Fergus ‘Fergadelic’ Purcell
Sang Bleu VI.
Published Summer 2012.
It goes without saying that Fergus ‘Fergadelic’ Purcell embodies and represents a bygone era of illustration that was so simple and yet so effective, immortalised through output on both fabric and even his own skin. Known the world over for his graphic design work for ‘Palace Skateboards’ and his fashion brand ‘Aries Arise’, his roots and origins within the world of home-made tattooing must not be forgotten nor overlooked; pioneers such as he, helped push along the resurgence and mainstream interest in stick-and-poke tattooing within recent years. His artwork style, teetering somewhere between a vaporwave album cover and a psychedelic cartoon scene is so contagious; inneffable to categorise and yet so familiar. A relentless worker and true gentleman, I sat down with him to find out more about his life as an artist and as a canvas, thus far.
Dorrell Merritt: I read somewhere that as a child that you didn’t like to draw at all. Can you pin-point when this changed for you?
Fergadelic: Yeah absolutely. I went to live briefly in Australia when I was five and while I was there and attended school there, a teacher had this book which she showed me one day. It was an Ed Emberley book, teaching children how to draw with the classic drawing system of a circle for the face and two smaller circles for the ears, if it was Mickey Mouse for example. For some reason that really appealed to me and I got really into drawing from then onwards.
And how old were you then?
I was around five. From then I didn’t stop. I was obsessed with it!
From there, was it a progression onto illustration or comic-style work?
I suppose it was slightly comic-like because I would often draw pictures as best I could, but also tended to also write text alongside it or accompany it with speech bubbles
So it was very graphic focused from the start; how did the way in which you saw drawing/illustration from an early age change once you became a teenager?
I think I realised that it wasn’t just a personal or private expression in terms of making the drawings, but that the drawings themselves could become important things within culture. For example, on record covers you would see the imagery individuals liked, or on their T-shirts. When I got into skateboarding, all the graphics that came from that weren’t stories from a comic book, but signals of what people are into: their values and feelings. It just fascinated me, T-shirts particularly.
That definitely comes through with your own work I think. What were your first interactions with tattoos or tattooing?
I was about eleven and my dad was getting an extension done, and the builders would come and work on the house. They both had been in the army doing national service, and they had tattoos from that time. Being around so much, I really think it rubbed off on me.
Progressing into the skateboarding and punk scene, was the fascination amplified through there?
Yes, it was in terms of the imagery that was prevalent in that scene, but the first people that were tattooed and similar to my age that I saw and could relate to were skaters. Two dudes on the foundation course that I used to go to: one was a real kind of Zorlac dreadlocked skater and the other was a hardcore skinhead dude. They maybe had like a tattoo or a small collection which for me was mind blowing because it was like: Wow! At that age you can get that!
I’d like to talk about your homemade tattoos; you’ve become largely synonymous with the practice of DIY tattooing over the years, the world over. Where did the idea of tattooing yourself stem from and when did you start tattooing yourself? Was it a regular thing that you would do?
I think I actually started back in 1998. It was generally quite unplanned- I’d just get the urge to do it every now and then and it tends to be a bit sporadic. After being tattooed a few times by professional artists, a friend of mine said: “Have you got any home-made ones?” He didn’t say it as a challenge, but I suddenly thought- “I don’t- Why not?”, and went home and started doing my first one.
And you did all of the work on your arms too?
On my left arm entirely, and quite a bit elsewhere such as my legs and my front as well. Liam Sparkes did something on the back on my leg and I have some work by Xed and one by Lucky Diamond Rich. Also a couple of excellent pieces by Danny Young & one from John Entwistle, both of those guys are from Melbourne. I’ve got stuff from Lal Hardy & Dennis Cockell, too.
Xed was actually my tattoo mentor and a very inspiring person. I was super lucky to be able to work with him in the first place as I was going to get a tattoo fixed at Into You just as a walk in, and he was free. He agreed to take on doing that tattoo and could see a few home-made tattoos. When I told him I taught myself, he got a 5-round needle, tied it to a chopstick, put it in a sterile bag and gave it to me because prior to that point I had been using a safety pin. So I was able to get much better results as before, it had all been a bit crude. He was a direct inspiration to me.
Run me through the process of tattooing yourself.
Well firstly I get the ideas of what I might want; I have a ongoing changing list of things I might want, but it's all about boiling that down to stuff that seem really appealing.
Now it's all about the space I have left as I want to save it and leave it for bigger, more ambitious work. I’m cautious about filling it up with little throwaway things while before on my arm it was super spontaneous. The trickiest thing is putting the transfer on, which is a nightmare! I still need to master the art; I need to draw it out three times, which is annoying! The second trickiest thing I think in home tattooing is getting the lines in without obliterating that transfer. With homemade tattooing it’s difficult to do that and control the mess you’re making and so by using the liner, you’re covering things more quickly.
I see quite a lot of similarities between yourself and Duncan X; not only in terms of extensively tattooing yourselves, but moreso tattooing with this graphic-heavy style that isnt necessarily associated traditionally with tattoos. Was he of any inspiration to your progress?
Absolutely. He was working with Xed at ‘Into You’ when I first met Xed. He was part of that really interesting generation of tattooists that were really re-thinking the tattoo as body decoration. For that generation, for the first time in tattooing there was a radical rethink would look good on the body. Duncan, Xed and Alex Binnie are all typical of that and took it in their different directions.
What was the last tattoo that you completed? What tools did you use for it?
The last one was one on my shin and was done about three weeks ago. It was a combination of tools but I probably used the most, was a nine line for the outlining.
What is it like tattooing yourself, compared to being tattooed by others and of course, with a machine?
Well the first thing, is that for anyone who has a lot of tattoos, regardless of whether they’ve done it themselves or not, they will understand that their pain threshold changes. I don’t know if it’s in general, but in reference to tattooing because you learn how to deal with that and you begin to associate that experience with a positive of getting a cool tattoo. When you are tattooing yourself, you are very in tune with the whole experience and it becomes quite a meditative thing. If you get a tattoo from someone else, you are dealing with his or her energy too. If you’re in sympathy with that and got a good vibe with them, then it's a reciprocative experience. You might even get something that should hurt loads but just doesn’t: a real mind over matter shift.
Would you say that there is a philosophy that can be taken from homemade tattooing, especially in the 21st century where tattooing has become (for better or for worse) as commodified as it has?
Definitely. The first thing comes down to self-expression literally: the ability to have a different kind of self control, and modify yourself according to your own mental image. The other thing with homemade tattoos is that if you don’t have many resources, that doesn’t need to stop you. In terms of DIY, it’s a very liberating idea and becomes directly from the Punk/DIY idea of starting a band yourself, start your own T shirt company- it is all within that realm of independence and self reliance. That is maybe the particularly significant thing, that you don’t have to be a consumer and take what is given to you: you can do things yourself, whatever it is.
Is DIY tattooing is the future of tattooing?
I think the two are simultaneous; I don’t think one could cancel out the other. There is room for both and that’s how it should be. While anyone should feel totally free to have a go and get involved with working on themselves, if someone needs to go to a professional, that is great too and they will get an amazing result.
Would you say traveling has any influence on your tattoos?
Yeah, directly. It's so inspiring to travel, in the general sense but also in a visual sense in terms of graphics. Whenever you go abroad, there’s a whole new palette visually. Australia has had a very lasting impact on me and as I have friends there I have been a number of times. Recently I got to go to New Zealand for the first time, which is a fantastic place to have tattoos because it’s cultural ties with tattooing is still very present and revered today. Part of being a Maori is to be tattooed and in New Zealand it seems to be a completely positive thing; it has a certain status.
Do they still do a lot of traditional work happening there?
Yeah, when I arrived there was a festival of pacific arts and each island was represented in this park. In the New Zealand section they were doing traditional Maori tattooing and you could just stand and watch. It was amazing! There is a team of about 6 people; the tattooist himself, then maybe two people wiping down the blood and ink. Then there’s two dudes stretching the skin and then one person, holding the subjects hand and comforting them- and they all rotate roles. It was a really intense experience. I think generally, we are bonded by the shedding of blood and that’s an unusual thing to share in the 21st century where we are so paranoid about health and safety, but to see it done in that public and exposing it for what a great bonding experience and ritual it is was a powerful statement. I certainly feel that the homemade tattooing is about that.
Bonding with the self?
Exactly, and transcending barriers by putting yourself through an ideal. The Into You guys were especially about exploring culture; that idea of body ritual being a way of transcending everyday experience and making yourself a stronger person. I think that’s why I have done it so much. It can sound weird to some people that I stab ink in my skin for hours on end; but again it's that thing of the human body having thresholds that can be pushed, but by doing that you change your sense of self and your way of thinking and your personality. That’s the profound effect of being self-tattooed, for me.
And because you have that control over your development as opposed to someone else, it must be more intimate as well as rewarding. What would you say DIY tattooing brings to the tattoo world?
Well I think in this day and age, it’s maybe of technical interest to tattooers because you can do amazing things with homemade tattoos and just in that way with a renewed interest and with the prevalence in tattooing. When I started getting tattoos, it was still a bit of an occult practice and people were still protective of their knowledge and inside knowledge. That seems to have changed now and there’s a big interest in the traditions but also the new technical things that can be achieved. Homemade tattooing is part of that conversation I think and I think where it stands in relation to professional tattooing, it’s now up in that sphere.