Pedro SOOS and Jelle SOOS are close friends but they’re not related; so why the SOOS suffix? Nine Mag met up with the pair at Liverpool Tattoo Convention to discuss their work, their influences, their individual creative journeys, the power of MySpace and their not-so-secret, secret society.
Interview – Ben Lakin
Photography – Pedro & Jelle SOOS
What was it that first inspired you each to become tattooers?
Pedro – For me it was listening to glam rock as a little kid. Motley Crue were the first heavily tattooed guys that I had seen. Back when I was growing up in Portugal, you did not often see people with tattoos and hardly did you ever see someone who was heavily tattooed. I really liked the look and I started drawing on my schoolbooks.
Jelle – I honestly don’t remember how I got into tattooing or tattoos. I remember my uncle had quite a few tattoos before he had them all removed when I was still really young. They were removed in the old-fashioned way, by cutting a strip of skin out and sewing it shut and doing that over and over until the tattoo was gone. I remember the scars vividly. They were huge; pink and thick. Every scar had a story behind it and he would tell me that he got them doing things like fighting the lions in Africa. That’s my earliest memory of tattoos.
I became interested in tattoos as I grew up and always wanted to have one. I had poked a few tattoos on myself before I finally had a proper one when I was eighteen. I was mature enough to wait until I was eighteen, but not mature enough to keep it to only one tattoo. <Laughs>
Did your uncle influence you to get tattoos even though you saw his scars?
Jelle – I remember I like how his tattoos looked but I have no idea how much this actually influenced me. He had tattoos of naked women, snakes, and eagles and I remember visually and aesthetically I loved them.
Pedro, how did you go directly from drawing on schoolbooks to tattooing or did you do something else in-between?
Pedro – I started tattooing pretty late on, but drawing had always been my thing from an early age. When I was growing up, my parents took in a lodger and they basically rented out half my room. He was a painter so I was surrounded by his drawings and paintings. I was drawing business logos and band artwork and designs on skateboards before I got into tattooing. By then I had a few tattoos and I had started to draw tattoos for friends, but I hadn’t yet made the connection between drawing and tattooing for a living, Back then in Portugal I never would have thought about tattooing as a career because it was all bikers and super aggressive. Most people would be afraid to go into a tattoo shop.
It was not until a couple of friends suggested that I look into tattooing and asked “Why don’t you give it a try?” Then it clicked! I thought “Yeah, why not?” I looked around for an apprenticeship, but everybody turned me down because that’s just how it is here in Portugal. I was ready to give up because I thought it just wasn’t meant to be, but my friend was more determined. She had her mind set on me tattooing and she wouldn’t let it go. Eventually she put me in touch with some guys in Madrid and that’s where I went to start tattooing. That was ten years ago.
Was that a real proper job as an apprentice?
Pedro – Not really. It was more like an informal crash course. It was all based around a deal that I would buy all my kit from them. It was impossible to get a proper apprenticeship in Portugal in those days. There were only around 4 shops in Lisbon and those shops were locked down with no way to get in.
Jelle, how about you?
Jelle – I was different. I was never into drawing or art, I just like tattoos, The more I got tattooed the more I became interested in the work, and I was always paying attention to what they were doing. Back then flash culture was really the only thing in Holland. There were a couple of guys doing custom work but most of the industry was customers pointing at books and saying “I’ll have something like that”. So for me the connection to art wasn’t immediately obvious. Tattoos were tattoos and art was art.
When I started tattooing I had the same problem that Pedro did, as there was nowhere to get an apprenticeship. But I was eager. Eventually, through an ex-girlfriend who was a piercer, I got an offer from a shop and decided to start there. Customers would grab a book and choose a picture and I would trace it and tattoo it.
How long ago was that?
Jelle – That was around 8 years ago and it was like that for about a year. Then, one day someone asked for something we didn’t have in the books, so I drew it up for them. Then one of his friends liked it and wanted something similar but different. I drew it up, and from there it just snowballed. Soon I was doing everything custom. I still like to do flash but no-one wants it; they want this special thing they’ve seen on TV. No one goes for the classics anymore, It’s coming back a little but usually as reworks.
Everyone nowadays paints their own flash but no-one wants it tattooed because eventually lots of other people will have it. You can push your own stuff to a point, but most people want custom designs. I find it strange because plenty of people still pick stuff straight out of Sailor Jerry books and a million people have had that stuff on them.
Pedro – People would say “That Spanish/Italian style you do…” I didn’t develop anything! We didn’t sit down and develop a southern European style. We were just trying to do good tattoos. That’s what it was about. I guess it’s more pre-meditated now. People go out to do a specific style or do something that looks hip. We were just trying to do something good and solid.
Pedro when did you start getting into custom work?
Pedro – I was getting tattooed for over ten years before I started tattooing. Like Jelle said, you learn a lot getting tattooed and I found it pretty easy to start after that. But there was no information at all back then. Even getting flash was almost impossible. It seemed that everyone (in Portugal) was doing weird 90’s hot rod rockabilly and new-school stuff and passing it off as old-school traditional. So obviously, I hated traditional and started doing different styles. I did a lot of black work and a lot of geometric type stuff; anything I thought was solid and interesting.
Eventually I started doing conventions and I saw El Bara’s work (True Love in Madrid) and he blew my mind. It was the first time I saw what proper traditional could be, on the skin for five, ten, fifteen years! I was like “Wow! A tattoo can look like that!?” So I started researching and buying whatever I could find and I got into traditional from there.
We developed a custom style of traditional because we didn’t have access to all the flash that you see now. I was TRYING to do traditional, honestly. I was trying to get the look. Then I started getting messages from people in the states saying “Man, your work is so cool; you have such a different style; you should come and guest spot.”
So I said, “Yeah, ok, cool!”
That was a kind of fail for me though. I didn’t want to be different; I just wanted to get it right! However I realized I must be doing something right and eventually it turned into a style. I started doing conventions and guest spots, mostly doing my own style and my own flash. In my case it’s a very specific style. It’s deconstructed out of traditional and very custom. It’s so different that I don’t even use much traditional reference directly.
After a while it’s just like another umbrella. As long as there were blood drips around it and it was traditional it was super cool. You could do owls until you wen blue. Traditional styles took off massively because of MySpace. MySpace changed tattooing.
Jelle – That is true! I met you through MySpace, we hooked up and that’s where everything took off. We got in touch and started sharing stuff, hanging out and doing guest spots.
Pedro – MySpace opened all kinds of doors by bringing artists together for whatever reason. Through MySpace I was invited to do my first guest spot with a guy in New Jersey called Geoff Horn. It was my first guest spot in the states. It was amazing to spend a week with Geoff, working together and painting together. It was such a big deal to find another artist doing similar work.
When I came back from New Jersey I received a message from Jelle in Holland saying “I saw your work and it’s really cool! Why don’t you come up to our shop for a week or so?” He was into the same traditional stuff so I went to Holland for a week.
Nowadays there are ten people doing traditional in different variations in every shop, but back then I only knew of a few guys here or there that were doing it. MySpace came along and soon you could find other artists who were into the same stuff. It allowed tattooists to look closely at other artist’s work. It helped artist to progress and to build networks. When Geoff and Jelle got in touch I was able to check out their work on MySpace. Speaking with artists who were into the same stuff as me and using the same influences was very stimulating. MySpace was very important.
Jelle – I remember your first visit to Holland. I was speaking to you about buying a painting that you had done and somehow we decided that I should let you tattoo the image on my neck. The problem was that he was based in Lisbon and I live in Holland.
Pedro said “Cool, how can we sort that out?”
I said “I don’t know, maybe I can come to Lisbon some time?”
And Pedro said “Hey. I just did this thing! I went to New Jersey and worked in someone’s shop there. It’s totally new; it’s called a guest spot! I could do that with you guys as well”.
I called all my friends to get tattooed by you and when they asked what you did, I told them, “Traditional, but with shells and lamps and rope around it! It’s fucking cool!” I got all my friends to come get tattooed and hang out; It was great!
Pedro – We really hit it off and became good friends and we’ve been good friends ever since. Jelle came to Lisbon and did a guest spot with us too, but it’s not a new thing really. Sailor Jerry often had people come to guest in his shop. It used to be done. People would travel and exchange portfolios and photographs. I think people stopped doing it in the late 80’s and 90’s.
In the biker scene shops that we had back home, you couldn’t do that. You work in a shop with three other guys and you tattooed each other. You didn’t go out and get tattooed by someone else because you’d get beaten up for betraying your shop. It’s stupid though, because no one can progress. You end up simply feeding off of each others mistakes for twenty years. However, for us this guest spot thing was new, even though it used to be done in the past.
Jelle – For me it was very new because I wasn’t in touch with anything big in the tattooing scene at all. I was just a scrawny little dude in one of the least known shops in Holland; scratching away and waiting for the chance to do something better.
Pedro – But we WERE looking around, because that’s how Jelle could find someone like me on MySpace and that’s how I could find out about Geoff or whoever else. For me it was a part of my day – log onto MySpace to check out other artists’ stuff and find out about people. It didn’t really matter if they were well known or how long they had been tattooing. Now people don’t care if you’re not from a good shop.
You guys were the first generation to do on-line research when tattooing started getting big on MySpace.
Pedro – It was so in your face. I made a MySpace profile to get customers as well. I knew that if I put stuff on there that people liked, and they were close enough to where I live, they might get tattooed. As soon as you were on there you were linked to everything, to each other. You knew someone who did cool stuff and maybe they had twenty other people on their profile that did cool stuff too. Before you knew it you had a huge network of work being thrown at you on a daily basis. I would sit and scroll through everything and the stuff that was interesting stuck in your head. Even if you specifically try to use it, bits popped up in your tattooing here and there as influence.
Jelle – With so much information you couldn’t help but improve and you had the opportunity to compare your work and your progress with thousands of other in the industry. Now it has got to a point where I only check the people that I work with because I can’t keep up with all that’s going on. There are a million kids that started tattooing yesterday and they’re already amazing. I think I’m getting old!
Pedro – It is ridiculous to even try to keep up with everything that is good nowadays. There’s just too much. We used to say there were too many people coming in to tattooing and that they are mainly scratchers doing shitty work. Now they are scratching out of every room, but they are amazing! There are kids that have been tattooing for 3 months and they’re incredible. It really sucks! I just stopped looking.
Jelle – For a long time it was good for me to see all that great work and to try to get my head around it. I didn’t draw or paint before I started tattooing so in many ways I was lagging behind by years. After a while I became discouraged with seeing everything (online) until I reached complete overload and it didn’t interest me anymore.
However many tattoos I saw online I didn’t seem to improve and so I decided to stop looking.
At first it seemed like my work got worse after I stopped looking online because it felt like I didn’t have that input anymore. However, the people around me told me that from that moment I stopped looking I started to progress quickly, developing my own stuff.
Pedro – Jelle did it the hard way. Most people go online and find five guys they really like, then simply copy the shit out of them – in your face flat-out copying. If you have some talent and you’re at least copying five different guys then eventually your work will have a little bit of it’s own flavor, and after a few years you’ll be good. That is the tried and tested way in for many tattooers. For Jelle it was the other way around. He was not trying to copy anyone and that way is really difficult.
Jelle – I didn’t want to be influenced by everything I would see online. I didn’t want would to copy other artist’s work, although I would see a lot of other tattooist’s doing it. I refused to do things that way. It was hard work because there was no way to reinvent it, but I didn’t want to do the same thing.
Pedro – Anyone that knows Jelle knows that his first visit to Australia was when his work really came into it’s own. It just clicked. This was about three or four year’s ago.
Jelle – I think, in hindsight, going to Australia was a necessity; I didn’t have internet access and I couldn’t put too much weight on my back so I didn’t carry any reference books. The stuff that was on the walls of the shops where I was working became my reference. Working at different shops for weeks at a time for several years means you get to see lots of work by other artists and you can’t help but be influenced. I gave up on using reference and I just did what came naturally. My work progressed and expanded faster than I thought possible.
Pedro – For me my progress was faster. When Jelle hit me up on MySpace I already had a well-defined style. I was invited to New Jersey and then to other places and I think that was all because I fell into my own style quite early. Jelle had access to a lot more influences so it kinda made it harder for him to develop his style.
He was working with Robert Aalbers owner Clean Solid Tattoo when I first met him. Robert does really good traditional. I didn’t have any such direct influence. I started tattooing and spent two years painting before I was doing my own way of traditional. To me it was a piss poor attempt, but it turned out to be something that people found interesting.
Jelle – You were doing something that literally no one else was doing.
I have a tattooist who works for me called Hugh. He’s seriously into both of you guys’ work and he’s damn good himself. But he makes all of his work his own. That’s why he likes you two; because you do your own styles. Do you agree that the work being produced by the next generation is often the same?
Pedro – I think it’s true but it’s not completely the artist’s fault either. Customers want tattoo’s that are ‘safe’, the stuff that is universally cool that week or year. Plenty of people at conventions tell me that my work is really cool, but then get tattooed by someone else that is producing work that is ‘safe’.
If you truly make something original then it takes the tattoo community a while longer to get into it. New tattooers know that if they try to go as far out as Jelle and I did then you’re probably going to place your self outside of the herd, and that can be bad for business. Your work can be good and everyone will respect it, but customers are still going to go for the traditional revisited style. People don’t want to be different anymore. They want to be just different enough so they fit the mould of what ‘different’ should be.
What will keep you guys tattooing when it isn’t considered cool anymore?
Jelle – I started tattooing because I love tattoos and I will never stop loving tattoos. Why the hell would I stop tattooing? I don’t care if there’s money in it. I don’t care if it crashes. I’ll just buy a smaller car and live in a smaller house. When I started tattooing, the first thing people said to me was “Why don’t you get a proper job, one where you can make a fucking living?” At that time there was some super-good tattooers around who made money, but apart from that it wasn’t considered a proper job or an income.
Pedro – Eventually tattooing will level itself out again. It goes in stages. What’s going to keep me tattooing is that I like doing a good job and being nice to people. I like really working hard and doing it right.
Why is it that there are so many tattooists who can do clean traditional work and yet we’re here speaking with you two?
Jelle – You shouldn’t believe the hype! I don’t feel like I’m doing anything special, but I like what I do and I guess it shows in some way. I don’t look around too much so I don’t know what else there is out there, but as long as I’m happy with my work then that is fine. I’m never totally happy with my work by the way, but that’s another story.
Pedro – I guess we ask that question of ourselves; why us? For example, for the past two years I’ve been traveling to do guest spots and I quit my residency in a shop I helped to build up. It’s really cool because it’s very stimulating to work with so many different people, but sometimes I wonder why on earth people are booking in with me. I come over to London where there are so many amazing artists, so I’m always pleased that people still want to get tattooed by me.
I don’t think the roaming guest-spot career is sustainable in the way that we are doing it. There used to be a few people traveling around but now it seems like everyone’s at it. It became possible when the TV shows made a big boom for the industry. That’s why I quit my residency and took my chance. I’m doing it while the opportunity is here but I don’t think it will last forever.
I think the reason why you are such a big part of English tattooing is because you can go to 100 people who can give you a tattoo as you want it, because they are thinking of old Sailor Jerry flash and that’s what they are expecting. You guys give them something different and that’s why they come to you.
Pedro – I’m glad we work with people who are open to what we draw up for them. Sometimes customers come for their appointment and I’m shitting my pants because what I have drawn for them is practically nothing like what they asked me to draw. But most of these people expect that. Someone once said to me, if you go to a tattooer, a barber or a plastic surgeon, you do not want exactly what you are asking for.
How do you use the response you get from the pictures you post online?
Jelle – The only thing I use online now is Instagram. I post photos, link it to Tumblr and just leave it there. I use it as a measure what people are into, I find it interesting which of my tattoos people like.
Pedro – I’m the opposite! I only ask a few select people whose opinion I think matters. I am the first to judge my work; then I ask their opinion. I don’t give a shit if it’s 60 or 600 ‘likes’. Hell, some people like it because it has an eye in it! It can be grubby and have bad composition, but if it has an eye in it people are like ‘I love eyes!’
Jelle – I wouldn’t say I place value on how many ‘likes’ a photo has. The things I like aren’t always the same as others. You can have 4,000 people looking; It doesn’t mean they are all going to get tattooed by me.
Pedro – I use a Flickr account to store my photos incase my computer goes down. I very rarely get any feedback from it, but over the years, I have found that those who do comment on Flickr are the ones that are most valued. With a Flickr album you can’t simply speed through it on your phone going ‘Like, like, like, like”. You have to go online and seriously look at it. People that actually want to get tattooed by me are the ones most likely to do that.
Pedro and Jelle on flash and ethics
Pedro – Flash is now super safe. Really good traditional flash is super safe. What is ridiculous is that flash artists get upset that people are copying them. Flash is flash.
Jelle – Usually people are browsing old work and find something good and think ‘That’s cool! I’m going to re-draw that!” Then they get shit from someone who happened to re-draw it first. Its no-one’s property.
Pedro – People are painting flash and then selling it as custom. I remember, you would re-draw flash and hang it on the wall because it was hard to get copies. Artists needed to put flash or re-drawn flash on the wall for people to pick out designs. You wouldn’t put up to flash showcase your style, because it’s not even yours.
An established artist would pick out some old flash, revisit it and sell it as a tribute. Then everyone started ripping off flash and selling it as original just because they repainted it. You can go to a convention and there will be a bunch of people with flash pieces for sale that were originally done by someone else, so I don’t know what’s custom or what’s flash anymore. I think people are forgetting some of the important ethical aspects of tattooing.
Every tattooer now is an “artist” and I foresee tattoo studios being called art galleries in ten years time. I’m really into using tattooing as a medium to express myself and I try to put some heart into my tattoos. But it’s also a job and an industry and you should respect that. I didn’t get into tattooing because I was drawing, I could have been a designer, an illustrator or a painter. I went into tattooing because I am a pirate! It is the last free industry in the world, not a suit and tie, 9-5 job. It’s punk rock man! We’re losing the soul because many people don’t take it seriously anymore. You have people who are trying to make it into an art school thing and you have big corporate companies getting in on it and you have tattoo tutorials and tattoo kits and so many people calling themselves tattooers, tattoo apprentices, tattoo wannabes, whatever. No one is worried about this.
Jelle – We see mums come into the shop with their sixteen-year-old daughter and her three drawings and say that they think their daughter should become a tattoo artist. Why should she? What the fuck does she have to do with tattooing? Answer – NOTHING!
SOOS – The Secret Order of Saturn
Pedro – Geoff and I started the SOOS as a joke. The big organisations were full of the best tattooers. We knew we would never be invited into them, so we started our own.
Jelle – But instead of being good tattooers, we thought we’d start a club with shit tattooers.
Pedro – It started with me, Geoff, Jelle, and Jonas Uggi from Sweden. Then Geoff got a few more guys from the states involved and it went from there. I even got Joel Madberg (Salvation Tattoo) and Dane Mancini involved and after a while, we were all pushing each other and trying to help each other out.
We came up with the idea when Geoff and I went to Lexington convention in Kentucky, USA. Getting there was an 11-hour drive, a proper road trip and it was everything it’s cracked up to be. It was surreal. Some guys with a shop there called us out of the blue, saying “Hey guys, we saw you on MySpace. Are you guys coming to Lexington for a convention?”
We said “Yeah” and they offered us somewhere to crash in Lexington at their shop called Charmed Life. They did incredible work; hidden out there in Kentucky with a skateboard bowl in the middle of the shop. We had the craziest weekend. We didn’t do one single tattoo by the way, neither of us.
Anyway, we were driving back high on life through West Virginia one night, which is like being in the movie “The Hills Have Eyes”. We joked about doing this group thing and we kept playing with names until we came up with Secret Order of Saturn, just because we wanted to have the word ‘secret’ in it.
When we got back we were like “Hey Jelle, what’s going on? Guess what? You’re a member of this thing now, so pull your pants down because you’re getting a membership tattoo.” Dan Higgs drew the membership tattoo because Dan’s attitude was that initiation tattoos are good because they are about something in a person’s life, right at the moment.
Jelle – I managed to get the first member from the southern hemisphere, which was Capili from New Zealand. His stuff was amazing and we needed to get this guy in before everyone knew about him. We had crazy rules you had to stick to – one of the rules was to fly the flag and Capili was always pushing the SOOS, We got quite a few new members through him.
Basically, we share information and help each other out. We make it a point that we do share amongst each other, but not outside. These are the guys I would watch and get inspiration from even if I didn’t work with them. It’s much easier than looking through the millions of other tattooers out there. We’re like the human centipede of tattooing, and you’re in the middle.
Pedro – Everyone in the SOOS is a personal friend, if you were a douche-bag, you wouldn’t be in it. I wouldn’t have anyone in the SOOS that was a douche-bag. I hate how there are guys that do awesome work with a two-year waiting list, and you get to meet them and they’re a douche-bag. I think there are a lot of people like that. Being a tattooer seems to mean that you have your face tattooed, act a certain way and dress a certain way. They feel the need to look like they’re a tattooer.
The Next Big Thing
Jelle – The next big thing is going to be laser, everyone with facial and hand tattoos are going to get them removed. Everyone’s going to get laser and in a couple of years there are going to be more people with laser surgery than there are with tattoos.