Fear Love: The Steve Karp Interview (Part II of II)

September 21, 2010 by Chris Grosso

TIS: You mentioned being humbled by a Cosmic Force or High Being. One of the things I remember about coming into Kustum Kulture (which we’ll talk about in a few minutes) is your Jesus tattoos and how we talked about your being half Christian and half Jewish, but never really going much deeper than that. Now I’m noticing your Sanskrit tattoo (Mani Mantra) and I’m wondering if you would mind talking about God, Religion or Spirituality?

SK: Yeah, absolutely. My upbringing was that my mom was an ex-Catholic and my dad was formerly Orthodox Jewish, so I was raised kind of Protestant. There were these two polar extremes, which were pretty firmly religious. Orthodox Judaism, that’s pretty intense and old school Roman Catholic, again, pretty intense. My mom thought it was important that we had some sort of religious upbringing, so we went to Sunday school and I was baptized. I was raised in the church and it was actually pretty cool. The Pastor we had, Father Dick, brought this vibe of acceptance and patience, all the really positive stuff about religion and Christianity, so as a little kid I never had a bad view of Religion. Where I grew up, I was surrounded by kids who were going to Hebrew school on the one hand, and Catechism on the other, and I was somewhere between that, I just sort of went to Sunday school. It wasn’t like some formalized sort of indoctrination into religion. My mom never pushed religion on us. She just wanted us to be exposed to it. I also had my family and friends who were Jewish so I grew up being exposed to both cultures and had no problem with either one. I think as I got older I became more jaded and then got into the whole punk rock thing, which was very anti God/religion. So I went through that too, but I always did my best to have some sort of connection with God (big G or little g), because I think that really, that’s the root of everything. That’s what everybody is trying to get to, in whatever form, no matter the religion. I’ve had the opportunity to meet a billion super cool people and have traveled a lot so I’ve been exposed to some really amazing places, and the one thing I’ve sort of found is that everyone is taking these different paths to get to this one idea, which drives people in a lot of different ways, and that’s what I think is cool. I really respond to spiritual icons and places and things of that nature. To really see the passion in religious iconography, the different emotion in religious art, especially in Christian religious art. That made a huge appearance in tattooing and I was really drawn to it. But also traveling a lot we saw the negative side of religion, never spirituality though. I think there’s a disconnect between religion and spirituality. As for hardcore, the Krishna thing made some re-appearances here and there. The Bad Brains had a big influence on people too. People started to wonder what Rastafarianism was all about. It was pretty cool for white kids to investigate Hare Krishna and Rastafarianism. Then later on in the 90’s the Christian based hardcore was coming out. It was interesting stuff to see. So spirituality, to me, is separate from the formalized apparatus of religion, the church, collection plate & coffee hour etc. For some people, that’s their thing and I could never get on them for that. I’ll go to church with my family or my wife’s family. My wife and I were married in a church. When I was a punk rock kid I was angsty and would say that religion was the opiate of the masses, and they’re brainwashed, but as I got older I realized it’s not fair to call it a crutch. It’s filling a void in somebody’s life, and that’s awesome. I became more accepting of what I saw & dropped the knee jerk anger. Where I didn’t become more accepting was with the negative stuff which people say, and base it on their religion like, my religion hates gay people, or my religion is intolerant of this or that, and I couldn’t get into that. I was brought up that God is an idea of how good people can be & all the things people inspire to be but aren’t. They say that people were created in God’s image. I always took that to be we are the imperfect version of whatever God is. Then you have people who say you can be in my religion, and you can be in my religion, but you can’t, and obviously somebody who was better would say hey, I love everybody equally. And that’s important, in a gentle way. Not to say hey, if you don’t eat your vegetables God is going to kill you, or if you masterbate God is going to make you blind, using it as a tool of fear. I guess I can sort of see the necessity in certain circumstances, but I like to see the gentler side and how the religious doctrines show people at their best, or show people doing these really noble things. That’s what I gravitate towards. So regarding Jesus tattoos, I love the imagery. The iconography of Jesus is just so powerful on many different levels. Iconically, it’s powerful because people respond to the collective size of the Christian religion. If you can separate The Bible from the religion, into just a book (and people are going to want to burn my house down for saying this), if you could academically look at it from that standpoint, the character is just so phenomenal to me. The stuff this person went through, how he came out of it, and how he reacted to people, I’m just so taken by that. That’s the example of how people can be, at their best. It’s not a God in the sense of the Roman or Greek Gods, like a big God on a temple or throwing lightning bolts, it’s like, here’s a guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s average. He makes mistakes & screws up. He’s poor and accepting of people and then goes through some really terrible stuff. I think a lot of religions have some really interesting characters in their that have them, and I’d hope that people would take that away, not the thing that puff them up and makes them say, I’m into this religion and you’re not so you’re going to hell. I despise that. I still write songs railing against that mindset. I don’t write songs saying religion is bad, because it fills voids in people’s lives. I would say that if religion allows the badness in you to feel validated or if you have a desire to persecute people and you’ve managed to twist something around to fulfill your negative agenda, then we’ve got issues, we’ve got problems. And that’s been happening all throughout humanity, as well as religion or spirituality offering people a path which can present ideas of how you could be, so why not try and live up to them? I prefer to go that path. People may say I’m a hippie but I just prefer and try to see the goodness, because I know how imperfect I am.

TIS: So speaking of tattoos, you owned a shop with your cousin, Chris “Beaner” Rinaldi called Kustum Kulture, which was infamous in the underground CT music scene and eventually as well as with your average mainstream customer. Can you tell me about the birth and history of Kustum Kulture as well as your tattooing experience?

Chris “Beaner” Rinaldi

SK: Yeah, so we kind of started Kustum Kulture out of necessity. We were working out of a shop in New Britain, which came to a really bad end, very quickly. So we started this shop in Plainville (CT) and it was a really punk rock because the town didn’t want us there. They couldn’t really do anything to get rid of us, but at the same time they definitely weren’t doing anything to extend a welcome. So again, we’re going against “The Man”. Eventually we got things sorted out, but the town always made things as legally difficult for us as they could. We kind of took pride in that though. We were like, all right, we’ll show you. We’re going to be the cleanest, most professional shop we can be. Everything they wanted a tattoo shop to be because it fit their agenda, we were the complete opposite of. And again, this was another experience where I had the good fortune of working with two of the most monumental guys, (Little) Joe & Chris (Beaner). Two guys with some of the most powerful work ethics you are ever going to see. They are perfectionists in all the best senses. They’re phenomenal, super smart guys with amazing personalities. I was really blessed to be there and working in tattooing as well. It was a really transitional time for tattooing. It was just starting to come out of the super, super underground into the medium underground and eventually making the unfortunate transition into the mainstream and accepted. Same thing with how punk rock is now. It was odd because there started to be a lot of shops around, and I think a lot of those shops were in it for the money, but there were still some shops who did it because they cared about it and loved it. We were fortunate to hook up and make acquaintances with people from the latter, who were doing it regardless of its popularity. You’d hear the word edgy thrown around. That word makes me want to punch people in the face because it’s

Little Joe

the equivalent of saying there’s money somewhere to be made. It’s something people think is dangerous or taboo and it’s all these artificial things that take away from the beauty of how things could be. I think Kustum Kulture really made a conscious and unconscious effort to be different in that sense. Chris and I had the ability to draw and be creative, Joe was also very creative, making his own jewelry, and we didn’t want to settle for the status quo. We really wanted to do custom work and work with people who were creative and wanted to do different things with people who wanted to push the envelope of what could be done and feel comfortable doing it. Maybe there were some people who were uncomfortable about going to the older generation of tattoo artists, the Harley Davidson kind of guys, the guys I learned from, and who are great guys. I could see how somebody would be intimidated to go there because tattooing had this vibe of being scandalous, like some drunk people in a back alley or something. There wasn’t really anything like that, though it did propel the mystique of tattooing. It’s not that we wanted to dispel that myth overtly, but when people came in the shop, we wanted them to see it was some younger guys who’s shop was really clean and wasn’t full of pot laves or swastikas or 1960’s bikers. We would be like hey, we draw stuff, what have you got? Let’s be creative and work together. We never wanted to dictate to them, unless they were honestly clueless. Something that was tough for me was that I would definitely have a shorter fuse for people who didn’t have respect for what was going on, and as time went by, more and more of those people started coming in. Friends would tell me not to worry, just to tattoo them and take their money, but I didn’t want to get involved in tattooing just for the money. What I do now, I do for the money. I mean I love it and I’m good at it but I’m not spiritually connected to it in the way I was to tattooing. I think if you distance yourself, you’re probably going to do better in life. If you’re spiritually connected and it matters to you, it means you’re going to have your heart broken. We really cared about tattooing, and a lot of the people I knew cared about tattooing in the way you care about something that means a lot to you. But again, more and more people started seeing tattooing as a commodity, which to be flat out honest really sucked. I didn’t want to have any part of that. I didn’t want my art to be boiled down with commerce. Obviously you have to get paid to do your stuff, and there will be compromise with the customer about the work to some extent, but you don’t want it to turn into something where you’re just turning stuff out just to make money. We had the same passion with tattooing that we did with music and so we tried to do all the things other people weren’t doing. Somebody had to be the exception.

TIS: And is that why you left the shop before its doors officially closed for good?

SK: Well I actually left twice. I left in ’98 because I moved to New York for a bit and was working in a shop out there, and that was really cool. It’s something I wish I’d done more of in my Kustum Kulture days, getting out and tattooing other places. So I did that thinking it was going to be more than it was. I went out there with a gal, which exploded in a phenomenal train wreck that is still legendary to this day. I came back to Kustum Kulture and Joe & Chris had grown really close while I was away and I sort of felt apart from that, rightfully though because maybe they felt as though I’d abandoned them when they needed me. I came back and tattooed for a little while longer but found myself really being drawn more to the technical side of it. I really liked to tinker with machines and power units, which I think was an escape from the growing amount of people coming in who saw it as a commodity or thing to do because everyone else was doing it, not because it’s something they loved it or wanted original tattoos. Eventually I knew I had to get out of tattooing because I became miserable doing it and I was making the other guys miserable. I would be short with people I should have been more patient with, and I became aware that I shouldn’t be around because it was no good for anybody. So I fell back into what I went to college for, which was drafting and engineering and design work. I did a complete 180. I also had a bit of a spiritual crisis. Here I was tattooing and playing in bands, getting older, and my friends were getting older too, but they were getting married and buying houses and having kids, and again, there I was, tattooing and playing in bands and getting older, wondering if I should be doing this, if it was right? Everyone I knew was going in the opposite direction of me. I would be at the shop and a friend would call me from his office and tell me how it sucked. On the one hand I’d be like, yeah, sucks to be you, I can leave whenever I want, but on the other hand, I wondered if I was just delaying the inevitability of having to deal with that at some point? I began to wonder if I was a coward, if I was afraid of the real world. Eventually two things came together, 1) I had to get out of tattooing because I was miserable doing it and 2) I needed the challenge of doing something new. I’d been doing tattooing for ten years and guess the new challenge was the 9-5 “straight world”.  A lot of people to this day ask me to finish their tattoo, or ask me if I miss tattooing and my answer is always that I miss the good stuff. I miss the good people, good tattoos & good times, everyday, so much. But I don’t miss the grief, and when the grief started to outweigh the good, I knew I had to get out. A lot of the grief was brought on by myself though. I really took tattooing seriously and really expected people to care and respect tattooing as much as we in the shop did as an art form, but people just started seeing it as a commodity, like when you buy a pair of sneakers. People would try to chisel me down on a price of something and I wanted to ask them, if you were going in for surgery, would you try to chisel their surgeon down too? I mean c’mon, doesn’t this matter to you? And usually the people who were the cheapest were the ones with the most money, but our friends, the people we knew from the scene, were always the coolest about everything. They’d be like, oh man I really want to get this sleeve finished but I don’t have any money, and I’d be like, you’re finishing that sleeve man because I like working with you, we have fun and do great work. But then there was that guy over there who wants some bullshit tribal sun smoking a joint and I wasn’t into that, I wasn’t into their mindset. I’m not saying I’m any better than them. It was just really hard for me. Obviously you have to talk to your customer, and when it came time they may be like, so, what’s your favorite beer and I’d say I don’t drink, and then it just ends up being weird.

TIS: Something that I’ll never lose gratitude for is that my first, as well as the majority of tattoo experiences was at Kustum Kulture. Bean would work on me for 6-8 hours and when it came time to pay he’d ask for like $100. I’d have to fight to tip him another $100-200!

SK: Yeah man, the thing is, when you’re doing something you like, you don’t want to charge for it because let’s face it, money just fucks everything up. When commerce enters the picture, it dirties things, and I hate that. I’m still an idealist at heart, same thing with music. My dad was a professional musician and he would play in jazz and swing bands. When we started playing out he’d ask, how much did you make? And I’d say we didn’t make any money and his response would be what’s wrong with you!? You drove there and played the show and didn’t make any money!? I’d tell him I had fun and he’d tell me that fun doesn’t put food on the table. So when tattooing became the same way, it was the beginning of the end. We had a sign on the wall at the shop that said $100 an hour, but when five hours go by and you look at the person and just had the time of your life joking about all sorts of stuff, there’s no way can ask him for $500 because that would just dirty the experience. But when someone comes in and they give you a ration of shit and an awful design that you’re not into doing, and give you a lot of problems about it, I’d have no problem looking them in the eye and saying $500, because you’d really earn the money. You not only went through psychic and spiritual grief, but also true physical grief.

TIS: Yeah man, that sucks. Well, to switch up gears a bit, can you tell me why Star Wars rules?

SK: Well I’m a science fiction and fantasy kook. People that know me know that, and people that don’t know me too well don’t, and I kind of like that (EDITOR’S NOTE: Sorry to blow up your spot Steve!) because I’ll occasionally drop something into a random conversation with someone and they’ll see me in a different light. One of the things that absolutely drove me crazy with delight as a kid was Star Trek. The show, the cartoon, I was just bonkers for it all. My dad got me into the 1950’s B Science Fiction Movies. He loved them, so I got into them too and loved them. Then I saw Star Wars, and similar to my experience with punk rock, my life changed. There have been a million Sci-Fi & Fantasy movies but that was the one where everything came together. I was like ok, Star Wars…now everything is here. I remember as a little kid, seeing the commercials for it and getting so freaking amped. I remember going to the store and flipping through magazines and seeing pictures of Star Wars and being really excited, so yeah, I’m really crazy about Star Wars. It’s something I think people go absolutely crazy for because mythology is really missing in our lives and human beings need that. People can assemble mythology from all kinds of stuff. I know people who ride motorcycles and their mythology is based around the culture of those motorcycles. The mythology around Star Wars is really pretty complete. I think now that I’m older, I realize that Star Wars wasn’t anything new, it was just a new take on a bunch of old stuff, but it was how that take was done that made it different. It speaks to anyone who has any sort of imagination. As a kid it had everything in it that I could have ever wanted! It had space, which I was coo coo for. I was absolutely bat shit for their spaceships and how technical they were. The other thing about the mythology of Star Wars is that it has certain believability to it, certain realness, and I think that’s what people relate too more then when they see something that’s not well done. I’ll watch Star Wars every time it’s on t.v. Edited or unedited, it doesn’t matter.  You have to laugh at the acting though, which is really pretty second rate and how corny the dialogue is, but that’s what makes it even better, because that’s our Shakespeare, it’s our myths and cautionary tales.

TIS: (Laughing) Did you ever see the Star Wars Holiday Special?

SK: Yes. I remember being a kid and when I heard about that I just couldn’t sit still.  Then I saw it and it was great! And later on I read about how everyone involved was absolutely embarrassed and hated it. But it was great. I was kind of unhappy when then went back and redid Star Wars with the editing and CGI. It something you don’t want to see messed with. When it came out it was so profound and powerful to so many people, why deviate and ruin it? And then Lucas made the decision to do the three prequels. I took that kind of hard too and put off seeing them because I was a purist. I was like, the original Star Wars is it, that’s the bible you go by and nothing else. But I eventually went and saw them on the big screen and have to admit there was some really good stuff. When I saw the original, I was 8 and that’s the time to see Star Wars, when you’re 8, and that’s the time to see the new ones as well. So when I was watching the new ones there were times where I felt like an 8 year old kid again and that was cool!

TIS: Yeah, I honestly thought Part III “Revenge of the Sith” was great! It was so dark, covering ground I felt Star Wars never had before. Like Anakin killing the padawans, that was pretty intense. Plus the PG-13 rating and all.

SK: Yeah, I’ve got to admit, that was tough to watch. I was like, this is not my Star Wars.

TIS: Yeah, it was dark.

SK: Yeah, when you look at the original stuff Lucas did, the really heavy duty stuff was basically implied. Like wasting Alderaan was heavy duty, but as a kid you’re like, oh the Death Star fired the green laser and it hit some planet. You don’t really think about the ramifications of that. But seeing the Jedi being hunted down like, I was like nobody kills good guys, and little kids too!? It was powerful and definitely showed a difference. I think I watched the prequels and really picked up on more of a sub-text. I don’t know if it was intentionally there, but I felt it really tied in with the whole post 9/11 reality and felt that that vibe was very important to have. I’ll watch the original Star Wars now and I don’t see them having that subtext. So I watch the prequels and see them really dealing a lot with human nature and more complexity, but not in the originals, and I can enjoy that as much as some of the great space battles.

TIS: So I noticed on your Facebook page that you have Bigfoot listed under your interests…

SK: Well you know, Bigfoot, U.F.O.’s, ghosts, all that kind of stuff, I like to always leave the door open for “what if?” Part of me has to believe in that because I think humanity needs to be humble. We don’t have all the answers. Sure we have some cool stuff going on but every time you turn around, something that someone said could never be done is being done. So I’m always leaving that door open. So if someone says to me, U.F.O.’s, that’s crazy, how can you believe in that? I’m like, you’re religious, you don’t have proof but you believe. And I’m not knocking them for having that faith, I’m just saying we don’t have all the answers. Human perception is very narrow, as much as we like to think we think on higher levels, it’s really pretty narrow. Look at it like this, if you’re a fish and you live in a pond, that’s it, it’s the be all end all of your existence, but someday a fisherman may yank you out of the water and all of the sudden you’re like, what’s this? I think humanity it that fish, in that pond and we’re still finding new parts of the pond, and just a few atoms away there’s air and land, so who’s not to say there’s things beyond our current comprehension? Part of me is like a little kid and has to believe. Why not, you know?

TIS: I really appreciate all the time you’ve given me here.

SK: I feel bad for your recorder listening to this verbal diarrhea.

TIS: No way man. But before I end this, is there any last thoughts you wanted to share?

SK: Yeah, thank you so much for taking the time to seek me out and do this. It’s really amazing and profound. I don’t think I’m anybody special, and I think it’s great for you to take the time to do this and your endeavor is super cool and noble and I love it, I love it.

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Chris Grosso is a writer, public speaker, mental health youth group facilitator, and author with Simon & Schuster. He also writes for Revolver Magazine, Fangoria, and has spoken at a bunch of fancy-schmancy festivals and conferences (as well as even more events that were significantly less than fancy-schmancy). Chris's podcast, The Indie Spiritualist, is hosted on Ram Dass's Be Here Now Network.