His body is painted with tats, including his face and neck, both arms, and probably places he usually covers with black clothes (leather jackets, T-shirts, long pants). Giant plugs stretch his earlobes and even without any tattoos, his large, round face, piercing eyes, bald head, dreads, thick septum ring and scraggly goatee make him instantly recognizable to fans of dark art.
He is Paul Booth and for the last thirty-plus years, he has been regarded as one of the most creative and talented tattoo artists in the world. His paintings, jewelry designs, sculptures, and video presentations are also beautiful, stunning, shocking, and even terrifying. But tats are his raison d'etre,
which has made him the go-to artist for members of Slayer, Slipknot and Booth has even been hired by Gregg Allman and WWE retired favorite The Undertaker. These days, he's in such high demand he's got a multi-year long waiting list for clients, but for those who end up in the chair under his needle, he'll tattoo faces, heads, lips, backs, chests -- pretty much any body part that's inkable. And, he smokes a lot of sativa to keep himself focused.
"I seem to smoke more than my friends do," Booth says. "I'm not bragging about how much I smoke. It ain't that. I'm not trying to say I'm like Snoop Dogg or Willie Nelson. But weed makes me more creative and enhances my art."
Booth's former three-story Manhattan work lair, Last Rites Tattoo Theatre and Gallery, was a dimly lit, ornately decorated dungeon of darkness. Skulls and bones were embedded in the walls in a way that resembled a Paris catacomb. Throughout the building, macabre paintings and contemporary decor contrasted with turn-of-the-century electric chairs, gothic arches and curved Medieval windows. Just as a Horror-themed gallery, Last Rites was a remarkable work of art. Sadly, Booth shuttered the place for good during the COVID pandemic, but that won't keep his work
out the underground spotlight, Just don't expect him to perform movie cameos or make appearances at crowded public events. He hates that shit. And since he doesn't relish being a celebrity, fans and foes can concoct their own image of Booth.
"Some people think I'm the Devil and maybe they aren't far off," Booth says, then chuckles, fully aware of the cartoonish irony of his comment. "I've just always done my own thing. I wasn't following any rules. I tend to shy away from rules. I’m kind of a punk rocker at heart so if you give me rules I’m responding with, “Okay, well I’ll find another way to do it.”
Weed enhances my art. I heard from musicians all the time how it’s a super-creative tool that enhances creativity. So I tried it and I found that it really worked for me.
HiBnb: Have you been smoking since you were young?
Yeah, I started smoking when I was about 14. I found a joint in a crack in a sidewalk. I picked it up and ran home and smoked it. That was my humble beginning.
Was it a transformative experience?
Actually not really. I guess I'm lucky. It became accessible to me soon thereafter and that was huge. I was blossoming into being an artist back in my early years of high school. My art career started with me painting denim jackets and doing signed paintings when I was about 15 and I started making money from that. At the same time, I started getting high so it all kind of coincided at the same time.
Back then, I’m guessing you were smoking dirt weed like the rest of us and picking out the stems and seeds. Now that you can be more selective, What’s your strain of choice?
I'm a sativa guy. But yeah, back then you didn’t really have those choices. I graduated from high school in 1985 and I remember the two prominent things other than dirt weed ere Sensemilia and Thai stick and I was probably too young to tell the difference but I always went for either the sinsemilla or the Thai Stick. But now as I’ve grown as an artist I find that a nice, strong sativa is my best friend. It has a mild hallucinatory factor to it if it’s really good. It’s more of a head trip. I’m not much into Indica because I don’t like to get crippled. I like to get enhanced and I find sativas do that for me.
A lot of artists use indica when they’re stressed out. It can help them focus on what they’re doing more intently. That’s not the case for you?
Indicas just wipe me out. I mean, I guess there's a time and place for everything really. And there’s a time and place for laying on a couch and not being able to raise your arms enough to use the remote control. I mean, that's cool, but my late nights consist of being creative more so than vegetative. So yeah, I lean towards the sativa.
Aside from enhancing your creativity do you find cannabis to help keep you relatively well-adjusted?
Not to get too off topic, but I suppose it pertains to the subject. I’m one of those artists that has a lot of struggles with mental illness -- that sort of thing -- and I find that marijuana really kind of turns my voices to whispers. I guess the best way to say it, really, is that it kills my anxiety. I know there's people out there that are new to smoking and they get anxious when they smoke. But I think you’ve got to fight past that until it gets to be more natural for you. I happen to be one of those people that calms down instantly when I smoke. If I'm getting upset and anxious about something, a few tokes and I'm feeling a lot better. So it's interesting.
That’s especically interesting since a lot of people seem to get agitated or excited when they smoke sativa and are able to relax more when they use indica. Of course, everyone is affected a little differently by cannabis.
I've talked to people about that and it is the common consensus. I don't really know that many people out there like me that are the opposite. It's not that indicas make me nervous. They’re more like a Band-Aid for me. They’re okay. They calm me down, but they make me crippled. I can't do anything. I can't think through a tattoo or a piece of art. I can't see clearly. Everything's fuzzy, especially my thinking, and that makes me more frustrated because I can’t function. I
guess it's just the way I'm built. And then maybe the crazy factor has something to do with it too, because I just find sativa keeps me level, keeps me. actually, right.
Do you remember your first mindblowing experience with weed?
I don't know if I necessarily remember the first time, but I remember the best time. It was about 10 years ago, which I know is later than you might expect since I have been smoking for so long. I met a friend of a friend. He was a biochemist and he had concentrated some oil to a degree that was ridiculous. I took three bong rips. And it wasn't a sativa, I guess it was some kind of hybrid, but I couldn't drive a car for 12 hours. I was literally glued to the couch -- but not like I can get with an indica strain. My mind was just tripped out. It was beautiful. I'm sitting in the back of a biker garage full of big mechanical parts and stuff. And my girl wanted to go to Starbucks for coffee and there was no way I was getting off that couch. It’s not a really exciting story, but it was a memorable moment because I've never had weed as strong as that, which could get me to the point where I was completely incapacitated -- which is not something I normally go for. But whatever he had created was pretty crazy.
Have you ever gotten too high to work?
Sometimes a friend will bring me some new strain I haven't tried and every now and then I'll smoke out. I like to be high when I work. I don’t like to be too high when I’m designing but when I'm executing I can groove really well high. So there's times when I’m doing a tattoo that I'll get high and there's times I won't. When I start out with the drawing it’s fun to get high because I get a more visual experience and, as a visual artist, my imagination is enhanced. Then, there have been times when I’ve been so high it’s been too overwhelming so I have to wait a bit to come down a little to be able to fall into place. So, the worst-case scenario is needing that waiting period until I’m a little less high. But that doesn’t happen often. I have a pretty strong tolerance.
Before weed was legal, did you ever have any trouble traveling or get busted for possession?
No, I’ve been fortunate. Plus, I've been traveling the world for over 30 years and after a while, you learn how to carry yourself so you don’t look suspicious -- especially through immigration. One of two things usually happens with me: I walked the right way and they don't bother me. Or I look like someone they don’t want to deal with. I’m a big guy and I can be an intimidating-looking dude. But I don't really take chances when I travel because I don’t want to take the chance of getting caught and being on some list and then have a hard time getting in and out of the country over some stupid weed thing, which used to be a major deal. I could never understand why it was highly illegal. Even as a kid, I was like, ‘What’s the big deal? This doesn’t make me want to fight. This doesn’t make me want to steal things or do dangerous stuff.” I see more of that with drinking alcohol than I ever have with weed. But it’s crazy. I have friends doing five, ten years [in prison] for dealing weed. That makes me angry and it makes me want to misbehave because I don’t see misbehaving is really a problem. And to be in jail for dealing weed is fucking stupid and unnecessary.
Are you a trained tattoo artist? Did you go to school or did you teach yourself?
I did an apprenticeship, which meant I mopped the floors, cleaned the toilets, and made the needles. And it cost me five grand. I got some of the money with a little inheritance from my grandmother and my mother’s support and my own way of getting money at the time. I just jumped into it. I started bringing in my own drawings that the tattoo artist would tattoo on me and I fell in love with the art of tattooing. About two months after I got my apprenticeship I started tattooing and I was making a career out of it pretty much right away. Then, when I left that studio, that was when I really started to learn. I started traveling and I watched other artists and learned things and discovered new ways of doing other things.
Too bad there weren’t HiBnb accommodations to stay at back then?
As far as traveling went, I had friends living in a lot of the places I visited. And they hooked me up wherever. I didn't have to worry about carrying anything with me, cause it would be there for me when I got there. That was one fortunate thing about being a traveling tattoo artist with friends in the community.
Was there a breakthrough project that helped establish you as a talented tattoo artist?
I did a back piece on my then-girlfriend and I brought her to the second tattoo convention that I went to because I was looking for a new studio to work in. The convention was in Philly in 1992 and she was my portfolio piece. It was a demon with no skin on it rising up out of hell and there were flames around it. Very unexpectedly, everybody flipped out over it. I won six major awards at the show and I was suddenly getting invited to do guest spots around the country at different shops. Her back piece was on the cover of this big tattoo magazine and suddenly they’re interviewing me and I’m getting invited to all these international shows.
That’s amazing, but was it overwhelming for you to suddenly receive all this attention?
it just kept blowing up and I was holding on for dear life. I had just wanted a job. I wasn't really expecting all that attention, but it launched my career big time. Back then, the scariest tattoo you ever saw was a flaming skull on a sheet of flash. No one was doing horror-related tattooing. So, people saw this demon with his skin peeled off and they lost their minds.
Does the macabre image you draw from come from your interest in horror movies, comics, novels or nightmares?
When I was a kid, before I started tattooing, I used to collect these Frank Frazetta books and Bob Roberts calendars. I was really into HR Giger and [16th Century Italian painter] Caravaggio. Those are actually my four biggest mentors in art. But I think [Swiss experimental painter and art designer for the Alien films] HR Giger ended up being my biggest influence because his methods of creating texture and atmosphere in a piece of art were like nothing I've ever seen. U My style came from my own freehand drawing. I have a certain way that I brought demons into art. it's unique because of the way I do it. It's a little bit cartoony -- for example, they don't have any pupils -- and it's a particular style that I started doing before tattooing.
You’re best known for your tattoos, but you also have created vivid paintings, disturbing sculpture and wild jewelry.
I don’t like to limit myself. I paint, I sculpt in clay and digitally. I make music -- or at least I try. I’ll try anything that I come across to learn and explore. I love to explore as an artist, so. I combine all kinds of things. I just rebuilt my Harley Davidson motorcycle by sculpting the tanks and this flowing fabric and turned it into a big art project.
You have a painting called Sweet Leaf that depicts a skull with pointy leaves growing out of the bone, but it’s not recognizable as cannabis. Do you tend to avoid weed-related imagery?
I'll do it upon request but it’s a bit of a cliche for me. if someone wants to be a cannabis queen and wants tattoos of marijuana leaves or something, that’s fine. But if I’m left to my own devices I don’t really have a need to do that. It’s like signing my work. Weed is about enhancing the experience more so than making a statement, so the enhanced experience itself is the weed showing its face.
Some people have described being tattooed by you as an exercise in pain endurance. One musician you tattooed told me, “A lot of tattoo guys use needles. Paul Booth uses scalpels.”
Yeah, it's funny. I have a reputation for that in some circles. But truth be told, it’s not that I’m heavy-handed. That’s what they call it when a tattoo artist really digs in. My style is different. The way I work involved a layering process. I build up tones of gray and I repeat over an area more than once, which is an aggressive layering thing that becomes an annoying kind of pain. But when I got the side of my head and face done, I sat on my head for nine hours straight and got a concussion. And once I suffered through that, I was cured of a lot of compassion.
How did you suffer a concussion?
It just happened because I was sitting on my head for nine hours and my inner ear swelled up. It was brutal and nasty. You sit that long on your face for something and then afterwards when someone complains about something it’s like, “C’mon, man. Quit your crying.”
Do you ever want to see just how much your clients can endure?
No, man, I care about my clients. I’m not out to hurt anybody, but I want the tattoo I do for them to look good in 20 years. So I do what I gotta do to make sure it has longevity to it. And that goes for all my art. I always put my heart and soul into everything I do.