The best interviews are often little more than conversations between friends. We let Jason Butcher loose on his good friend John Anderton from Nemesis Tattoo in Seaham, County Durham. UK. Let the banter begin!
Interview – Jason Butcher
Photography – John Anderton
You’ve been tattooing for about five years now, but how did you get started?
I had some shit tattoos done when I was in the army; one of them was really bad! I’d asked for a star on my chest because I wanted to look cool like the guy on the Crazy Town (music) video!
I talked to that guy on the internet!
Yeah he left a comment on one of my tattoos online and we spoke about whether he had stolen one of my photos. Anyway, so you got your sweet star tattoos.
Yeah, I got those and the guy did a really wonky point on one of the stars, and I thought was pretty bad. I mean, that’s really basic stuff, you know! Then I had another one done by someone else. This time it was a pretty decent tattoo from a flash sheet. Eventually I went back to that studio to fix the shit ones and became friends with him. After a while I began to think “I could probably do this!” And it turns out I can; that’s the really short version anyway.
Did you draw a lot before that?
No, not at all really. I could draw but never really did. Most of my drawing skill came after I was tattooing because I was doing it every day.
What made you think you could tattoo?
I figured that if the guy who had done my crap tattoos had a studio then there was no reason that I couldn’t do it too. I knew that I could easily do better than him! I didn’t know anything about tattoos at the time but I was still able to see the mistakes in his work. I figured that I could easily make the pointy ends on tribal look sharp, even though he obviously couldn’t.
Also, I was on a really low wage at the time, so I decided to buy a tattoo kit to have ago at making some money by tattooing from home. I was really ignorant and it didn’t work out well, but by then I had fallen in love with doing it, and so I kept on doing it. I was still friends with the guy who’d done my decent tattoo and soon he offered me a job. I worked for him for just under a year until the studio closed. Around that time I’d been booked to tattoo a guy in his own studio in Seaham (UK) and told him what had happened. He offered me a job, even though there wasn’t enough work, and I started working there. After about nine months I took over the studio because he moved somewhere else.
So you’d been tattooing for nearly two years and then you had your own studio. What’s the thing that made the difference? What made you get better? Was it a gradual process?
The first studio I worked in was very much a street shop. I was doing flash off the walls and copying pictures that people brought in and, at the time, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was copying people’s tattoos and didn’t even know I was doing anything wrong. That’s the mentality in that kind of studio. I never considered that people had waited or travelled or saved up to get these tattoos in the magazines that people were bringing in for me to copy. Then when I started working at the next studio we didn’t ever use any flash. There was flash on the walls of the studio but it was all shit; a photocopy of a photocopy of some really old Cherry Creek flash. There were even some of yours in there! Photocopies of some of your sweet dragons! <Laughs!>
Did you ever tattoo any of my sweet dragons?
No, unfortunately no-one ever wanted them.
Even the tribals we had were crap, so if people asked for them we would just draw them something better that matched up properly and wasn’t wonky. The guy that I was working with used to draw portraits. I was fascinated by them, so he showed me a few techniques and I became addicted to doing that. It became a competition between us; not to see who could do the best one, but who could do the most random one.
I did a Dr Evil one and a Mini Me one, so he did a fucking Harold Bishop from Neighbours! I was like ‘FUCK!! Why didn’t I think of anyone sweet like that!?’ I did Napoleon Dynamite and his brother Kip, so he did Trevor Macdonald! Then he did Dot Cotton from Eastenders; then he did a Steven fucking Hawking and I just thought “He’s fucking won!”The friendly competition was fun, but there was also the part of me that wanted to do it the best. I would take extra time on mine to try and make them awesome. The realism stuff started from there.
The friendly competition was fun, but there was also the part of me that wanted to do it the best. I would take extra time on mine to try and make them awesome. The realism stuff started from there.
Were you working just in black and grey at first?
Yeah, I was doing the portraits in graphite so I didn’t really have much experience with colour at the time. Eventually I bought Joshua Carlton’s DVDs and tried that method, but it just looked like I’d watched a Joshua Carlton DVD. I figured I would take the theory and colour it how I felt would suit me. It took me another year before I would dare take on a colour portrait, though.
So how did you figure out another way of doing it?
I just figured I wanted it to look solid rather than washy. His (Joshua Carlton’s) looked amazing, but I preferred things more solid.
Was there another tattooist’s work that inspired you?
I’d seen the work of Nikko Hurtado and Mike Devries but I’d never watched their DVDs. Their work looked super saturated and I liked the look of that. I would try to work out how they did it and work out how I could do it too. I’d do the same with black and grey portraits too. I would look at Bob Tyrrell’s work and critique it as if I’d done it. I’d try to see what I would change and try to figure out why his was better than mine.
And why were his better than yours?
It was the subtle details; instead of getting every wrinkle in, he would simplify it a little to make it work as a tattoo. He’d only give suggestions of things so it would stay looking good as a tattoo forever, instead of tattooing everything and having half of it fall out. Also everything of his is super tight. I would look at the cheek or something and his would be super crisp but mine wouldn’t be, so I figured next time I would just make it super crisp and see if that works! Then when I’d got them super crisp I would look again and think ‘Why is his still better than mine? Oh! He’s used black! He’s used so much black! Next time I’ll just use fucking black!’ (Laughs)
So you started your colour portrait stuff by practicing for portraits on other things, then you did a couple of sweet Hellboys! I remember thinking a while ago that I would like to do some colour portraits. I thought Hellboy would be a good place to start because he’s just red. There are no skin tones or anything!
Yeah that’s the thing, it is easier to do because you take all of the subtle tones out and you’re just working with values again. It’s essentially the same theory as black and grey, but with red instead of black.
How do you feel about that now? I was recently speaking with someone about that. I love painting people in natural light, to get all of the subtle differences in tones for natural skin colour, because it’s the hardest thing to do. I know it’s much easier to simply shine a really dramatic light on someone. It’s much easier that way but I don’t want to do it when it’s easier. How do you feel about it, because maybe that works better when it’s done in a tattoo?
Take Jeff Gogué. He rarely does colour portraits, but when he does them, he fucking nails it! So does Alex Depase; he does it amazingly too. It looks amazing when you see the natural light and subtle tones done well in a tattoo. It’s not like I can’t do that, but every time I do it I go back to my default setting of bumping up the contrasts on things. It’s because I love how that looks when Nikko does it. They look amazing when Alex does it with all the subtle tones; like purples and oranges and that kind of thing, but I don’t want to do that because I wouldn’t have fun on that day. That’s why I wouldn’t do that.
Is doing portrait and realistic stuff important to you now, or do you think that you want to do something different?
I don’t enjoy doing realistic stuff as much any more. However, I’m pleased I did it and I like having it as a tool because it’s a really good baseline for other things. I realise that realism is important because it applies to everything I do. If you draw a cartoon but give it realistic shadow in the right place it will obviously look so much better.
You do quite a lot of work that is cartoon-y but realistic at the same time. Do you find that more enjoyable?
Yeah I do. I like having freedom with it. You’ll know yourself when you do portraits you’re really limited because you only have that to play with. You can’t really add anything or take anything away so it’s a bit boring. I like having the freedom of being able to put a line over there or around this part or whatever.
I heard that you had the best pound for pound apprentice ever?
Yeah, Michelle Maddison. She came into the shop and she showed me a painting which was really awesome. I saw that she could easily transfer the skills into tattooing, so I gave her a critique and told her that she should definitely end up tattooing because she needs to be! After a few weeks of thinking I just had to offer her a job. I was never going to take on an apprentice for a free slave or an ego boost like a lot of people do. The only way I was going to do it was if the right person came along and had the right attitude. Looking back, Michelle has more than proved that she was the right person. I can’t remember who it was, but someone once told her in an interview that she didn’t have the right look to be a tattooist or to have an apprenticeship. It would be interesting to find out how they feel about that now!
Would you take on another apprentice in the future or would it be the same situation and only if someone was awesome?
I thought I wouldn’t, but after talking to you about it, you made me realise that the apprentice route is the long game. I’m just taking on a new apprentice starting next week, again, because he has the right attitude and because his artwork is spot on with a lot of potential to transfer to tattooing. Check out his work on Instagram (@joshuabeatsonart) and then patiently wait for him to become awesome! Check out Michelle’s work too if you haven’t already (@michellemaddison).
What’s next for you?
I’m mostly working on the larger scale things at the minute, which might be a surprise because it never used to interest me. There is an ex-client of mine who fell out with me after he’d been tattooed for some reason or another. Apparently he’s done the same with a fair few other tattooists too. Anyway, one day I saw a comment on Facebook where someone had posted some of my work, saying ‘Look at this by John Anderton! It’s awesome!’ So this guy commented back saying “Yeah he’s awesome at the small stuff but you never see any large scale stuff by him, so it’s not that impressive to me.”
At first, I thought ‘What the fuck? So, although I’m awesome at something, that’s not good enough? Fuck this guy!’ But at the same time I did take it on board. Even with the stupidest little shitty comment from a fool, there’s probably something that you could take from it. I did learn from it; not because he said it, but I realised that I didn’t really have much large scale stuff in my portfolio. It was always an option and it’s now naturally happened that way.
Do you think it’s important to look at other people’s work to figure out what you want to do next?
I used to do that at the beginning; I looked at work from the people that I liked. I think everyone does that. You take inspiration from everything; everything you’ve ever looked at. Anything you do is going to be influenced in some way. I would pick out things that I liked and even if I didn’t know the technique I would try to work out how they did it by looking at the photo. Then I would go to conventions and watch people work and sometimes find that they weren’t doing it how I thought they would be. Sometimes I’d invented these random techniques for myself to achieve the things I was looking at. Sometimes I was right and they were doing it the same way. Sometimes they were achieving it in a much easier way so, I would learn from that. Even then, sometimes my way would be easier for me and I would think, ‘Fuck it! I’ll just keep doing it my way.’
It seems that’s how a lot of people approach it. Some might copy just one person’s style, but other people would take a bit from here, a bit from there and a bit from there. Sometimes it looks just like they took three peoples stuff and mixed it together! How do you get away from that? Do you stop looking at their work?
I think knowing and admitting that you do it in the first place does help. If you’re gonna take things from three people, why not take them from ten people! Then it will look closer to a new thing and will look like influences rather than you just copying.
How do you feel about it now though? You’re trying not to be influenced by people? You’re trying to just do your own thing?
I’m obviously influenced by things I see, but I don’t just think ‘How can I copy this?’ I think, ‘Is that a technique or effect that I can use? And if I can, how shall I do my own thing with it?’
Let’s talk about hobbies because you obviously have a lot of them; for example, painting. I heard that you were taught to paint by some really fucking amazing painters?
Yeah I heard that… what were their names again? I can’t quite remember…. one of them was………
One of them was called something like Gayson Bumcher?
Yeah one of them was something to do with meat and another was something to do with animals that burrow underground or something. Oh yes! I remember! It Jason Butcher and Lianne Moule!
Anyway, I’d attempted painting since I started tattooing but it never really worked for me. At first it didn’t seem so hard because I was at the beginning of painting and tattooing career. However, as I became progressively better at tattooing, I found that my painting was being left behind. I found I couldn’t achieve the effects I wanted anywhere near as well with paint as I could with tattooing. I always knew there was fun to be had with painting, but it eluded me for a long time. It took until just last year for me to decide to finally man up and actually complete a painting in oils. No matter how it looked, I was going to persevere. I did maybe three paintings before I came to do the guest spot at yours (Immortal Ink). You guys gave me some sweet pro moves and it’s been fun from then
Do you have plans to do any of our workshops at Immortal Ink?
Yeah definitely, but not quite yet. I feel I want to take it as far as I can by myself before getting the next bit of information. I think too much information can ruin things.
So the same way you learned to tattoo then; learn something, then practice it until you’re done with it, then learn something else and so on?
Yeah, pretty much! I’ve done a lot of critiques for other people and the main problem I find is that they don’t critique themselves first. What’s the point of asking for help for something when you should already know the answer?
How would someone go about getting tattooed by you if they wanted to?
I like to have a lot of freedom with a piece but not to the point where they say ‘Just do anything you want.” I can’t work with that. I would rather them give me a theme or an idea that I can make my own rather than just leaving it blank. When people say ‘Just do what you want.’ they rarely actually mean it?
Nemesis Tattoo Studio – Seaham, U.K.