We were lucky enough to have Mike Stockings visit and tattoo at Cloak and Dagger, so I caught up with him for a quick interview. For such a young guy he has achieved a lot and is progressing quickly with both his work and his studio. I met Mike a year or so ago, but this was the first time that we were able to delve into his career a little deeper and talk more about how he has come so far so quickly.
Words – Ben Lakin
Photography – Ben Lakin & Mike Stockings
What is your first memory of tattoos?
My first memory is some of my granddad’s old wartime tattoos. I liked the feel of that style, though obviously not the quality as these were on a very old man. The strong, almost military imagery was quite cool.
My own first tattoo was terrible. I was shot in the hand and I was in hospital for most of the summer. I wanted something to commemorate that because I was quite fortunate not to be dead. So I got the tattoo at a local shop near where I lived. I drew it up, but I didn’t think my own drawings were good enough to stay on me permanently. So I took my drawing in and hoped that the artist would see the style and then change it. I think it wowed me a bit that he was drawing and making suggestions. The experience was all new to me, I wasn’t even 18 yet. When it was done I was chuffed with it for a couple of weeks. But after a while, I realised I didn’t like it and I needed to get rid of it.
When I got the next one, I thought much harder about what I was going to get and who was going to do it. That first tattoo has a big owl over the top of it now.
When did you start tattooing?
I started tattooing around 3 and a half years ago.
How did you get into it?
It started when I left school. I never really did any art in school, but it always interested me. I left school and joined a band and we used to play with a lot of older bands who were tattooed. It was something that went with music. When my parents started telling me I needed to find a job in the real world, art didn’t really jump out at me. I thought I would probably join the army. I never really saw tattooing as an art form until I started looking at tattoo magazines. I thought if they could look like that I’d be interested in it.
Whose work do you remember seeing in the magazines?
The first one I remember was a big spread about Steve Byrne. I loved all the colours in his tattoos. They looked strong and traditional. Everything was quite uniform and they looked like big stickers on the body. I didn’t even know tattoos could look like that. I saw Thomas Hooper as well, and he had that mad, almost portrait dot work thing going on back then.
Were you drawing then? Did you have a portfolio?
I drew all the time. I’d stay up into the night drawing the same thing over and over again until it was right. It was mostly tattoo-based stuff because that’s what I wanted to do.
Tell me about how you learned to tattoo.
I started in a very bad shop and did bits and bobs for a little bit. I just went my own way after that.
So are you mainly self-taught?
I’d say so, yeah. I mostly practised on my friends. I did some tattoos when I was ‘under the wing’, as it were, but after I broke away I started doing it by myself. A year later I went around to a lot of shops and got turned away a lot. It was quite gutting and I started to think that maybe I wasn’t cut out for it. I really wanted to be in that circle of tattooers, but it was quite closed then. So I ended up opening up my own private studio, which is the shop I have now.
How has that developed?
It developed quite quickly. The town that I work in is quite small and I built a loyal customer base who still come back. To them I’m just the local tattooer who does every type of tattoo. There are old guys whose daughters are coming of age to be tattooed and they don’t want them going to someone else. They want them to go to the local guy, me, who does their tattoos.
I once thought maybe I should leave the town and go to somewhere like London once I’d got a strong portfolio and sorted out all my drawing. But no matter what I wanted to do eventually, there was always a part of me that didn’t want to change myself and the life that I had. I’m quite close with my family and friends. Then a friend of mine said, ‘If you’re really good at something then people will come and see you for who you are, not where you are.’ So I’ve stuck to that. I decided I would stay put and ride it out and if it got really shit then I’d consider moving.
Luckily it took a turn. I’ve had people travelling from different countries to come to this little town that no one’s ever heard of. It feels good when people come into the shop from all around Europe. I’ve had people from the States come over just to get tattooed by me. They ask for good places to go out and I’m like, ‘Nope, it’s just this place here!’
How have you developed the distinctive style you’ve got now, and who influenced you?
I’d say that Steve Byrne was the push. I remember looking at his work a lot after I got into tattooing, but I never really based my style on him. I always believed that if I was going to do something, I didn’t want to just take someone else’s idea, because I wanted to explore my own thing. >
I don’t think my work looks like his at all. I think it was just the punchy colours of his and using maybe four or five colours for a tattoo. I always use just straight colour. I meet a lot of artists who do a lot of crazy stuff with colour – palette work like with paintings – but mine’s just straight out of the bottle. I try to keep it simple but use different techniques such as blending to make it effective. Strong linework was the thing that jumped out of Steve Byrne’s pieces the most. The more I started to draw like that the more I started to draw my own thing, taking the rules of that and putting it into my own without even noticing.
I think about this even more now that I’ve taken my brother on as an apprentice. He really loves the traditional tattoo style. I’m trying to get it into his head that it’s all about it being smooth and clean. As soon as it doesn’t look clean, it looks crap.
How did you come to take your brother on as an apprentice?
He spends a lot of time at the tattoo shop. But, like me, he wasn’t artistically interested at first. He wanted to do stuff with music but he’s always drawing and stuff like that. And then one day I was tattooing him and he said, ‘Would you ever let me tattoo you one day, but you run me through it and we do it properly – like you’re teaching me how to do it?’ At the time it was a bit of a joke. Then he did this tattoo that I posted on my Instagram the other day. It’s a Spider Murphys from the flash we have all round the shop. I was thinking it was going to be shocking because he’d never touched a machine. He picked one off the wall that he liked, I ran through the process with him, and like a sponge he just absorbed it and he was doing clean line straight away! Great, my competition is my own brother! (Laughs).
I wanted to give him the help I didn’t get, so I sat him down and explained to him that if we were going to do this then we were going to do it properly: he’s going to draw and work his arse off in the shop. The only thing I have is tattooing and I’m prepared to give it all to him. I want to give everything I’ve worked for to someone I trust. And what better person to give it to than my own flesh and blood? To me it’s quite a sacred thing, it’s all I have. If anything happens to me, he can keep it going.
“If you want to do something, stick to it. Just do it. And don’t do something because it’s cool, because that instantly makes it not cool. You’ll go through bad spots and good spots, but if you ride it out then the sea will clear.”
Tell me about your shop.
It recently expanded. The shop next door came to me and said they were moving out and asked if I wanted the other side. It was good timing, because when they asked I had been looking at other shops anyway, which is a ball-ache. So when they came to me it was pretty simple. They were simply buying out their contract, so I just had to ring my landlord.
Now it’s reopened it feels so much better. The shop was very small before and my work felt like it was everywhere creatively. I would work in the shop tattooing all day, and then I’d go home where all my drawing stuff was and I’d have to sit there all night and draw, and it felt like it went on forever. It was a twenty-four-hour job. When people mentioned to me that they were thinking of going into tattooing I always said, ‘You better not have a social life.’ When people got excited about it being Friday I thought, ‘No one cares, it might as well be Monday.’ But now I’ve got it all in one place, I can leave it at work.
It’s made it a hell of a lot easier to keep control, especially having a family. I was getting quite stressed out with organising people coming to work and whether they’d be busy and whether I’d be busy. But now I’ve sorted it all out and it’s running a lot more smoothly. I’m enjoying it more. I think if I didn’t have a family I wouldn’t have felt so bad. I’d come home every day and just draw, and the next thing I knew my daughter had to go to bed and I hadn’t been able to spend any time with anyone apart from myself and drawing and tattooing and that was starting to be everything. But I love tattoos, so it was a hard situation. Now it’s all smoothed out. I’ve got a balance, and I feel really good.
When I’d tattoo all day and then go back home to draw I’d have to get back into the creative mood again. But now when I’m at the shop I’m in that creative mood all the time and as soon as I’ve finished tattooing I can start drawing while I’m still in that mode.
Who have you got working at the shop now?
The first guy who came on board is Josh Peacock. I met him through my partner Jess. He was tattooing in Chelmsford but lived in Cambridge so it took him a long while to get there. I said I needed someone to help me out in the shop. It wasn’t as big then so we squeezed in together. When I was by myself I always longed to work with other people, so when I found someone to work with and bounce things off that helped a lot with inspiration as well.
Now I’ve got two more. One is Natalie, known as ‘Petal’s Puppet’ online. She does a lot of animals, a lot of jewels and beads, and a lot of fine lines. Her stuff is really cool. Then there’s Josh Hurrell, an old friend of mine. He started tattooing at the same time I did. We started together and then split ways. I got in contact with him when I opened the shop, because I knew that he wasn’t really happy where he was. I knew we wanted to work together because we’ve been best friends for years.
I’ve picked everyone who comes into the shop carefully because, as I said, this is everything I have. They need to back up my creative approach. I want people who are as inspired by tattooing as I am. I have to click with them, and they have to be someone who really wants it.
What was your first convention?
It was North Lakes tattoo convention. I’d been to a lot of conventions before, but that was the first one I tattooed at. I won an award at that show. I didn’t expect to win anything so I was sitting there tattooing my last guy. Then someone ran up the stairs asking if a Mike Stockings was here and said I needed to go over to the award ceremony. At first, I thought that all the artists had to be there, but then they told me I’d won something. It was a proper high.
Have you done many conventions abroad?
I’ve only done a guest spot abroad. It was in New York to see Timmy B. at Tattoo Afterlife. I’m going to go back there in May 2014. Last time I went to New York I was quite booked up and it’s weird that people even know who I am over there. I’m also going to Poland this weekend and I’ve been asked to do some others in the States too. This year I’ve got quite a lot going on so I’ll probably do a couple of conventions in a row next year.
How has social media affected your career?
Instagram has been the greatest thing ever. All I’ve got to do is upload photos. If I didn’t have Instagram I don’t think I would have had a lot of the guest spots and opportunities that I’ve had. When I went to New York all my customers were booked on there.
What have you got planned for the future?
I want to do some travelling and I want to do a lot of conventions, but mainly I’m just trying to perfect what I’m doing. I want to be able to always do this, not need to get another job further down the line.
Do you have any parting advice for artists starting out in the business?
If you want to do something, stick to it. Just do it. And don’t do something because it’s cool because that instantly makes it not cool. You’ll go through bad spots and good spots, but if you ride it out then the sea will clear.
Tattooist and Owner of Legacy Ink
Haverhill, Suffolk – United Kingdom