Isaiah Toothtaker is a hard man to pin down into a short description, in fact I’d be a little scared to. If I were to write his resume, it’d read something a little like this: polymath, two-time felon, owner of Tucson’s renowned tattoo shop ‘Staring Without Caring’, hip-hop artist, co-founder of record label Machina Muerte, emoji-book creator and loving father. He’s certainly not your average and that’s just how I like it. As he says, “we’re given the war we deserve, right?”
It’s the people in this world who aren’t afraid to render it to how they see fit, who push boundaries and ask for zero approval that I’m drawn to the most. The outsiders and the outlaws who surprise you with their creative genius. That’s Toothtaker, a modern day renaissance man. Our friends over at Crawling Death recently collaborated with him for a limited hat release. After getting to know Toothtaker a little more, I assure you, you’ll want one.
A lot has been said or written about your music but I want to focus on your art. You first learnt to tattoo over 10 years ago by the president of the Tucson chapter of the Hell’s Angels. How did that come about and what was it like?
We had mutual friends and were into similar street shit. I wasn’t really into motorcycle culture but we found common ground in tattooing. I worked 50 hours a week, setting up and breaking down the stations of six tattooers in addition to the tough jobs – making everyone’s needles, scrubbing everyone’s tubes, cleaning the entire shop.
Back then it was very difficult to earn a sense of worth but it was a staunch apprenticeship, more traditional to that era. I can appreciate how hard it was now because it gave me a deeper work ethic and a humility that helps me continue to improve.
Fast-forward now and you’re the owner and operator of Staring Without Caring. How did the shop get started? What was the shop born from?
I needed to make a place that had the right energy for me and stimulated my creativity. I opened the shop to continue my progress and try to further develop, to grow. Being ambitious, wanting to better provide for my twins, create a work environment of my own design and to build a space for my friends to prosper.
What’s it like being your own boss?
A gift and a curse. As much freedom as there is in not answering to anyone I also have impossible expectations of myself, it’s sometimes hard to take a break from the responsibility. Being hyper critical I’m able to trust my own opinion and don’t need additional management to finish things. I’m also very meticulous so it helps my process to have less bureaucracy or supervision. It’s easier for me to execute shit without validating it every step of the way.
You’ve got a history with violence and bad behaviour which seems to inform your aesthetic, can you tell us a bit more about the kind of art you’re drawn to?
I really enjoy all art and feel there’s artistry in everything but I’m drawn to more outsider art or things that seem strange or rare. I like having to evaluate things or discover distinction. I also really enjoy things I don’t practice myself or feel are regular for my nature, things that are completely separate trajectories to my inspiration. I don’t have a specific influence but I also don’t think I can remove natural tendencies my art might display. I try not to be myopic.
We’re living in an era now where everyone is so desperate to be accepted and liked and because of that, everyone jumps to trends very quickly. But you’re not concerned with that at all…
Strive for respect not attention. I came from poverty and violence where nothing was given to me and everything could be taken if I couldn’t protect it. Your actions proved your value and most of those actions weren’t likable or accepted by the majority. I’ve had to earn my existence and gained the knowledge to survive through difficult experiences in almost every way. Most things of importance aren’t easy or quick. The Truth don’t have many friends. I’m concerned with doing my best and doing better, I don’t need reassurance to venture into anything. I’m comfortable with being independent and figuring something outside of the obvious.
You’ve carved your own path, which is the kind of attitude that inspired the patch you designed for the Crawling Death collaboration, right?
Yeah, I think it was also a play on the shop’s name. The design was equally Crawling Death and myself. All the Crawling Death designs have a subversive tone and strong visuals. It’s a perfect collaboration.
Photography: Chris Loa