Like many artists during the times of lockdown, Thomas Hooper found himself in a strange position. Confined to his house, his practice shifted fundamentally. The tattoo artist, until then peacefully navigating between the worlds of Eastern and Western symbolism, had to focus more on the expression of his quests on a different canvas. As the tattoo shops’ doors closed, Thomas opened his inner ones wide in a search of hope.
“I decided to paint a big colourful painting for the front of my house because it was those early days with a lockdown where we didn’t know how long this thing was gonna last, what future was like. It was all very anxious and depressing,” the artist says, inspired by people of Italy, originally, and then worldwide, who put rainbows on their windows as an act of solidarity. Thomas combined the individual need for reassurance into one higher-purpose artwork, thinking of immersive works of Mark Rothko, Hilma af Klint and Agnes Martin. From one passer-by to another, Insta-shares to new likes, the painting became a viral beacon of light for anyone in the midst of darkness. Volcom has spotted it and reached out for a collaboration. “It accidentally became a body of work. Then, they contacted me and were like ‘how’d you feel about doing a collection with Volcom of this art, and I was like, ‘that’d be amazing, thank you’,” Thomas explains.
Creating collages by digitally cutting up pre-existing paintings, Thomas repurposed them to be used as graphics on clothes and accessories. “The purpose of these paintings, when I created them, and it still is, was to create something that gave you a lot of joy. Not only to the viewer but to me to create and look at it whilst making it. To give you a lot of joy and happiness in the time that was incredibly dark,” he elaborates. Pushing the boundary for where art should exist and applying it to everyday objects like t-shirts and tops makes it more accessible. “The beauty of this is, for this period of time, this work, these paintings, that they’re exhibited on the clothing. They get to walk around and exist in a world that I wouldn’t normally put them in,” Thomas says, “It’s for anyone’s view. Someone’s wearing a t-shirt in Thailand and walks into a small grocery store, then the person behind the counter sees it”.
In this butterfly effect-like way one artwork can encourage new, international generations of artists to discover their paths, as Thomas discovered his. Surrounded by creatives since early on as his mum was active in a performance style communal art, he was always drawn to it but realised it later on, while working in engineering. “I was a bit lost, so I had to find the next thing,” he says. From photography to completing Media Studies and Art Design courses, he found a passion for tattooing and hasn’t stopped ever since. His first work was on himself. “That was a very special moment. I still actually framed the tattoo stencil and the bandage,” he says, “I remember the first customer I tattooed because he was a dear friend who’s actually passed away”.
Thomas Hooper sees tattooing as a sacred process. Each session and each customer are special. “The key element is trust. You’re trusting the person, and you’re spending this very one-on-one time with them. Sometimes, you’re in a busy studio and it can be a chaotic thing. You’re finding a moment and a space to trust an individual to change your body and your appearance forever,” Thomas shares, “I also have to find the space to trust the person, that they’re getting something that they want”.
The tattoo rituals operate on a thin thread of mutual understanding and accepting that even though you might know what to expect, there’s always a big unknown. “Once that step is established, it creates this unique experience that can feel spiritual because it’s mixed with the pain. To get tattooed, you have to really find your own quiet space where you can relax,” the artist says, “That stillness is very similar to what people find when they go to religious institutions, places of worship and prayer. They’re going there to find that stillness. It’s a similar stillness that you have to find within yourself to get tattooed. That’s why it can have that similar feeling”.
The feeling Thomas talks about lies at the core of what is most primal and pure about the nature of humanity. “I’m quite interested in a very abstract, non-literal way, our place within the universe and cosmos as it were,” the artist tries to explain his work in context, “It’s not a big thing that is descriptive within the work, but it’s what sits in the back of my head a lot of the time”. It translates to Thomas’ work, either it’s painting or tattooing. All extra time he’s got, he spends creating. “Instead of sitting down watching TV, I sit there and paint and draw,” he says, “I see art as a very vital part of my practice. I tattoo full-time then, whenever I get a spare moment, I make art at night”.
Though Thomas loves working as a tattoo artist, the passion for personal projects runs in a different creative vessel. It’s the one that everything that’s self-fulfilling flows through. “I get to make something that is just for me creatively, whereas when I’m tattooing my main focus is the person that’s receiving it, how they gonna wear it, what it means to them,” he explains. Even if it’s an abstract piece, Thomas wants it to be fitting the customer. Be as personal as possible. However, sometimes there can be space for more liberty and art dialogue. “The tattooing informs the art practice quite often. When I’m lucky the art informs the tattoo, kind of naturally”.
No wonder Thomas Hooper’s art can be applied to any canvas as when looked at from the place of stillness, it’s a portable catharsis inducer. The mandalas-like symbols, linearity and use of colours thoughtfully fuse global spiritual movements and traditions. “I tried to do it in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s adhering to one particular. That it’s not appropriating another religion or another culture,” he explains, “Anyone can look at it from any faith, from any belief, whether you believe in religion or don’t believe in religion, you can find something, a question or a thought within the work”. That’s the reason why Thomas’ art is so fascinating. It allows us to ask questions that are in the back of our heads anyway. The questions of existence in a vast universe and finding your way into microworlds of simple joys.
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