Simultaneously honouring traditions and breathing new life into tired ideas, artists Dan Crowe and Jack Watts have been humbly producing clean and timeless work from the heart of London’s Sang Bleu, and in doing so, have joined a lineage of tattooists with an incredible passion for history, but a sharp vision for tomorrow. As part of our new on-going joint-interview series ‘Split-Sheet’, we paired them up to demystify their beginnings in tattooing, how they both came to work together and what they feel they owe to the tattooists of yesterday.
Can you speak to your relationship with tattooing?
Jack: I remember being pretty young and seeing an old man covered in piercings and tattoos who lived where I’m from. He used to wear these little skirts and I thought he was amazing. Some of my friends were scared of him, but I found him fascinating. I later found out he was called John Lynch, and he was a record holder for a while as the most pierced senior man. He died a few years ago. I think early exposure to that level of self-expression definitely had an effect on me and created an interest in that world that seemed to come back to me when I was older. I used to paint and draw with my Dad when I was a kid, but by the time I was in secondary school, I didn’t really treat art as a practice apart from doodling. When I was at school I studied art, but never really found my thing. It wasn’t until I left school and went to university to study photography that my interest in art really developed. I made friends with the artist Steven Pippin and he introduced me to a lot and opened my mind to the possibilities. It was at this point I was getting tattooed. I had my first tattoo at 18 at this pretty terrible shop where I live. Luckily, I wised-up quickly and started getting tattooed at Bluebird Tattoo in Watford by Martin Clark. A lot of people won’t know who Martin is but he’s been tattooing for about 20-years. He was Lal Hardy’s apprentice! After getting tattooed there a fair bit we became friends and I started helping out at the shop. I did this for about 2-years, and during this period my drawing had developed and I started putting it all out there in the form of the zine ‘Tattoos For Your Enemies’. After those 2-years, Martin offered to teach me to tattoo, and I went from there. I loved working with Martin and I wouldn’t be tattooing without him.
Dan: My first memories of tattoos weren’t until I was around 12-years-old since nobody in my family had them. I started skating, and that leads to listening to punk which opened the doors to the world of tattooing for me. The second I first saw them was the second I fell in love with them. I left school at 16 and called every tattoo shop I could, asking for an apprenticeship. Steve Evans, the owner of Mantra 2 in West Drayton – formerly owned by Derek Campbell, answered and told me to come down with some of my work. I spent the next week trying to pad-out the atrocity that was my portfolio. When I went in he told me that I was lucky that I left it a week. If I had come to the shop the same day as I made contact he would have said no, and it was only that day that I went in that he had decided he was willing to take someone on. I didn’t get it through talent or anything. It was pure luck. I spent the next 2-years there working 7-days a week grafting the traditional way. It was tough and brutal, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
How did you both come to work out of Sang Bleu? Has working in such a vibrant creative space influenced how you approach and think about tattooing?
D: I started working at Sang Bleu about a month after the shop opened. I lived opposite the place, and at the time I was doing a long commute to Phil Kyle’s shop in Brighton, Magnum Opus. I was ready to work closer to home. I went in to get tattooed by Javi Rodriguez, and a week later I asked for a job. Maxime was kind enough to have me. I’ve been there ever since! Sang Bleu has been massive for me. Being around everyone that is constantly pushing to get to the next step within what they’re doing has certainly kept me on my toes and inspired me. We all do something different at Sang Bleu, but at the same time, we all hold an equal love for tattooing. I think that’s what pushes each of us forward.
J: Two of my good friends, Frank Carter and Sarah Schor, started working at Sang Bleu, and at the time I’d left Bluebird and was working with my lovely friends at Duke St. in Essex – everyone’s my friend, I’m very lucky! Frank could see that I maybe needed more help with what I was doing, so after confirming with Maxime, brought me over, and I’ve been there ever since. It’s a great shop! It’s inspiring to be surrounded by people doing such different work. Its allowed me to grow as an artist and develop my style into something I feel comfortable with. My thoughts on tattooing were pretty solid early on from having a good grounding from Martin and Lal Hardy – I respect it so much! I regularly visit another friend of mine in George Bone, who is a huge inspiration to myself and Dan. We’ve formed a great friendship with George, and if anyone reading this doesn’t know who he is, they should look him up and go get tattooed.
D: Getting tattooed by George, who has been tattooing since he was 14-years-old and is now in his 70’s, and loves it as much now as he did then, was inspiring to say the least. I hope that one day I’ll be the same. My favourite tattoos I have are from the older generation of tattooers. The whole experience is a learning curve that you just can’t get anywhere else.
Jack, there are a number of reoccurring characters and motifs featured in your work. How did they develop? What influences what you do?
J: I have a few ways of drawing, but a lot of it is referenced from older tattoo flash. I have a huge respect and interest in the history of tattooing, and so I love working in this way. I also look at a lot of old advertisements, antiques and postcard-art. I love automatic drawing – a method adopted from the surrealists, where you let the pencil glide across the paper without thought to create marks. These marks are then studied for an image that I work on until it’s tattoo-able. I don’t use this as often now as I used to, but it’s certainly a way of creating something unique. All of these things combined make my work what it is.
Your work is incredibly unique but sits so naturally on the skin. Were you always able to inject so much personality into your work, or did you first have to cut your teeth in more traditional areas of tattooing?
J: I was very lucky that I started out tattooing my own designs, which is something I appreciate, but sort of regret. I’d love to be a more versatile artist, but this is something I certainly plan to work on in the future. I really enjoy creating designs that make people smile. I think people can get too caught up in a tattoo having some deep meaning, which is nice, but you can also just get tattooed because you like the image. I had a fairly traditional apprenticeship. I spent 2-years cleaning the shop and running errands, so I definitely felt like I earnt it, but I was lucky to do my own thing right away.
What is it that attracts you to traditional imagery, Dan?
D: I love how something that’s so simple can be so strong and powerful. To me, traditional imagery just speaks the most truth in what tattooing is. Don’t get me wrong, I love most tattooing styles within reason, but traditional imagery holds a strength that fascinates me. I think that the simplicity means you can fully appreciate every single part of that image without details getting lost within each other. It all stands alone, and nothing is hidden.
Your tattoos are incredibly bold and have a striking thickness to them. What is it you feel you’re trying to achieve with each tattoo you produce?
D: Again, for me, it all comes down to trying to make something appear as strong as it can be. I want my tattoos to stand out and be seen. I guess that’s why I like to keep everything bold and fairly thick – so you can’t help but see it! For me, I like to try and keep in mind that I want my tattoos to be unmissable.
London is renowned for boundary-pushing tattooing. Do you feel the city has affected how you approach your work? How do you breath fresh ideas and concepts into traditional imagery?
D: There are some boundaries being pushed that I like, and some I definitely don’t, but a lot of that is going to come and go, and come and go again. I wouldn’t say the city has affected how I approach my work. I want to tattoo the best I possibly can. I keep it fairly simple, I try to draw and paint what I like and find interesting, and what I think other people will like and find interesting.
Tell me about Polt Her Geist, Jack?
J: Polt Her Geist came together about 3-years back. It’s kind of an art project that’s focused on the Enfield Poltergeist case. The songs and artwork are inspired by the supernatural, and the happenings of that case in particular.
I don’t really draw any parallels between music and tattooing when it comes to my band. I tattoo a lot of people in bands, but for me, the band is an escape from everything. It’s actually probably the only time I think about anything that’s not tattoo related! The band is inspired by bands like Converge and The Locust. I wanted us to write music that sounded like the gates of Hell opening, and all the nasties flooding the landscape. I feel like we’ve achieved that! The band’s releasing a 7” on May 5th with our pals label LP Café, and I’ve painted all of the artwork for it. It’s all watercolour, so it’s very different to my tattoos.
You can find more from the pair on social media or at Sang Bleu London.