Saturday, September 1, 2012


Walking through cold Clerkenwell on a January evening, MxM  starts to tell me about his life.  He grew up on the French speaking side of Switzerland, in a small village near Lausanne.  He went to college, then university where he studied psychology for three years, then after that went to art school (ECAL, Ecole Cantonale d'Art de Lausanne) and studied graphic design.  After a few years of being a graphic designer, Maxime started an apprenticeship as a tattoo artist with Filip Leu which lasted for roughly three years and has now been actively tattooing for four years. 

“I always had a broad interest in art.  I did graphic design but I was always interested in fine art and photography as well. Then I worked in publishing, because I loved the editorial context; text, language. Even in my graphic design practice, I always mainly drew inspiration from other domains.”  Whilst Maxime was at art school he was already getting tattooed by Filip Leu.  When his studies came to an end he moved to London and that’s when his interest in tattooing really took off.  “I started researching into it.  And I realised how many different styles there were, and how vivid and strong the culture was, especially in London.  All the things I studied or explored previously started making sense among themselves. For instance, Graphic design helped me in some ways but it was just one manifestation of the way I deal with visual matters. Tattooing stems out of that vision.”

“I like graphic design and I like doing it as an artistic expression, but I was never happy  being a graphic designer as a professional role. I am not good at compromising, answering a brief, second-guessing clients, bosses. I have a vision, which is the result of a long-term reaction to my environment. I need to do what I feel is right, it is my only way of judging my own work. If I feel alienated, however good the result might be, I will be unhappy.  Tattooing is the perfect balance for me.  I was still doing my art studies, as I was getting tattooed, then one day Filip said he would take me as an apprentice if I wanted to try. It blew me away, but I just didn't know what to do with that offer at that moment”.

But Filip’s offer was to stay on Maxime’s mind all the way through the rest of art school.  In hindsight, Maxime feels that even though he finished school, he knew that tattooing would be the thing that he’d ultimately pursue. “Coming from a middle-class background, becoming a tattoo artist doesn’t exist basically.  So I guess I needed some time to process that in my mind and then it just happened really naturally.”

I wondered if the psychology degree had any influence on Maxime’s tattooing.  “In a way it did.  But it was just a part of the bigger picture because I was studying all kinds of humanities anyway.  Anthropology, sociology, even politics.  I grew up in a really political environment and social matters generally were always extremely important to me. My university years helped me to channel my thoughts, to sharpen my observation. Through anthropology, especially, I got the opportunity to approach—even superficially—the questions of tribal rituals, symbolic exchanges and constructions. In many respects, I now actively apply these notions in tattooing. I believe tattooers have a lot in common with witchdoctors or shamans. What we do is not rational. Except for its occasional decorative quality, what we do has no tangible value except for the symbolic one that is built in the triangle customer-tattooer-social environment. Literally, what we do is harm someone, and get paid for it.  There’s nothing that can justify this other than a sort of mystical value. We’re in a society where a lot of people, like myself, grow up agnostic, but spirituality is a basic human need that traditional Christianity doesn't really fulfil anymore. Lots of people are desperately looking for a spiritual discipline; they find it wherever they can. As tattooists, we deal with symbols, which is a mystical thing by definition; the ability to turn an abstract concept into a sign that sums it up, and that a group of people will share as a single signifier is what differentiates humans from animals even more than anything else. To perpetuate, update and create symbols is a big part of the tattooist's job. That's what makes tattooing such a powerful and universal practice.”

At this point, Maxime and I are entering Shoreditch.  We have left Into You (somewhat of a mecca for the tattoo world and also where MxM is currently tattooing) far behind us.  It is getting later and the cold January wind is still about.  We keep walking. I ask if there were ever pieces MxM was not happy with. “A tattoo is an encounter. It is the meeting of two people. We, like witchdoctors, psychotherapist, psychics, priests learn to adapt to the person we have in front of us, to potentialise and optimise the quality of that encounter.  Occasionally that encounter doesn’t work though.  It can turn into a frustrating experience but most of the time it’s good. You could be going through a tough time yourself, and not be fully available, mentally or emotionally, so obviously that would limit the exchange. Or the customer might be undecided, confused, or just mistaken. But I feel able to deal with most situations and most people, even if it means turning a person away. A person comes as what they are, but you must make a tattoo for what they will be.  And each person will be many different people in their lifetime. The piece must please each one of those, or as many as possible.  I’ve managed to establish a certain image for myself; the kinds of things I like and do, so that I will attract people with a certain taste, certain references, which is half of the work. Nowadays, when they get in touch, most customers have already selected you after a long process of researching the artist that matches their needs the best. It makes things a lot easier for many of us. Nonetheless, we need to maintain a certain dark zone. People need to be able to project things on us. It is part of our role too. Getting a tattoo must be a very special experience. If we reveal ourselves completely, the magic is lost.” 

Arriving at The Diner in Shoreditch, I approach MxM's actual tattooing.  “I was a kid in the eighties so I grew up liking that high contrast graphic environment, the reds and the blacks.  I’ll sometimes use other colours, but for me I’m particularly interested in the structure of things. Possibly it’s to do with my Swiss upbringing, but I’m interested in the stripped down and durable.  That's why I like tribal still.”

For Maxime, there are some obvious references, people that he has looked up to since before even he started tattooing.  He feels that he owes his style to them, but would also like to think he has his own take. In 2004/2005 when Maxime had just moved to London, he discovered Thomas Hooper’s work which struck something very close to him, especially for his way of integrating a wider western art history to his tattooing practice. Maxime had seen the whole Japanese/Oriental style of tattooing when he was in Switzerland, and despite loving it, it’s not something he would do himself because he feels it’s something that he doesn’t understand, that he doesn’t belong to. Getting tattooed by Filip Leu was an amazing experience for him, and then going onto apprentice under him. Through Filip Maxime learnt a lot about how to deal with the body, how to place things, how to think of the body as a moving 3d surface, and he learnt a lot about technique too, but also about the history and culture of tattooing. Still, style-wise he really felt closer to the work of Duncan X and  Hooper. 

“In many ways the main influences would be Filip and Rinzing (Rinzing was Filip’s apprentice before me and was working there when I became an apprentice). I consider him my tattoo-brother. They made me, deep inside. But style-wise, the Into You family represented something I felt a lot closer to, in terms of the tattoos that I could produce myself, so Tomas Tomas, Duncan X, Thomas Hooper who worked there, then at Frith Street before moving to New York.  Jondix is another one of my main references. But I also like a lot of the traditional stuff.  Javier Rodriguez was always someone that I admired a lot on many levels for, the absolute simplicity and strength of his work. They would be my main references. Then of course, Liam Sparkes; my other tattoo-brother.  He’s someone I’ve worked alongside a lot in the last couple of years. We've travelled, partied. The others I mentioned are my mentors, my idols.  But Liam and I work on the same level.  He has been tattooing for the same length of time as me.  We share lots of references and tastes but we have different takes on them. Working with him helped me define myself.”

Maxime is also the editor of Sang Bleu, an independent arts and cultural magazine.  “It is a manifestation of me, something that has helped me put things in perspective. Gather all the things I like and all my references, in a semi-coherent way.  When I was a kid a lot of people would say I was   scattered, so it was a way to show myself and the world, that it all somehow has a middle, a crossing, a centre point.” 

As we get seated Maxime shares his final thoughts on tattooing.  “I think what you observe in tattooing these days is only one effect of a much deeper shift that is going on in our society at the moment. In many ways, we are coming back to mediaeval-like schemes and structures. Reason and light are backing up and magic and darkness are growing. Don't get me wrong, I don't think they are taking over, but hopefully balancing each other to reach a healthy middle. Bodies are matter and matter is not eternal. A body is mortal and flawed but fun too. Body image is a locus of social pressure  and tattoos are like shields against it. When you are tattooed you are not anymore fat or skinny, small or big. You are tattooed. And what you tattoo on you is not what mother nature made you, it is what you decide for yourself. That is also part of the reason why tattoos are so addictive; that feeling of power over nature, society. Self-determinism.”

*All photos belong to and were taken by MxM, except for the picture of MxM himself which belongs to Sacred Yantra Tattoo. 

**Contact details for MxM are on his Tumblr page, 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


Anna Mazas comes from a small town near Paris, and was raised within an artistic family.  “My father and my mother were fond of art in general and took me to a lot of museums where I was exposed to a lot of beautiful art.  At the time I wasn’t attracted to tattooing, that didn’t happen until I was in my twenties.  That happened partly through the kinds of music I was listening to, and the people I was hanging out with, but when I discovered Lea Nahon.”  In Lea Nahon, Anna found a person whose background was similar to her own, someone whose references were also in classical paintings, the likes of Klimt and Schiele.  “She had a way of tattooing on people that was very close to the way you can draw on paper.  I just wanted to meet her and talk to her initially.”  Anna recalls fondly that it was almost like a crush, “I fell in love with her character, so I really wanted a tattoo from her.  I don’t want tattoos from people that I see and admire unless I’ve established an emotional bond with them, even if they’re someone like Filip Leu or Chad Koeplinger.”  Working as a freelance journalist and writer, Anna meets a lot of tattooers, but it is only if she establishes a bond with them that she will then go on to want to be tattooed by them.  Lea has tattooed two El Greco paintings on Anna.  “They’re on my wall, and now they’re on my body too.”

I came across Anna when I discovered another book circulating within the tattoo community.  Life Under My Skin was published by Conti Editions (sponsored by Diesel) last year, and I liked its approach to tattooing, and so I had to make contact with the person that conceived of the whole idea, Anna.  “It’s really cool to see that the book has had such a global impact, it’s nice to see blogs and other international media saying something about it.  It was always the purpose to do a bilingual publication.”  Anna had three months to put the book together, but fortunately she was between jobs at the time, and she had a lot of contacts within the industry.  “Phil at Magnum Opus in Brighton was a great help.  I asked him to point me in the direction of different types of people with tattoos.  So basically it was through friends who knew friends, etc.”  It was also obvious to Anna immediately that the profiles she collected in England were considerably different to the ones she’d collected in France.

“There are differences in the two cultures.  In Latin cultures such as in Italy or France we have a much more complex approach to the body.  Basically there is a belief that you cannot modify your body in any way from what you were born with.  The story of tattooing in England is very different, there is the old-school for example, and there is a much more positive view too.  People get tattooed more easily in England because they are less afraid of judgement and I think this is apparent in the book.  In France we have a different perception.  In my city for example, it can be quite difficult to be accepted with tattoos.  You can feel the people staring at you, so people get more discrete tattoos here.  I have a feeling, that even in the way the designs are chosen, tattoos are less radical here in France.  They are simpler.  Our famous tattooers are people like Yann Black who have graphic design school backgrounds, there is much more of that in France.  It was very much in the margins of communities up until quite recently.  But then there were the tattooers that came out of graphic design, and that suddenly gave it a much more positive voice.  In England it is more linked with tradition.”

Anna is now keen to do another book on tattoos.  “I’m already doing interviews with my friend Thibault for another book.  I get along really well with him so we just continue to work together.  I’m also preparing a web documentary.  I guess I have a lot of different projects currently happening, but it can be hard to find sponsorship money, and obviously it costs to travel.”  Because Anna comes from a human science background, had studies the likes of philosophy and art history, she always had this feeling that the whole practice of tattooing was very rich.  “But the problem is is that none of the books or the magazines I found were doing it justice.  I wanted to show the people that wear them, and also promote the artists behind their tattoos.  I wanted to avoid all stereotyping.” 

I was keen to delve into this idea Anna had raised about the emotional connection one has with a tattooer.  “Tattooing is reintegrating a human link into a society that is losing that.  The body is our temple in a society where there isn’t so much religion anymore.  Our bodies are the last piece of freedom we have.  We can reinvent it, rejuvenate it, modify it.  The person that has access to your body is someone very special, unique.  The origins of tattooing have a very mystical nature.  I remember that when I was getting into tattooing the only thing I could read or feel close to was Sang Bleu.  It’s a mix of a human meeting, a bond, and spontaneity too.  That’s why I have a lot of different styles on me:  neo-traditional, abstract, Japanese, realistic.  I haven’t had many tattoos but I feel it’s always linked to that personal experience because for me tattoos are about the human stories.  Human links are so important, especially now because everything is happening so fast.”

One of Anna’s purposes with her book was very much to explore these beliefs of hers that she has on tattooing.  “Tattooing can be seen as something very superficial, but it’s one of the most complex and richest practices of all time, which is awesome.  It is a pleasure for me to try and prove people wrong, to do something about this practice being recognised properly.  Tattooing has grown very popular in the last few years, you can’t deny it.  But I get the feeling people get them because they’re popular, but it’s not the way to get involved in tattooing as an art.  But I guess that can be a good place to start.  I feel it’s also the job of the tattoo artist to convince their clients what tattooing can be for them.” 

“It was a good mix of circumstances,” Anna explains, when I asked her to tell me more about how the book came about.  “I’d been working with a perfume that belonged to L’Oreal on the subject of tattooing, and I’d met with the director of the brand and she was brilliant.  She had had this feeling a couple of years ago that there was something to say about tattooing, so she gave me the chance to write about tattooing online.  I started to interview my friends, to make them talk about their tattoos, and I asked a friend to take some pictures.  After a few interviews, I realised I had so many different friends with different tattoos, and the people that read it really liked it, so I spoke with an editor friend of mine and we decided to do a book.  Diesel were a great sponsor, they just wanted to be involved in something that was cool.  I had this idea to do an Atlas of tattooing among the young people around the world, kind of like a map of the tattooing world through the people.  I want to have the widest range of tattooed people possible.  And the idea of travelling is always interesting, and seeing the separations between tattooed cultures which aren’t always as clear as the borders of the countries.”

“In my way of perceiving tattoos, I’m interested in people that wear them, but not necessarily the anthropological or sociological aspects.  The idea of tattooed culture is not necessarily what I look for first, but it’s for sure something that is very interesting.  I have no specific knowledge about tribal tattooing or Japanese tattooing.  I have a more global view.”

Anna leaves me with a few final words on what is happening in the tattoo world now.  “With every discipline, one person can have such an impact, and that can be the same with one tattoo shop, for example Into You in London.  It’s really cool, and with social networks nowadays, that can become more and more of a thing.  These trends are being dictated by a very specific few.  But sometimes these specific artists are being copied too much.  For example, Valerie Vargas has had to take her artwork down from her website due to too many other tattoo artists directly copying her work”

All photos by Thibault de Saint Chamas

Thursday, April 5, 2012


Some years ago, as her mum painted in her studio, a young Grace perused the shelves, thumbing through books on tribal culture, scarification, tattoos. When Grace started getting tattoos, her mum didn’t have a problem with it, it was more with the body-modifications, but Grace lovingly reflects that her mum only has herself to blame for having those books on her shelves. Her father however, wasn’t so keen on tattooing. Despite being a captain in the Navy and seeing it on an everyday basis, his view was that only sailors and prostitutes had them. He could never really get his head around his own daughter being tattooed.

“I loved primary school, it was amazing. It was so fucking fun. All we did was our lessons, but I don’t really remember those, I just remember playtime. My friends and I would play ‘Animal King.’ One day we’d be a family of hawks, another day something else. But then secondary school happened and that just sucked.” Grace was already very into scarification at that point and remembers doing her GCSE art project on it. Her teacher found it interesting but no-one in school seemed to get her. She’d wear her hair weird, but not in a stereotypically weird way. “I dunno, everyone is confused at that age. I’m not sure I ever really got what I was about, and I’m not sure if I even do now. But I do remember everyone being particularly confused by me.”

After her GCSE’s she left school and went to art college in Plymouth where she studied both photography and fine art. She loved it, and subsequently moved to Bristol where she stayed for two years and then moved to London, getting a job in a tattoo shop. “That was it, I felt like I was home. I felt like my life had really started and I was beginning to get more and more tattoos from different artists. That was when I got my back-piece done.” Googling Grace and looking at images, the one tattoo that for me stands out the most is the swan that covers nearly all of her back, its wings reaching all the way around her ribcage and onto her legs. Piotrek Taton, then working at Good Times Studio, was the tattoo artist behind the black and grey swan.

“I was really nervous before going down there. At that point I hadn’t had anything done on my torso or my chest, but I’d experienced painful areas on my arms and legs. All tattooing is painful to a certain degree. But I was really excited about it, and everyone was really lovely when I got there. Mentally, I think I was a bit unprepared though, I didn’t really think it would be as bad as it was, but I knuckled down and since then I’ve made certain to prepare myself mentally. He’s done a few of my tattoos now, the portrait of CocoRosie on my leg is done by him too, and the Manson portrait is done by the brilliant Joao Bosco of The Family Business. There’s something about all the polish artists I’ve seen (referring to Piotrek), they do that really great dark and twisted realism. Piotrek’s blends are amazing, almost like silk. I wanted the swan to be at that moment in time where it’s about to charge through the water, just as they’re lifting their wings up. Just before they go mental!” Grace told me how she experiences a lot of frustration from people when they discover that there are long waiting lists involved with certain tattoo artists. “Time is not an object that needs to be an issue though. I had to wait around six months for the back-piece, but I’ll have to live with it for the rest of my life and would have waited ten years if I’d had to.”

When Grace first moved to London she experienced a real education in tattooing. She worked at Self Sacrifice first, and felt that was when she was first properly exposed to what tattooing really was. Up until that point she had never really hung out with tattooed people so felt a little bit like the token tattooed girl, but now that is different. After a year and a half there, she moved onto Pure Ink which sadly shut down, and now she is at Red Inc in Luton, but still lives in London. “There’s four tattoo artists at Red Inc: Sam, Mark, Ricky and Kieran, then there’s Tom and I who do the piercing.” Grace also tattoos using the traditional practice of hand-poking. “I basically use something like a chopstick. I’ve always loved dot-work. My housemate and best friend, Tamara, is a dot-work tattoo artist and she’s always really inspired me. We got really into drawing symmetrical tattoos together and got really into it.” Grace shows me her fingers, “I’ve got her name on here. I’ve got lots of my friends names on my fingers.”

Grace doesn’t have a lot of text tattooed on her, apart from mostly on her hands, but she’s very keen on text tattoos done well. “Either it can look really amazing, or generic and overdone.” Living in London and using the tube all the time, she finds herself like a lot of people staring at her feet, her hands. And so she’s covered them with the names of people close to her. “They may not be the best in the world but each has a really awesome memory. I’ve got girls names on one hand and boys names on the other. I have an F on my hand for one of my best friends, Francisco, who works at The Family Business. My friend Gary tattooed Venus and Mars symbols on my fingers and Tamara blacked out my thumb. I’ve got my mum and sister on my wrists, a little fly on my knuckle when I first got tattooed at Red Inc. I’ve never viewed those guys as workmates, they’re my family. I’m really lucky to have such an awesome job, and that fly, my little love-bug, is awesome.”

Having worked in a bookshop I often keep an eye out for new tattoo books, but generally find the majority of them overdone and poorly conceived. That was until I discovered Alex MacNaughton’s ‘London Tattoos’ for which Grace adorns the cover. “I was working at Pure Ink at the time. Alex, who did the book, basically printed out these fliers as an advert for tattooed people. There were some in the shop and I picked one up, did some research on Alex and saw that he’d done other books and sent him an email, and that was that. There were lovely people at the studio where they did the photographs, just a really great atmosphere. At the end the makeup lady told me they wanted to put me on the cover and I thought she was kidding! Anyway, it’s made my mum proud and it’s really well put together and edited. It was nice that the book focused more on the person than the tattoos. It was more personal. I don’t really drink much but I remember having a Sailor Jerry at the launch party and being a bit tipsy on the tube home.”

Along with her friend Tamara, Grace was recently suspended at Divine Canvas by Iestyn Flye, the resident body modification artist. When they arrived they flipped a coin to see who would go first, and the first suspension went to Tamara. “Watching one of your best friends being suspended is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced. Just being part of the process. When she was being suspended I was swinging her legs, and then when I went up, Tamara held onto my hands the whole time. It’s very difficult to explain how it feels. Like pain, you can remember something is painful but you can’t remember the exact feeling of the pain. It’s the same thing with a suspension, it’s all a blur, a beautiful mess.”

“I’m very lucky to know a lot of really nice people, amazingly kind people, who do suspension. There’s always people that I really trust doing it. Like tattooing, there is a community of individuals who have their own teams and setups. It’s one of those things where you couldn’t possibly run into a horrible person at one of the meet-ups. You can be whoever you want to be and still be accepted.”

When Grace is at home she likes to paint, relax, have a cup of tea and get high. I interviewed her on skype and I noticed she had two strips of paint beneath her eyes so I asked her what they were. She smiled and replied, “my warpaint.”

“People like to ramble on about what tattooing means to them, but I don’t really know what it means to me. It’s just something that’s always been inside me. I just think that I do what I do because it feels natural. I don’t do anything because it’s cool, fashionable or trendy. I just try and stay as true to myself as I possibly can.”

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Suzie, 21

In a small Cornish town Suzie was raised. Somewhat sheltered, yet fortunate to come from a wealthy background, Suzie kept herself busy by excelling in sports, even riding horses at a national level.

It was at a private school in Penzance where Suzie experienced bullying. Despite there being a wide-array of different types of students at the school - international students, kids with parents in the army, etc - a girl suffering from both dyslexia and dyspraxia found herself constantly being on the receiving end of ridicule. “Fortunately we lived quite close by, so I didn’t have to board at school. My family lived in a tiny village called Canonstown between St. Ives, Hayle, and Penzance.”

As a teenager Suzie was hanging out with people that drank and were into tattooing. Her parents felt she was a rebel because of it but Suzie believed that the reason she hung out with these so-called ‘rebels’ was because they were actually the nicest people. Because she attended a private school, which she found to be overly strict and rigid, it was inevitable that Suzie would start to move against the conservativeness of it. She started listening to punk, rock, metal, and was becoming increasingly exposed to tattoo culture. “My friends were all really into art. I used to paint as well. I lived with this one guy who was a graffiti artist, and just down the road from us was this tattoo studio that didn’t care about how old you were, so I was sixteen when I got my first tattoo.”

Suzie finished school with ten GCSE’s and also having completed all her BHS rider instructor exams. She got an NVQ through working at a care home and decided not to go to college. “I was a bit bored of normal education once school was finished.” After finishing her NVQ, the manager of the care home told Suzie that she’d be an amazing nurse, so she decided to get into that. She always wanted to go to university because her dad did and really enjoyed it himself (her mum had dropped out) but Suzie was very keen to take the appropriate route into the healthcare industry.

She arrived in Bath three years ago to attend university. Also, her family moved to Bath too as her mum was finding Cornwall quite a lonely place to be. Having known the area for some time, they decided to give Bath a go and have been in Bath ever since. At the time Suzie had kind of wanted to stay in Cornwall because she had a boyfriend there, but they broke up a week before she left.

Suzie, now in her third year of university, is now just months away from applying for jobs in the healthcare industry. Her particular interest is in A&E and surgery, and would like to find a job along those lines. Fortunately the course is arranged that you start applying for jobs before it is even over, so hopefully you can move immediately into a job by the end of it. “I have a placement coming up in the elderly ward which is a bit stressful. There are lots of mental health problems which is really sad. But recently I did CPR on someone and brought them back to life, and it was my first time ever doing chest compressions on someone. This woman had had a massive asthma attack, and because I have asthma too, I could really relate. I had this connection with her.”

The first tattoo Suzie got was on her stomach. It started with one small tattoo on her hip, and after immediately getting a taste for it, started to add others. “I then got another star on my other hip, and it just grew from that. Four artists in all have worked on my stomach. I remember the first star was done by this old pervy guy in Camborne, in this proper dive. But luckily the younger apprentice started doing more on my tummy. Two guns appeared, then a rose. Then I was at another place in Penzance and this awesome tattoo artist added some diamonds and touched up the rose. Then I had some burning dollar bills done by Celi in Melksham. Well, one of the bills is burning, the other is brand new. Then an anchor and a heart with wings was done. One side of the tattoo is supposed to look new, and the other side old. The old side represents the bullying at school, and the new side is about being me and being confident.”

For her eighteenth birthday, Suzie got a bracelet tattoo done that includes the inscription, ‘All I Will Ever Be Is Me’ and also features her mum and dad’s favourite flower and hers. She also designed it herself. She remembers when she was younger and being a rebel, she felt that her parents didn’t like her for a while, but she got the tattoo because she loves them but also because she won’t change and wanted them to see that. “As soon as they saw it they thought it was amazing, and now they’ve accepted that I get tattoos, despite not particularly liking them themselves.”

“The lilies on both my shoulders were done by Celi because I’ve always really loved lilies. All my tattoos are about the combination between having a meaning and just looking really great. But I’ve never got one just for the way it looked, there is always some kind of meaning in some way, even if it’s not mega-personal. I really love Greek mythology for example, and so that explains the tattoos on my arms and back. The tattoos all represent a love that I have for something.”

There is a peacock that goes all the way across the top of her back and merges into a Medusa on her left arm. Eventually Suzie plans on having a Pegasus done on her back, so the whole thing will turn into one very large set-piece. All those tattoos were done by Toni at Broad Street Studios in Bath. “I love anything that isn’t normal, like Greek mythology. Things that people don’t think are real, like fantasy. So anything that is different from our own world. I’m really into the alien theory. I prefer all that stuff to any kind of religion. For all we know, Greek gods could have been around, and the stories are just amazing. I don’t really like the really gory looking tattoos, so I went for a really pretty Medusa as I generally just prefer the pretty side to things, and because the rest of that tattoo is really colourful and beautiful, it would be a shame to have a really evil and ugly-looking Medusa be a part of it.”

Suzie had her feet done also at Broad Street, but by Fil instead. She remembers how when they got into the last hour of the second foot, she had had to have the numbing spray put on, “because I was literally wanting to kick him in the face!” They are hour glasses with the scroll reading ‘No Time To Waste.’ “I always feel like I’m in a hurry to do everything. And that I should be better at what I do, but I’m impatient, I feel as if it should happen immediately. It’s the same with everything I do even though I know I should relax and take my time, but I can’t help but feel I haven’t done enough in my life and I just want to do shit-loads and cram it all in.”

Jo Black of Black Inc in Frome did Mexican skulls on the back of each of Suzie’s calves, a boy and a girl. “I’ve always liked the Mexican way of celebrating someones life. The English can be so morbid. It’s not nice to lose someone you love, but there’s no point in mourning someone forever. No-one would want to see their loved ones depressed because they’d died, and I think it’s cruel to wish that people could live longer. For example, my Granddad was really ill, and I think it’s selfish to be wanting people to stay behind just for you.”

The last tattoo that Suzie has had done was also done by Jo. It is a poison bottle with a rose, crossbones, and a scroll with her brothers nickname on it. Her brother got it for her twenty-first birthday and so for his she is going to do the same. They are very close, despite an incident when they were younger when he stabbed her with a fork. As he approached the end of school they became best friends. The poison bottle represents the fact that when they’re together they like to party.

“I really love tattoos. It’s a shame that it’s not recognised more as an art-form. It’s weirdly still a taboo even though it’s massively popular. Even now, in nursing, there is a lot of criticism and a lot of discrimination aimed at people who are tattooed. But tattoos have been around for thousands of years, and I find that even people who pretend it’s not a big deal, still make smart-ass comments. People celebrate their love of oil on canvas, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t celebrate ink on skin. I’m not a big person for regrets, so I’ve never regretted my tattoos. Everything you do makes you grow. If you didn’t make mistakes in your life you’d never grow and become a better person.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Riki-Kay, 28

As a young girl, Riki-Kay once drew a picture of a ballerina and showed it to her friends. There was one girl who liked it particularly, someone that had been profoundly effected by it. Today the same things happen with her drawings and that is what continues to drive her. “I’ll just draw something, people will say that’s it’s nice, and then randomly someone will come across it and be in tears. That’s the best feeling in the entire world.”

Riki-Kay has honed her skills since she was a child and continues to work very hard at it. “Drawing is my first memory. I’m kind of addicted to it, like it’s my other half.” Born and raised in Ontario by nomadic parents (their three children were all born in different provinces), she was always supported in her artistic pursuits. Her grandma, also an artist in her own right, would draw and paint with her granddaughter from when she was very small. “We were really tight, us art-weirdos! Like kindred spirits. She taught me how to paint in watercolour, acrylic also. She exposed me to a lot of art from a young age. Also, when I was younger my parents were quite strict in the sense that we were made to do chores. At school I was really active in extra-curricular stuff too. Sports, theatre. I never really cared about having a social life.”

Despite not coming from a religious background, she was taught by her parents to be open-minded to everything. Instead of being focused on one train of thought, her and her siblings were encouraged to become critical thinkers from an early age. In a way that led to her feeling somewhat out of place. “A lot of people I knew had something they could belong to, but I never felt like I really did. But I wouldn’t change that for the world, I love knowing a little bit about a lot of things. Also, there’s nothing wrong with religion, I feel that it’s pure. It’s unfortunate that people associate religion with what people have made it. ‘Do unto others as others will do unto you’ is my golden rule.” She recalls how she used to stay up late into the night discussing politics and philosophy with her father.

Roughly five years ago Riki-Kay was displaying her artwork at a show in Toronto when people started to ask her if she drew tattoos. “The idea of putting drawings onto someones skin? Man, that blew my mind as a kid! It’s like a whole other canvas that you can actually wear!” She remembers a neighbour from when she was a child having loads of tattoos. “I used to just stare at them, they were really blown-out, really shitty, but they were amazing to me. I loved how they’d aged.” Riki-Kay once drew a tribal piece of flash on an envelope and showed it to her dad. “Is this considered artwork, Dad?” she asked. He paused and looked at the drawing. “Yeah, it’s artwork to someone I’m sure.”

But the love of tattooing had been born, and so it came as no surprise to her that people were starting to notice that her art could translate to somebodies skin. There is an old-school quality to it and looks almost like etchings that you feel you might have seen many years ago. There’s a lot of detail in it. She practices Pointillism, the labour-intensive dot-work style, and in order for her to translate that to tattoo flesh, some of the detail would have to be taken out. “So I’m at an interesting transition artistically. Art is going from just my drawings to tattoo requests, so the way I draw things is changing, and the way I see things. Everything is different. I’ve always liked putting things you wouldn’t necessarily see together, together. Or trying to make something pretty that isn’t generally seen as something pretty. When I was in my own little drawing bubble I was drawing darker things like skulls which I thought was really unique at the time, but the more I got exposed to the tattoo world, the more I realised it wasn’t that weird.”

“The industry in this part of Ontario (Waterloo) has changed a lot in the last five to six years. It was really raw hardcore shops, and now it’s expanded to being more about artists who really appreciate the traditional aspect of tattooing. They want to give you something original. They really appreciate when you use their flash, but they particularly want to be doing custom work, which is really nice. The Toronto scene is really different though, filled with a lot of rockstar personalities. It’s very intense and very competitive. But Waterloo, Guelph, Cambridge... You can move throughout the shops and everyone is real friendly.

“I hang out at this cool tattoo shop called Thrive. It’s basically four massive boys who literally have face tattoos and head tattoos and big beards with shaved heads. They’re ‘scary looking’. I hang out with them a lot and they’ve been tattooing me. I’ve definitely started appreciating the experience of getting tattooed. But with mine, there’s pretty much no sob stories. Fortunately, I don’t have a TV, so I have very little exposure to things like LA Ink. I don’t really know what’s going on in that world, but I hear a lot of people complaining about it.”

The first tattoo she ever got was done by Travis McGregor towards the end of high school, and it was one of his very early tattoos. Riki-Kay, not keen on the way black ink fades, was adamant that the tattoo would be done in brown ink. Farsi script that translates into 'Unity of Man Kind.' He wasn’t particularly comfortable with tattooing in script at that point, and she remembers him wanting to tap out when he was only halfway through. “He’s phenomenal now, amazing. So he’s pretty much embarrassed by these tattoos! But that was my first tattoo experience and I loved it.”

Riki-Kay’s lifelong love of art and tattooing has led her to seek out an apprenticeship. “I feel like my whole life has built up to this time and as if I’ve been doing a life-apprenticeship along with what will soon be a tattoo apprenticeship, it’s surreal. The way I’ve trained myself to draw, just picked up books that really interested me, always used that heavy line-work, as if subconsciously I’ve been training myself all along to draw tattoo-style.” But Riki-Kay has found it difficult to find an apprenticeship. “A lot of kids who go into it are 16-18 years old, and they’re already covered in tattoos. They’re obsessed with the industry and hangout at shops, just kinda working their way into it. Any stories you hear about great tattoo artists, well, that’s how it pretty much started for all of them. But I’ve had a strict upbringing, with school and being an athlete, and so now I’m falling into it from a different perspective and at an older age. When I was looking for an apprenticeship in the last four or five years, I was always shot down. They wouldn’t take me seriously because I wasn’t covered, and I hadn’t emerged with the scene. But I kinda like that, it’s made me feel that I have to double=prove myself. And now that I’ve landed an apprenticeship that I’ll start in a few months, I really feel like I’ve had to work very very hard for it, and proved that and consequently won the respect of an amazing tattoo artist.”

“Okay, here’s my sob story, or whatever you wanna call it, my tattoo with ‘meaning’. I like the whole idea of being a trooper and fighting, paying your dues and really work hard, never giving up. I have had to do that with life in general, and so when I came across this saying a long time ago, it really spoke to me” Along the back of her neck she has 'Fluctuat nec Mergitur', a Latin translation of ‘She is tossed by the waves but will not drown.” When she was first getting tattooed she was a bit nervous to get a picture done on her. She felt it was safer to get writing, and so around that time too she also had ‘Petite Femme’ tattooed on her leg and has also had 'PMA' (Positive mental attitude) tattooed on her finger. This was when she was living in BC (British Columbia) and the guys she was hanging out with had all these big bold tattoos, and she was having a hard time wanting to be tattooed like them. Eventually she started to get pictures done though. She has even given one of her legs to her friend Andy, otherwise known as AMFG (Andy 'mother-fucking' Gibson). “I love what he’s done so far on my leg because it’s traditional flash. Sailor Jerry, etc. I love how he’s done them because he hasn’t fucked with them, he’s stuck with the original flash, and I don’t really like a lot of what people are doing with traditional tattoos these days. I'd love to get some of Ben Corday's flash as well as his stuff is super rad and a bit softer. When I start tattooing, I’ve got my other leg for myself.”

Riki-Kay has a big ‘Spider-Mum’ tattooed on her forearm that was done by Chris Anthon at Thrive in Cambridge, Ontario. “The funny thing about that one was that he’d already tattooed it on some guys palm, and then used the same size for it on my forearm and it looks fucking massive! I thought it would be smaller but I still love it. I’m planning for it to join up to some chrysanthemums that I’m going to have done higher up my arm in a traditional Japanese black and grey style. He was the one that taught me how to use watercolour too, so I'm pretty lucky. We paint together all the time, we did the snake on the flash sheet.”

I’ve admired Riki-Kay’s artwork for a while, and before our conversation came to a close, I asked her if she could do a drawing for me, for which she kindly accepted. One of these days, hopefully not in the too distant future, I’ll have a unique Moby-Dick inspired Riki-Kay tattoo on my forearm. Hopefully, it’ll be her that gets to do it.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Alex, London Tattoos

In September of last year, Prestel published ‘London Tattoos’, a visual exploration of tattooed individuals living in London. Recent years have seen the rapid growth of books attempting to portray the world of tattooing, but no other appears to come as close to nailing it as this particular title did. Clear, beautifully designed, and to the point, ‘London Tattoos’ presents a wide-ranging group of individuals in their everyday dress, then shows with great clarity their tattoos and some words from the individuals themselves on what tattooing means to them.

I spoke with Alex MacNaughton this week about how the tattooing community took to a book produced by someone with no tattoos. “I was a bit anxious to know what people would think about it, but so far everyone has really liked it. I was worried people might get anorak-y about it, but I think people appreciated where I was coming from. It was a good cross-section of the tattooed community, but that happened more by luck rather than by design. I was also lucky to have Doctor Matt Lodder write the introduction.”

Alex had done a news job that involved a tattoo artist and eventually got chatting with him. “I’ve always been into graffiti, and have done a few books on the London street art scene, so I had those contacts in the publishing world. Anyway, the guy suggested that I do a book on tattoos.” He looked through books on tattooing and came to the conclusion that they were all rather similar. “There is a weird thing in the tattoo world, everyone wants to say it’s just art now, it’s not about bikers and prisoners anymore, but when you look at the books they’re all gothy and really dark. People say loads of people have tattoos, and that is true, but you still never see a tattoo shop called ‘The-nice-friendly-tattoo-studio’, they’re all called ‘Blood-and-needle’ or whatever. Also, most books aren’t about the people with the tattoos. You see a very tight picture of the tattoo but nothing about the person at all. So the way I pitched it to the publisher was a ‘portrait book of people with tattoos.’ I obviously did the bit that showed details of the tattoos because I realised that essentially the reason for people coming to books on tattoos was to seek inspiration, but I think it really adds to the book when the individual gets to say something about themselves too.”

Initially they set up a website for people to apply, and then they printed out cards that were handed out at nightclubs and similar types of venues in London. There was a surge of interest, which fortunately began to dwindle just as they had the right amount of people for the book. Alex feared that with the sharing capacities of the internet, they might suddenly be bogged down with individuals wanting to be featured, but fortunately they had just the right amount of people and they didn’t have to turn many away. So the individuals were asked to upload photos, the studio was booked and they were asked to come at certain times, and those that turned up were the ones that eventually made it into the book.

“I think we ended up with a really interesting cross-section of the tattoo world. There were one or two elements of that that I feel we missed out on. It would have been cool to have a biker, or perhaps an old guy with aged prison tattoos, but maybe they’re not the sort of people who are tied into the tattoo-blog world. The book has some extremely tattoo-covered people in it, but there is n0-one with anything particularly controversial in there. I don’t want people to think this is wrong, but it may have been interesting to get someone with something a bit like that. But it would have been awkward to figure out just how to place them in the book.”

“The book itself was designed in Germany. Prestel have a series of books at the moment that use a certain template. One is called ‘Style Diaries’ which was a book about people that write style blogs from all these random places in the world, like Minnesota. They photograph themselves in clothes, write about them, and have these massive followings. So the same template was used for ‘London Tattoos’ and it worked really well, because it gave us a lot of pages and was nice and chunky. There was an option to do a bigger book, but it would have had fewer pages.”

They chose Grace Neutral (soon to be on Tales of the Ink) to feature on the cover of the book. Grace is a tattooer and piercer at Red Inc in London. “Grace is amazing. She was one of these people that just turned up and you could have almost done a book on just her. Getting the cover right is a really big thing and there were a number of choices we tried to work with. But there was just this sweetness to her, something about her. The way she looked. It just worked. It tied in really well with how I look at tattoos, the way she just sort of turned up, right down to her grubby plimsolls.”

After having the initial idea for the book, there were a few false starts. They weren’t entirely sure how they were going to do it. Eventually Alex decided that the easiest way to go about it would be to go directly to the people with the tattoos. There had been a few attempts at going through the tattoo shops, but it can be quite political, and tattoo artists move around a lot. “You can speak to somebody one day, but then suddenly they’re not there when you come around to speaking with them again. There were only a few months between the website going live, and then the manuscript being delivered to the publisher. So despite it being quite a process, it was quite swift in the end.”

Alex MacNaughton

London Tattoo book website

Profoto blog post

Tattoosday book review

Sleazemag book review (in German)