This lockdown life is tough. Maintaining some semblance of normality throughout it is not easy. It is a life with little promise of adventure; no gigs, no travel, no randomness. To fight off the mental demons or to keep a business afloat, many people have had to adapt or change their everyday practice in order to survive. However, it’s not as straightforward as ‘just go work in cyber’, like the UK government told arts workers and creative people to do last year.
Today I’m speaking to Jeff Kohl who despite being American born, has chosen to live in Edinburgh for close to twenty years. He is a lifelong artist and tattooist who has also collected art for, as I was to find out, as long as he’s been alive. As a constantly creative person, I was keen to find out what’s keeping him going through lockdown. Was it work, with the promise of some sort of return to normality or something else? What can we take from this, and what lessons have we learned as we approach a year in the global pandemic?
Disclaimer: Jeff swears a lot! I have edited most of them out for the sake of brevity rather than offense, but have kept some for the sake of staying true to Jeff’s words and enthusiasm.
“Honestly dude, I’m fighting for my life. I’m about to go into my eighth month of being shut in a year and paying for a glorified fucking storage locker. Even when we were back, money wasn’t really coming in, voucher money paid for bills with a little bit of paying customers. “
The problems for the shops return started almost immediately and Jeff explains how illness and positive tests meant that customers were unable to come in for their appointments. Then came the tiered system that discriminates against those who don’t live within that particular authority. With no one able to cross tiers the shop was having daily cancellations and really struggling.
“Some shitty things happened and then our tattoo licence expired. It was overdue due to our closure and they wouldn’t grant us any dispensation even under the circumstances. We had to reapply for a new one, it came through in a month rather than the 92 days after me phoning every day. Five months we were shut and then struggling for three months open. We got the licence back on my birthday, the 20th December, I was stoked. Closed for Christmas on the 23rd our last open day, and then lockdown part two was announced on the 26th.”
The shop, Hotter than Hell in Edinburgh, is one of a kind, a testament to Jeff’s ideas driven personality. It has Kiss pinball, light show, smoke machine, massive screens, art everywhere and a stage where they have hosted several local bands. But his new aims, pushed along by pandemic, don’t necessarily involve tattooing.
“It’s been tough dude, in the first lockdown I didn’t draw a single thing for four months. I was busy with the Corona vouchers for the shop but my creative input went into cooking and cocktail making, for four months. This time was different, this time I was ready.”
“I’ve been formulating this idea for the best part of five years, and its full steam ahead with this new lockdown. The problem I had was all my art was on paper. Scanning shit in was lame, Fiona was trying to digitise everything which took ages. I thought I’m just gonna bite the bullet and I bought an iPad. Man up and make digital art so I can upload files directly and immediately in ultra-high resolution. I’ve been super inspired and super creative. I had 70 new art things for the new project including logos, in five weeks.”
I ask him how he found the transition from traditional materials paint, pen and ink to digital art.
“It was actually super fucking great. I had a little invaluable help from my son, but it was really intuitive and suited to my style of inking and brushing and painting and splattering. Tattoo designs are very precise but what I do with paint is much looser. It suited my style of cool bright shit, just way faster. I’m inspired as fuck, it’s nice, I haven’t been super inspired for a number of years. I needed a right fucking kick up the ass.”
We joke for a while about how he should be the poster boy for the UK government’s cyber ad campaign instead of Fatima the ballerina.
“Retrain for cyber! Bullshit! I was like fuck that, but I’ve actually been hoping to do this for about the last half decade, I’m that guy now! Can’t believe I put it off this long but old dogs new tricks. Now I can upload straight to a site and it’s straight onto a shirt. It’s a new business model for me.”
I ask when this old dog first started drawing…
“Dude, I was born drawing. You’d need to go back to when I was like 6 months old. I always drew dude, it’s what I do.”
He then goes off the camera for a few seconds and returns with a book, a bulging scrap book made by his mum. I can see the parallels immediately between this blue satin 1960s baby book and the life of the 54 year old on my screen. There is a wrist band from the hospital, birth announcements, numerous childhood photos, a silver dollar and even baby hair! But there is also drawings, awesome drawings from an extremely young age. A gun, a doorway, a vermicious knid, a monster under the rocks and even on my laptop screen the pictures look great. This book is stuffed with stuff. Art clearly runs in the family.
Me: I can see a lot in that book in how your shop looks.
JFK: What a fucking mess?
Me: No, in how it’s presented. You’ve kept that all your life, and your mum kept it and created it too. That book looks like your shop! Gig tickets next to photos next to tattoo art.
Jeff sold his first tattoo shop in the states. He talks of it fondly; strictly old school tattoo, 20 feet wide and 40 deep. From floor to ceiling on each side of the walls in the same wooden frames, were tattoo flash, every single one drawn by Jeff. This was a hangout spot, with plenty of room for the packs of metalheads, punks and tattoo fans that showed up.
Shop space in Scotland, especially Edinburgh, is quite different from that. Jeff’s shops previous to HtH, housed his quite massive and ever increasing art collection that was normally stored at home, covering the bizarre council law of using 80% of your ground floor space for retail.
I recall a time when I was in the shop and there was a pile of broken stained glass wrapped up in sheets on the floor. Jeff had seen it in an antique store walking home one night, went in and paid £200 for it straight away.
“Eight years it sat in bundles in the basement like Indiana Jones. Sarah at the shop was doing a course in making things from stained glass and the teacher specialised in restoring medieval stained glass. You bide your time, £200 seemed like a bargain. I can’t remember the date, could be 1349 but I could be getting that confused with the band. There’s no other one in existence dude, it’s a one of a kind ancient church window and now it’s in a crazy custom made new frame and that is the sickest thing.”
I ask if Hotter than Hell was the ultimate goal.
“Oh shit, I never had an ultimate goal dude, I’m not really that far sighted, though I’m trying now with the new thing. I’m an all or nothing guy, it’s just how I go at life. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, I see it and I just go for it when its fucking right, when you feel it when its right, selling my shop in the states and moving to Scotland with my whole family and a shipping container, you just do it, what’s the worst that could happen?”
What advice would you give to anyone who perhaps is struggling but has ideas?
“Just go for it. I guess the word I like to use is proactive. The early bird gets the worm that kind of shit, live deliberately, live fearless, fortune favours the bold. What’s that one Kiss stole from the paras, Who Dares Wins.”
Before we start talking entirely about the quality of Kiss tour shirts, bootleg Ozzy t-shirts from the Bark at the Moon tour and heavy metal in general, and this being an outdoors blog, I ask Jeff about his relationship with the outdoors.
“Well, let’s talk about the outdoors, I haven’t been outdoors in the last ten days, I’m in lockdown dude! I’m not going on too many walks, I did on the first lockdown through the graveyard and up to the Braid Hills.”
“I loved camping as a kid, we went to the lakes fishing, we had bonfires and motorcycles. When I was a kid we’d go every summer out to Lake McConaughy which is the biggest natural reservoir in Nebraska 4 miles across. My uncle had a house on one side and the campsite was on the other side and my dad and uncles and all their friends were all bikers and they would build bonfires out of old trees and they would build huge ramps and then they would jump their motorcycles over them all night long while they were all drinking and I was like six years old and hanging out with all their kids and my cousins. We’d run around in the sand hills and collect frogs and cow skulls and cool shit. Years later when I was in my teens and had a car and a motorcycle myself I’d ride around there and put the cow skull on my motorcycle. Power machines in the outdoors is my kind of shit. Now I love hanging out in my garden, there’s all kinds of wildlife in there. I like my nature, it’s all about the trees and who doesn’t love the Ents.”
And what does the future hold in a post Covid world…
“I am fighting for my life dude and next year is probably gonna be more of the same, it’s not an instant fix everyone getting vaccinated. I can’t see everything returning to normal anytime soon in regards to tourists, bars, gigs, shows etc. We have a three pronged attack, all shall be revealed soon. But this new venture has to work, the tattoo Gods somewhere up there on Orion’s Belt are showing me the way out of this pandemic mess and I’m gonna have to come back with some kid of fucking crazy awesome thing.”
“So I have a plan when everything hopping and rocking and jumping again to come back like the Ultramarines, All Guns Blazing, and that’s the plan. Put things on ice until the city is back, and then come back bigger and stronger than before. I’ve got long range plans and it all hinges on me. I shot out like from a fucking cannon and I never stopped for fifty years.”
Demons on your mind? Plan or don’t plan, just be bold. Step out of your comfort zone. Retrain for cyber?
Sure, but do it on your terms.
Currently listening to: Pizza Thrash, your one stop playlist Spotify shop for all things thrash, old and new. Curated by Mr John Kohl.