Kelly Violet’s world-renowned work is an incredible demonstration of craft, forward-thinking and hyper-creativity in an industry that too often leans on the past, or sees artists relying too heavily on ephemeral trends. Having gathered her dedicated following thanks to her commitment to pushing for pure and lasting work, the unforgiving Goliath-force speaks with Nine Mag about what it is to be a “terrible perfectionist”, and how her concerns will always start and end with producing a tattoo that will stand the test of time – even if the sacrifices involve sanity.
How did your relationship with tattoos begin?
My relationship with tattoos started at that zesty age of 16. I was in college, and obviously thought I was a little anarchist. I was still reeling from the triumphant feeling of being the first girl at her school to get her belly button pierced at 15, as it was an unheard of “big-deal” amongst local teenagers in 1995. I was a rebellious little teenager and wanted to do something ‘naughty’, so I picked up the Yellow-Pages whilst bunking off an art class and sourced a local tattoo shop with the jazziest black pixelated tribal dragon. I phoned them and made an appointment. I didn’t tell anyone. I just went. I got a fucking sick kanji symbol on my hip that probably means ‘wank’, and that, my friends, was how it all began for me. I’d never felt so alive, which might be a testament to how dismally boring my life is. I loved the secrecy. I loved doing something I wasn’t supposed to. I loved doing something that others weren’t doing, and the permanence of it just exaggerated that feeling tenfold. I in no way was, but I felt special. That feeling for me has never disappeared with tattooing. It’s buried deep under a daily career now, but it’s still there, and it’s why I’m still excited to do it.
A couple of years later, after getting lots of sweet tribal and starting a sleeve, I moved into a brief apprentice position but went on to fuck it off and teach myself. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone wishing to enter this craft. It’s taken me 3-times as long to teach myself with little-to-no guidance, and apart from that, it’s irresponsible and egotistical. 16-years ago I picked up my first Mickey Sharpz T-Dial. I’ve never looked back.
Tell me about your own tattoos.
My tattoos are mainly dog shit. They’re very much “of-the-time”, poorly thought out, spur of the moment atrocities that scream 1990 from the top floor of the Jenny Clarke skyscraper. I did a lot of them myself. I’m in the process of covering them up, but it’s hard when you’ve done it once already. It just fucking hurts now. There are so many people I’d want to get tattooed by, and I’ve been tattooed by a lot of incredible artists, but unfortunately, most of them are on my legs and other hidden places as I quickly took up most of the prime real estate in my ‘blue and orange chrome-effect new-school’ stage. I’m fortunate enough to work in a shop where we have a lot of amazing guest artists, but it’s hard pinning downtime schedules to trade…and then there’s my forever waning pain threshold. If I pass out in front of someone I’m secretly mad-fangirling over, I’ll piss myself with embarrassment.
How would you describe what it is you aim to achieve with your work?
What I aim to achieve with my work is simple: Something my customer and I are proud to have produced. I want my tattoos to live a long and relatively stable life on my customer’s body. I’ve always pushed myself ridiculously hard to try and stay one step ahead when it comes to the global market that is contemporary tattooing. I don’t want my work to look like anyone else’s. I’ve struggled, and have sacrificed my sanity to try and push myself to produce a new technique – a new style, and above all else, my own identity. It’s very important to me, as I worked my ass off for a very long time – trying to be at least mildly comfortable with all styles of tattooing. Everything I’ve taught myself over the first 10-years of my career: working in street shops, learning how to deal with customers, tattooing – everything under the sun, is the amalgamation of what I produce today. I didn’t just want to pick up a machine, learn only the latest trend and then riding on its coat tails. I hate talking about my work, as I always feel I come across as an asshole – which couldn’t be further from the truth. What I’ve done is a minuscule achievement in the grand scheme of our tattoo ancestors and history, and I’m rarely happy with anything I make, but I know what I’ve worked for. I know what I’ve achieved within myself, and will hopefully continue to achieve. Everybody likes to be acknowledged and appreciated, but I’m not interested in any kind of popularity contest. My concern starts and ends with producing a tattoo that I know will stand the test of time – that I’ve put my heart, soul, and original creativity into. I want to make tattoos that my customers are absolutely stoked with.
Clients of yours boast of the detail and intricacy of your work – how they notice more and more within their tattoos as time goes on. What drew you to push for the level of detail that goes into your work?
I have no idea. I’m a terrible perfectionist which is a constant source of brain-melt for me. I want to achieve something with every single tattoo that is completely unattainable. Knowing that, and yet still striving for it daily, makes you beat yourself up quite a lot. I feel like the dog that runs after the ball their owner pretended to throw for them. I just want every little thing to be perfect. I have amazing, trusting, flexible and lovely customers who spend a lot of their time and hard-earned money with me, and I want them to walk away knowing that I cared enough to give a part of myself to their tattoo. I’m grateful that they choose me, and I want them to love watching their tattoo evolve with their skin over time. Obviously, not all tattoos have to be like this. I have, and have done, some hilarious tattoos that took 10-minutes to produce. It’s all relative to the situation.
Your work is incredibly forward thinking and progressive. What advice would you give to artists who have a vision for their work, but are at “the bottom of the mountain” in regards to tattooing?
Thank you very much, that means a great deal hearing that! For me personally, if you feel you fall into the category of “bottom of the mountain”, I suggest working. Draw differently. Push yourself out of your comfort zone, but not at the expense of the customer. Inspire yourself – visit galleries of every type! Take inspiration from nature. It’s all around us and is accessible to us all the time. I see the same fucking rose getting tattooed all the time because it’s one of the top, high-resolution images that’s produced when it comes to an internet search. Regardless of style, learn to draw your own rose. It’s Spring, go outside and take a picture of one! Take a bunch of them to last you through the winter months when they might not be readily available. You’ll learn so much more from studying a rose in its natural habitat than you will from quickly tracing something from google images, and you’ll connect with and respect what you’ve done on a much deeper level. Respect your time. Respect your artistic license. Respect the trust your customer has in you. Don’t take on projects that you’re not ready. Don’t be satisfied with a sub-average tattoo. For me, being at the “bottom of the mountain” either means you’re not personally ready to start climbing it, or you haven’t done your research on the best way to navigate the rocky, steep path.
There’s a clear tension between consideration, and a desire to create something free-flowing and almost organic in its nature when it comes to your work. Can you speak to how you balance craft with creative ambition?
It’s all a learning curve. People’s bodies are an organic, living, breathing matter. Sometimes, something stagnant works and sometimes working with the natural curves of the body for a larger piece sits better. It’s all down to style, content and technique, and how you want the overall look to be. I like to free-hand as much of the tattoo on as possible when it comes to larger work so I can make it all work with the body. Obviously, stencils are needed for some designs, but trying to meticulously plan where stuff is going, and give it a “free feeling” at the same time, is hard to pull off. I still don’t feel like I’m there with it. I struggled for ages with the large wrapping areas involved when producing a sleeve – I couldn’t get my head around it! Some people are just naturally talented bastards, but for me, it’s taken years of experience and, to a degree, knowing my own work.
Last year, the talented Ildo Oh trusted you to tattoo his hand with no stencil, reference or drawing. Just tattooing straight onto the skin. Did the experience give you the confidence to push for more projects like this?
Oh my God, I love Ildo so much! The fact that he’s one of the nicest, most talented and humble guys you could ever meet definitely helped. I knew that for some reason he trusted me, and we never planned on doing it. He just sat there with his excited face, and I was like, ‘I’m going to tattoo your hand straight on with no reference’. I just wanted to test the waters to see his reaction. I don’t know if I took advantage of our language barrier, or if he really was that trusting, but he just looked completely un-phased. All he said was ‘go for it’. It was as if I’d asked him if he wanted an egg sandwich or some shit. It’s on your hand, mate! If I fuck up, you’re gonna be wearing some kind of Michael Jackson glove until you die! So, I just did it. I saw the amazing Alex Bage do one the previous year, I think. I thought to myself, if that northern monkey can do it, it can’t be that hard.
With clients trusting you with bigger and bigger projects – some verging on body-suit, how do you see your work evolving?
I’m hoping that my work evolves to a level where I can tattoo with my laser eyes. I have a very broken back after years of being sat like Gollum protecting the precious. It’s recently got to the stage where I can’t walk properly and simply existing feels like lactic acid is spouting from my spine like some Chernobyl dolphin. In all seriousness though, I never look to the future. I like to live in the moment, or I get overwhelmed emotionally because I’m weird. I genuinely don’t know how many years of tattooing I’ve got left in me because of my spine, and thinking about that absolutely terrifies me, so I just pretend it’s not happening.
You can find more of Kelly Violet’s work at: