In an hour-long interview at Blndsght, the new tattoo shop/art gallery in the Bull Moose complex on Middle Street, the verbose owner described himself variously as: over-the-top, weird, eccentric, reckless, unconventional, classy, sophisticated, confident, independent, and progressive. Even to a new acquaintance, all these adjectives seem apt.
Watson Atkinson is a dynamic man. In physicality, artistic temperament, and decorating sensibility alike, his style is a tad Victorian, veering toward the romantic and esoteric, with some post-modernism — collage, found art, spray paint — thrown somehow seamlessly into the mix. And of course, there are his tattoos — the ones on his own skin, and those that adorn the bodies in his photo book — offering another layer, a colorful world of illustrations, symbols, and color. Taken together, his work is a juxtaposition of old and new, real and fantastic.
In Atkinson’s new shop, which opened on February 1, his unique qualities have room to thrive. “This is really the first time ever I feel liberated,” the 36-year-old says. “I’m really presenting myself uncensored — unplugged.”
He’s been tattooing for 15 years, mostly in Atlanta and Athens, Georgia (Atkinson moved to South Portland with his wife and two daughters less than a year ago), but this storefront is the first to provide Atkinson with a venue to display both his visual-art and body-art talents simultaneously.
As a result, the shop is a smorgasbord for the eyes. The black and white walls hold the art-school drop-out’s striking original paintings and charcoal works, as well as a smattering of rock posters (The Decemberists, Devendra Banhart). His red and black countertop is book-ended by two industrial air-conditioning control panels that used to reside in a Midwestern stadium — covered with dials, they are antique and mechanical, similar to many of the objects and images that intrigue Atkinson. Conceptual art pieces, like the headdresses he has used as part of his performance art, adorn several shelves.
The most arresting of all these is a towering totem comprised of original art and intricately arranged found objects, which sits authoritatively in the front corner of the shop. It is Atkinson’s lifetime project, a loose interpretation of (or tribute to, he can’t decide) Hieronymus Bosch’s multi-themed “Garden of Earthly Delights,” painted in the early 1500s. He has grand plans to continue working on it until he dies, at which point he wants his ashes to be stored in an urn — an urn that will inhabit the chest of a mannequin, all of which will sit atop the already 7-foot-tall installation. He hopes to donate it to a museum, and never wants the piece to be sold — in this respect, he says, it is the “anti-art piece: there’s never any commercial aspect” to its creation. Such sweeping schemes are par for Atkinson’s course, it seems.
The artistic influences and reference points he touts and explores in his visual artwork also inform his body art. He seeks out “modern” and “progressive” clients who will think outside the flash-art box when it comes to tattoos; he’s been known to combine Japanese, Americana, and bio-mechanical styles, sometimes all in one sleeve.