After meeting Quentin at the Brighton tattoo convention earlier this year, I felt it essential that I had another chance to talk in more depth with this 20 year veteran of the industry. World recognised and loved by many, Quentin’s diathermic branding is second to none, fresh and healed. Get comfy, it’s a long one…
Interview – Ash Don Butcher
Photography – Rich Luxton
The nature of our business was different 20 odd years ago to how it is now.
Yeah, it seems that if you can’t draw then piercing is now the cool job to do. There are so many people doing it who haven’t got a clue. I met a girl who said she had spent a grand on a course in Glastonbury and the stuff she was telling that she’d learnt was quite shocking. I thought “fuck me, I’d never dream of doing that – do you think you’re a piercer because you’ve spent 3 days training?”
I know – it’s appalling. I’ve always been very anti-courses which is why I’ve never run them. I could earn a lot more money – I could earn a fortune – two courses a year each with 15 people paying two grand…
You could make a living off of it
120 grand a year – I’d go and live in India!
How long have you been part of the industry?
I opened the first shop in 1998, literally just 10/15 shops down the road from here, but I did two and a half/three years training myself because in those days there were no apprenticeships.
That was my next question – were you an apprentice or were you self-taught?
Totally self-taught, started in a bus – that’s right, I lived in a bus! There was a piercer in Brighton called Warren Deane at “Perforations” who probably was the first person who really inspired me to get into piercing.
Did you always want to do it?
I suppose I got into it. I spent most of my 20s travelling in India and spent a lot of time with the Indian holy men and I was always really fascinated by the concept of going beyond pain – to focus the mind to go beyond. I spent a lot of time with the Naga Babas and with the various Sadhus travelling around India and it was when I came back from my second trip that I suppose piercing had really started to take off in Brighton – it was quite a big underground thing.
It was a fashionable thing?
Yeah, just a lot of people were starting to get into it. Then I read Modern Primitives, which was the first book that for me bridged the gap between eastern philosophy, which is what I was really into, and the west. Magic and stuff I had read about over the years but for me it was always too ego based. I was always drawn to India because the idea there is that you shed all that ego – you shed all that bullshit about you as a person – you were trying to attain more knowledge. And Modern Primitives was probably the first book which sort of bridged the gap between eastern philosophy and westernisation – about changing it and taking it on.
Then I met Warren down at Perforations who was the first person who made me think “wow, it really isn’t just about sex”, which is what most people thought. The usual trick back then was “I’m into piercings, I’m into sex” but I spent two or three years being celibate in India. Warren was also the first person to mention the concept of going beyond that and actually there was an initiation right, it was a right of passage with your journey, and marking your journey through life and so I then I got into piercings through that. I was probably still with my girlfriend at the time, probably about 26 when I had my first piercings done. Body piercings that is – I pierced my own ears at home when I was at school.
I got my nose done when I was 18. Back in those days everything was done with guns because there was no one doing anything else! Then I got my first piercing from Warren which was really interesting because it was a PA and it was really funny because all my friends were like “I’m into pain” and then they told me they had an anesthetic when they had it done! But that was the first bit that got me into it – I suppose I got pierced relatively late by modern day standards.
So yeah, started my first shop in 1998, but from 95’ 96’ I sort of went into the industry of training myself.
What do you offer procedure-wise currently? We know you do the more hard-core things and I take it you still do piercings?
I love piercing – I still do navels, everything. I don’t have a problem, I find it quite funny and I’m probably going to piss a lot of people off by saying this, but hey, that’s what I generally do, every modifier has come from being a piercer but it seems to be, how can I put this politely… a bit trendy to say “oh yeah, I hate doing piercings now – I’m a modifier.” I know so many people who call themselves modifiers that don’t actually do any mods really. I’m a piercer but I do mods as well. That’s where I came from. I love it – I love meeting people. Maybe it’s because I did six days a week for about six years – now I’m lazy – I now do Tuesdays, Wednesday mornings, Fridays and Saturdays, and Saturdays is when I do all the mod work. But I still love it – I love people coming in for an eyebrow or a tragus – I don’t have a problem with it. I find it strange because most of the people that say that are mostly just piercers, that’s what they do. I don’t think it’s very nice for your clients. I’ve been in shops and I’ve said “how’s it going guys?” “Uhh it’s all fucking navels and eyebrows” the piercer says and someone’s sitting next to him waiting for an eyebrow. I find it really rude, I don’t understand, I do think it has become a bit of a trend to go past being a piercer – first you’re a piercer, then you’re a modifier, then you start doing shows then this then that. It’s like there’s a set path that people feel they need to follow, rather than just being themselves, rather than just doing what they enjoy doing. I still love piercing, as much now as I did 20 years ago and that’s where I’ve come from.
It’s your bread and butter as well – you’re not going to make a living off doing mods.
Ha ha, nope! It’s where I came from – I find it strange that some people hate where they came from.
Yeah, it would be bizarre to do that, can you give me a little list of things that you offer mod-wise?
Pretty much anything that I think will work out! So I do sub-dermal implants, transdermal implants, magnetic implants – I do scarification, diathermic branding, ear reconstruction, ear pointing, tongue splitting… The only things I will not touch are things that I don’t think will work out or eyeball tattooing – I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole.
I was going to mention that – we spoke to Iestyn in the last issue and he said that he’d never do it either. I agree with you two – it’s something that I’d never want to do.
I hope it’s all safe. The reason why I wouldn’t do it is I couldn’t live with myself if someone came back to me after 10 or 15 years and told me that they’d gone blind. If you’re the sort of person that can say, “you asked me to do it so basically I don’t give a shit”, then that’s fine, but I’m not that sort of person. I would beat myself up thinking “why did I do it? Did I do it for my ego? Or just for another photo to put on the website?” As a professional you should know what decisions are feasible and what will work out.
It’s moral as well
I think so. It’s the same reason why I won’t do horizontal tongues – so someone can smash their teeth to pieces? What’s the point? I will do anything that I think will work.
Can you explain to me a little bit more about branding? Most people when they think about branding think of strike branding, like you do a cow – how does the branding that you do vary from that and any other types?
I would say that diathermic branding – sometimes they use the term electro-cautery tattooing – is put on a lot more like a tattoo in that I will make a stencil, I will line the stencil on, and then essentially if bits need to be removed between the two lines we remove it the way you would fill it in with a tattoo gun. Essentially it’s using electricity, so it’s sort of vaporizing the tissues. So as the tip goes near to the skin the electricity is jumping between the tip and you and on that arc it’s vapourising.
Same principle as an arc welder?
It’s very, very similar, hence why I think it’s slightly affecting my eye sight! I used to be able to see so close up but now I can’t see anything on my phone or computer. I think it got really bad a couple of years > ago when I got a massive explosion of branding and it got really popular – I was doing up to one every couple of weeks. If you brand for an hour and a half with that machine you can’t see properly afterwards. If I have work afterwards I have to stand outside and let my eyes calm down. So it uses electricity – unlike strike hand branding and cautery branding there’s no heat left in the body.
That’s it, done?
Yeah, there’s no spreading – the design will pull in when you do it and will appear to come back out when it heals because the heat pulls the skin in to seal it. If you put the transfer back over the branding on most people it will be near enough exactly the same size, it won’t have spread. With cautery brandings or strike brandings the heat keeps burning the body for two or three days afterwards. When I did do pen cautery branding, I developed an Aloe Vera gel which is now used by a lot of modifiers.
You use it as an aftercare?
Yeah and I recommended that to people because it takes the heat out and it cools it down. There’s some of my first cautery brandings still on the website and you can see they didn’t spread.
Do you think it was because of that?
Yeah, definitely. Maybe it was also the techniques that I developed – lining in and then burning in the middle more but using the lines to keep the heat.
Almost like lining a tattoo
Whether or not it worked or not I don’t know (you’re working on guess work to a degree) but my brandings have never spread compared to what I’ve seen other people do. People said to me pens were crap but my first brandings were ok and were done with a pen. You used a lot of batteries, don’t get me wrong, but it worked. I think a bad workman always blames his tools to a degree.
How long have you been using diathermic now?
I’m pretty sure it’s about 11 years.
OK, and that’s using the same unit?
Same unit, I wouldn’t change it – I know there are more powerful ones but I use a fraction of that power.
So you don’t even feel you’re using as much as you potentially could?
There are certain modifiers claiming that the machine that I use is crap, but I think my brandings stand up against pretty much anyone in the world – I’ve done some of the finest work ever done. In The mans ruin that I did 10 or 11 years ago I even got the olive inside the martini glass and its still there! The issue a lot of the time is not the fineness now – you can go too fine that you just won’t see it – you need a certain definition to be able to see it.
Again, similar to a tattoo. From your experience do your clients say diathermic branding is painful?
I think it depends on the area – the same as a tattoo. I always try to say to clients it’s like having a very intense tattoo. I have some clients that say it hurts less than tattooing so it must just come down to personal opinion. I tell them to go in expecting it to be like a very intense tattoo, but it’s much quicker, generally.
What’s the biggest scale brand you’ve done on someone – is there anything that sticks in your mind?
The mans ruin that I did on Linton years ago, just because of the actual detail that we managed to get in there. It only took an hour and a half to do the whole thing. I never usually work for more than a couple of hours, because in an hour and a half you can get a lot done. That heart took about an hour and that was over three quarters of the back. Because my eyes are starting to go I can’t do much more than that before I need a break. But I can get a lot done in an hour, which is why I don’t give people a price per hour – I give them a price per piece.
In terms of aftercare you say just leave it alone – what’s the average healing time? I think it’s a bit of a misconception that if you get a branding it’s four to five weeks of constant scabs – what is it like in your opinion?
I say to most people the scabs are off in maximum two weeks depending on the thickness of the line. With the client we just had in, I recon hers might be off in a week, but yours might be 10 days – maybe two weeks because it’s over scar tissue.
But you’re not expecting to be in agony with loads of irritation and soreness for long?
Obviously if you want the scar to raise you’re going to have to pull the scabs off to irritate it, and that’s going to prolong the healing time, but generally my clients don’t want that because they want finer designs. You’re going to lose minor detail if it keloids and it’s going to be uneven. The reason I love branding is the controllability of the healing – that’s why I went into branding initially. I always wanted to do scarification like everyone – it looks so lovely when it’s first done. I love doing it, its one of my most enjoyable things to do and I almost ended up doing branding because clients would ask which one I recommended and I would say “honestly branding because I can tell you how it’s going to heal with a cauterized wound.”
As with a cut you don’t have as much control…
You have the flexibility, you have a wet wound, with the body trying to pull in and close up, and the movement, so the chances of getting it very evenly healed I think – even for the best scarifier, and I’ve spoken to a few of them at BMX and they agreed with exactly what I said – are less because we’re still reliant upon the body and how it wants to heal.
A lot of it is out of your control?
Yeah, I think Brian Decker is starting to do branding on larger areas, and I’m assuming it’s for the very reason I’ve been saying for years, which is the controllability of healing.
I’ve seen now people cutting in then burning out the middle to try and keep in the solidness.
Yeah, and it’s just more cauterized. I mean most people look at my scars and see they’re dipped and think “oh it must be branding” but no, not at all, it’s just how my skin heals. Branding or scars, you can’t always tell the difference, because it does come down to the body and how the body heals. So if you keloid, people will think it’s scarification but no, it could be branding which you’ve irritated.
You mentioned Brian Decker just now who is obviously one of the greats in our industry – who would you look up to on a global scale in our industry to the extent that you would let them work on you?
Samppa is a very close friend and has been for 13 years – when we first met we clicked and he has done all my implants, tongue split – when you know someone like Samppa it’s very hard to go to someone else! And I need it to be a friend because as much as I really admire people like Brian I don’t know him.
Is it quite a spiritual thing then?
Yeah, I need to know the person – I need the interaction. With Samppa you get the best mod work done by him, but with some of my tattoo work I’m not going to go to some of the best in the world because I don’t know them – I want the memories, the interaction.
The experience of the whole thing.
Samppa is usually the person I go to, but he’s so rarely in the country it’s hard to get work done. I’ve got most of the things done now that I really wanted. I keep meaning to change my Teflon implants to silicon, so maybe I will get him to do something like that. We keep talking about putting the transdermal back in my 3rd eye after I lost it, of the new design that he’s got, because I’ve had all 3 generations of transdermal at various times. If I was going to get scarification then Lewis Dodd is a really good scarifier – I’ve had work by him before, but if I wanted something that I would consider spiritual than I will go and see Iestyn because I’m sure he is one of the few people who would understand what it meant for me. If I take a swastika or something to do with Shiva in he will understand far more from the headspace that I’m coming from.
Do you then think you are going to get a better design because he’s then in your mind space as well, he is more inspired to do something, it’s like with a tattoo do you think you give someone a better tattoo?
Maybe, I think it’s just the sharing of it. It’s him knowing what it means to me – that’s the most important thing, the interaction of it. I don’t know whether the design would be any better, > but it’s the sharing of it that matters. At the moment I’m getting my ribs done with Shiva and I went to my girlfriend to do it, because she is probably the only person who fully understands what it means to me. I can chant and cry in there and do all the weird shit and not worry about her thinking “oh my god, what’s the matter with him?” She knows that’s part of it. I think that is the thing that has been lost to a degree, the actual meaning. Each generation finds things for themselves, and it’s not for me to tell them that they have to have this but I do think sometimes people are more interested in the photograph, or the outside thing, rather than the meaning behind it. I love the fact that the swastika is being reclaimed, but I do worry about some of the people who are getting it tattooed on them. Once they leave the comfort of the tattoo studio and they are asked about it, they might say “oh it’s some symbol for light and it’s not Nazi” but you must be prepared to be smacked in the mouth because people will think you’re a Nazi. Just like with the anarchy symbol in my day – I grew up in the punk era and everyone had the anarchy symbol on the back of their leather jacket but probably about 1% of people actually knew what the anarchy symbol meant and actually believed in it. It became an alternative symbol, I actually heard that being said – “it’s an alternative symbol” – but really it means an awful lot more. But it’s a surface – we’re living in a very immediate society with immediate gratification – we want it now.
Have you got any plans inside the modification industry?
I love doing reconstructions because I love people reclaiming their bodies back in different ways to how it was years ago, they’re saying “god, I can get job now!” I love doing ear pointing, I know how Samppa does his – I’ve never done it because I feel it’s Samppa’s technique and it would be very disrespectful after assisting him just to steal his ideas. I’m not saying I’m going to be able to do it as well as Samppa – no way, but I know the technicalities behind it. I wouldn’t say I’ve gone as far as I want in my career – that sounds terrible, but I’ve got to a point where I know what I like and I know what I do well. I love my job but I also have my daughter and I have a life outside of piercing which I know isn’t a very trendy thing to say! I enjoy my gardening!
It’s quite rewarding doing it for someone, giving them a bit of confidence back as well.
They smile when they leave – I love that – it’s probably one of my favorite things I do. I probably don’t do as much now because we are a little bit out of the way. Years ago people travelled a lot more to get their mod work done and it was considered quite normal to travel. When I first started doing this stuff we were the first British studio to be doing any of it – now there is half a dozen people between here and London attempting to do it. I’m not saying they’re doing it properly but I’m not saying they’re doing it badly. I see lots of people starting because they are running all these courses now – people thinking because someone has shown them how to do an implant they know how to do it. I do worry about some of that stuff. We British people are all governed by how much money we’ve got. You have a choice – you can go to someone and get it done half the price just because they’re local, or you can travel down to the other end of the country to come and see me. I had a woman in recently and I went through all the stuff on ear reconstruction with her, not a problem, and then suddenly she said “I’ve found a clinic, its closer to me” and I thought no, she’s just found a modifier who will do it cheaper, which is fine. I’m not the cheapest in the business now but I’m not interested in cut-price stuff.
Do you take pride in that?
I don’t have a conveyor belt system – when you come into the shop we will treat you as a person whether you come for an eyebrow piercing, navel piercing, or ear pointing. If it’s quiet you will get offered a cup of tea – I want to run it as a family business and I want to treat you as a person, not as a walking pound note. I see people as individuals and I want to keep that going – I like to spend time with them. I’m quite happy to be a little bit out of the way. My mod clients are absolutely amazing people – I think I get a nicer client because they have to make an effort to find me. I’m not just in London or Brighton – you’ve got to get to Worthing! We’re quite lucky, we get people from all over for piercings – from Eastbourne and East Sussex way, and we get recommendations from most of the other piercing and tattoo shops in the area which is great. We’re now getting recommendations for laser as well. That’s that stuff which makes it all worthwhile – seeing a person smile when they leave is great.
I’ve heard about the Nepal convention, how long have you been doing that?
I’ve been going since it started, which was two years ago – this is its third year. I’ve never done any work out there – I did the suspension at the last one for them, but really it was just the whole buzz of going. After living in Katmandu for six months during my 20s, having a chance to go back and work there was amazing. And then they asked me to do the suspension which I came out of retirement for so to speak – I haven’t done a show for about three or four years. I was like “shit” because I had to work out humor for a different country, and use words that they were going to understand and not English slang words but I think it went down really well – I got some laughs, which was the most important thing. I had to have a security guard to get me off the stage because everyone was bundling onto the stage to get their photos taken! But the best bit for me was that they got so excited at seeing some honky hanging on hooks. They’ve had a tradition for thousands of years of Babas and holy men doing it but they didn’t know that. And even when I was speaking to Nepalese people and told them that it wasn’t a new thing, they didn’t know. In Nepal it seems they don’t really see it like they do in India. In India you’ve got the Kumbh Mela, the Babas and the Ashram who are a lot more aware of their history. In the 60ss the Babas were doing weird stuff in freak street because you can read the books about them –using razor blades, cutting themselves – and it was really quite full on but that seems to have disappeared now.
So you’re almost…
Taking it back, yeah!
But it was from there anyway
But the great thing is that they got really excited. The convention’s amazing – it’s in the ex Maharaja’s palace. And Mohan and everyone that puts it on are really sound people. So yeah, I’m going to go back again this year. Iestyn is going this year – we’re both supposed to be working there, I love it. I understand the cost of implants for most people in Nepal is too high – most people here go “how much?” before you even start thinking about the sterile stuff. I carried my brander out last year and didn’t do any branding. I took scalpels out the year before but it’s questionable how well the scarring on Nepalese skin is going to work. I think I did one piercing last year and the year before I did a few piercings. Markus from Trust was there and he was doing piercings as well. We were both laughing – we lost money on every piercing! So this year I’m going to go out there to do some scarification if people want it – it’s more for the build up in the next few years, when there will be a massive explosion. I’ve got a lot of Indian tattooists that are kind of half interested but again, it’s about whether it’s ever going to be feasible. But that’s my spiritual home now so it’s nice to go back and give something back.
Even if you’re not making money?
Yeah, maybe in 10 years an Indian tattooist will say “oh I met this silly old git from England and he inspired me.” If I can help to keep the industry going and to give something back to people who are in the beginning of their profession it would be really nice.
Have you worked a lot overseas? Have you ever done a guest spot?
I’d love to do more of it but I’m probably a bit of a victim of what I’ve said, which is I’ve never really pushed the publicity game. There are probably other modifiers out there thinking “you lying git – we’re always seeing you on things!” But I’ve never actually chased publicity – I’ve had film crews, done interviews, and people have come to me, but I still don’t do it now. I know Shannon Larratt put a really nice comment up on his Facebook page (Shannon from BME) but most people have never heard of me even though I’ve been around for years and probably inspired most of the mod artists in England. The idea of guest appearances is you have to have a certain name to draw people in. I’ve guested in Iceland in a friend’s studio out there, and I’ve done bits in Europe, but if there is anyone out there who has got a studio that would like an old git to come…
Ok, Nine Mag is a UK magazine – it’s about the UK industry, so I’d like to know who you rate in terms of UK piercers?
I don’t know names really – I tend to stay clear of forums now – I’m a bit out of the loop, but it was really nice to meet you, Tom Archer (Thou Art) and some younger piercers at Brighton – younger people coming through who have a passion for the business. I’ve become a bit cynical, I must admit, because I’ve met a few people in the business who I think are very disrespectful. I think some people see our industry as just money and have no respect for where it’s come from. I’ve met a few people on the internet who actually still have that ethos from years ago and that’s really refreshing. I need to get out perhaps and meet more people. Obviously there’s Facebook now but I’m from a generation that didn’t have computers – I got my first mobile phone when I was 30, I had 3 tv channels when I grew up that switched off at 11 o’clock. So actually I don’t know how to use a lot of this new technology. I know there are a lot of good piercers, but there are a hell of a lot of shit piercers! The quality of the average street > piercer has gone down since I was young. People have all this information but they don’t bother to utilize it.
Like you said, Tom up in Sheffield has quite an old school mentality in the best sense – he wants to do something right.
People want to run before they can walk – I think that’s one of the issues. When I first came into the business Steve Hayworth had just started doing the first surface bars and I remember thinking, “oh my god, what’s the point of me coming into the business? This guy’s so far ahead that I’ve almost missed the boat, there is no boat to miss. If you lay good foundations you can build a skyscraper, but if your foundations are shit it will just collapse. Most of the people I knew when I started piercing are no longer piercing – they’ve either burnt out, gone on to something else, got bored, or just lost it.
OK, so let’s say you’ve been in this industry 20 years – that’s quite rare.
I’m a granddad!
You’ve been through it, you’ve seen all this shit, and you’re still here! I hope that’s where I’ll be. It’s something you have to be passionate about, something you need to commit to and want to do for the rest of your life – otherwise, you’re not really going to get anywhere.
A couple of people have said to me that I’m like the granddad of the mod scene – even Shannon said I’ve been around since the caveman days! But it’s really nice – I really appreciate what he’s said. You feel a lot older when you see some of the youngsters coming through but it’s cool – it’s passing the mantle on, and as long as there are a few people that have some ethos and ethics that’s all that counts – it will keep going. You had the cowboys in my day and you’ve got the cowboys now and you’ll never get rid of them because for some people it’s all about the pound and how much money you can put in your pocket.
Do you agree that you pay for what you get? Certain shops where you can get a cheap piercing seem to always mess up – I don’t think we are ever going to stamp that out.
I help people out with messed up piercings and they come back again with another messed up one and I say “why did you go back to the same place!?”
Do you think there is any way of tackling this problem? Do you think our best approach is to keep doing what we’re doing and promoting the good work? I personally think it’s important to expose the bad work too.
It’s a hard one. I might occasionally say “look, this has been done slightly wrong.” But I try not to get into that stuff because there is always someone who is always above you, you could get someone like Samppa not respecting anybody because no one is up to his level, everyone’s work is shit compared to his! I try to keep out of that world. Like Buddhism and Hinduism – you end up holding it in yourself. I take things a bit too personally and feel like it’s a personal attack when in fact it isn’t. I try to stay out of it because you end up in battles on the internet over nothing.
I tell my clients I charge this much – it’s probably way more than anyone else but I don’t use black gloves, I don’t use kitchen roll, I’ll have drapes, I’ll have sterile surgical gloves, swabs, all the switches covered – we don’t cut corners on that aspect so it isn’t cheap. I do have things I won’t operate on – I won’t operate on people’s ears until I think they’re ready. I think the biggest problem which is coming into the industry, especially in tattooing, is that the more laws we make the less decisions people make about their own body. I get people coming in here saying “look what this stupid tattooist did” and I say “you paid them, who’s stupid?” It’s a bit soul destroying when you know people won’t wait two days for you even though you offer better quality, but that’s humanity. I try to do my work to the best level that I can and I still enjoy it and if people find out about us then that’s great but I’m not going to drag anyone off the street. Obviously there are trends –15 years ago everyone was a lot more tribal orientated – now everyone looks down on people with tribal, but it will come back again. Most of the younger generations are probably thinking “what the fuck is he going on about, I just want a piercing, I just want a tattoo” and there doesn’t have to be a meaning behind it
I think the TV shows have kind of made people think that everything’s got to mean something – it doesn’t have to mean anything.
It’s supposed to be about being an individual – people have forgotten that, and as long as people get a good service and they’re happy then that’s all you can do.
In loving memory of Shannon Larratt.
Body modification artist