Interview: Pete Zebley

Pete Zebley is an experienced tattoo artist and a classically trained visual artist working in Philadelphia, PA. He began tattooing in 1998 and specializes in watercolor and fine art tattoos. While working as a tattoo artist, Pete enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where he would receive formal training in painting, drawing and sculpture. In 2008, Pete was awarded the J. Henry Scheidt Scholarship in European Travel where he traveled to Russia, Poland and Germany.

After returning to the U.S., Pete focused on developing his craft and exploring the use of color in both his tattoos and fine artwork. He won second place for best sleeve and best color at the New York City Tattoo Convention in 2012 and 2013, respectively, and has held guest artist spots in Toronto, New York and Los Angeles. His artwork has been exhibited at Gross McCleaf, Main Line Art Center and College of Southern Maryland. His abstract paintings can be found in private and corporate collections throughout the United States.

When did you first develop an interest in tattooing? 

There was always a sort of stigma associated with tattoos even in the lower-working class neighborhood where I lived as a kid, so that always created a barrier between myself and it. A friend of mine acquired some tattoo equipment that his mother's boyfriend left behind when he went to jail so that was my first introduction to the technical side of tattooing and the specific tools involved. I think having seen Aaron Cain's work for the first time and later Guy Aitchison's, sparked a realization that artistic principles like composition, color theory and meticulous attention to detail had a place in the tattoo industry. I saw that as an optimistic departure from the dusty tattoos seen on men hanging out in front of the corner bars. I was fortunate enough to have at least an introduction to those principles and felt equipped moving forward into an industry that was just beginning to open up to a person like myself.

Your paintings relate beautifully to your tattoos. Which did you become interested in first?

Painting. As a kid, we visited to the Philadelphia Museum of Art pretty often because it was free admission on Sundays. We had a poster of Prometheus Bound by Rubens hanging in our house, which is a horrifying image of an eagle eating a living man's liver (a mythological god, actually) but the painting is balanced by strong formal principles that make it one of the greatest ever created. I think now I recognize a similar dichotomy in tattooing: artistic control within an unpredictable and very gritty setting, thriving because of or in spite of those seemingly mismatched ingredients. 

Tell us about your creative process. What inspires your paintings versus your tattoos?

I think with painting I view my work within the context of art history- not to claim any type of relevance, it's just that I always try to measure myself against the artists of the past and present and at the same time trying to figure out how my work fits the here and now. I try to be aware of where we all are in history. Because there isn't a clear point-A-to-point-B like there is with tattooing, the approach in the painting studio is much more about searching through the medium during the process, and this allows the work to become deeply personal with absolutely no boundaries. The mind returns to some familiar places in the past and toggles between memory and self-reflection and being in the present. This happens less with tattooing, where the client is physically very close to me for hours at a time, observing me to varying degrees and physically feeling me work in a very acute and strenuous way. There's the dual task of managing face-time with intense creative command and technical control that at times has to be automatic.

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Many artists have multiple interests or careers they have to juggle. What are some of your best practices for keeping a balance life?

A teacher of mine once told us that you have to commit yourself 100% to an art career in order to transcend the fact that it is a hobby that you dabble in when you're not at your office job. I think that is absolutely true but everyone is different in how they pace their artistic careers. To study a diverse range of fields and translate that knowledge into artistic sensibilities whether it means drawing inspiration from film, sports, music, business, martial arts, meditation, etc. I'm the type that soaks up anything that interests me and I always search externally for affinities with what I'm doing in the tattoo studio. If I can watch a film for example and relate how a theme is handled or how symbolism is used with something I'm working on in the studio, I find that to be very fulfilling. I'm the type who can never really turn it off so I try to remember that being artistically alert all the time can really take from my time with family, friends or even things like hiking or watching a sunset.  I have to remind myself not to look at everything as some possible inspiration for my art but try to enjoy things for their own sake instead, which doesn't always come easy (laughs).

Name a few artists or influences that made a big impact on your work.

Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Akira Kuroswawa, Giacometti's paintings, Chuck Close, Jenny Saville, Luc Tuymans, Gerhardt Richter, Adrian Ghenie, Julie Mehretu, Shige, Musa and currently some of the Russian and Ukrainian tattoo artists like Evgeniy Tomakov and Timur Lisenko. My favorite tattoo artist is Sean from Texas, though we are very different from one another.

What are some of your favorite hobbies or activities when you're not in the studio? 

Perfecting my homemade Death-By-Chocolate Magaritas. My brother Jack makes them better.