Q&A: Team Spirit’s Ayad Al Adhamy Talks About His Tattoos
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Since retiring from his position as the keyboardist in Passion Pit, Ayad Al Adhamy has become best known as frontman of the Brooklyn-based band Team Spirit, and founder of Black Bell Records. Team Spirit released their debut LP, Killing Time, last month, and if you’ve seen any of their videos, you know the band is just as committed to their visual aesthetic as they are to their off-kilter brand of aggressive garage-pop. At 29, Al Adhamy has acquired somewhere around 20 tattoos, adding between three and six new ones every year since he started “collecting” at 23. Aside from getting tattooed, Al Adhamy has been giving a few tattoos, decorating the bodies of some of his closest friends after acquiring his own bootleg equipment.
Popular conversation surrounding tattoo culture tends to be exclusionary, separating artwork into two polarizing categories: Some tattoos are laden with deep, identity-defining meaning, and others just look really cool. Al Adhamy’s body displays a healthy mix of both models, honoring his Iraqi heritage and allowing it to intermingle with more standardized flash and traditional pieces that he acquired on tour with both Team Spirit and Passion Pit.
STEREOGUM: I’d like to find out more about how you got into tattoos, which I know can be a hard thing to pinpoint.
AL ADHAMY: It’s pretty easy for me. My parents are both from Iraq and they left in the ’70s, so there is a massive stigma with most older generations about tattoos. Ever since I was a kid I was drawing on my arms, and my father was like, “No! You can never get tattoos!” But once I started making my own money I was like, “OK, I’m going to get my first tattoo!” What I got for that one is called a Lamassu — it’s a winged lion with a human head, and it’s a guardian of the gates of Babylon. So in some way I wanted to, like, appease my parents and myself with my Iraqi roots and get a really traditional tattoo as my first one, which actually ended up being the theme of my left arm — all these Babylonian and Assyrian reliefs that have been around for thousands and thousands of years. I only have the left side of my body tattooed because in the Muslim religion, your right side is good and your left side is evil, so to appease my religious father, I’m like, “Well, the left side is evil, so that’s why I only have tattoos on the left side of my body.” At the same time, he is proud and excited about everything I do. Team Spirit has some very outrageous music videos and he has now come to love them and be like, “Oh it’s what you’re doing, it’s fine. It’s some sort of creativity, I’ll support it.”
STEREOGUM: A lot of first tattoos don’t have such a meaningful explanation. You said the upper half of your body is associated with your heritage — do you have tattoos on your legs?
AL ADHAMY: I do, but those are associated with killing time on tour, pretty much. I think like 85 percent of them I got on tour, either in Kansas City, Missouri with Mikey Wheeler at Mercy Seat Tattoos, or in Australia, England, Baltimore … my left leg is like an homage to tour memories, so they’re a little less organized, a little more traditional. I have a dagger, I have a “Takin’ Care Of Business” Elvis Presley tattoo because I fucking love Elvis. I got a Mom & Dad tattoo, an Elvis Sugar Skull on my thigh that says “Rock And Roll,” which is pretty epic.
STEREOGUM: Do you think a lot in advance before you get things done or are they usually generated from certain points of inspiration, or certain moments?
AL ADHAMY: It’s kind of a mix of both actually. Whenever I got to a museum in a foreign country, I take as many pictures as possible. That’s like, long-term. For example, I was just in England, and I was in a British museum and they had so much Babylonian and Assyrian artwork there, so I took lots of pictures just to go through later on. And some, I show up at the tattoo shop and say, “I think I want something like this.” My Elvis “Takin’ Care Of Business” tattoo was very spontaneous.
STEREOGUM: Aside from Mikey Wheeler, who is one of the most notable artists that you’ve been tattooed by on tour or traveling?
AL ADHAMY: I have a little heart by Oliver Peck, who is quite a famous dude. I got that during South By Southwest, I think in 2012. They were giving free tattoos and it happened to be Oliver Peck who gave me this tiny thing.
STEREOGUM: I know that some people hate when you ask, “What does your tattoo mean to you?” but I feel like regardless of meaning, there is always some kind of anecdote, or at least a cool story behind every tattoo.
AL ADHAMY: Oh totally! I really don’t mind that question. My mother is a painter and part of her work also has to do with Babylon, and I have one of her paintings tattooed on my left shoulder. It’s of a box, and an archer shooting outside of the box. So that was kind of cool because my mother did this painting, and I looked at it for a long time and when I see it, I feel a good kind of inspiration. My mom hated it. She was like, “I’m going to sell my painting, I don’t like it anymore! Every time I see it I think of you.”
STEREOGUM: I was going to ask if your mom felt the same way about tattoos as your dad.
AL ADHAMY: Even worse. Now my dad just doesn’t say anything. But that’s part of it, you know.
STEREOGUM: I think that’s pretty common, but I like the fact that you only cover one side of your body. Do you think you are going to continue doing that?
AL ADHAMY: I would say yes, until I’m out of space. You know when you get tattoos, to a certain extent there is a balance issue. Everyone has a different sense of balance on their body, so people will say “Don’t you feel like the left side is outweighing the right side?” I haven’t felt that urge to get something on the other side yet. I will down the road, that’s for sure. I have ideas. I’m going to finish up my left arm first and move on.
STEREOGUM: Do you have any anecdotes about one of your tour tattoos? That’s a cool dichotomy.
AL ADHAMY: The first one I ever got on my leg was a really cool story; it was the first time I ever met Mikey Wheeler. That was back when I was playing keyboards with Passion Pit. We were on tour going through Kansas City and we went, four of us — Jeff, who stills plays bass with the band, Sal, who was doing all the merch, and Val, who played in Barehands. We all got ship tattoos. Different kinds of ships, ones that held our personality. Mine specifically had a blank banner, so I can fill it in down the line. I wanted it to say, “Friends” but everyone was like, “Dude that’s lame. You can’t get a friends tattoo,” so I just left it blank. I also have three stars on it, which has to do with the old Iraqi flag’s three green stars. I know both Sal and Jess and Val still go back to Mikey whenever they’re going through on tour to get more tattoos from him and support that shop, and it’s great. Kansas City is one of those places that, the first time I went there, I was not expecting much, but it’s become one of my favorite towns in America.
STEREOGUM: So I hear that you made your own tattoo gun. Could you maybe tell me a little about that? How you figured that out and why you were inspired to do that in the first place?
AL ADHAMY: After coming back from a long stint of touring, I was just sitting on my couch and watching Lock Up, the prison show, for like two months straight. The prison system in America is fucking crazy! There are a lot of episodes that are like, “People tattooing in prison!” and I thought, “Whoa! This is insane! What if I end up in prison one day? I should learn how to tattoo.” So, I got an electric toothbrush and I just followed how they did it on the show. My friend was like “I always wanted stick-and-poke tattoo!” I was like, “Well I’ll try it on you, if you understand that this is forever.” I did the tiniest little anchor on her ankle. And it came out great! Then I got a bit more inspired and got a machine off of a website and tattooed a couple of my close friends who already have tattoos. I didn’t go too deep or too light. My [favorite] that I’ve done would be a hotdog singing into a mustard bottle. And you know the Zebra Stripe chewing gum dude? A roller-blading zebra. That was one of my favorites.
Team Spirit’s debut LP, Killing Time, is out now via Vice.