DECATUR — The man who carves books into art doesn’t stop there.
Cross his palm with enough silver and present him with a human canvas and an idea worth the effort, and he’ll get under your skin and turn you into art, too.
Many borrowers at the Decatur Public Library have already seen the metamorphosed books shaped by Jason Campbell, aka “Shagoo.” In a display he calls “CUTTING into my reading time …” he takes old books nobody wants and literally cuts and carves and shapes them into something else. A medical textbook is transfigured into a human skull, its contents a 3-D version of the colorful anatomy on its pages. An old encyclopedia volume is carved into a miniature bookcase, its paper shelves filled with tiny books, rolled papers and a paper skull.
Campbell calls this kind of art “assemblage,” meaning to take existing things and turn them into something else. His mom, Rae Ann Campbell, who works at the library, said he used to do this kind of stuff when he was just a tot. “He’d take empty boxes out of the garbage and make little cities,” recalls Campbell.
“Later, his coloring would be magnificent. He could draw sunlight, draw something that looked like the light was shining out of it, you know? But the tattoos, they just blew my mind.”
You’ll find “Studio Shagoo” in Springfield, where the Decatur native now lives, the name serving as the general title for all of his artistic efforts and the tattoo parlor he runs in rented space from Black Moon Tattoos, a business owned by another talented artist.
Campbell, 38, got into tattooing when he was 23, after his artwork was noticed by tattooists in Peoria who recruited him and set him on the path to learning the skin-and-ink business. He now says, modestly, that there are plenty of other artists who can equal his mechanical skill, but what sets him apart is his vision. Campbell explains: “I am able to imagine things and then do them; that pretty much remains the foundation of my art.”
Saying Campbell inks tattoos is like saying Monet could paint color; you’ve really got to see it to appreciate it. He shows pictures of one client’s back crowned by a proud lion’s head that overlooks a dark and starry skin landscape dominated by an ancient, vine-entwined sword plunged into the earth and framed by a huge and gnarly tree.
Savage-looking birds, exotic insects and all kinds of other details are built up in rich and subtly blended colors that sweep the eye deep into the fantasy and won’t let it go. When this specimen of human canvas takes his shirt off, he’s going to stop traffic.
Campbell explains that a tattoo such as this takes some 55 hours of work and costs in the thousands. The owner was so in love with it, he drove repeatedly from his home in Louisville, Ky., to have his starry, starry night caressed beneath the artist’s loving hand. It’s a form of tattooed intensity that isn’t for everyone, of course, and Studio Shagoo is happy to refer on clients who just want a rose over their navel or “Harley” on their left bicep. Hiring Campbell for that would be like paying Rembrandt to repaint your shed.
“I’m very picky about what I do, but I have done enough work to where I have an audience now and a group of subscribers, so to speak,” said Campbell. “I tell people I focus strictly on scenic and character-based imagery, and that eliminates two-thirds of the people who are getting tattooed.”
Once committed to a project, however, whether carved books, album covers — another specialty — or tattoos to make the blood race, the artist dives in and doesn’t surface until he has produced something wonderful. Art, he said, should speak in seductive tones and must say something, even if it’s only “Look at Me.”
“Like with tattooing,” he adds. “If you are going to make that much noise on your skin, it’s got to be beautiful, and it’s got to stop people in their tracks. It can be elegant and delicate, but it also has to be gorgeous; only then will it be worth anybody’s attention.”