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David Corden – The Portrait Tattoo Master

David Corden – The Portrait Tattoo Master

It’s taken a while, but it is finally here! This interview with David Corden has taken close to a year to get into the magazine and has definitely proven to be the biggest challenge. The interview itself began after Tattoo Tea Party at around midnight. David Corden and I had just started when I realised that the batteries had died on the Dictaphone. After a frantic jog to the late night shop, we were back in business. But the fun didn’t end there.

The interview was held in the hotel lobby with a steady flow of Tattoo Tea Party-goers stumbling back to their hotel rooms, keeping us entertained as we worked. By the time we were done, it was very late, and we were both ready to get some sleep. With the interview finally in the bag, it would just be a matter of transcribing it onto paper from the recording.

However, back at the office as I set about transcribing it, all I could hear was background noise from the escalator in the hotel lobby. Disaster! The interview had been such a long time coming, taken so long to arrange and deprived us both of so much sleep; I was determined to salvage it somehow. It has taken this long to find the right software to filter the noise and get it transcribed ready for print.

So here you go, I do hope you appreciate it!

Interview – Sam Ford
Photos – David Corden

Due to the sheer length of this interview (over 9,000 words), we have broken it up into chapters so you can come back and read it later.

CHAPTERS: 1. 2. 3.

David Corden – Chapter 1

So when was your first tattoo?
It would have been seven years ago, in June 2006 I think. My first tattoo was a portrait of Jack Nicholson from The Shining. My cousin said I could do my first tattoo on him – he was already being tattooed by Jim, my boss who was training me. I assumed my cousin was going to ask for something fairly simple, so I asked him what he wanted, and he said a portrait of Jack Nicholson. ‘Haha’ I said ‘seriously what do you want?’And He said he wanted a portrait of Jack Nicholson from The Shining! I said ‘oook I’ll ask Jim if I can do it.’

So I told Jim, and he said go for it – he admitted he thought it was going to be a bit of a fuck up really but as long as my cousin was willing for me to give it a go then hell yeah. If I ever did a drawing of a portrait it would always be freehand so to suddenly have a stencil felt like painting by numbers – I thought ‘how do you get this wrong?’ So the stencil went on, and it was on his calf, so it was a lovely piece of meat. I was spoilt – I didn’t have to stretch it much, the ink went in perfectly, and he’s got loads of tattoos, so he sat well. I just thought tattooing was pretty easy to be honest because at that point I hadn’t tattooed flabby skin or skin where the ink wouldn’t go in so I thought every tattoo would just be like that. I thought it was easy. I did this lovely soft grey shape – more so than I would now because Jim had said ‘water your inks down and layer them’ rather than going in too heavy because you can’t remove it. So that’s exactly what I did. I just watered everything down and took my time and gradually built them up – and we nailed it first go! I was really proud of it. Jim just gave me loads of grief and was like ‘fuck you’. We were really proud of it – we knew that we’d done a nice job of it.

I’m still stunned sometimes when you see portraits that have gone so horrifically wrong when you use a stencil. It’s just like, well, why did you put the eye there when it’s not there!? It does baffle me, it really does. You’re the same; you do realism.

Yeah, it’s the most natural thing in the world
Yeah, I guess it does come naturally.

David Corden Portrait Tattoo Stan Lee

So how do you feel about the people that say realism isn’t really art? There’s been word of a few tattooists that say realism artists aren’t real artists because they’re literally just copying pictures, and anyone can do it.
Then they should do it, shut up.

Yeah, it really riles me that comment.
It’s not that we can’t do other things. It’s just that this is what our choice has been. I love copying pictures; I love trying to produce a photograph and make it look photographic – that gives me my kicks. I can paint, I can draw I can do other things, but I’ve chosen to specialise in realism. It’s the same with a Japanese artist – does everybody assume that’s all they can do? No? We assume that they’ve chosen to go down the Japanese route because they love it just like traditional artists. I know many traditional artists that are incredible artists and love doing traditional work, but a lot of the stuff they do on canvas doesn’t have black outlines, or is graphic even, and it doesn’t make them any less an artist or any more a tattooist because they did something with a black outline. There is no one rule that fits, and you can’t make everybody happy. You’ve got to make yourself happy really. I’m not going to do tattoos to please the people that think I’m doing the wrong thing – I’m going to keep doing what makes me happy. You know, I’m responsible for my happiness, not them – I don’t give a shit about their lives. Do what you want to do – I’m not judging you for it. Just leave me to get on with it. You know we’ve got enough clients coming to us – we’ve got year long waiting lists, two years if we choose to book up that far ahead, so a few people out there think we’re doing alright. That’s my audience really – they’re the people that I want to do the work for. I’m not going to suddenly go and put a big black solid 4mm black outline around all this because somebody thinks I should.

Do you get tempted to try something new? Do you get restricted by clients that know you for doing top class realism? Do you find that that’s literally all they want from you?
Yeah, they’re starting to get more… not adventurous… they’re starting to be more trusting I think. The bigger your portfolio gets, and the longer you’ve been doing it, then they’re a bit more willing to let you try new things. And I want to, that’s the thing, I mean I do agree in that I don’t think I‘m a great tattooist… yet! I can reproduce a picture on the skin, but a great tattooist to me is somebody that then adds a flourish to it that wasn’t there in the original and makes it a better fit, a better piece.

“I can’t do maths – I’m number dyslexic – so you’re never going to let me be your accountant. Yet you’ll let any fuck with a tattoo machine tattoo you whether they can draw or not.”

Yeah, it’s all about how it fits on the body.

You can’t just plonk a picture on and say, ‘oh but it’s a perfect copy.’
And that’s exactly what I used to do… But make it fit my forearm better. Rather than just like, that face there, right, there it is, give me the money.

You do notice with portraits. For example, where you’ve got a floating head, put a bit of something around it, and it completely transforms it.
Exactly, I’m still learning – I don’t think you’ll ever stop learning. And the more friends you make and the more influences… Every style influences me because you’ll suddenly add a graphic element to something hyper-realistic and it makes it a much nicer piece. When I first started, I didn’t have the confidence to do it.

And that’s a big part of it isn’t it? It’s the confidence in knowing that somebody trusts you to use your own judgment.
And thinking your own ideas are good enough for the client.

Yeah, it takes a bit of time. But once you get to that point they keep coming and it kind of snowballs a little bit.
Yeah, I mean, I spent 20 years on a building site and I didn’t draw, you know, I’d never done art for a living until I started tattooing, so there’s a massive, massive chunk of learning that I’ve not had, and I’m getting it now. There are people that kill me at the moment with the tattooing – I know I’m doing ok with the copying side, so I give it everything I’ve got at the moment. And I’m gradually getting adventurous and confident enough to try these new things and add these little flourishes and these little tweaks and things to make a better tattoo. There are old tattoos of mine where I think ‘I’ve had this idea’ and I then go and make it a better piece. Then I‘ll get to a point where suddenly I’ll think that’s not good enough for me. I need a… I kind of want to find a signature that’s mine.

Koi tattoo by David Corden

People can tell your work instantly anyway generally.
I mean this is the thing, but I just think how? I’m just copying a picture.

I think I’m similar to you – you think you don’t have a style because you’re copying something but others instantly recognise it as your work. So there must be something about it that makes it yours.
Yeah, there must be, but I can’t see what it is.

But you want something bigger something that actually says ‘it’s mine.’
Yeah, I want that Jeff Gouge thing that he does where everybody just goes ‘that’s Jeff Gogue.’ If you copy it everybody knows you’ve copied Jeff Gogue, you know? I’d like there to be a David Corden something to my pieces.

I mean you could make a career out of just copying.
Yeah, I probably could.

You know at the beginning you do free tattoos to try new things – is that something you’d like to try now to step away from the realism?
Yeah, I do a lot of free tattoos. I’ve got a lot of people that would trust me to do stuff anyway but then I prepare – I don’t just wing stuff on the day.

God, you’re the complete opposite to me, the complete opposite!
Photoshop is my safety net because I’ll prepare something to give to the client and say ‘look, this is my idea, it will fit you here on that bit of skin.’ We’ve all had it, the client that literally unless they see it on a picture on them, cannot visualise it.

See I’ve been so lucky up until now because 90% of my clients come to me and trust me and they don’t know what they’re getting, even if it’s a portrait because I don’t draw anything up beforehand as a general rule. I’ll freehand on, or I’ll do a little doodle on them – my stuff never looks like it’s going to look when I finish it, and every single person that sits in that chair trusts me. I still can’t get me head around it – I think it’s ridiculous. It’s amazing, but it’s ridiculous!
Yeah, it really is.

Tim Burton - Mad Hatter

But I do find I really struggle to draw something up beforehand. I actually can’t draw on paper nearly as well as I can draw on the skin.
Neither can I. I can if I’m copying something – I can make it look photographic on paper.

I can’t even do that – I can’t even do portraits on paper. I went to draw pencil portrait on paper last week for the first time in 14 years. I didn’t start drawing portraits on paper before I started on skin. I feel at home tattooing – take me away from that and I completely…
I think tattooing is easier than drawing.

Yeah, massively.

So did Jim ask you to do a lot of drawing as part of your apprenticeship? Because some people say now if you’re not drawing everyday you don’t deserve to be a tattooist – you don’t deserve to get your foot in the door. How do you feel about that?
I don’t think that’s true. I think you should be able to draw in order to be a tattooist. I don’t think you should have to draw every day to prove you’re worthy of being a tattooist. But I do think you need some artistic ability. I can’t do maths – I’m number dyslexic – so you’re never going to let me be your accountant. Yet you’ll let any fuck with a tattoo machine tattoo you whether they can draw or not. If drawing is not your life or art is not your life – if you’ve just seen it on TV and think it’s an awesome job then f*** off – work at a supermarket and do something else. If you have got art in your blood and you desire to be an artist, and tattooing is where you’d like to express that art, then that’s amazing.

Portrait - Ali

When I started tattooing for the first year or two (I obviously come from a different background with my dad being a tattoo artist) I was just allowed to just… he didn’t have any say in me doing it or not doing it. I think he probably didn’t want me to do it.
You clearly have a talent for art.

But I didn’t have any desire to be a tattoo artist – I just fell into it. I didn’t have a passion for it – my passion has grown over the years.
So did I – I was offered the job four years before I took it.

I think everybody’s giving everybody a hard time a little bit too much – I think it’s definitely a passion that can grow.
Yeah but I mean if you can’t draw skin’s not the place to learn. Obviously, you’ve got a talent that you can see. You can draw on paper, you’ve done paintings – there’s ability there, and it’s like ‘ok, you could be good actually, and you fancy tattooing? Ok, I’ll teach you.’ But if you can only draw a stick man, then piss off. There are a lot of people who want to be singers – if they can’t sing they’re not going to be famous. You know, X Factor is full of these people that we take the mick out of, why don’t they do the same with tattooing? There are all these home kits, and there are all these tattooists tattooing from home… Some incredible artists come from being self-taught, but some awful, awful things happen to people. Tattoo parties where some God knows what is going to tattoo you all when you’re drunk and probably use the same needles. We know several people come into us and show us tattoos where they were so drunk they don’t even remember getting the tattoo, and there are groups of them. These people have no right to be going round to somebody’s house anyway. I mean yeah, I did fall into tattooing – it was never a career choice, it was never something I ever dreamt I’d do. I didn’t know you could do what we do now. I’d only ever seen my dad’s old navy tattoos.

Is Jim a realism artist?
He does all sorts of things.


So when you first started out did he follow the thought of you having to master all sorts of things before choosing a specific genre?
Yeah, I did loads. I did all of the studio’s tribal, all of the stars, all of the names, all of the Chinese symbols…

Because today you get a lot of apprentices saying ‘I want to do this.’
Yeah and they’re allowed to. I think if anything I’m a bit jealous of it because for three years I had to do what I was told and then after three years Jim said ‘right, ok, now do what you want to do.’ And from that day I started doing quite a few free pin-ups and things in order to get them in my portfolio because I knew I could, but I couldn’t show anybody that I could. It was just this trust issue. I got friends and sometimes just clients off the street and said ‘look, from the strength of these other pieces I’ve done, would you trust me to do this?’ and they said yeah. You know, some people got free ones some people got very reduced rates. My portfolio was building enough then I was like ‘look, I can do these things, will you trust me enough to do this design?’ I think that’s a good way of doing it. You should never be arrogant – you’re never too good to do a free tattoo. If it’s going to further your career than just do it – It’s a day’s work, you know?

Often for the sake if you’re just going to really enjoy it.
You are! That’s the thing; you’re going to have the most fun doing the tattoo than you’ve had in a very long time if it’s one that you’ve chosen and you really want to do it. I’ve got friends that have gotten into tattooing and from day one they are allowed to do anything they want to do, and I’m as jealous as hell because they’re getting there so much quicker. The technique takes a while to master obviously, you’ve got to practice it, but from day one their portfolio has got a couple of portraits. And they’re doing well, that’s the thing, and I don’t think they’re awful portraits.

Yeah, it’s very quick progression.
Incredibly quick progression. I was talking to Lal Hardy probably a year or more ago, and he said that there’s incredible talent coming through, and something he thinks is a real shame is that knowledge is so easily available on the internet now that it has taken some of the magic away from learning. When he was learning he’d go to a convention, and he’d watch somebody that he really admired, and they’d give him a little tip on something and he said it was like being given a diamond – you’d take that back to your studio and you’d master that tip, that technique, that new thing for months and it may teach you something else as well. And he said that it was just the most amazing thing. Now he said there are people that say ‘I want to be a tattooist on Tuesday’, and they can go online and they’ve got access to the best advice in the world, every bit of information you possibly need – nobody’s grateful for it anymore.

666 Photography - Winter Muertos

It’s almost like everyone is a bit blasé about tattooing and about talent as well.


David Corden – Chapter 2

There are a lot of realism artists… you go to a convention and people make jokes when like ‘ah there’s another colour realism coming in for the competition’ or whatever and I feel there is a massive difference in the quality of these tattoos but people don’t see the difference. It’s not just the general public but the tattoo artists as well who can’ tell the difference between the quality of a good piece of realism and something that is literally on another level.
Both tattoo artists could get a likeness 100%… For instance John Anderton is just perfect – everybody looked and said ‘wow’ but as a tattooist you looked and though ‘it’s flawless’ – the ink had been put in so smoothly.

It makes you so happy.
As a tattoo artist, somebody who does it every day, you go ‘geez he nailed that’ – it’s not just a likeness you know he made an incredibly tattoo – the technical side of it was flawless, and it deserved to win. There may have been other pieces there that looked just like the person, or looked just like the picture, but that deserved to win because it had everything. But you are right – people looking would go ‘yeah but I think the portrait of Elvis is better’ and it’s just because they like Elvis – it’s not because they know anything about tattoos.

Yeah, how do you feel about that because there seems to be this thing that it’s all about the person that you tattoo rather than the quality of the tattoo?
Yeah, generally you’d see that if two pieces went up and one was of someone’s grandma and one was of Elvis – Elvis is probably going win because people know Elvis.

Even if it’s a poorer likeness, they’d prefer the Elvis tattoo just because they recognized it.
Exactly, they don’t know your grandma, but it could be a far better tattoo. I don’t take it personally; you know, if a client enters one of my tattoos and it doesn’t win I don’t think ‘oh, everything was better than mine.’ There are four judges on the stage that are saying this is the one we liked – it doesn’t mean that the whole auditorium thinks that one was the best. Sometimes it’s not that they all give it a 10 – sometimes some of them love it, some of them hate it, and something that they think is pretty average between them ends up with the best score! So even they are surprised by the things that sometimes win because it wasn’t a clear 10 10 10 across the board. You mustn’t take that personally – it’s just a bit of fun. Make sure that at every convention, with every tattoo you do, you are as near to 100% happy as you can be – the clients going to be happy anyway.

I think that applies not just to conventions but everyday work.

Do you find you’re at a level now that you’ve been at for a little while or do you find it gets harder as you get better?
The second you start getting known, and as soon as you win one or more awards, the pressure is on to produce something amazing every single day because the more and more people are watching you. And they want you to f*** up – they want to be able to say ‘see, he’s done a shit tattoo.’ There are a lot of people that genuinely want to see you have a really bad day.

Do you honestly think so?
Yeah definitely, especially the people that don’t like your work anyway, they’re hanging on Instagram or Facebook for that picture. I’ve posted pictures before of pin ups where people have said ‘ergh she’s got a clubbed foot’ and they literally don’t understand what perspective is. I’m like well ‘I’ve taken a photo of this straight on so her foot is actually wrapped round the arm so of course it’s going to look like that.’ I’m not even going to get into an argument with them – they’re that fucking dumb they’re not even going to get my explanation. They probably think cows in fields are tiny because they don’t understand that they’re far away!


As much as you put your work out there all that really matters is you and your client.
Yeah, you know what it’s like, you put up a picture and you get a hundred comments that are incredible but you get one bad one and your week is ruined because it’s the bad one that you remember.

This week for the first time I finished a portrait on a guy that was so excited to be tattooed by me, which I was pretty happy with, and he e–mailed me an hour after he got home with a close up picture of his portrait and a close up picture of his son and said ‘oh, can we just make a few adjustments?’ And I was literally heartbroken – I felt sick, I didn’t know how to take it.
I did one of a women’s daughter as a fairy for her and she got home and one of her friends said the nose was wrong so she got in touch and she said ‘oh, can you change the nose?’ I was gutted but I said ‘of course you can – if you think there is something that needs to be done to make it look more like your daughter then you just let me know.’ And for a week I was like ‘God dammit, I’ve fucked up.’ But then she got back to me a week later and said she didn’t agree after she’d seen a photo of it. But it just sucks your soul – it’s horrible, really horrible because we are putting ourselves out there to nail it for them.

I don’t think I’ve put out a portrait yet that I’m 100% happy with.
That’s the thing, sometimes I’ll put up a picture and people say ‘how do you get your whites so white?’ But of course I don’t every time – sometimes the clients really red and I’m not going to put that one up – I post the ones that come out really nicely. Other ones I’ll post already healed but everybody just assumes that every tattoo is prefect and they’re not. Sometimes you just get one of those perfect skin, perfect client days.

Have you ever had a day where it’s just not gone right and you’ve sent the client home?
Only ever when it’s been through swelling or blood, and it’s usually been drug related so they’re on medication or somebody that’s not particularly fit and they have high blood pressure or something like that.


But you’ve never had a situation where you just mentally can’t get in the zone with it?
No. I’ve had days where I just didn’t want to be there but that was just when I was learning and doing tribal, and I was just colouring in black, but then you do learn a lot from it.

Do you still do any of that?
No, because there are people in the studio that like to do it, and I’m busy enough just doing things that I want to do. I’m so, so blessed that I can pick and chose.

It is a privilege isn’t it?
Oh yeah, don’t take it for granted.

I’ve still got clients that I had six years ago.
I honour the first clients, yeah – I’m here because of them. ‘Oh, but I only trust you to do it’ they’ll say and after that, you won’t see them again for another five years. But yeah, you kind of owe it to them. Also, if somebody was an early client and they remain regular then they’re still on the price I started with – it’s a thank you for being a regular client. Because it is good money being a tattooist and when you are making good money just don’t lose sight of that fact that we’re taking more than a week’s wages for some people for what we do. We’re drawing pictures, and people are giving us a massive amount of trust – it’s not as simple as that, but I know what it’s like working on building sites and getting up at 4.30 each morning, travelling, getting stuck in traffic and then knocking your heart out doing hard labour. Then you come home, get five minutes sleep, and then you’re back at it again. Now I sit in a nice air-conditioned studio – food, drink – it’s all on hand. I’m meeting a new person every day, we get to play our own music, it’s warm, it’s dry and I draw pictures – that’s my job.

It’s pretty awesome isn’t it?
It’s amazing.

Do you think tattooing as an industry at the moment is running away with itself? I’m talking about the artists that are never happy, who don’t understand that it’s a privilege to even tattoo somebody in the first place.
Yeah, some of the people that are the worst for that are the people that have always been artists and not done, I still say, ‘real work’ – tattooing is work, but it’s a different thing. Especially if you’re an apprentice, and you’re in an area where it’s not as busy as it is for us and you do rely on a walk-in trade – that’s a lot more work I would say. You don’t know what you’re going to get every day, a lot of the time it is something that your heart is not into, but you have to earn money to pay the bills and to eat – then it becomes a job – then it’s hard work. But if you are lucky enough like we are to have been in a good area and have had a good training I suppose – I don’t know, it’s a lot of dumb luck to get where we are now – then don’t lose sight of how lucky you are. A lot of the people that post snide comments are probably the people that really have to work at it – they know they’ve got the talent, but they’ve just not been given that break.


A lot of people are becoming quite selfish and are moaning about having to tattoo what the client wants instead of what they want to do. Of course, I’m talking from a privileged position, and I do get to chose what I tattoo now, but I’ve done a few years ok it, and I loved it. You know, I did 13 hours of tribal once which almost killed me, but I didn’t hate it. But there are some people that have only been tattooing for a year and are like ‘fucking tribal!’
Yeah, that annoys me, the people that within the first year are already spitting their dummy out because they don’t want to do stars. Unless you’re working in your own studio, if you have a boss that says ‘today you’re doing tribal’, then you’re doing fucking tribal, and you’ll be grateful you’ve got a job in the business.

And half the people that moan about doing tribal couldn’t do a good piece of tribal is they tried!
Yeah, exactly, and it’s not just young people getting into it, it’s all age groups.

Yeah, there just seems to be a feeling of unrest, and I get tired of the moaning from every level – Even though I’m moaning now!
There’s always something to moan about – I think that’s the nature of us. We also sit around at conventions; there’s a pretty big family of us isn’t there? And we do sit there and say ‘we are pretty dammed lucky aren’t we?’

There are people that work a damn sight harder than us for a hell of a lot less.
Yeah, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of people that are doing the best in the industry have a real appreciation of how lucky they are to be where they are. They really enjoy what they do, and they are really, really grateful and appreciative to the clients. To be successful is also to appreciate that you’re lucky to be there and you should be thankful to the clients, and I always say thank you to clients at the end of the day because they always thank us for the tattoo. Especially somebody who has come to me for their first tattoo, I always give them a real special thank you at the end because your first tattoo has a massive amount of trust involved. There are artists all over England, all over the world, to choose from, but they chose you – that’s a big deal.

Especially people that travel to you as well.
Yeah, it is a really big deal. And they are going to give you a big chunk of cash. I do know people whose prices don’t reflect their work and who just want more money just because they want a new car.

Portrait - Chunk

I think tattooists do live in their own little bubble sometimes. It’s easy to forget that some people have worked a week to pay you for a couple of hours.
And we still moan about God knows what but I think that’s just human nature. We aren’t tattooists unless we have people to tattoo – we’re just people in an empty studio.

You do a lot of travelling, and you’ve been privileged enough to meet some of the best artists in the industry, how does this influence you and your work?
It gives you tons to aspire to. You’re obviously reaching a certain level in order to get the invites to this convention, which is an honour in the first place, but you get there, and you’re suddenly presented with another level. We did Paradox didn’t we last year and it’s like swimming with armbands again – you’re suddenly around people that look so comfortable and at home with what they do.

But it’s not daunting, it’s inspiring.
It is amazing, but if that had come too early in your career, I don’t think you would have appreciated it. In the first year tattooing my boss flew me to Madrid while he got two days tattooing by Robert Fernandez so I spent two days in his studio watching, but I didn’t get as much from it as I would now because I’d probably only done a dozen tattoos at that point. I didn’t know what I was watching – I was watching the magic happen on the skin. I wasn’t used to using a machine or anything at all, and then you’re watching Robert Fernandez work and it just happens – this picture appears on the skin, and you think ‘that’s not possible’ but I just watched it. Now I’d think ‘oh right, he does it like this.’

So if you find a picture that inspires you on Instagram can you break it down and understand how it was done? Can you learn just from looking at the picture? I’ve noticed myself doing that now.
Yeah, you know that you could replicate your version of it – it may take you longer, but you know you could do a passable piece. My first tattoo was a portrait and as I said it came out really well but my boss – which pissed me off at the time – said ‘It’s come out fantastic, now I’m going to teach you to tattoo’, and he didn’t let me do another portrait for three years. It did send me mental, but my next portrait was much, much better – I’d learnt how to put ink in and do grey shade. That’s the thing, I didn’t always enjoy tribal but with that much shading, you learn every technique and by the time you come to do other things you realise that it has become second nature. It’s more about focusing on the details and making sure you can get them all – the tattooing side of it is just that thing you do. I was talking to Ed when he was our apprentice when I’d only been tattooing officially for a year, and I remember telling him that I don’t remember the day when I no longer… I hadn’t actually thought about the act of tattooing – I was like ‘right, what image is it today!’ And that’s pretty cool – you don’t realise that you’ve got to that comfortable stage. But then you get a client where you can’t get the ink in for love nor money! It was really humbling at Paradise where Bob Tyrell said that that he sometimes gets clients where every line is scratchy, and he shading goes to shit and you think, ‘God, Bob Tyrell has bad days, it’s not just me!’

Everyone has a bad day, that’s the thing – you just assume that you’re the only one.
Every picture you see of your heroes is another amazing tattoo – they just put the best pictures up. They don’t show you the bloody ones or the swollen ones, or the ongoing pieces you know. I only post finished pieces. If I’m doing a back piece, I don’t post every section of it because by the time you come to post it people think ‘I’ve seen most of that, yeah it’s come out nice.’ I wait to post the finished piece – it has more impact. There are little bits that you do nail on a back piece that you want to show everyone, but you have to hold back as it will take away the wow factor. There have been times where it’s been two or three weeks before I put anything up at all – people are like ‘are you alive?’ But I’m just doing bigger pieces.

Portrait - Ingrid Bergman


David Corden – Chapter 3

Do you think the display of your work is as much a part of your tattoo career now as the tattooing itself? In a few years time do you think you won’t even bother posting pictures up?
No, I think I’ll always post pictures because if you’re doing art for other people, there is an instinct to seek approval. You can be told by everybody you meet that the piece you did was the best piece they’d ever seen, but if you don’t think it is, then as lovely as the comment is, it doesn’t mean that much to you. We’re always searching to do that piece that we think is the best one we’ve done. The few people that think they have reached that point are arrogant and deluded.

Do you think your age played a part in how quickly you learnt?
Yeah, I think it has because I got into it later and I realised that my window was finite. Coming from a job where if you don’t turn up for work and do your job properly then people die meant that I had a strong work ethic. I don’t like the young people that don’t want to know what’s gone before – they see their heroes, and they want to be next to them as quickly as they possibly can, and they don’t have any regard for what it took for their heroes to get there.

Yeah, everybody just wants to be a name. It’s not even about how good their tattooing is – it’s more about how famous they are and how many followers they’ve got.
There are a lot of famous artists, not just tattooists, whose work is awful.

Well it’s always been said that with art as an industry it’s who you know – it’s all about how a certain piece gets portrayed. It’s the same with tattooing – all it takes is one piece to get yourself noticed.
Exactly, I’ve never understood how an ‘Art Critic’ is a job – it’s just saying you like something or you don’t. ‘Oh I’ve read enough books about Art’, ‘good for you – can you paint? No.’ You’re not going to look at a Van Gogh and tell me what he thought when he painted it. He was probably planning what he was going to have for lunch or whatever; you don’t know. I find that really bizarre that a life can be made around giving an opinion about something – what makes their opinion better than anybody else’s? But that’s just society.

But the internet has turned everybody into a critic.
Yeah, exactly, you see some people getting so angry because you don’t care about their opinion. We’ve all seen a picture on the internet that we hate – I just go to the next picture and don’t look at it again. But some people just have to make the nastiest comment they can. I actually find it quite comical that they get that arsey about it.

Portrait - Quint

The most bizarre thing though is that people think they have a right to comment on tattoos. You don’t tell somebody that you don’t like something about them in many other aspects, but as soon as it’s about a tattoo everybody feels that they have to have an opinion on it and tell you.
I had somebody have a go at me once about a picture saying that I was copying a certain artist until I pointed out that mine was posted two months before theirs and that they’d actually credited me for being an inspiration for the piece! Some people are so stupid. I will never copy a tattoo – everybody sees a style and does something with it, but I always credit the person. Similarly, if I’m copying an artwork, I’ll always credit the artist. And, if it’s the first time I’ve done a certain artists’ piece, I’ll always contact them and show them the tattoo before I post it. In most cases they are really thankful to be acknowledged. A lot of my ‘fame’ is because I’ve copied other people’s artwork – people may think a piece is awesome, and I thank them for that but I’ve just copied somebody else’s genius – they had the initial idea.

Do you want to take it to the level where you are recreating your own pieces of art?
Yeah, definitely, I do some of my pin-ups now, but yeah, I’d like to get more competent. There’s a big chunk of my art career I haven’t had – there’s 20 years of no drawing, painting, nothing.

So you’re trying to get into it now?
Yeah, I’m learning now – I’m probably where I should have been back in my 20s, but I’m in my 40s. I’m getting there, but I’ve got a long way to go yet. I’m jealous of the youngsters that have got straight into it and have never missed a beat. Back when I started the TV shows where just starting and they changed a massive amount in a really short amount of time. I wasn’t tattooing that long without the tattoo shows to really have an opinion that matters, you know? There are a lot of people that worked fucking hard for a long, long time unappreciated – and still will be. There are a lot of incredible artists whose names aren’t known that paved the way for things we’re doing now and then the TV programs came along, and suddenly everybody wants to be a famous tattoo artist because it looks cool and they think every day you get to tattoo a girl in a bikini or a rock star.

That is my everyday! You should come down to south end!
It’s this ‘oh give me 20 minutes and I’ll have it drawn up for you.’ You just think ‘fuck off! What, you’ll plan a back piece in 20 minutes will you?’ They seem to get the back pieces done too quickly [on TV] – it’s just really ill informed. The upside of it is people that would never normally walk into a tattoo studio from, from the comfort of their own room, get to watch tattoos being done and get inspired to go to their local studio to get tattooed and some of their ideas are incredible.

Yeah, the TV programs have really helped in that respect.
Yeah there are a lot of home truths on the shows, but they’ve really helped us out too – they’ve brought us a massive, massive amount of clients. As has anybody famous, you know, football stars, etc. And I always say money doesn’t buy you sense – some of the tattoos that the rich and famous have got lately are awful – they still don’t know any better than anybody else. The education still needs to be put in place.

Do you think we’re ever going to educate the public?
No. I think it will get better but I don’t think it’s ever going to be 100% – it just won’t. You know, you’ll never stop home tattooists, which is probably lucky really because some of the best artists we’ve got have come from learning at home and being self-taught because they couldn’t get a break in a tattoo studio, but they believed that they were artists in their heart. They can’t spend a day without doing something artistic and if they can’t get into a studio… Geoff Gouge – perfect example – self-taught and he’s the best in the world. If he hadn’t taught himself and had just given up because all the studios kept saying no to him, then we wouldn’t have Geoff Gouge, and if that were the case we probably wouldn’t have half the amazing artists that are out there now that have been inspired by Geoff to become tattoo artists – myself included. He was my hero when I first started, and he still is. There’s no one fast rule that applied to everybody. In order for things to change we need to bring in artists from every generation – people that were there at the beginning right through to people that are there now. You need the perspective of everybody.

Superhero - Iron Man 3

They’re trying to reassemble a committee at the moment aren’t they?
Yeah, I don’t think that’s a bad idea. If you’re doing good tattoos in hygienic circumstances and doing everything right as regards health and safety and the quality of your work, then you’ve got absolutely nothing to fear and no reason to object to any of these things happening at all. The people that kick off about it…

Yeah, they must feel threatened. People ask me how I feel about a studio opening over the road, and I don’t really feel anything – I’m secure with the fact that I know my studio is doing well and that we give a good service and people come back.
We’ve got two in our town that rely on a walk-in trade, and you often see them shut because they’ve got nobody in – we’ve got a year’s waiting list. I know they moved into Rainham thinking that there was that much work, but it’s not Rainham that has the work, it’s our studio. A good studio will always last. If you do good work, the word will get round, and you will do well wherever it may be.

It’s that simple.
It is that simple. But yeah, I think a committee or some kind of governing body should be put in place as long as the councilors or politicians aren’t the ones making decisions.

Well yeah, that’s what they’re trying to do at the moment – they’re trying to make sure it’s tattoo artists. Because if they don’t, that’s when it will become outsiders.
Yeah and I think it needs to be made up of every generation with different perspectives. You need the young Facebook and Instagram generation.

Yeah, you can’t just have the guys that have been tattooing for 20 years.
You need people that are internet savvy as well as the guys that have been doing it 30 years – everybody’s got a good idea.


The thing is, especially with this new mentality, people aren’t going to listen to an older generation – especially if they don’t have the respect there.
Well, this is the thing – a lot of teenagers getting into tattooing now don’t listen to the people that have been doing it for 30 years. I think that weeds out some of the better artists. A good artist will take advice from anybody – there’s always that golden nugget, that diamond, that something that you can take, and you can use.

For every person that’s trying to do something to take a step forward, there seems to always be someone attacking them […] You do get caught up in it momentarily, but then you think ‘why do I actually care?’ I know how I feel about that piece.
Yeah, my favourites are the ones that everybody else comments on.

I did a piece that I thought was my best one yet, and not many people like it and I thought ‘oh, what was wrong with it?’ You can’t get caught up on it. There are a lot more important things than tattooing when you out it into perspective.
We’re not changing the world – we’re not curing cancer – we just draw pictures.

When I first started tattooing, because I wasn’t that interested, my dad said to someone that I’d never make it as a tattooist because I was too selfish and what he meant was that I don’t draw every night – I go home and see my husband and my family – I’m not all about tattoos.
But you give 100% in the studio.

I work my fucking arse off and I love every minute of it. I wouldn’t change my life for anything. It’s a love that’s grown. If I were to try and get into this industry now, I’d be one of those who’d say ‘fuck off, you don’t love it enough.’
My love for art has grown since doing conventions and having more artist friends because you see what they’re doing and think ‘ah geez, I want to do that! I want you to think I’m good at that!’

It’s not the be all and end all but it does seep in. When he said that I was too selfish, I thought ‘oh but it’s just a hobby’, but now I find myself thinking about it every minute of the day.
Your husband said didn’t he that if we’re all in a room all we talk about is tattooing – we don’t realise we’re doing it but as an outsider he felt like he couldn’t join in. It is our life.

Supervillain - Joker Batman copy

Ben: Also the more you go to conventions and start talking to artists you like, the more you realise that actually a lot of time has gone into them being that good.

And I like somebody’s work so much more if I fall in love with as a person – If I think they’re amazing then their work goes up three notches.

It works the other way as well.
Yeah exactly, you see something amazing, and then you meet them and they’re a complete prick – no personality, rude to clients – and you suddenly see their work in a different light […]. When you don’t like somebody you’re brutally honest, and you dissect what they do whereas if your mate does it, you forgive anything and think it’s lovely. But then we know when someone’s really nailed it – when they’ve had a world class day – that inspires me. You try to reaffirm your status every single time… if I don’t do a piece that I’m super proud of for a long period of time, then I’m gagging to do one.

Yeah, the other week I had a week booked in with a guy who had work I started six years ago and it was all old untouched work and I actually felt a little bit depressed by the end of the week. I think it’s because when you get to pick and chose what you do you chose the stuff that you know is going to challenge you. But I do have clients that I’m loyal to, and I put them all together in one week.
Yeah, when I have tattoos I don’t want to do it feels like a job. Every other day it feels like I’m going to meet my mates and draw a picture. People that come into the studio say that I have the best job ever, and it probably is – it’s like a school with no teachers, it’s awesome.

My tattooing never feels like work. I did tribal the other week, and it was great, but it’s really hard when you have to go back to something like that.
It gives you an appreciation for the people that just make it look so easy – you forget that this stuff and stuff like script is actually quite hard to do… Portraits to us are easy.

Now that I tattoo a lot of portraits, and I have started drawing, for me it’s just all a game of memory – I now know how a face looks so I can draw a face. Yeah, it’s not going to be absolutely perfect, but you can pick out the bits from your memory because you’re so used to drawing and tattooing them. It’s just purely practice. If you were to draw dragons for a month, you wouldn’t be a master, but you’d be pretty good. It’s just whether you get enjoyment out of it, and that’s why people specialise.
Yeah, and some people don’t specialise at all, they get a thrill out of so many different things.

Yeah, see I’m going to try and work it so that I do a month of portraits, a month of pin-ups and then a month of freehand.
Ah, I like a week that’s mixed up with stuff.

I noticed just before I got married I had a week of pure pin-ups which I’d never had before and by the end of the week I felt like I’d nailed it because I was doing it every single day and I really felt like I’d achieved something by the end of the week because I was learning something in quick succession.
If I do too much colour, I’m longing to do some black and grey and then vice versa. Pin-ups aren’t my love I don’t think.

Portrait - Enema of the State

Yeah, I think they’re mine.
But if I don’t do one for a while I do get a bit angsty.

So do you feel at home with colour?
Yeah, I thought I was going to specialise in black and grey, being a pencil artist, but then, funnily enough, I’m now known as a colour artist really. I do love it, I really, really do – I think you can be more descriptive with colour – you’ve got a lot more possibilities, but there are only so many shades of grey. But if you get colour wrong it’s very visible that you’ve gone wrong.

Colour amazes me – I’m in awe of colour artists, and it excites me what I can achieve with colour, but I find it hard work. Black and grey to me is not hard work – it feels natural – but I love the result with colour and the challenge of it.
You’re nailing it.

It’s good to be able to do both and then chose which to do.

Yeah, I’m glad I don’t just do one. I could build a career on just doing black and grey portraits but…
You could literally but you don’t know if you could mentally?

Yeah, I don’t know if it would ever get boring or not. It depends on how you see realism – it’s not just about getting the essence, it’s nailing the fine detail. Especially with portraits, a tiny bit can change a whole character – they never get any easier.
That’s the thing with a pin-up faces – with a small face it can be fractions of a millimeter, and you’ve made a cross-eyed pin-up! I get really excited about the smaller ones. I get people that say I do too much detail and that it’s not going to hold up – you can do big black outlines around the eyes or nostrils which will get ruined in the sun, or I can do it my way. If a client is determined to go in the sun and you give them a choice of which style they prefer in terms of lifetime, I’m pretty sure they’re going to pick the one that’s most like the picture they brought in – not a version with heavy black outlines.

Kukula - Kelly 3

It makes you panic a little bit and makes you think maybe I shouldn’t put any detail in, but a guy came in that I tattooed four years ago, one of my very first colour pin-ups, and the face was smaller than I do now (now I like to do them bigger), but it was still spot on!
Again, the people that are giving you advice aren’t lying, but the inks they used to use didn’t last and also they didn’t understand that the sun did the damage – tattoos did use to have that lifespan. If you use the best inks, and the best this and the best that, and you give the best knowledge of aftercare, and they then chose to ignore it, and then it’s not that detail doesn’t hold up over time, it’s just that some people are going to fuck up tattoos whether they’re decent tattoos or not!

David Corden
Tattooist/Studio Owner
Semper Tattoo – Edinburgh, U.K.


This interview was originally published in issue 5 of Nine Mag, the printed edition.