Keith “Bang Bang” McCurdy is Rihanna‘s regular tattoo artist (he calls her Rih, natch), and has inked just about every major celebrity with a tattoo that you could think of; Lebron James, Cara Delevingne, Katy Perry … He even tattooed Justin Bieber on a plane at 30,000 feet.
His latest attention-grabbing customer is Kylie Jenner, who caused a lot of buzz this week by then returning the favor and emblazoning a crown with the letter K on the artist’s leg.
Bang Bang’s been tattooing since he was in high school, when he practiced on friends, family, and himself before moving to New York. It was then that he committed to the profession for life by tattooing guns with the words Bang Bang on his neck, which is where he got his nickname. As he explained it, the move “basically ensured that I couldn’t get a job doing anything else,” forcing him to stick it out until he made it as a tattoo artist. “I wanted to be a great artist, so I didn’t give myself any other option but to become one,” he explained.
With a few years, Bang Bang opened his own shop, and secured his first celebrity client, and today he’s New York’s most in-demand tattoo artist. Now, he’s just released a book, Bang Bang: My Life in Ink, about his life and art by combining hundreds of photos with his own personal anecdotes.
So you just got tattooed by Kylie. Can you tell us about how that happened?
I got an email that said, “Kylie Jenner wants a tattoo and I am a representative of hers. Can you please give me a call to discuss?” My managers are the best, better than any job I’ve ever worked. They check email every 10 minutes. This was on our off day at 8:30pm and they responded immediately. After that initial call, I got Kylie’s cell number from my manager and we started texting and I tattooed her 45 minutes later
Kylie’s not the first celeb who has given you a tattoo—who else has, and what did they tattoo?
Wow, I hope I don’t leave anyone. Rihanna was the first, and then shortly thereafter was Katy Perry. Then also Cara Delevigne, Adele, Rita Ora, Chris Brown, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and now most recently Kylie. They all do something a bit different. All of this is a chapter in my book. Kylie just did a crown with a K.
Do you tell these guys what you want before, or just let them go for it?
I always let them pick. I am always open to what they want to do.
Who was your first celebrity, and what did they ask for?
Rihanna was the first. I did a sanskrit prayer on her hip and we used a necklace she had as a guide. I’ve never asked her what the prayer meant. That moment is special to me because it’s the first time we met and hit it off. The rest is history.
How did you line up that first appointment with Rihanna?
I was recommended by a friend. When I met Ri, I didn’t know who she was. From there, it was like any other appointment. We chatted for a bit. I told her when I was available, which was the next day. Then, I tattooed her just as I would anyone else.
Any celebs you’re dying to tattoo? What would you do?
Whenever I get asked that question, I keep mentioning Obama, Oprah and Jay Z because they are the best at what they do. Plus, I am a hip hop fan and always have been. I didn’t have the greatest parenting growing up, so the words of these amazing poets helped me and I still use what I learned from them as an adult. Nas hit me up recently and I’m excited to tattoo him.
Do you have a favorite celebrity customer?
Yes, it’s Rihanna because we are just tight beyond words. We don’t have to speak to know how cool we are with each other. I don’t need to tell her how much I appreciate and respect her work and vice versa. She’s always been there for me and followed me everywhere I’ve worked. She’s done everything I’ve asked. She’s a really devoted friend and most people don’t get to see that side of her. Its an incredible quality. It’s really humbling and makes you want to be true to yourself.
What’s the craziest request you’ve ever received?
Once I got asked to tattoo someone’s tongue. I did it and it actually worked. We designed something simple for it. Then we experimented with a technique that I thought would work and it did work. The tongue only held about 15% of the ink, but that was enough with the technique. Two years later, the tattoo is still there and to be honest I didn’t think it would hold. But it did.
What was your first tattoo?
My first tattoo isn’t there anymore. It’s a silly little mistake like so many tattoos people get at 15. I got a superman logo. It’s not that I didn’t like it, but it was on my arm and I want a very specific type of tattoo on my arms now that I am an adult. Maybe I’ll get it somewhere else someday.
Do you regret any of your own tattoos?
I mean, yes. I’ve got a bunch that didn’t come out the way I want or I didn’t like the placement. I have so many tattoos and as I get to be a better tattoo artist, I see the things that I wasn’t good at before or that the artist didn’t master at the time. So yes, I do have a few that are being changed.
What’s your favorite tattoo on yourself?
A portrait of my oldest daughter. I don’t have a tattoo of my youngest daughter yet because her features aren’t developed enough, but I will get it when she is a little older. Then they will both be my favorites.
What do you tell someone who seems unsure before getting a new tattoo?
That depends on the person and the situation. Sometimes people are unsure of what to get. Sometimes people just need a kick in ass because they have great idea, but needs a little bit of help. It’s my job to read my clients and the situation. Sometimes I tell them to think some more and come back in the future. Other times, I tell them to trust me and it will be amazing. The tattoos always come out great.
What sets your work apart from other artists?
I don’t really think too much about other artists in the industry. For me, I just do my best in whatever tattoo I’m working on. Even if it’s the simplest piece, I still give it my everything. I want to be perfect and try not to think about my industry. The industry never welcoming of me, so I decided to take my own path. It’s easy to join the crowd, but I didn’t do that.
What’s the one rule of tattooing that people should never break?
I would say don’t be a jerk to your artist. That’s pretty much it and it goes for the whole industry. It’s pretty smart to be polite to your tattoo artist. We aren’t working for you; we are working with you, so treat us with respect.
How do you and your clients choose the art?
It depends. Sometimes its collaboration, some people say do whatever you want. But ultimately, I always tell clients I have final call on everything I tattoo. I do that because I’m the one making it. If im not comfortable with something a client wants, I will say no. If they choose not to listen, I tell them find someone else. But I don’t run into that issue often. When people come to me, it’s because they trust me and my expertise.
What do you want to get next?
I want to get the top of the empire state building as a cover on my right had. NYC has always empowered me and right hand is my tattooing hand, so it just has to happen.
Bang Bang: My Life in Ink, $16.01; at Amazon