to go get him at seven o’clock in the morning at some bar. He drank Old Style or Budweiser; he’d do any kind of shot. He’d sponge money off of people, and then he would blow them off. He didn’t want to pay them back. He wasn’t responsible, he’d blow off his girlfriend. He’d screw over his parents, the whole shot.
“He had all this talent back then,” Viscosi says. “Part of it could be he was afraid of succeeding. [People with talent] are afraid of being good at something, because then they’ve got responsibilities.”
Fitzpatrick’s closest childhood friend was Joe Hasiewicz, whose father Joe Sr. was a World War II POW and self-taught realist painter. “Joe [Sr.] always used to say ‘Someday Tony’s going to be a great artist,'” James Fitzpatrick remembers.
“Of course my father would never tell Tony that directly,” says Joe Hasiewicz Jr. “Tony would bring a new piece of artwork over, and my father would tell him, ‘You don’t know how to paint yet, you still have a ways to go.'”
“I’ll tell you he’s always charmed me,” Tony’s mother Anna Mae says. “But his father, who’s had seven other conventional kids, is a little bewildered. He always had a lot of stamina. There’s no way he could just do something ordinary. I could cope with the idea his artistic talents couldn’t be gauged from nine to five.”
Fitzpatrick had grown tired of his directionless life-style; in the fall of 1980 he enrolled in acting classes at the College of DuPage. He lost interest before the end of the term and found himself back where he’d started. Then a few months later he signed up for a couple of classes at the Art Institute, but quit after a run-in with an instructor. He now says of the Art Institute, “The first time I walked into that place, I thought I was on another planet. I think I met one friend there.”
The next fall he moved to Champaign, hoping to study art at the University of Illinois. “When I stopped boxing, I thought I really failed,” Fitzpatrick says. “It was discipline, and something I really wanted to do to carve out my name. Later on that begins to just fold up on you. You realize you’re just another guy who’s going to get his fucking ass beat, and nobody is going to remember you. I think that’s when drawing became the most important to me. So I went down to Champaign to try and get into school.
“I got into trouble. I was with this woman whose husband had just gotten out of the joint–he found me and I found him. So then I took this job shuttling a truck. The guy I worked for was the funniest guy, he was about to go out of business. He was a monk for 25 years who left to marry a nun. He was sending all of his trucks out, and I got this one that broke down between Champaign and Galesburg, and I left it there.”
He had no money, just a box of pencils and a sketchbook. He walked more than five miles to a truck stop, sat down in the restaurant, and began drawing the diesel engine of a truck stationed outside. A waitress gave him five bucks for the sketch.
Fitzpatrick hitchhiked back to Lombard, where he resumed his old habits. In October 1981, Fitzpatrick’s life-style finally backfired. He lost control of a van he was driving, and ran into the side of a house. He broke both hips and his pelvis. “I don’t want to say his name,” says Steven Benda, a friend of Fitzpatrick’s from Villa Park. “But my friend lived right next door to the house Tony hit. He remembers hearing a bang, and all of a sudden, some guy was banging on his front door. It was one of the guys in the van and he was bleeding all over my friend’s porch, and [my friend] just knocked the guy off the porch. He said he went over there and there were beer cans and bottles in the van. They said the brakes went out. My friend said, ‘I think his foot went out.'”
“I’ve never been able to do anything moderately,” Fitzpatrick says now. “When I drank I was an alcoholic, when I used drugs I did too much.”
The accident, along with a painful physical rehabilitation, woke him up somewhat to his problem, but it wasn’t until two years later, in the fall of 1983, that his girlfriend helped him through detox and he stopped drinking for good. “I remember his girlfriend took him to get dried out,” Tony Viscosi says. “And I was the only one who ever went to see him. All of his friends blew him off. I’m a disabled veteran. I got screwed up by doctors. I knew what it was like to be down in the dumps. You feel like your life is over, and you want to kill yourself. That’s the funny thing, he helped me when I was sick. When Tony was sober he helped me.”
When he got out of detox, Fitzpatrick confronted his problem head-on. His friend Mike Brennan, something of a guardian angel, gave him a job as a bartender and bouncer at his Villa Park bar. Ten days after his release, Fitzpatrick rented out a storefront across the street, next to an Ovaltine factory, called it the Edge, and turned it into a studio and gallery. A short time later, Susan Swales, Chet Witek, Bill Herndon, and Ron Richter joined him as partners.
The bar across the street served as a constant reminder of the life Fitzpatrick was trying to escape. “I knew,” he says, that “one day working in the bar would be in my rearview mirror forever.
“You can get a really good education by living life a certain way. I think the fact I kicked around, and got kicked in the teeth a few times and went through some shit, was responsible for making me a very religious artist as far as what I wanted to do and how I was going to do it. The one thing I really credit my family with–and I come from a very tight family–as many knock-down-drag-out fights as I had with my old man, he never told me I wasn’t capable of something. Even with my painting, sometimes I think he understands the drawings, sometimes I don’t think he quite gets them, and sometimes I think he’s horrified by them. He knew every day I was going to my studio to work, and he never told me to quit. That was the whole philosophy of my family.
“I think despite all the trouble I got into, despite the alcoholism and a lot of the bad things, I had good stuff. I had a family–they’d be pissed at me–but they would never write me off, they’d never quit on me. That’s the difference between me and everybody else.”
Fitzpatrick comes on full throttle, jumping into conversations, offering a succession of opinions or judgments without hesitation, and he doesn’t wait around for anyone else’s response.
That raw, headlong quality that best describes his personality informs his art as well. His work bursts with images and text and action.
Until recently, almost all of his pieces were done in colored pencil and acrylics on small chalkboards. His world is a frenzied one, seething with freaks, animals, and deformed landscapes. His human subjects–both real and imagined–are the marginal, the culturally displaced: whores, boxers, transvestites, and carnival acts. His portraits include Ali, Seka, Babe Ruth, and Jake La Motta. He places his subjects in the foreground, stuffing the rest of the frame with competing images (spiders, snakes, rats) and text.
“People say my drawings are busy–how long am I going to fucking live?” Fitzpatrick says. “I’ve got to pack as much into each one as I can. Yeah, there are people who say there’s too much shit there, and I tell them, ‘Fuck you, it’s my paper, it’s my pencil.’ I have this irrational, rotten fear of dying. I want to get all this stuff into the picture before I go. To me these are testaments to my fucking life. Do I want a whole area empty? Fuck no, no way. So I’m going to pack these.”
The Carl Hammer show, entitled “The Other Kind,” marked a departure for Fitzpatrick, in both format and content. For the first time all the works were on paper, and his subjects, birds and pit bulls, were more intimately rendered than his scarier beasts.
“I always tried to be the observer with the former work,” he says. “I made all these bird pieces, which are kind of about my grandmother, who died when I was in New York trying to further my career. I never got over that, I felt very guilty I wasn’t there. She was a pretty remarkable woman, and a big influence. You know how there’s no right way to grieve, I guess these drawings were that. They were kind of saying good-bye. I don’t feel bad or negligent, but there was a concerted effort to try and make these drawings about her, though not literally.
“Getting off the slates and doing something a little bigger and braver, something more challenging, was really difficult. It wasn’t labor, but I could have made those slates until the day I died and never missed a meal. At a certain point you don’t want to imitate yourself, so I decided to try stuff that was a little bigger–the whole idea of making the drawing and writing a poem, I wanted them to become the same thing. When the Egyptians didn’t have words for what they needed to convey, they made a picture. This was a nice way to go back to basics.
“There’s a real evolution, it was nice to be able to write and draw in the function of making a picture, and not cheat either one of them. I think in this case the drawings are very much driven by the writing. They’re never illustrated, they’re very much dependent and interactive with the text. I never looked for these academic compositions. Underneath there’s this writing, this document that drives the work.”
If one inspiration for Fitzpatrick’s early work was pop culture, an overlapping preoccupation is his strict Catholic upbringing. Recurring themes are crucifixion and resurrection. “I can’t get away from those images, because they’re what shaped me. For the longest time I’d get upset when people said how Catholic my work was, and I’d say fuck it, you can’t rewrite it. It’s what I meant. Now there’s something I even admire about Catholicism, there’s a beauty to the ritual and stuff. I still don’t agree with the church’s policies, and I don’t consider myself a practicing Catholic. It informs a lot of my work because as a kid there was a real joy in looking at pictures of angels. There was so much about it that was beautiful, even the gruesome stuff. The Catholics never do anything subtly, and neither do I. My stuff has always been a little over the top, and it’s nothing my life doesn’t bear out. It’s that way because I’m that way.”
Fitzpatrick works in a small, cluttered corner of World Tattoo strewn with books, magazines, and comics. A lot of the books are about birds; there’s an autographed still of a B-movie actress named Linnea Quigley. His work entails long periods of isolation. “You can’t have anyone around when you’re beginning a drawing. It’s like fighting, I don’t want to see anybody I like. I want my time alone and I work right up until the show. It’s hard work, especially for me because I don’t have the greatest attention span, which I’m trying to overcome with these bigger pieces.
“I think in a way it gives me a little bit of an edge. I wasn’t born with any natural talent, I don’t think talent gets you anywhere. I do this because I want to do this, because eventually it will help me find my place. It took me a long time. I think one of the reasons I work the hours I do is because I really feel so much of my life was wasted. I really feel like I blew the best years. It’s playing catch-up ball.”
By his own admission, Fitzpatrick is someone who holds a grudge, and the pleasure he gets from the Hammer show is laced with a good dose of satisfaction at finally getting this kind of attention in Chicago. Throughout the early 80s, Fitzpatrick says, he could barely get local dealers to give him the time of day: “It wasn’t that they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t even look.”
He describes the local gallery scene as clannish, paranoid, and conservative. He says there’s no hope here for an outsider, for a self-taught artist looking for recognition. And recognition was something Fitzpatrick had to have. He decided to try his luck in New York, and in 1985 he descended on the East Village with typical elan.
“I’d walk into galleries asking if they were looking at slides, and they told me ‘No. Get the fuck out of here.’ Finally I decided it’s P.T. Barnum time. I walked into one and said ‘Look, lady, I’m going to show you one slide, and if you don’t like it you’ll never see me again, but you’re going to look at this fucking slide.’ The first time I did that, I had a show at the Phoenix gallery. I had a career.”
Filmmaker Jonathan Demme wandered in as that show was coming down. “I’m not a big collector, but I’m always on the lookout for images that are moving in one way or another,” Demme says. “For me, I find that more often from sincere, struggling artists as opposed to ‘combined’ or trained artists. Maybe because I’m a visually oriented person, I’m on the lookout for these things.
“I went into a little art gallery in the East Village, and there was a little pile of slates, which was already of interest before even knowing what the content was. I just detected a passion in the works. In those days Tony’s style hadn’t emerged to the extent it has today in terms of detail. They were like punches in the face, as opposed to now–scenes and images that pull you inside, and you wander around and you’re always making discoveries. These were bold, violent, heartfelt pieces. He hasn’t gone through a phase yet that didn’t interest me. Either I’m interested beforehand or as soon as I see his stuff I become interested in whatever. It’s like getting a chance to look at the feelings you carry around with you on a certain subject.
“The show had come down and they were sitting there, and I grabbed a bunch of them. I was intrigued–where did these come from?–because they were the real thing. You know anybody can pick up a slate, and bash off an image of a car going across the desert at night. One of these things felt like Badlands, this sense of dangerous American space. I noticed there was no signature on it. I had to ask the gallery owner, if this guy comes back to town, maybe he could scribble his name on it.”
“In 1985,” Fitzpatrick remembers, “I was with Carlo McCormick, who wrote for the East Village Eye–the first critic to really respond to my work–and we walked into this club. He says to me, ‘See that guy over there? That’s Jonathan Demme, he’s the guy who’s been buying your work. You should walk up and thank him.’
“I walked up to Demme and thanked him for buying my work, and he asks me, ‘Is your name Tony?’ And I told him yeah, and he said, ‘I’ve been trying to get ahold of you for months.’ Jonathan asked me if I had anything with me, and I told him I had three pieces, and he bought them all. I figured that’s the end of that. I get back home, and two days later Demme calls me, asking if I want to do the sound-track album for Something Wild. I told him I didn’t think I was the right person. He sent me an airline ticket, and asked me to just come out and talk with him. He showed me some reels, and we just talked about the movie. Demme’s so approachable, and I’d been fucked over in the art world before, and I didn’t know if this guy, this well-known and respected filmmaker, would stand up for me. It’s funny, before he bought my work I didn’t even know who the hell he was. I didn’t know any of his movies. I’d heard of Stop Making Sense, but I hadn’t seen it. This guy was a revelation.”
When the record company raised some objections to Fitzpatrick’s drawing, considering it “too damn weird,” Fitzpatrick “thought about Demme, what’s this guy going to do? He went to the wall for me and they used the piece.”
The album jacket generated stories about Fitzpatrick in the local media, and collectors and dealers began to venture to Villa Park to scout out his work.
New York art dealer Todd Capp saw Fitzpatrick’s work at Phoenix City Gallery and was knocked out. A year later he opened a gallery. “I more or less forgot about Tony,” he says. “Then one weekend, this guy walks into my gallery wearing sneakers, blue jeans, a T-shirt, and a leather jacket. He’s balding, with a braid in the back of his hair, and he looks like a window breaker. He’s got a knapsack with him, and says, ‘Would you like to take a look at my drawings?’
“Something told me take a look at this now, and he starts taking these little slates out of his sack. I saw the first one, and I said, ‘Man, I’ve been looking for you.’ I told him, ‘We’re going to do a show as soon as we can. I want to show your work.’ I think he was probably more surprised than I was. The stuff is so powerful and original, and being a fight fan, I really had an appreciation of how well he captured the spirit of the boxers. I wouldn’t say he’s the greatest draftsman in the world, I don’t know if he’s ever studied anatomy, but he captured their spirit in a way nobody ever had. That same ability to really get inside a subject and bring that to a viewer’s consciousness was true of all his work. It was so real, true, and soulful.”
Fitzpatrick’s first significant solo exhibit was in 1987 at Capp’s gallery in the East Village. Entitled “Coney Island, the Ghost,” the entire show sold out before it even opened. “From that day on I would make a living as an artist,” Fitzpatrick says.
“Where is this Villa Park, the Ovaltine Factory, and where were the intelligent gallery owners of Chicago?” asked New York critic Ted Jones in Cover. “How exultant it is to peer into the Coney Island of Tony Fitzpatrick’s mind. The gallery is made luscious, ludicrous and sinister by exhibiting the indomitable Tony Fitzpatrick.” Writing about him in the New Art Examiner, Jennifer Crohn wrote that Fitzpatrick’s work was “social commentary, not from the outsider peering in, but from the soul of the insider turned inside out, from one who does not find it beneath his dignity to embrace the questions for which he has found no answers.”
Capp says the “Coney Island” show was the first time New Yorkers had a chance to see more than a few of Fitzpatrick’s works. “When I met him,” Capp says, “he was still living in Villa Park, tending bar. He was a bounty hunter, a bail bondsman, tracking down guys who slept with shotguns.”
Phoenix City Gallery had positioned Fitzpatrick as an “outsider artist.” “I didn’t think it was good or appropriate to show him in a context that would inevitably type him,” says Capp. “I think Tony’s work should be seen as some of the most powerful and original work in contemporary art. He should be seen in context where he can be appreciated as an artist, and not some kind of weirdo on the fringes.”
In 1987 Fitzpatrick signed an exclusive deal with John Ollman, from Janet Fleisher Gallery in Philadelphia. Fitzpatrick had already committed to one more show with Capp, and in 1988 Capp showed his “Bad Blood,” a series of portraits of mass murderers. (That series inspired a production by Prop Thtr called Mass Murder; Fitzpatrick was commissioned to write a monologue for the character of James Huberty and ended up portraying him in the play.)
Ollman says he “wouldn’t have stumbled across Tony’s work; it required other sources.” It was brought to his attention by an artist friend of Demme’s. Of Fitzpatrick’s work he says: “Most artists’ works are about art, Tony’s work is about the human experience.”
Something Dennis Potter said of Francois Truffaut hangs easily on Tony Fitzpatrick as well: “The man is the work, and then the work becomes the man.” When asked about his art, Fitzpatrick’s friends and colleagues as often as not end up talking about the man.
Ed Paschke: “He’s got a true spirit of the poet-artist in him. He absorbs the pulse of the lights of the street. His work has a raw edge about it, which I find exciting. Now that he’s working in a larger format and lighter color surfaces, like paper, I think his work is much more complex. It’s his autobiographical expression; he’s a complicated guy with a lot of layers, and I think his work reflects that. He’s got an exuberant spirit about him. He’s a real straight shooter, he doesn’t pull any punches.”
Todd Capp: “Tony picks up on people’s feelings, he’s extremely sensitive and reactive. Of course he’s self-absorbed to a large degree, and egotistical, but not to the exclusion of being able to accurately read people. He’s got enough to have this monomaniacal trait, and yet be completely aware of people’s feelings and what they’re thinking. He’s an excellent listener and observer. I hope I’m not being too fair. He’s a complicated individual, and certainly he’s got a good instinct for what’s good for him. Allen Ginsberg came and saw the work, and said, ‘His paintings are better than his poetry.’ I don’t think he wanted the competition. I’ve got three pieces of Tony’s, and I’m going to hold onto them.”
Jonathan Demme: “I’ve always had a pretty good sense of who Tony was. I perceived him as being an exceptionally intelligent, highly articulate person who was carrying a certain amount of baggage as a result of perhaps violent, certainly difficult experiences he’d had in his life.
“Did Tony have a chip on his shoulder then? Yes, probably, but I never felt menaced by it. In addition he was carrying around a very intense vision and he hadn’t had the kind of success yet that provided him with the fiscal situation that allowed him to really indulge his vision, and really put a lot of it out there. In hindsight I can see that Tony was seething to get more work done, and probably anxious to find out if he was working in limbo and if what he saw would be well seen by others.”
Demme wrote in Fitzpatrick’s 1988 collection of poetry and drawings titled The Hard Angels: “For Tony, his ‘dream’ pieces represent something of a left turn in his body of work, visualizing things he cut loose from as a child, a retroreaction against the enforced encroachment of the rational over imagination, which is one of the sad requisites of ‘maturing.'”
By 1989 Fitzpatrick had gained a commercial and artistic foothold that went beyond Chicago or New York. The Neville Brothers commissioned him to make a triptych for the cover of their album Yellow Moon. Having operated the Edge for six years, Fitzpatrick started to feel restless, so he closed it down and moved to the South Loop. There he hooked up with the Edge of the Lookingglass, whose ambitious owners hoped to position it as a gallery, recording studio, and performance space. Fitzpatrick curated its first two shows and then quit, because he didn’t think a gallery and performance-art space were compatible. “I just think you’re either one or the other, but not both, because you end up detracting from the work. That’s why I decided to open my own space.”
In May 1990 he and some partners (Springfield lobbyist Tom Mansmith, theater producer and director Jonathan Lavan, and Larry Glassman, a computer specialist who works at the Board of Trade) opened up World Tattoo. With its high ceilings and retractable walls, the gallery has multiple capabilities. It’s spacious and comfortable, with 6,200 square feet to house its monthly shows.
Fitzpatrick had participated in a 1989 show of the Cold House Group, a group of artists trying to buck the Chicago gallery system by funding and organizing their own shows. He used that experience as the conceptual basis of World Tattoo. Fitzpatrick decided the only way it would work was to have a permanent, secure location. Cold House artist Tim Anderson says, “The difference was Tony was going to make it work–maintain a lease and have space, but stay open to people who were not usually shown. He’s got a good rapport with a lot of young people. . . . There’s a lot of politics in these galleries; they can really turn you off.”
“Anybody should be able to go to an art gallery and feel comfortable,” says partner Lavan. “Obviously we started this as a bare-bones operation; the partners each had a small amount of money that we put into it. We weren’t financially prepared to sign contracts with artists, and have us be responsible for their careers. So the principle was, if you’re an artist, obviously you want to get as much exposure as possible–that’s how it really started. Emerging artists, new artists, untrained artists don’t have anywhere to go. We have what we call “open Wednesday,” where anybody can come in and show slides of their work and we’ll give them at least an honest critique. We’ve found a lot of artists that way. Trying to allow the untrained and emerging artists somewhere to go, and at the same time to broaden the base of the people who come to art galleries, that was the idea.”
Rodrigo Avila, a Chilean-born Chicago artist who’s frequently shown at World Tattoo, says “I think for me and anyone else who’s trying to get their work shown, it’s a really accessible place. The big problem with the River North galleries and the established places is you just can’t walk in freely. You can’t approach them, I think it’s meant to be exclusive. I wasn’t afraid to come to World Tattoo and just drop off slides. They have big shows, they include 20 or 25 artists, most of whom have never been heard of and they’ve never been shown before. The people who come here are serious buyers. Tony being the curator, he pretty much decides who to show; he’s really open-minded about what he’s willing to put up. It’s honest work, and he’s not in it to make the money. He’s able to take risks on people.”
Fitzpatrick’s mission of providing a local space for unknown artists hasn’t gotten in the way of his own work. Now that he’s finished with the Hammer show (which sold all but 4 of the 26 works on display), he’s working on two one-man shows scheduled for February in New York.
“The most honest thing I do is making pictures,” he says. “Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile with having to do all the other stuff. World Tattoo is a big responsibility, but it won’t be mine forever. I like writing poems, but it’s very hard, it’s very frustrating. Making art, if you’re going to stick, if you’re going to last, it’ll cost you your life, and sometimes a measure of happiness–I’ve never had a relationship work out since I’ve been a serious artist. When it’s going, when it’s really happening, nobody can explain it to you if you don’t know it. That’s the joy of it, the act of making art. It’s the journey, the travel or the doing. I think this is how I found a spirituality, a higher power.
“I think what drives me is being such a fuck-up the first half of my life. For hurting people, and there are people I’ve hurt who there’s no way I could ever say sorry to. There’s one guy in particular who walks the other way whenever he sees me. What drives me to make this set of pictures, this set of images, is I think it’s the only way I could ever be a part of the rest of the world. I know that sounds stupid, but it’s the only mark I’m ever going to make. They say if only I could live my life over again. I wouldn’t have hurt my family as much as I did, I wouldn’t have abused drugs and alcohol, I wouldn’t have stolen, I wouldn’t have done so much damage. I still have a lot of this discontent, I’m not satisfied. I want to make bigger pictures, I want to make pictures that mean more.”
On June 5 Tony Fitzpatrick married Michele Garrahy, World Tattoo’s director, in a small ceremony at World Tattoo. His new collection of poems, The Coming of Locusts, will be published next year. One of his upcoming shows is with the powerful New York dealer Vrej Baghoomian, who wants to publish a coffee-table book of his work. But all of this success probably won’t calm him down.
“If anything, my work has gotten angrier, rougher, more attuned to where I’ve come from,” he says. “Nobody wants to end up a fucking personality, it’s such a degrading term. Art is my life preserver. You ask me who my influences are. Muhammad Ali, Chester Gould, Lenny Bruce, Jimi Hendrix, Nelson Algren, those guys did what I would have wanted to do. Martin Luther King, Elvis, Jackie Robinson . . .
“I’m comfortable now being one of those people nobody knows how to classify. I don’t give a fuck. Part of the [Hammer] show is [about] when I went down to Miami and zoomed through Little Havana, and saw how hard it is for some people to really assimilate into this culture, you know this fucking McDonald’s we built. They know the value of the community. That’s the one thing about American culture, there’s always pockets, neighborhoods, because people come to depend on the fellowship of each other because they can’t really fit into the whole fucking picture. I stay with the underdogs and the outsiders because I’m one of them.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.