matty day | creative neighbors | dec. 2015
For the year's last issue of Frankly Green Bay, I humbly present the first edition of “Creative Neighbors." In this rotating column, different Frankly contributors highlight creative people from northeast Wisconsin – it's basically a long-form, written version of Frank Hermans' wonderful weekly video segments on WFRV. With this opportunity, I'd like to introduce you to artist/musician/teacher Joseph Lambert!
“I was an artist since I was a kid," says Lambert, who grew up in De Pere. “It's in my soul and that's what I wanted to do."
He states this modestly, matter-of-factly. Indeed, Joe was featured in an art show at age 12! In his early teens he worked at a coffee shop/art gallery, gleaning influence from anyone he could. When Joe wasn't at an easel or behind a coffee counter, he was on his skateboard.
“Skateboarding was a huge influence on anybody back then," tells Lambert. “If you didn't play sports and didn't have any money, you could get a skateboard."
This passionate hobby stoked Joe's curiosity in music. “You'd see dudes in skateboard magazines wearing band t-shirts. Dead Milkmen, Dead Kennedys — I remember seeing people draw that on their grip tape," says Joe. Familiar only with their names, he'd head to record stores and buy the bands' albums.
Last Sons of Krypton
Though he'd been making art and skateboarding, Joe could combine creative and physical expression in writing and performing music. He was one of several singers for the Last Sons of Krypton, a punk band whose outrageous behavior and material may have earned them more enemies than fans back in the mid-to-late '90s.
“When our friends started listening to NOFX and Green Day, we didn't want to be any part of that!" says Joe. Last Sons of Krypton's influences were more raw and immediate, such as Thee Headcoats, Sex Pistols, Johnny Thunders and The Rezillos. “We wanted to be a real punk rock band, like a '70s punk rock band."
The teenagers terrorized anyone and everyone, even (especially?) those who booked the band or offered help, prank-calling them at all hours, destroying stage equipment, you name it. (While Joe may not have been the most destructive band member, he hardly claims innocence.) Listening to the recordings now, removed from the carnage, there's real charm in the songs' simple brutality. But whether LSOK's legacy was positive or negative, they certainly made an impression — one that would warrant a reunion later on.
Miami and More
Haunted by young heartbreak, Joe moved to Miami in his early 20s, his sister offering a couch while he found footing. Not only could he skateboard year-round there, but his arrival coincided with the debut of a promising new art fair and some artist-friendly legislation.
“Art Basel was just starting, so that was big for me," says Joe, “And the mayor of Miami had just legalized graffiti in the Design District."
While these new developments revitalized an empty urban area (which is now vibrant, viable real estate), Joe, too, was innovating. “I started doing huge paintings on shag carpeting. I think I was the first person to do that," says Joe.
Though he'd been featured in art shows for half of his young life, with this new medium he was now being flown to galleries in New York, San Francisco, even London.
The most prominent show yet was in Los Angeles. Aware of its financial potential, Lambert borrowed money from a friend for extra paint and supplies and got to work preparing new pieces for the show. To his wild delight, the majority of his pieces were really selling. Just like that, he'd made it!
At least, it appeared that way, until contractual percentages significantly shaved down his earnings. Ultimately Joe couldn't even repay the friend who'd lent him money. Dejected, he returned to Miami, resigned to restaurant employment, a lifelong artist who'd lost his first love.
From Ruin to Tattooin'
Joe had always kept some kind of kitchen job; even at the level he was at, “you don't make enough money just painting." Some friends who did tattooing urged him to try that out, but he was reluctant.
“I really thought tattooing was just tracing, color by numbers, not people being their own artist," admits Lambert, adding, “Any other format of art that I'd tried came easy, so I just figured tattooing would be easy."
He said as much at his friends' studio one day and was summarily challenged to make a single straight line with a tattoo gun.
“It was instantly apparent," says Joe, that he'd underestimated tattooing.
Humbled, Joe appreciated an informal invitation to hang out at the shop more often. He started showing up regularly, learning more about the industry. But when he didn't come by one day, Joe got a phone call asking where he was — turns out the invitation to “hang out" was more like an apprenticeship offer that he'd accepted.
“Then I got yelled at for telling people I was an apprentice! I knew nothing about the tattoo world at the time," says Joe, sheepishly. Normally, tattooing apprenticeships involve menial tasks like cleaning and running errands.
“That wasn't me," recalls Joe, shaking his head with a smile. Nor was his timeline normal. “Typically it takes three to four years before an apprentice is allowed to tattoo. I was tattooing in a year and a half."
Joe's friends were among the most elite tattooists in Miami. (The studio would later be purchased by TLC for its show “Miami Ink" — largely credited for bringing tattoo culture to the mainstream.) Yet again, Lambert was making a name for himself in new medium.
Success and Tragedy
He'd also found new love in Miami, which led to an unexpected pregnancy. In anticipation of their child, Joe and his girlfriend, a New York native, moved to NYC. There they raised their daughter while Joe continued to hone his craft and earn clientele. During this time he tattooed most members of hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan and even gave comedian Tracy Morgan his inaugural ink.
Words cannot describe the devastation Joe encountered next. His girlfriend, whom he married, was stricken by stage IV breast cancer and tragically passed away. Joe tried to find balance, raising a child alone, managing an impressive career and all the commuting it required, but it simply wasn't working.
“There was no way I could have done it," says Lambert. By the end of 2012, Joe and his daughter relocated to his hometown.
Back to the Bay
In the NYC studio where he worked, Joe's tattoo station remains empty. That is, unless he's there using it; he occasionally flies back to do work on his clients, who are willing to wait for his talents. Such is the reputation he's built there. Unfortunately, that didn't exactly mean much in Green Bay.
“I made a name for myself in Miami and New York," says Joe. “But no one in Wisconsin had gotten a tattoo from me. It was as if I just had to start over."
Furthermore, Lambert learned that Green Bay had twice as many tattoo shops per capita than the national average. With a crowded local market, he opted to open a shop in Oconto. He'd never run his own business before, but Joe ran JustMe Tattooing for two years, hosting Oconto's first punk shows there along the way.
Weary of the daily commute, Joe closed JustMe and opened High Point Tattooing and Fine Arts in Green Bay. Here, he not only had new headquarters for tattooing, but also an art gallery, arcade games, niche retail store (skateboard, tattoo and tobacco supplies) and live music venue.
Away from Green Bay for more than a decade, Joe needed to get used to some things here, particularly the relative lack of public transportation. But an aspect he would not accept and sought to change, was the lack of people under 21 coming to all-ages concerts. With High Point, he took it upon himself to do for others what people like (Frankly Green Bay writer) Tom Smith had done for him.
“If we were at all touched and affected by anything growing up, we owe that to [young people]," says Lambert. “Kids need real expressionism and they need to share it with other human beings.
“There is just always going to be a need for [human companionship]. Since the dawn of time, there's been concerts, public gatherings," says Joe. To him, technology and a fear mongering media are the main culprits. “If that doesn't force people to stay in their houses, I don't know what does. But people need to feel like people — they need to feel like they belong. Facebook isn't gonna cut it."
The vibe and turnout at the shows Joe hosted at High Point have already encouraged Smith to start booking more all-ages shows. Rock N' Roll Land continues to regularly host them as well.
“These kids are dying for something real. They haven't felt anything real ever. And they may be scared about it, but get 'em to go!" Joe urges. “You've gotta know someone in the age between 15-25 who's never been to a show. Make 'em come!"
Lambert feels resurgence is inevitable. He points to the Renaissance following the Black Plague and the Roaring Twenties following prohibition.
“Society always finds a way to express itself. The more you bottle it up, the more there's an explosion," he says. “I just want to help be a catalyst for that. I think it's a beautiful thing."
Joe sees recent record releases and performances from otherwise dormant bands — The Sonics, The Muffs, The Meatmen and even Last Sons of Krypton — as an indication of such a renaissance.
Make 'em Mindful
Lambert puts even further effort into helping youths by volunteering at his daughter's grade school. After an overwhelmingly positive response from the students, he was asked to teach extracurricular classes, choosing his own topic. He's seized the opportunity to teach kids something he wishes he'd learned earlier on, a concept he feels would have spared him a lot of unnecessary trouble: mindfulness.
“It means not being on auto-pilot," Joe explains. “Teaching yourself to be present in that moment. How to not be constantly reliving the past and not be constantly worrying about the future. When do we pay attention exactly right now? Who I am, where I'm at. You have to look inside — and that's a scary thing for people."
Though he took interest in Buddhism a year or two before his wife got sick, Joe's spiritual development began around the time he started tattooing.
“People come to get a tattoo typically because there's something meaningful rooted there. Somehow [as a tattooist] you have to have this immense amount of empathy and you have to be able to relate to that person."
By this point in his life, Joe had a lot mental habits to “un-learn." As such, he especially enjoys teaching empathy and methods of mindfulness to young kids, instilling positive habits when they're easier to learn.
“I think it's about time we start teaching a new generation what the brain is and how to keep the mind healthy," says Lambert. “How silly is it that we have physical education class from kindergarten on and the body can last 100 years, but an idea can last millennia?"
Joe also enjoys the limitless of this branch of spirituality.
“Here [in western civilization], if you're a Buddhist, [people] expect you to be a Buddha, not to sing in a punk band or say [expletive]," says Joe with a smile.
A compilation of recordings from the shows at High Point will soon be available at local music stores Rock N' Roll Land and The Exclusive Company. However, this disc will ultimately serve as a memento, as shortly before this article Joe made the difficult decision to close the shop, the business side having grown too hectic. Joe is currently happy tattooing at Skinny Buddha Tattoo.
Matty Day's written about local music since 2012. He currently performs in Muddy Udders, the Foamers?, the Gung Hoes and the Priggs. Twitter: @PollutedMindset / E-mail: Events@FranklyGreenBay.com.