Tattoo artist uses found objects and recycled pieces to assemble sculptures

Kurt Shaw
| Wednesday, July 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Nick Bubash is a nationally recognized tattoo artist and the owner of Route 60 Tattoo in Robinson. But what many in the tattoo world don't know is that for much of his career of 40-plus years, Bubash has also been creating whimsical assemblage sculptures out of everything from vintage toys to old tattoo needles.

Now, some of his most recent pieces, as well as some older works, have been assembled for a solo exhibit at the Andy Warhol Museum titled “Nick Bubash: The Patron Saint of White Guys That Went Tribal and Other Works.”

Born in Pittsburgh in 1949, Bubash is the son of a microbiologist who was a research scientist with Jonas Salk.

“He was literally the first scientist that Salk hired when he established his lab at the University of Pittsburgh,” Bubash says.

“My mother was an artist, and that's where I got the art. She had me in Saturday morning art classes all through my childhood. … Ultimately, my dad ended up as a professor at Penn State, and that's where I grew up.”

After attending Penn State for a brief time studying art, in 1969 Bubash moved to New York City to become an artist.

“Although things were easier going in New York then, I wound up spending most of my time working,” he says. Still, he says he was fortunate to have met the artist Thom deVita, who is considered one of the fathers of modern tattooing, and through him learned the art of tattooing and a great deal about the art of assemblage.

“I was in New York City for six years when I moved to Pittsburgh and opened up a tattoo shop in 1976,” Bubash says. “I've been tattooing since, off and on.”

An assembler of found objects since he began making art in earnest in the late 1980s, Bubash says, “It is a natural process for me.

“I am also a compulsive collector of objects,” he says. “My studio is packed with a million things, everything from fossils to kewpie dolls to copies of the Pieta. My old mentor, deVita, now 81 years old, says my studio looks like a pinball machine.”

Perhaps the namesake piece of the exhibit sums up Bubash's art best. “The idea behind this came to me over a period of time,” Bubash says. “Obviously, it has a lot to do with tattooing and figure sculpture.”

The central figure in the piece is based on a man Bubash met in 1993 when he attended the “EYE Tattooed America” art exhibit in Chicago along with a group of tattoo artists who made fine art.

“As one of my pieces, I tattooed this old sculpture with Maori-like designs. He's been around since,” Bubash says.

Bubash says he had been making assemblages like this using spent tattoo needles for years, and one day, things collided with his strict Catholic upbringing and sense of humor. “I use humor a lot in all areas of my life,” he says. “Life is tough; laughing makes it more bearable.”

Tribal tattooing became popular a number of years ago. There are millions of people who have them. “Most of these people are white guys from every walk of life,” Bubash says. “I know this for a fact because I've tattooed at least 10,000 of them myself.

“Something told me that a group of people this big should be recognized, honored, protected and, of course, satirized,” he says. “I tried to give the piece a sanctified look in a semi Santeria primitive style. The use of tattoo needles refers back to the tattooing. They also represent the implements used in making art.”

Bubash says he is always observing objects around him and often joining them in various ways, “usually in my mind as opposed to in real space,” he says.

Being the largest collector of his own work, he is surrounded by things that he created. “If it's around long enough, I will sometimes recycle it,” he says. “Sometimes they mutate on their own.”

An example of this would be the piece “Industrial Aviary.”

“If you look hard, you will see carved pieces of wood that were used as a platform for the assemblage,” Bubash says, pointing out various recycled pieces. “These are two old, retired woodcuts that I did 30 years ago. This piece came to me on a trip to the Aviary. I walked around the area and picked up a bunch of miscellaneous pieces of metal and wood, etc., and thought how this bird sanctuary was plopped down in the middle of all of the industry that has been here. Kind of a dark but beautiful idea.”

Pointing to a handgun at the bottom of the composition, Bubash says, “I put it there in memory of a murder that had occurred in one of the playgrounds in the same park.”

Religious references are seen again in “The Guardian Angels,” even though Bubash says, “Just for the record, I'm not religious, but I still love some of the imagery.

“This piece didn't start out to be about angels,” he says. “It morphed into something that can be called ‘Guardian Angels' for obvious reasons. It started with the yellow wooden structure. I began to build on that and it turned into what it is. I think of it as a composition about compound and complex form more than anything.”

The broken and layered glass and various shapes in the piece reflect the structure of the human figure in the abstract. “This was also not my intention,” Bubash says. “It took months to put this together. I kept winding up with a pile of junk. I tore it apart and put it back together four times. Move one piece and it changes everything.”

Many times Bubash says a piece starts with a piece of wood or metal, or a figurine, but it takes months before a final composition comes together. “I let it tell me what to do and where to go. I'm not oriented to the brand. I try to mix things up. I like to investigate ideas to see where they go, but I'm not one for beating them to death.

“It's kind of a restless way to go, but my choice is to not interrupt the flow that I believe represents my history, experience and observations. This, of course, may be an excuse for a very short attention span, too.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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