Even if you’ve never heard of Keith McCurdy, better known as Bang Bang, you’ve probably seen his work. He’s responsible for tattooing some of the biggest names in pop culture today—Rihanna’s henna-inspired hand tattoo, the infamous tiger on Cara Delevingne’s finger and the cross in the middle of Justin Bieber’s chest, just to name a few. And now you can get an inside look at just what went on during those ink sessions. In Bang Bang: My Life in Ink, the artist shares pictures and anecdotes detailing his journey from a childhood in a Delaware housing project to an evening tattooing Justin Bieber on a private jet.
The book’s striking pictures showcase his immense talent, specifically his signature style of black and grey realism, making it quite clear why he’s Hollywood’s go-to guy. But talent aside, Bang Bang has experienced some truly fateful strokes of good fortune. He was just a young tattoo artist when Rihanna wandered into the NYC shop where he was working in 2007. She liked him, and as her celebrity status exploded, he continued to tattoo her and gain more A-list clientele through word of mouth.
Here, he talks to DuJour about everything from getting judged for his own ink to a recent conversation with Kylie Jenner.
More mainstream celebrities are getting numerous visible tattoos—what do you think has sparked the trend?
There have been many people throughout the past twenty years who have helped do that, like great athletes that were covered in tattoos. It was really taboo for Allen Iverson to have tattoos all over his body, I remember. [Now] you have some of the biggest stars in pop music, actors, actresses, all these influential people getting tattoos. Those people are extremely talented, smart, humble, and they’re appreciating this art form. It makes people think, It’s okay. It’s not this bad thing; it’s not a cigarette. People realize they’ve been told it’s bad for the same reason anybody judges anything. People grow up discriminating for all types of things, so you kind of learn that discrimination is really just lack of education.
Have you been discriminated against for your tattoos?
Yeah, I have big guns tattooed on my neck. I don’t immediately strike you as the friendliest person in the world, so sometimes people will be really quick to judge, but other times people will be really open about it and ask. It’s kind of a really good filter for people who are genuine. I can read people really quickly based on how they react to the way I look.
What makes celebrities trust you?
I think that they know that I have such a rapport with other celebrities, and they know that they’re not going to get treated any differently [by me.] I don’t know who’s dating who, what show is popular, what albums are selling. I’m actually really, really oblivious to pop culture, although it seems like I’m on the pulse. I think they kind of enjoy that. Many celebrities that I meet, I don’t know them at all. I don’t know anything about them, so I get to ask them questions about things that they probably think are general knowledge and they don’t get asked about. Meeting Kylie Jenner the other day, I didn’t know how old she was, and when I asked her, I could see the look on her face, like, I can’t remember the last time somebody didn’t know something about me.
What’s your favorite tattoo you’ve ever done?
From a celebrity standpoint, I think meeting Rihanna and tattooing her for the first time just changed my life. She’s been such a great friend and supporter. She’s been there, followed me around New York City or had me travel around the world. Her support is ineffable. She’s a really devoted friend. People see a lot of her, but that’s a part that they don’t usually see.
Do you have a favorite tattoo on your own body?
Well, I have two daughters, and one of them I have tattooed on me. The other one, when she’s a little bit older and her facial features are more defined I’ll have her tattooed on me as well. So, for now, my daughter’s portrait is probably my favorite.
Bang Bang: My Life in Ink, $16.47, amazon.com