Graf, [Tat] Guns, and Glory: An Interview With NORM
Whether painting, tattooing, or building tattoo machines, NORM is relentless.
NORM is pure hustle. Plain and simple. Getting up since the 1990s with wings from his AWR/MSK crew, NORM has climbed the rungs of the writing game and deftly maneuvered into the world of tattoo and fine art. His aesthetic is L.A.-forged, a unique spot-it-a-million-miles-away blend of traditional lettering and calligraphy. Every curve and twist carries a sense of grace under fire, a certain bruised wisdom.
Whether painting, tattooing or building tattoo machines, NORM is relentless. The man is on a ceaseless grind to build (and stay atop) an honest empire—one piece, one tattoo, one machine at a time. “I feel an obligation to try to not fall off,” he says, “because I got so lucky so late in my life to learn something that I love so much.”
His upcoming show, “We Out Here,” a joint exhibition at The Seventh Letter Gallery in Los Angeles with 2SHAE, is yet another indicator of that drive and an accurate representation of what consumes his every day.
Amid a hectic afternoon, jam-packed with tattoo appointments and prep for the show, we caught up with NORM to talk his love of the letter, the highs of bombing, and his endless hustle.
Mass Appeal: Explain how this show could never happen at any other gallery.
NORM: Well, I’m concentrating on tattooing. That’s what I do every day. I travel a lot tattooing. So, in order for me to do an art show somewhere, I’d really have to like want to do it and I’d have to stop tattooing for the time to do the painting. So, doing it at Seventh Letter—it’s my graffiti crew. It’s my family. I probably wouldn’t take the time out to do it at just a regular gallery. I’m not in the art world as much as I am in the tattoo world. So, doing little shows here and there is fun for me.
What can we expect from “We Out Here?”
Pretty much my normal stuff. I really enjoy painting over pictures of hot girls. I got to paint over some of my girl’s (GYPSY ONE) photographs because she’s a really good photographer. And I also did a painting of her; I’ve never done a painting of my girl. I’m pretty excited about that. I really like the stuff that I did. I did a bunch of Adriana Lima paintings. She is insane. I built some special machines for the show. It kind of wraps up everything that I do. I did a bunch of big lettering sheets. Kinda like what I normally do with my day tattooing, except bringing it into the gallery. I made a zine—just iPhone photos—of like the last two years. I just went through and picked a lot of the pictures out and put them all together in a big zine, so that’s why “We Out Here” is the name of the show. It’s just pictures of like some crazy graffiti in Japan to like me writing in Thailand, smoking a blunt with my girl. Random weird pictures.
How does getting up a show of this scale on gallery walls compare with the high of bombing?
No comparison at all. Because of the way that the world is today graffiti—illegal, fun graffiti—is being taken away from us. Luckily for me, because of tattooing, I can travel and do all these things and see what’s going on out there. A lot of these places like Barcelona, for example, was a free-for-all. I could paint block letters on the street. The police are driving by. You know, it was awesome. Or like in Japan, where like I can paint all night long. Just recently, I was in Brooklyn and I got beat up and arrested, spent time in jail. Getting beat up by Hasidic Jews because I was painting something and they grabbed me and whooped my ass a little bit and then held me there for the cops. So, nowadays, it’s different. That high is hard to find. It’s really hard to get. You’re not going to get it in Los Angeles. I mean, I tried to get it in New York. I got arrested. You know it’s hard. When people come into the gallery and they see your paintings and they like them and they enjoy them and maybe they even buy them, it’s rad. But, graffiti is so much different. You’re not getting paid for it. All you get out of it is the happiness that you got away with it and everybody is going to see it. Hopefully.
In tattooing, apprenticeship, legacy, and the passing down of craft are essential and alive and well. In writing culture, it certainly started that way—an elder showing a toy the ropes, taking him out to his first layup, etc. Do you think that is less true today? Is that aspect of the culture fading?
I’ve been focusing a lot on tattooing, but I don’t think that there is going to be young people that are going to be able to even have the opportunity. Let’s say they could even find that mentor like I found in SABER, REVOK or EKLIPS. I wanted to show them these walls I’d painted and “Oh my god, this is the spot.” But, those spots don’t exist anymore. You can’t get them or they’re buffed tomorrow. Kids are going to have to work really hard, and because of Instagram and the computer, I can like go paint behind some shed and a 110,000 people will see it five minutes after I do it. You get that instant gratification from the graffiti. I guess it just depends on what it does for you as a person. If you’re asking me if I think that like the days of graffiti that we all fucking loved and enjoyed I think they are way—I’m not going to say over, because I’m not pushing that part of my life that hard. I get to do exactly what I did before. If I want to paint block letters, I’ll go to another country. I’ll work all day and go out at night and paint. It’s great. I’ll go to London and I’ll paint with ARROW who paints legal, illegal all day long. So, it is still possible. There are still youngsters that are gonna come up.
So for you the joy has always been the letter?
Yeah. I didn’t know anything about art. I was never interested in art. I never thought I could do anything like that, especially not tattooing, which is even weirder. When I started to learn graffiti, I was so horrible for so long, and I still don’t consider myself amazing. It was never really in me. Then when I saw letters that all I wanted to do. And my boss, who taught me to tattoo, made me learn everything, so you know if I have to do a dragon or something I can work it out. But, I prefer letters. I love letters. You know [laughing] letters to live by.
Who’s your all-time in terms of lettering in tattoo? Jack Rudy?
Absolutely. I’d say my people right now that I think are the lettering people for the world are Big Sleeps, Boog, and Jack Rudy.
Did somebody give you your first handstyle?
No. My stuff is a bit of everybody; everybody that taught me and then whatever it turned into. It came from somewhere, and you could look at it and tell me what’s mine. I mean subliminally things creep into your brain and you add them together and you just end up with this fucking…you know it’s the stuff that you want to do. It just manifests into something else.
Is your perpetual hustle innate or was it learned along the way?
No, no. My work ethic was not like this until I found something that I loved. There’s three things that I love: graffiti, tattooing, and building tattoo machines. So, that’s why when you look at what I’m doing, it looks like I’m fucking doing those three things every fucking minute of my life. Or it’s a picture of my girl. That’s it. That’s what goes on. I spend all of my time thinking about what I can make and what I can do and it’s hard because there is only one of me. [Laughs] I can only do so much.
I think it probably fucking goes with everything in the entire world that you are only as good as the last thing that you did. People forget about you really quickly. If your last shit sucked or you didn’t put effort into it or whatever it is, then that’s what people will remember you by. I drive myself crazy just trying to not fall off. My life is based upon letters and making tattoo machines. Trying to stay on top of that game, trying to stay at that level, that’s the most difficult thing, the most mindfucking. Really though, I have been really fortunate. I have the best fucking clients. Like ever. They create my life for me and make me able to do what I’m able to do. My graffiti crew has been the hugest influence on my life. Graffiti has changed me as a person—from what I was before to what I am now. Yeah, I’m really aggressive with work and everything because of the love that I have for it.
Talk about transitioning from writing to tattooing and now venturing into building tattoo machines.
I used to sweat my friend who is an amazing tattooer. He’s an old AWR guy—one of the originals. I used to sweat him all the time when I didn’t tattoo. I owned a piercing shop. The minute I started tattooing [though], I realized that if you don’t put every bit of effort into it. Everything. Then you can’t learn. You can’t go anywhere that you want to go with it. I pretty much had to stop painting to be able to do that. Once I started to feel more comfortable about tattooing, then I would start painting a little bit more. But, the transition between the two is really fucking hard because then you start doing things in tattoo that you like and want to get them on a wall but can’t because you haven’t had the time to practice those things. If I want to do some crazy lettering that you’ve seen on a tattoo on a wall, that’s very difficult for me. That’s what I’m trying to do right now. To learn how do more of the stuff that I do on people on walls. There are a lot of things that are similar about tattooing and graffiti. The drive of it is mostly [laughing] like [being a] fame whore—like I want everybody to see this. Doing a big rose on somebody’s neck that everybody knows that you did is like painting a billboard.
Only forever. Fuck the buff.
Yeah. Like a permanent spot. I did your forearm and everyone knows it. That shit is going to run all over the world.
NORM “We Out Here” | 2SHAE “RED”
January 31, 2015 / 8-11 PM
The Seventh Letter
Flagship Store and Gallery
346 North Fairfax Avenue
Los Angeles, CA