Bang Bang and Rihanna (Photo: Instagram)
If you don’t recognize Bang Bang by name, you’re most certainly familiar with his work. These days you can’t swing a hair extension on a red carpet without hitting one of Bang Bang’s tattoos. Bang Bang — who gets his name from the gun tattoos on either side of his neck — has inked everyone from Rihanna to Katy Perry to LeBron James. In celebration of the release of his book, Bang Bang: My Life in Ink, Yahoo Celebrity sat down with the tattoo artist to the stars to get the backstories behind some of the world’s most famous tattoos.
Bang Bang and Adele (Facebook)
In June 2013, just after the birth of her son, Adele got three tattoos from Bang Bang: her son’s name “Angelo” on her right hand, “paradise” on her left, and a third on her ring finger.
“She got the number five on the inside of one of her fingers, and I’m not sure if pop culture has picked up on that one yet. She got three that day,” reveals Bang Bang. “When we did the tattoo we only photographed ‘paradise’ because nobody knew her son’s name yet, so that was just a cool day. She also tattooed me that day. I tattoo a ton of amazing, talented people, but not often do I tattoo someone you can say makes timeless art. Obviously, I tattoo so many pop icons and they’re making music for now and they’re great at it — of course, I’m not knocking anybody — but Adele… I just felt like, Oh my gosh I’m tattooing, like, the modern-day Frank Sinatra. It was really cool.
Adele tattoos “21″ on Bang Bang’s left leg. (Photo: Courtesy Bang Bang)
“[I got] an email from her record label, ‘Adele’s interested in being tattooed.’ So when we got the call, I think I tattooed her the next day. … She knew each tattoo that she wanted, but there was a process in picking font, style, how delicate we’re going to make it, how big, how dark, stuff like that. So we sat at the computer and did all that stuff together.”
Rihanna’s hand tattoo was inspired by henna. (Photo: Getty Images)
Bang Bang has been tattooing Rihanna for more than a decade, ever since she wandered into Whatever Tattoo, where he was working at the time. Two years ago, Rihanna flew him to the Dominican Republic to cover up a traditional Maori tattoo she’d gotten on her hand that she wasn’t thrilled with.
“The challenge in that was it [was] a cover-up. She had that Maori tribal and it didn’t work very well for her. It didn’t look great, it wasn’t complimenting of her shape, it wasn’t … it just wasn’t all the things that I try to design tattoos for and that’s to decorate somebody’s body, not to overwhelm it. To compliment their shape, their beauty, and to be perfect,” Bang Bang explains. “She had her hand completely tattooed, every single finger, every knuckle, top of her hand, top of her wrist; it was completely tattooed. So how do I cover just a portion of this [tattoo] and save some of the things that are good about it, and leave some skin gaps, and find balance in it, and make it feel like a piece of jewelry on her, give it unique shape? How do I cover the knuckles without covering her whole hand or her whole finger? So it was challenging.
“I drew on her for hours and hours and, I mean, in the end she was falling asleep while I’m drawing on her. She wakes up, we’re looking at it, wasn’t really there, wash it off, keep going, you know. And then we did it, and then it wasn’t enough. She wanted to go [on her wrist] too and so we jumped up, we left a gap and worked on her wrist and later we did a piece on the inside. It kind of grew off the part that bothered her the most and that was her knuckles.
Before and after (Photo: Instagram)
“Not that it took a long time to tattoo, probably only two hours or so because it’s just lines, but designing it around a preexisting, nonsymmetrical attempt at symmetry was tough. Once it was drawn on there several times, I was confident.
“She told me the original one she got on her hand was so incredibly painful, that the one I did on her didn’t feel like anything. She was just made out of stone after getting that thing tapped in her hand with bone. She said it was like death so what I did to her, she was like, ‘This is easy.’ She’s a thug.”
Bang Bang tattoos Justin Bieber on his private jet. (Photo: Instagram)
More than a couple of Justin Bieber’s tattoos are Bang Bang originals; the two have a relationship that he describes as like brothers. For Bang Bang, the most memorable tattoo he did on Bieber wasn’t necessarily the most artistic, but the location makes it one hell of a memory.
“Just the experience of tattooing him on an airplane was my favorite. I did the ‘forgive’ tattoo on him, it’s my favorite from an experience standpoint. From a visual standpoint, doing a pair of roses on him was really cool and I love doing things in a realistic style so that was fun,” Bang Bang says. “He’s such a clown, he’s so fun to be around, it’s always a good time. Early in his career he got quite a bad rep, but when I met him I didn’t have any bad experiences with him. He kind of seems like your little brother you want to beat up all the time because he’s so incredibly talented and funny and cool. He’s just a really cool kid. Tattooing him on an airplane though was … it was always a dream for me to tattoo on an airplane so being able to do that was special. I can’t wait to tattoo in space.”
Justin Bieber shows off his “forgive” and Tupac Cross, both by Bang Bang. (Photo: Courtesy Bang Bang)
Bang Bang did Bieber’s “forgive” tattoo on the same trip to Panama where he tattooed the cross on Bieber’s chest.
“The cross that Bieber has on his chest is actually the same formatted cross that Tupac had on his back. Literally, tattoo artists call it the Tupac Cross, because it became famous from Tupac having it. I have the same tattoo on my leg. It’s a really, really classic cross, but the difference that I did with it is it’s cracked into pieces if you look at it. And the reason that I did that is because I didn’t think he would sit very well, so instead of doing long, straight, parallel lines, I broke them up on purpose. And I also cut the ink with water so that it’s not so dominant. You can look at it in a photo of him with his shirt off, the tattoos on his arms are much darker than his chest and that’s on purpose. I don’t want to steal from his image, his face; I don’t want it too aggressive, you know? So I make little decisions like that for people, sometimes with them, sometimes without them.”
Cara Delevingne’s lion tattoo. (Photo: Instagram)
“Cara Delevingne’s lion tattoo on her finger … she had originally asked me to tattoo the word ‘lion’ down her finger and I was just like, ‘Well, why?’” recalls Bang Bang. “And she’s like, ‘Well, I’m a Leo and I want something for my zodiac.’ And I was like, ‘How about we do something like this, we put an image of a lion on you.’ And now, keep in mind, I didn’t know who she was when I met her or who she was when I made this recommendation, I just knew what’s going to look great so I’m the same for every person. [Now] that’s probably the most iconic tattoo in the history of tattooing. I’ve never seen a tattoo in a Tag Heuer ad, I’ve never seen a tattoo on the side of Harrods in England, or a Burberry advertisement. You see her on the cover of magazines and she’s showing her tattoo!
Cara Delevingne’s Tag Heuer ad. (Instagram)
“In the Tag Heuer ad she’s not wearing a watch, she’s just holding up her tattoo. She’s selling watches and she doesn’t have a f***ing watch on her wrist! It’s pretty amazing to think about it, here’s this incredibly famous model and this tattoo is … I think it’s more iconic than any tattoo I could ever name on any person ever and that’s hard to believe that that happened, but I’m grateful. … That was just in Rihanna’s hotel room.”
Selena Gomez and Bang Bang (Instagram)
“[Selena] is so genuine and kind and sweet, and she is just awesome. I’m such a fan of her as a person,” praises Bang Bang. “Her tattoos are all really delicate and beautiful and I think my favorite is probably — I did some writing, not on her rib cage but just [below her shoulder blade]. … The funny part about that is: I didn’t have a store at the time so she came to my house in Brooklyn and, like, brought beer and here’s Selena Gomez walking down my hallway to come and drink beer in my s*****y little apartment and get tattooed.
Selena Gomez’s ‘love yourself first’ tattoo. (Getty Images)
“It says ‘love yourself first’ and so, I don’t really know pop culture a lot, so I didn’t actually ask why ‘love yourself first,’ but from that you can draw any meaning you want. The world adores her; I know from my own experience what that would mean to me is, like, focus on yourself and who you look at in the mirror and how do you feel about that person in the mirror.
“I have all these celebrities do these kisses on paper for me, they kiss a piece of paper and sign it and I frame them. And she did a test one on my mirror and my mirror had this kiss with this dirty halo around it because I just never cleaned the kiss off my mirror. I cleaned my whole mirror but not that chunk. That lasted until I moved out and even after I moved out, the person who moved in I’m sure cleaned it right off and had no idea they just wiped Selena Gomez’s kiss right off a mirror.”
LeBron James and Bang Bang (Instagram)
“I grew up and basketball was everything I did every day. I loved to play basketball and I still do play basketball five times a week. Michael Jordan was my hero, I can’t even express… it’s ineffable how much of a hero. So just meeting this generation’s greatest athlete and tattooing him and just clicking with him and being cool and, you know, clowning around and goofing, laughing, that’s just an experience I’ll never forget,” says Bang Bang. “Sitting down and eating dinner with him and his kids, you know what I mean? My kids and my grandkids will have that ball that says, ‘To Bang Bang, the greatest, LeBron James.’ And LeBron James calling me the greatest … get the f*** out of here!
Bang Bang tattoos LeBron James. (Photo: Courtesy Bang Bang)
“I met him after a game, said, ‘What’s up?’ and he says to me, ‘Man, those hands are magic.’ And I said, ‘Bro, that feeling is mutual.’ I tattooed a portrait of his daughter and nobody had even seen what she looked like. His mom told me, ‘LeBron is the greatest at what he does and you’re the greatest at what you do.’ I was like, man, I’ll never forget that, that’s a really special thing. I don’t think a lot about my career and these experiences that I’ve had, but the moments I do I’m really appreciative of them, and those are the ones I hold dear.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.