Bonnie Atkinson

Bonnie Atkinson, better known by her alias, Bonnie Guillotine is a Bay Area native classically trained in printmaking. Her bold style and quirky, morbid themes naturally lead her to interest in tattooing. She is currently apprenticing at Lampblack tattoo, a new shop in San Francisco’s Mission district. We met at her apartment so I could snoop through her sketchbook as she told me about her day job, her tattoo apprenticeship, and her changing perception of art.

So… let’s talk about your new day job.
I work for a guy who rents out apartments on AirBnB. I get to make my own schedule. It’s mostly staging, like putting out wine and cookies.

How’s the apprenticeship going? Are you making money from it?
No, and I won’t for a long time. What I’m doing right now is learning needles. This is not something most people learn in apprenticeships now, but people used to make their own needles. You sit and solder all day. You’d decide, I’m gonna do 50 mags right now… and then 55. Now you can order needles online that are kind of shitty. So Iggy (my teacher) told me, look, if I’m going to teach you how to tattoo I’m going to teach you everything about it. I’m giving this tradition to you, this isn’t some bullshit where I hand you a machine and you just start going. So right now he’s teaching me how to make liners. There’s two types of needles, either round or flat. The ones that I started with were round bundles of needles, so you solder individual needles together in bundles of three, five, or seven. You solder that bundle together, and solder that to a tattoo bar and it’s um… so fucking tedious.

If you do it yourself does it last a lot longer, is it a better quality?
Yeah, it’s quality and it’s nice because you can customize it to what you like to work with.

I love the traditional aspect. There’s good things about modern tattooing, like it’s much more hygienic now, but it’s also so widespread. There is a lot of shitty tattoo work that is just done for cool-guy status. They don’t appreciate the historical context.
Yeah, that’s exactly what Iggy talks about. He said if he’s going to teach me, we have to build a relationship. For him it is a lifestyle and a tradition rather than just something he does to make himself look… cool or something.

It’s interesting, there aren’t a lot of trades left. If you want to learn something you go to school and you learn various skills that are sort of about your career path, but everyone freaks out as soon as they get a job because they have no idea how to actually do it. But a trade you have to pay your dues and you can’t even do that unless you know the right people and can prove you’re going to commit to it. So is it influencing your artwork?
Absolutely. It has changed my artwork completely. For a while I was starting to do bigger pieces and get into the gallery circuit. Now I’m doing a lot of copies of flash, and all the drawings have strong and simple outlines. It might not look like traditional American tattoo, but everything I draw I have that medium in mind.
It’s difficult to take classic work and make it your own. Do you have current large project you are focusing on, or is your apprenticeship your one big goal?
All my new work is in my sketchbook and they are all copies, which has honestly made me feel pretty lame.What have you bee drawing? Compasses and skulls?
Yeah! Roses ‘n shit. I’ve also had a little bit of artist block, but I’m trying to study form from vintage erotica. And I’m trying to get that perfect line-work! I’m being super hard on myself. When I get frustrated I work on home improvement projects. Like, I painted my room recently and I’m building terrariums. I think I’m nesting in a way. And all the time I spend at the shop, I’m soldering.So hows your love life?
It’s great actually. Yeah. I’m seeing this guy I’ve know since I was like 23. (I’m 27 now.) He came into the bookstore where i use to work. I saw him across the store and I was like, “I’m gonna go help that guy.” I totally hit on him and got his number.

I love that.
At the beginning of the year we were joking about what great parents we’d be because, well you know, (jokingly) we’re smart and everyone else is so stupid. Our children could battle all the jackasses (laughs) And I was like, “yeah, we’d have artistic computer nerds.” So we decided we should try to conceive.

Wow. So sometimes when I see really amazing art I get what I call a ‘talent crush.’  Do you ever get that?
Yeah , totally, but then I find out more about them and I’m like, oh no they’re a total tool! And then I like break up with their art.

Oh no! You do? You know, I’ve never thought about it, but that happens!
I still have a big fan crush on Daniel Clowes. And especially his work recently being stolen by Shia Labeuf.  Did you hear about all that? Apparently he wrote a short comic and Shia Labeuf stole it and made a short film and never credited Clowes. Then Clowes called him out on it and sent a cease and desist. Shia Labeuf sent him an apology and it was totally a plagiarized apology.

Dude! He needs to get his shit together.
Right? So he hired a sky writer to write “I’m sorry Daniel Clowes” in the sky, but he wrote it in LA and Clowes lives in fucking Berkeley.

Do you collect anything? Teeth?
Yeah, it’s bones. I even have some human bones. I collect art books as well.

Art books are essential.
Also frames… that I never put anything in. Whenever I go to Goodwill I get a few. And I always think I’m gonna put something in one but they are always too small for everything.

Where does your pseudonym come from? 
I noticed one time that every book I was reading had a one-liner about a guillotine in it. It was just this weird synchronicity. They weren’t all by the same author or anything. I think it’s a beautiful word and the history of the French revolution is so intriguing me. They invented the guillotine because they needed a faster way to kill people and it had a public spectacle to it. Like, if you fuck up, this is going to happen to you too. So the people that implemented the device would later be under the blade. So why guillotine? I have no fucking idea! But it resonates with me in a lot of ways.

Can you tell me about a specific time when a piece you made was really impactful for someone?
Yes! Any time I sell a piece, ever! The fact that someone would take money that they earned and hand it to me for this thing I made up? That speaks volumes. Like, when you go to someones house years later and it’s still up. I’ve forgotten about this piece but it’s in their life every day. That’s touching!

It really is. Do you have long term goals right now?
A healthy balance of family and tattoo work. Lampblack tattoo just opened. I walked in that space with Iggy right after he bought the place, this shitty empty hole in the wall. We put partitions in there, painted it, new wiring, new plumbing and it’s incredible now! It looks great and I’m so excited to be a part of it.Do you think people who work with their hands make better lovers?
Absolutely. And people who aren’t afraid to dance.
Can you talk a little bit about printmaking.
I miss it a lot. When I moved in here the original idea was to set it up as a printmaking studio and let the art take over the space. But you know, I gone soft, what can I say? The struggle of being a starving artist didn’t have much appeal to me anymore. My ideas on what making art is has really changed. If I sit down and doodle something on scratch paper, that is still art to me now. Before, I really felt that you needed a full project. I do miss printmaking, I do. The repetition, the technical perfection. I find strain and focus very mediative. Cleaning these apartments, or alphabetizing books at Border’s, or memorizing codes at Whole Foods, all those tasks that are irritating to other people, but to me it creates a focus that is very stabilizing.That’s not tedious, that’s meditative!
Yeah, otherwise I’m just destroying.