I have followed Sway’s work for a while now and have not seen anyone posting as many paintings as this guy; it seems he has an endless supply. He was kind enough to get Danny Rossiter and Rich Hadley to travel up from Rain City in Manchester to join the Sacred Electric guys in a painting day, and we caught up with them all for a chat.
Interview – Ben Lakin
Photography – Ben Lakin
Sway – Sacred Electric – Leeds, U.K.
So what has you experience been of having a predominantly flash-based shop?
All the kids now want a flash shop. As soon as I post something on Instagram I get an email saying, ‘Can I have that?’ People aren’t asking for that much anymore. But everyone thinks they’re a tattoo collector now, which kind of sucks. Everyone wants to get palm-sized pieces, then go off to someone else and get another. I remember years ago in one of my old shops you had regulars. You had kids that would get both arms, both legs – you’d do everything on them. You do still get those kids now and again, but now because of Instagram and Facebook people are finding tattoo artists all over the place and are willing to travel.
Do you get it on the other end then, with a lot of people wanting to travel to you?
Yeah, I’ve rarely tattooed people from Leeds I think! I quite like Leeds compared to where I was in Newcastle. It’s 2-3 hours to get anywhere in England, so most people are willing to travel I think. It’s the same with Joe; kids love Joe.
Yeah, he’s a popular fella
He was from the start. It was that Tumblr thing – it just blew up tattooing completely. Like I don’t understand what Instagram is for if it’s not for tattooing. If people have just pictures of themselves in front of a mirror, why have it? I don’t get it.
Yeah, I know, I’ve always thought it was invented for online portfolios. I can’t think why else people would use it.
That’s what the internet’s for, I guess, to share pornography!
It’s my favourite thing though, Instagram. I can post something; the email’s there so I can just leave it. Facebook fucks me up. You get comments off people trying to book in and message – all these different ways of people trying to contact me. But with Instagram you just take a picture, and it’s done. I’d love to get rid of all of them. I’ve got a website; I’ve always had a website. If I could just have that, it would be great. It was Myspace, then Facebook and there’ll be something else like now there’s Instagram. It’s just always doing something different. On my Facebook it says ‘don’t message me on here, email the shop’. No one reads it. They all message. We tend to just tell people to email the shop.
With tattooists, I just don’t think their brains are that way inclined to be able to do both those things, never seen it before. Maybe with one or two. We had a guest here, Danielle Rose. I’ve never met someone with their head so screwed on its ridiculous! She’s so polite, she’s so nice, no trouble.
Where is she based?
She’s travelling constantly; she’s over in Australia now, I think. She does really nice work, and when she comes in she has all her appointments set up, all her stencils are made out – everything’s sorted. I’ve never known anyone to be that organised. I don’t know how you can be that organised!
And still have time for everything else?
Yeah, that’s why I’m quite pleased with the way things are going at the moment for me – I’ve painted it, there, you can have it.
I see what you’re saying about people only getting one piece, but in the same respect surely that gives you more customers as well?
Yeah. Obviously, I tattoo them more than once most of the time. In this city especially there are two universities. It’s been quiet all summer but about now they all get their loans through and everyone’s booking in. All we ever get is emails with pictures we’ve posted saying, ‘Have you done this yet?’ With Bailey especially people always ask for the same things. I know it’s flash, but I try never to do the same thing twice. I’d hate to be that dude that ran into someone that had the same tattoo. I remember when I was a kid I used to be the drummer in this band and some kid was like, ‘Man, I’ve got a new tattoo!’ Our guitarist just pulled up his sleeve, and he had the exact same tattoo. That must suck real bad. So I always get bummed out when people steal flash off you and stuff.
I had one a while ago where I painted it and posted it on Instagram about 9 in the morning. By the time I’d finished work, someone had taken it, drawn it, tattooed it and tagged me in it saying ‘Sway Tattoo Flash.’ I was like; this isn’t flash! I take pictures from an angle as well so when they’ve traced it it’s fucked up. It was some American tattooist that had done it and made his apprentice tattoo it on him – so it was the boss of the shop making him do it! I tried not to rise to it, just because I don’t want to be that little bitch on the internet.
People are always going to do it. I remember when I first started tattooing all people did was bring pictures out of tattoo magazines because there wasn’t flash on the internet. So people get used to it, it’s just whether you’re a shop that does it.
It’s hard because there are people who draw flash and sell it as flash but don’t want anybody to tattoo it – but they sold it as flash.
If I sell something, I know someone’s going to tattoo it. That’s what it’s for. You can’t get upset with that! I understand if someone makes a print – like a big piece, not a sheet of flash images. I can see getting bummed out about that. But if you paint flash, and you sell it, if you do anything, put it on paper and sell it, someone’s going to get it tattooed. Like people who do album artwork, how many tattoos have been done of front covers of CD’s? The person that did that artwork may be bummed out.
Stealing tattoos are one of those things that has always been done. In the old shop, I used to work in there was a guy who had been tattooing longer than I’d been alive. He brought in a picture or magazine and was like, right, sit down; he’d do it then next. He was an old school guy; it was just what was done. Now people are a lot more bitchy about it. Like, I don’t want to do it because I want to do my stuff, what’s the point in doing someone else’s tattoo and trying to advertise it as my own? I don’t want to do that; I want to do mine!
The internet has kind of ruined flash for apprentices. Flash was always done, people always painted it. I got my apprenticeship by having flash and going into studios and saying that I wanted to tattoo. Now the internet is so full of all this old flash that all anyone’s doing is redraws of old flash. I know a few kids that can paint real fucking well but can’t draw. They’re just redoing old flash, but it looks like they know what they’re doing. It’s kind of made it too easy for people to do it.
You do get that; I’ve got it with Nine Mag. I was trying to find different artists – I was going through and deleting people just to cut it down. It’s to a point now where there are a lot of artists, especially with traditional, that you look at it and it’s so close to the last ten people you looked at.
You can look at Hexa or Joel Madberg or any of those guys then you can see them do a redraw, and it’ll look like they’ve done it. You can look at it and say, ‘He did that,’ but you know it’s from old flash. I like to do things my own way; I’d never do a redraw straight up. I’ll always try to put something of my own into it. I like doing them. I can draw lady’s heads, but I’d much rather they looked like real ugly old Bert Grimm ones. But I’ll always change it to try and make it my own. You can give the same thing to like ten people, but do your own version of it. Half the people on my Instagram are kids that want to be tattooists but can’t draw, and they’re all doing the same things. Like flash, just screenshot it off Flickr and trace it, and there, it’s yours now.
What about when you started? Where were you referencing stuff from before you brought your portfolio to a studio?
It was mostly just doodles and 90s new-school imagery
I interviewed Tutti, and he showed me his portfolio with like massive eyes on swallows!
It was fucking horrible, but it was just what was there. I was on about it because Jimmy is fucking young, we tried to explain. Like I remember when I got into tattooing I’d go into shops, and I’d see stuff that I’d found, but I remember the only magazine that I could get hold of was the old American one that was just called Tattoo. It was just some dude stood there with his top off, a story about him, and he had the worst tattoos! And then there’d be a couple of pages of flash in the back of it, but that was the only thing. I didn’t have the internet until I was about nineteen, so I just didn’t know. So that was what I had as reference with all this fucking 90s American tattooing. The guy I learnt from was a real oldie, everyone I learned from learnt in prison, so they were all real old-school dudes. You had to do everything with a tight 3; you had to line all of it with a tight 3. Then if you want a thick line you’d get a 7 round and go up against your thick line. It was all rounds, you never used mags, it just took so long. It took years! You’d just go straight in with a big needle. ‘Oh yeah, that looks great’. But no one told me, it was fucking hard. It took a while; it was about seven years of street shops. I did everything.
How long have you been tattooing?
I never know, it’s like ten or eleven years maybe. The guy I always used to ask was my old shop manager, my best friend. I tattooed him right at the beginning – so he knows. My memory is shit, but he’s in Newcastle now.
So you said your first seven years were in street shops?
Seven years in Newcastle was just pure street shops. The first place I worked was a place called Viking, and it was all 80s flash, you got the biker magazines, and you’d photocopy it yourself and colour it all in. Loads of Cherry Creek and Celtic. It was like £10 minimum, £30 an hour. It was just the worst. I really appreciate the dudes that took me on and gave me a chance, I’m thankful to them.
Are they still going?
Yeah, they were brothers that owned it. One of them has gone and opened his own now. It was a small Pitt Village tattoo shop, but it was the only one around. I used to keep a knuckle duster permanently in my back pocket. I was terrified! In my first week he told me, ‘You put a foot wrong, I’m gonna break your fucking thumbs, and you’ll never tattoo.’
I went from there to another street shop, the busiest place around in my home town. Even before I got tattooed, I used to tell people to go there to get tattooed. That was the one good shop; it was the only good shop in Newcastle. Then when I ended up working there, walk-in days were like 20 tattoos a day. Just sit down and work. I was like, ‘I haven’t got enough grips for this.’ Used to have to go and sit and scrub everything halfway through the day and sterilize them. You’d get there in the morning at 9 AM, and there’d be a queue of 40 people. It was like a busy seaside town shop. For a while, I was the only guy there doing Japanese. I did Japanese solid for like two years. That was all I did, which I still like doing. It’s the best way to learn, Steve Byrne said it years ago. If you want to learn to tattoo go to a street shop, if you can put a star on straight and tribal in black, you can do anything. That’s your basics, it covers you, you’re used to a tight three to a 14 round. Bit of soft black and grey, a bit of everything. It sort of gives you the skills to do it.
That’s the thing with walk-in shops, you learn that part of tattooing, but you’re also learning how to deal with customers on the spot and working under pressure.
You become 70% con man and 30% tattooist because people come in with just the worst idea that they’ve thought of themselves. We used to have a wall of shame of all the stuff people had drawn themselves and wanted to be tattooed. It was huge. But you just learn to try and talk them round – ‘This will look better.’ For years, I used to draw two things when I worked in a walk-in shop. When they wanted custom, I’d draw what I knew they wanted, and I’d draw my own version of it. I’d hide the other and show them my version. If they didn’t go for it, I’d show them the other one. It was just years of drawing two for everything because I didn’t have the confidence to say, ‘No, you shouldn’t have that, this would be better.’
Where did things change from there?
It’s those TV shows. I remember when Miami ink came out. A big billboard for it was outside one of the street shops I worked at. When that was there, everyone came in wanting that big snake that was on someone’s belly or arm or something. We got loads of people coming in and asking for Japanese snakes. No one had ever really asked for those before. It was awesome! It kind of opened people’s eyes to the idea that you don’t have to get a rose with ‘mum’ written in it.
Did you get people wanting to come in and tell you a story as well?
No, I just don’t ask! I learnt just not to ask.
I don’t think you have to ask.
Never ask why I heard so many bad fucking stories about people’s family and shit. ‘What does this mean?’ ‘Oh, my mam was a really prolific self-harmer.’ It was just like, ‘I don’t need to hear this.’ What do you say when they say ‘Oh, my mam died last week.’ I’m all out of answers after that; it kills it. So I just don’t ask why.
Some people come in, and they want to, it’s how they engage with you straightaway – ‘I wanna get this because…’
Yeah, but that’s easy. Speak to them about shit like that though and it’s just like, ‘Alright, yeah, that’s no bother,” and just go into the tattoo side of it. All the ‘roid heads and gym dudes love Japanese samurais because they all think they’re a warrior. Every dude I know in the army has a warrior on him somewhere because they all think they are fucking nails. You don’t need to know that story, but they tell you it. The old shop used to be next door to the walk-in clinic of the mental health centre, so it was crazies all the time. They used to go and get their methadone, and they all wanted snakes because they shed their skin and started again. I could speak to them, and it was fine, but I’d never really question too far into it because I don’t need that story. I’ve got one tattoo that means something: I got my daughter’s name. Everything else was just a case of, ‘That will look sweet; I want that.’ When I got tattooed as a kid, it was just what I thought would look good.
I think that was pretty normal until TV programmes.
Some of the kids still do. Someone sent song lyrics to Joe this morning, and said, ‘Do what you want with it.’ I like those tattoos when you can put your own twist on it like you’ve just got total free reign with just a theme to build on. Joe’s customers all have a tender side like he only does sad ladies – I’ve not seen a lady with a smile in here. They all look a bit forlorn like they’ve just been dumped.
Joe’s work is great.
Yeah, it’s real good. I need to get tattooed by him. Every week I’m like, I want that thing on my shin! I need to actually, book it in with him because we’ll never do it otherwise. I don’t like staying super-late, I live like 20 minutes away in the country. It’s fucking great.
I couldn’t live in the city centre; it’s too much. I don’t deal with crowds very well! I’ve lived in city centres for years; I nearly lived above the shop. It was 7-day weeks at first, and it got to the point where I was like, ‘Right, I need to leave the shop at some point.’ I’m quite far away now in the middle of nowhere. I don’t have a social life; I’m here, and I’m home. Sometimes I’ll go through Manchester and see those guys. I travel around with tattooing, but I don’t do anything but tattooing while I’m doing it.
I’ve tried before to give myself hobbies that weren’t just tattooing. I built tattoo machines for a few years, but that’s still kind of tattooing! I enjoy painting too, but it’s always tattoo imagery – it’s not like I’m doing some weird oil painting that I couldn’t tattoo on someone. I’ve got a music setup in my house – guitar and synth and stuff like that – but I never make time to do it. I feel bad if I’m not painting at the minute. If I get in, and I’m sat around for a few hours I think to myself ‘I should have been painting!’
Every day I see so much of the new stuff that you have painted.
I cheat, I can paint fast. I’ve got my setup at home. I’ve got sketches and finished line drawings so I can line out three flash sheets and paint them in one night. Then I just take a picture of each of the things off them and just spread them out. I have a huge back catalogue. Loads of stuff never gets posted because I’ve got a huge backlog in my folder and I don’t want to post it anymore. I don’t like it; I want to re-do it!
I know a few guys that wonder how you do so much.
I have no life at all. When I first moved to Leeds, I knew no one. Well, I knew Diego, who I worked with, that was good. I’m a hermit. I just stay home, get high and paint. That’s it. My Mrs has the same job as me, we sit next to each other – we have his and her drawing tables. We show each other and are like, ‘What’s wrong with this and that,’ and she’ll tell me or I’ll tell her. It’s good. I stay up until about 2 am drawing, and Jemma’s there doing the same thing.
In the beginning, was it painting or drawing you were doing when you went for your apprenticeship?
Drawing. I’d gone to college and uni a few times, but I always dropped out. They don’t teach you anything. I wanted to learn how to paint, but they don’t teach you that. My first flash was all coloured pencils and shit; it was fucking terrible. I still got one of my first sketchbooks that I took to get my apprenticeship around somewhere, but it’s fucking horrible. I hung around with a lot of old punks and skinheads, and I used to draw tattoos for them, so they could go somewhere and get it tattooed. They all liked the Vince Ray style rockabilly stuff. That’s why I can’t get into Sailor Jerry. I appreciate what he did, the proportions were perfect, but the big hips and the eyebrows just remind me of that rockabilly tattoo that I did loads of. It’s just not my favourite old flash – but it’s everybody else’s. I remember when I first started tattooing that was what I tattooed, loads of rockabilly – cards, dice, coffins, gypsy girls that were zombie. And pumpkins, loads of pumpkins!
I started a tattoo on a girl years ago, like maybe the first six months of me tattooing, and then she moved to Leeds. Then when I moved here and was working privately, she got in touch to get it finished, and by now it was about seven or eight years old. I suggested that we could cover it. It was like a coffin with bat wings. I fixed it and made it better. It had all been lined with a tight 3. I’ve been doing back pieces at the minute in fourteen hours, maybe less. That one I did yesterday on Hannah’s back, it’ll be done in eight or nine hours. It’s good, I like them. I’ve got a dude in tomorrow with a bodysuit to finish. It’s a full Japanese bodysuit. It’s been going on for about eight years. One of his legs is some of the first Japanese I ever did when no one had told me how it was done. Then his next leg looks a little better, and then the next arm looks better – you can see the progression of it. The first bit of his leg upset me because I’d love to have a picture of a nice full bodysuit, but no one had taught me how to do Japanese when I first started on his leg. You can see the progression of my work on him, though.
If I look at something long enough I’ll hate it, so if the client is happy with their tattoo, then I don’t look back at it. Like my Mrs at night zooms in on her phone and looks at all the lines and everything and beats herself up if she’s not happy with something. I think everyone sort of does it. I think if you thought you were God then you’d stop trying.
There’s a guy in my hometown that Lal Hardy visited recently on one of his tours, the oldest shop in Newcastle – a place called Ozzie’s. He won awards around the world in the seventies for being good, and then just stuck to doing that – so whatever he did in the seventies he’s still doing now. So he’s been a bit left behind, and the shop’s got a really bad reputation that he does really shit stuff. If you’re constantly trying to get better, then you’re not going to get left behind.
A good example would be Bara.
Yeah, I’m going over in December to work. His apprentice Ricardo was here, a really nice kid and good tattoos.
He’s the perfect example of someone that’s been going a long time and is still fucking amazing.
For a while, everyone was trying to take on Bara and Dino and stuff like that. If you look at Dino’s old portfolios, he’s got black and grey portraits that are perfect. He’s got that back catalogue of work that allows him to do stuff like lining something in bright yellow. It’s a lot harder than it looks. Everyone thinks, “Yeah, I can do that,” but he’s got the back catalogue that lets him do it. Like Bara, he’s been working for like twenty years!
So he can take his hand to anything, pretty much.
Yeah, he’s at that point where everyone travels for him. It’s kind of a weird place, Spain at the minute. Everyone I know there has just been travelling loads and working a little bit.
Oh yeah, it’s fucked at the minute.
I’m supposed to be in Barcelona and Madrid this year. I’m trying to cut out conventions and just do guest spots at the minute because it’s much nicer to get tattooed at a shop. Some of the conventions are not made for tattooing. I’m going to cut out English ones and do some more in Europe and have a mini-holiday.
It’s a good platform to meet people.
The guy that ran one of my old shops used to take us to Germany every year, twice a year to the two conventions. It was great. Conventions are great because I get to hang out with my friends. Every time I do it, it’s just to see people. If none of my friends were working at a convention, then I wouldn’t want to do it. It would suck to go on my own, sit in a hotel room, work hard – I can do that at home. Why do I need to go and tattoo somewhere that’s not made for tattooing. Europe’s fun, I did a guest in Salon Serpent in Amsterdam a couple of months ago. It’s all real nice guys that work there, a real nice shop. They introduce you to everyone, show you around the town. Can’t do that when you go to the likes of Brighton convention. Brighton is cold and windy. Although I will keep doing Brighton and North Lakes, I think.
Yeah you’ve told me about North Lakes.
It’s just such a nice little gathering of people. I don’t think anyone works that hard there. They may as well stop calling it a convention and make it into just one big party for everyone to get together.
So what else has helped you progress?
I know my flaws, and I’m just trying to make other people do the things I’m shit at, it’s the easiest way.
That’s what will make your shop, even more, successful though – knowing your flaws.
The shop was a stress when I first opened it, I was like, ‘Fucking hell, why did I open a shop?!’ I had been working privately, and that was alright, but then I thought, ‘I’ll get a shop! That’s what I’ll do!’ It’s kind of like my pension.
And it’s going well now, so it’s been worth it.
Joe Ellis – Sacred Electric – Leeds, U.K.
What brought you into tattooing and how long ago was that?
My uncle was covered in tattoos. He used to be in loads of old punk bands and stuff, so I kind of saw that a lot as a kid, but I never really thought of myself as being a tattoo artist until I started getting them myself. When I was 18 I got a pretty shit tattoo. I loved it at first, but after a while I remember thinking, “This is bollocks. I can do better than that, I can draw better than that.” So that’s where it all came from really.
In the beginning did you find it hard to get into tattooing? What sort of portfolio did you get together?
Yeah, it was really hard for me. I started pursuing it when I was 18 and I didn’t get an apprenticeship until I was 21, just because I’m quite quiet. If you go into a tattoo shop really quietly… Well, they don’t want someone who’s quiet, so I found it really hard. My portfolio was basically a mix of the stuff I did through university and stuff, but it’s really different to what I do now.
Were you painting any sort of flash or was it more art at uni?
It was all stuff that I intended to be tattooed. There’d be a couple of pieces that were more realistic, just to show I wasn’t just one thing.
Do you paint a lot now?
Yeah, every day after work I paint at least one painting.
At what point did that transition come, from tattooing to painting a lot?
I first started painting every day after I’d finished my apprenticeship. Painting has never really been a strong point for me, but as I began to tattoo full time I found it was more appealing to the client to be able to see what the tattoo was going to look like. Especially when it’s traditional so there’s barely even any lines in the line drawing. Also, it’s a way of practising that isn’t on someone’s skin.
So what are your thoughts on having a flash-type shop, with all the pre-painted stuff ready for the customer?
It’s pretty cool but it’s still quite a hard concept for the customers. A lot of people still don’t really understand why it’s all up there. It’s kind of weird because it’s going backwards a bit. It used to be that way, you’d choose off the wall but it’s all custom stuff now. I do like it, but sometimes something will have been on the wall for ages, so I’ll be over that idea when someone picks it. But you can always tweak it a bit. It’s definitely better to have all the guys in the shops’ work up on the wall around them. It’s really inviting.
Obviously, you take some influence from these guys, but who else do you take influence from?
Well lately I’m trying to not do that – I find I can be really easily influenced. But some of my favourite artists are Theo Mindell, Alexander Grim and people like that. Generally, anything from Spider Murphy’s is the kind of thing that I really look up to.
Do you do any conventions or guest spots?
The shop I started in was really into conventions, so once I’d finished my apprenticeship I used to be on pretty much every convention. Now that I am here and there’s so many conventions now, I’m not so bothered about it. I’m pretty much in the middle of England in Leeds, and it’s really accessible for most people. I do maybe three or four guest spots a year, mostly at friends’ shops. I get asked to do a lot but I like to treat them as a bit of a vacation, so do one or two tattoos a day then hang out with my friends.
Is there any advice you’d give to those reading the magazine that are in their early days of tattooing?
Just work really hard. It’s what I did and I seemed to do alright. Also, try new stuff. Don’t stick to one thing so you don’t become a one-trick pony.
Shaun Bailey – Sacred Electric – Leeds, U.K.
So what brought you into tattooing, and how long ago was that?
I have been tattooing almost 4 years. My interest in tattooing just sort of came about from getting tattooed a lot; the more I got the more into it I became. I never grew up wanting to tattoo and had no family or friends that were into tattooing. I always wanted to do illustration or animation, that’s what I went to university for.
How hard was it for you to break into tattooing?
I got an apprenticeship through a mix of hard work and a lot of luck. I worked on my drawings for about two-three years off and on whilst working a bunch of shit 9-5 call centre jobs. I never really took it seriously. I finally got fed up of the office job so I just walked out to move back in with my parents and started to focus all my efforts on finding an apprenticeship. Eventually, I got introduced to Matt Cooley, now of Rain City, who gave me a shot.
Were you painting a lot before, or is it something that has been added in at a later date?
I painted a lot during my time at college and university, but it was never tattoo imagery and never using watercolours like I do now. I have only really got into painting this year since being at Sacred Electric, just through trying to keep up with the amount Sway paints!
What are you painting today and why this in particular?
I’m painting a sheet with a few different things on it in black and just one colour on each design. There’s no real reason for this, just trying something new. There’s a lady’s head on there, a skull, snake, spider and rose – all my favourite things to paint.
What has influenced your style and the way that you paint?
There is too much to name! Traditional American tattoo flash has influenced me the most in terms of the way I paint.
How often do you paint?
At the moment, about every other day. I go through phases where I will paint every night and then sometimes I might not paint at all for two weeks. I just paint when I want to paint, try not to stress out over my painting and just enjoy doing it. Save the stress for actual tattooing.
Do you try and paint as you would like to tattoo?
Yeah, I paint things I would like to do as a tattoo. It’s a good way for me try new ways of doing things without it being on someone forever.
Do you work in any other media?
Not anymore, I just stick to watercolours and inks. Maybe one day if I ever get bored of watercolours I will move on to something different.
Do you look to old flash from early in the 20th century and even before then to reference in any of your work?
Yeah, I have started to reference from old flash a lot more this year since I have been working at Sacred Electric. Sway knows a lot about the old guys, so there’s a lot of old flash in the studio, and I have just been making the most of it. I never really had any of that in previous studios I have worked in. It’s changed the way my work looks and my approach to what I think makes a good tattoo.
Do you make the flash that you paint available for your customers to pick?
Everything I paint is available as tattoo, and either goes up on the wall for people to pick, or up online. The walls of the studio are pretty much full of our own flash.
How do you feel about the increasing amount of talented painters that are looking to get
If they have got the talent then it’s a good thing, right?
Would you say there was anyone that has had particular influence when it comes to your development as both a painter and a tattooist?
Everyone at Sacred Electric influences me the most. Just trying to keep up with them has had the biggest impact on my development both as tattooist and painter.
Do you do many conventions and guest spots, and how have they contributed to your progress?
I have not done any this year. Next year I want to do a lot more conventions. I always leave a good convention feeling inspired and ready to get back into the studio.
What advice would you give anyone that is reading this that may be an apprentice or early on in their tattoo career?
Just work really hard. Tattooing is an industry where you get out of it what you put into it.
Jason E-G – Sacred Electric – Leeds, U.K.
What brought you into tattooing and how long ago was that?
I’ve only been tattooing for just over a year. I’ve always been into tattooing and I’ve been getting tattooed since I was about 16. I had kids quite young and couldn’t afford to do an apprenticeship, so I had to get a proper job. Then I had the opportunity to be made redundant from my old job as a lumberjack and I kind of seized it, went for a tattoo apprenticeship, and never looked back.
So during that time were you painting? What kind of things?
Yeah, drawing and painting are my life. I did a lot of line drawings for my portfolio.
How hard was it for you to break into tattooing?
It was very hard because I was a little bit older. I was about 37 when I started looking for a job and no one really wanted to take me on because all the tattooists were younger than me. It was difficult, but I got offered an apprenticeship. It was a big upheaval moving from Leeds to Scotland, but it was worth making the move to break into tattooing.
So what brought you down this way?
Just missing home, to be honest. I’ve got family down here and stuff, so up in Scotland I felt a bit isolated and I just wanted to be back home.
Where do you take your influences from for your paintings?
I don’t really look at tattoo flash or anything like that. I look at a lot of Greek architecture.
How often do you get to paint?
Every night. I’m quite new to tattooing and I need to make time to paint, I think it’s really important. Especially when you’re new to tattooing and you need to figure out how stuff works. I’ll paint a tattoo up before I tattoo it.
How do you feel about having this setup of going back to painting up stuff for flash and having it go on the wall?
I think it’s good, man, everyone should do it. It teaches you a lot about tattooing. Having our own flash on the wall shows what we can do and it shows what we’re all about when a customer walks into the shop. They get a feel for the shop.
Do you work in any other media at the moment?
Not at the moment. I’m looking to try and do a bit of sculpting eventually. I’ve just recently done a guest spot down at Great Western and some of the guys were modelling with clay, and I quite like the idea of that.
Do you do many conventions or guest spots?
I’ve done one convention so far, which was Liverpool. I’ve done one guest spot and I’ve got another in November. The travelling was one of the things that really appealed to me about tattooing – I like travelling a lot.
Do you tend to paint when you go and do the guest spots?
Yeah, like I was down with Sam last week and we did it together. Sam’s a really old friend of mine and down there they’re really into painting with each other. I enjoyed that.
Is there any advice you’d give to people just starting out in tattooing?
A strong portfolio – paint, draw and look at other tattoos. Try different styles out and paint every night.
Jimmy Wizard – Sacred Electric – Leeds, U.K.
I know you don’t tattoo yet, but what brought you into tattooing?
I was just fascinated by it. My dad had a tattoo – just a little rose on his arm, but I used to think it was so cool. He told me it hurt a lot, and I thought you must be really tough to get one. But then I got one and it didn’t hurt as much as he said!
I’ve always been into them, I think from the music I listen to and skateboarding. It was always something I was going to be introduced to and always think is cool. I’ve been getting tattooed since I was about 17.
How did you end up here at this shop and into your apprenticeship?
I moved to Leeds about 7 or 8 months ago. I knew a lot of people that knew Sway, and I knew Sam, who worked here before I moved to Leeds. I used to come in and hang out because I’ve always wanted to tattoo.
How long have you been painting, and did you start with the intention of tattooing by painting tattoo flash?
About two years now. Once I got the confidence to actually try. People told me, ‘If you do this you’ll get better,’ and it started working and making sense. I’d always wanted to tattoo, since I was 15 or 16, but I didn’t have the confidence to actually try and draw and stuff.
How has it been to be able to paint around these guys?
It’s helped me out so much. I got told the basics like how to fade and what to use. I had to keep up a standard painting around them because they are so much better than me. If I look at something they do and I look at something I do, I want to be on the same level as them. So it pushes me to try and be as good as them.
So are they your biggest influences right now? Where else do you draw influence from?
I draw a lot of traditional stuff so everything I take in is from tattoos. I know the other guys will take influences from stuff outside of tattoos, but I take my influence mainly from old flash or other tattoos. I’ll get most of my influences from the books in here or something the guys are doing that I think is a really cool idea. I’m also always on the lookout on the internet and Instagram.
How often do you paint now?
Every day. Well, I try to every day.
How do you feel about this idea of painting flash before the customer has given their idea, like the stuff ready to go on the walls?
That’s how it always was originally, and it’s cool. These days people want a tattoo but they don’t really know what they want, so it’s cool that they can see finished ideas. For some people that’s how they get tattooed – they see the painting and that’s exactly what they want. If you’re constantly painting then you’re going to get more work too, because people can see what you’re producing.
Danny Rossiter – Rain City – Manchester, U.K.
How long have you been tattooing?
I’m 34 now, so I started 16 years ago. I just started getting tattooed really. I got my first tattoo and I just thought it would be cool to tattoo. Being at uni at the time I was wanting to do graphic design. And I just looked at graphic design, looked at tattooing, and thought tattooing was a cooler lifestyle, y’know. You just tend to be able to do what you want when you want to do it and I like that freedom. It gives you a proper sense of freedom.
So what were you doing at uni?
Art and Design. This was back in New Zealand.
Did you do an apprenticeship?
Yeah, I did an apprenticeship.
What sort of portfolio did you have then? Were you painting then?
I wasn’t painting so much then, it was mainly coloured pencils. The guy who was tattooing me – I just harassed him continuously until he said yes. It didn’t take very long, but he said, ‘Do you want to come and work for me?’ I was like, ‘Fucking damn right!’ My original idea was that I’d stay at home and do the designs at home, but he said, ‘No, you’ll be in here everyday working your arse off’. It was a pretty strict apprenticeship and the guy was pretty nuts, but it paid off in the long run. He drilled into me that tattooing is not easy, you can’t just sit back and expect everything to come to you. You’ve got to work hard at it if you want to be good at it. So that was the one good thing that came out of my apprenticeship.
So at what point did you start painting if you weren’t from the beginning?
I started painting during my apprenticeship, but it was more acrylics and stuff like that. Back then, my view of tattooing – I thought old-school was rubbish, I thought it was shit. I’m talking Japanese and old-school. I liked the whole new-school thing, and that’s what was popular back then. As time progressed and I moved over here and I’d been tattooing a little while, my eyes opened up to the roots of tattooing. Like where it came from, and that’s how tattooing should look – old-school and Japanese. All this newer stuff is just fucking rubbish.
What are you painting today? What made you choose that?
I’m painting a skull with a psychedelic-looking mandala thing round it. The reason I chose it is just because I’ve been painting that recently, and I just wanted to go down that route a bit more to see how much more I can get out of it. I want to do something like that because I don’t want my work to look like everyone else’s. At the moment it just seems that everyone’s work is looking really similar. I want my work to instantly look like mine. Although I couldn’t care less whether anyone likes it as long as I’m doing something that is going to better myself. Anyone can take stuff, redraw it and then say it’s theirs. It’s just too easy.
So would you develop something like you’ve been painting into a tattoo? Is that the aim or is it just purely for painting?
I could do eventually, but at this point it’s just purely for painting. It could be tattooable, but on quite a larger scale. I wouldn’t do these sorts of things really small.
Where do you draw your influences for the way you paint and your style? I saw some of your stuff at Liverpool, how much more of a Japanese feel to the painting you were doing. I really liked that, it was cool.
I draw my influences from a lot of things. At the moment I’m really liking psychedelic stuff like Alex Grey and stuff like that. I really love his paintings, he’s got such a good feel about them. I like the bright colours and psychedelic feel to them. I draw a lot of influence from Alex Grey. Every now and then I go back to Japanese and I draw a lot of influence from that. Also everyone I work with, they all do old-school so subconsciously I think I’m drawing a little influence from them, especially with loads of black in it. Trying to put loads of black and loads of colour together is quite a hard thing to get the balance right. You can have too much of one or the other. You’ve got to try and balance it.
So is it a recent thing that you’ve started painting and not being as influenced on the tattoo side of things?
Yeah definitely, recently I’ve been painting for painting’s sake. I get to do what I want, and something different rather than something tattoo-orientated. It gives my mind a rest from tattooing and thinking in a tattooing way. I like fine art things as well, and I’d like to go down that route later on in my life and maybe possible do more painting than tattoos – you get a lot more freedom. I’ll always tattoo but I’d love to be able to sell my paintings and make money as well. That would be great.
How often do you get to paint at the minute?
Every week. Depending on if I’ve got drawing to do for the next day I’ll paint nearly every night of the week except for Sundays and Mondays. I generally spend that with my wife. I try and paint every night if I don’t have any drawings to do. I try to be productive and keep the ball rolling because if you stop you sort of get a little bit lazy. You’ve got to keep the momentum going.
The other stuff you’ve been painting, like the Japanese stuff I saw at Liverpool – do you make that available to tattoo?
Definitely, I’d love to tattoo that. I get a lot of interest from people wanting it done but the majority of the time it’s all talk. I’ve done one tattoo out of that flash I did. It was on Jack the shop boy and I did it for free because I just wanted to do it. I’ve had loads of other interest but no one has actually gone through with it. That’s why I like to keep painting, to keep pushing ideas out there. I will eventually get to do that stuff, but I want to keep on pushing newer stuff as well. Otherwise there’s just no point.
I try to follow as many people’s work as I can, and you’re not one of the people who’s pushing it as hard as some of the others. Is there any reason you don’t push the flash and get it out there as much?
What’s popular at the moment is old-school tattooing, and I don’t want to do that because I don’t want to do the same as everyone else. I want my work to look like mine regardless of whether people like it. I did push that flash a little bit, but I think I got a little bit disheartened by the whole thing. Like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll just do my own thing,’ instead of trying to push this flash onto people that just didn’t seem interested.
I thought it was cool. It was the most interesting thing I saw flash-wise at the show. It was refreshing to see something a little different, and it was still a good solid subject. I am seeing so much of the same stuff being posted now.
I reckon the majority of people will get bored of doing that. They’ll get bored of producing that same stuff over and over again and they’ll want to go down these different avenues. But it’s a good base to start off from, traditional tattooing, because it keeps everything simple. With tattoos you’ve got to keep them fairly simple and not overcomplicate it. So it’s a good base to start from as long as you don’t get lazy, just repeat the same old-school stuff and follow fashion trends. I don’t agree with following trends. I think you’ve got to have your own path and your own vision on stuff. It’s very important to have your own vision. Otherwise you just start looking like everyone else’s work.
Conventions and guest spots – is that something you do much of?
No, not anymore. I don’t particularly like conventions. The whole Liverpool thing disheartened me so much. I hardly did any tattoos because everyone was interested in old-school and stuff. I’d rather just tattoo out of the studio where I’m comfortable. It’s the same with guest spots. I like my space. People get more out of me when I’m in my own environment because I’m a lot more relaxed. When I go to other places its really hard because things take twice as long and I don’t like wasting time. I prefer to tattoo in our studio. Maybe one day I might branch out and do it a bit more but I can’t see it being within the next couple of years.
We have lots of people reading the magazine from apprentices to those just in the early days. Do you have any advice for them in terms of progression?
Probably the same as everyone else: just keep on painting and keep on trying to push yourself. Never just rest back and think it’ll just come to you. Because it never does, life’s not that easy. You have to get up and do something for yourself. Otherwise you’ll just stay stagnant, especially the way things are now. Everyone tattoos, everyone wants to tattoo, and at the end of the day the only people that will survive are the good people. It’s at the top now, but there will be a point where it goes downhill and it won’t be as fashionable. That’s how it went 100 years ago and it will happen again, definitely. I think it will be a good thing for tattooing when it dies out. It’ll become a renegade thing again.
The people who really love it will stay and the rest of them will move on. They’ll realise they can’t make that much money, because they’re shit.
Rich Hadley – Rain City – Manchester, U.K.
What brought you into tattooing and how long ago was it?
Around eight years ago, I think. It seemed like a cool job. At the time it wasn’t such a nice job, it was more nasty-looking dudes who drove bikes, and I just wanted to hang around with them. To be honest it wasn’t particularly about the art or being into any style or anything at the time. It was just about being involved in that sort of culture when I was younger. As I’ve been here a bit longer I’ve been more interested in tattooing itself.
So did you paint? Were you painting early or not?
Not really. I think I started painting around 3 years ago, and more and more as the years go by. I think I paint pretty much every day now with the guys at the shop. Up until about 3 years ago I never did any painting.
Were you at a shop where you were drawing, or…?
It was just walk-ins really, just rubbish flash like names and bits of tribal and stuff. Like I say, for the first few years it wasn’t that I didn’t take it seriously, but the job I was in at the time and the shop itself was all about in and out walk-ins off the wall. People didn’t really want to come in and get a custom tattoo at the time, they just wanted to pick something.
So what was it that changed that for you?
I moved to a different shop after maybe three years: One Shot Charlie’s in Stourbridge. It’s a custom-only shop so I had to start drawing a bit more then. Also around this point I was starting to get tattooed by different people as well, rather than just people that I worked with, and I became more interested in that side of tattooing. Moving to that shop was kind of a big leap because there wasn’t any flash. I had to be able to draw everything, so it did a lot for me. Then after a year there I moved to Europe and worked in a few shops for a few years. Again it was the same thing, they were all custom shops and you had to be able to draw on the spot.
I’ve followed your work for a while. Not that long ago there seemed to be a change in what you were doing and your approach and I just wondered what it was all about?
I think it was that I spent a lot of time in America last year, like 3 or 4 months. Then I came back home and I took a month off tattooing and I just painted. I don’t think I’d ever given myself any time to kind of breathe or step back to look at my approach to tattooing, or to think about where I wanted to go and the kind of tattooing I wanted to do. I’d just been tattooing every day, so I didn’t really have a break from it until then. I think there was a pretty sudden style change after I thought about it, painted and researched a little bit. I suppose when I came back into tattooing after that there was a pretty sudden change, but it’s probably been one of the better things that I’ve done so far. It’s a lot more comfortable for me to draw things. I think the style I was working with before I could just draw and tattoo a lot, but trying to translate that to other subjects was becoming more and more difficult. For example animal heads and flowers and things, I could draw them in one particular style. To try and make that into anything else – well, it never really looked right and I was never really too comfortable with it. So when I started tattooing again at the beginning of the year, I was basing everything more on classic black. From there it was easier to do different subjects because there’s a huge bank of reference for everything. I think my work got more and more classic-looking. Every time I became stumped on how something should look, I had a definite picture of how it should be based on somebody else’s work. So I’ve kind of built on that over the last few months.
How often do you reckon you paint now?
Pretty much every night, especially recently. Me and Gre have been painting at the shop after work. Eventually we want to do something similar to here. The shop we have is so big, but we’ve got so many paintings it almost feels like we’re running out of space now. It’s all just flash on the wall. That’s the way I want to go with my tattooing – more on-the-spot and pick something out. The tattoos I do that way are always better, because I’ve already taken the time and put the thought into the design. I know exactly how it’s going to look, rather when somebody just turns up and I have to design it there and then, thinking of the colour scheme as I go along. It’s how I like to get tattooed as well. Just decided on the day – pick an artist and go and pick out some flash. It’s a bit more exciting I guess.
It works well, if the time has been put in at the start then it makes sense. I haven’t been to Rain City. It’s a big place then?
It’s pretty big man, there’s seven of us working there and there’s enough space to swing a bat around. We’ve got so many paintings stacked at the back of the shop. We’ve got more and more stuff that’s not going on the walls, so I think eventually we’d like to have it more compacted so it’s pretty much just flash everywhere. It’s better for customers too. If somebody comes and gets a tattoo they’re more likely to look at something that they can see is finished. They can see exactly what it’s going to look like rather than just a line drawing. Also if they’re sitting there getting tattooed they might see something else and that might lead to more customers.
Conventions and guest spots – is that something you do much of now?
I was doing a lot of it until I moved to Manchester, but I think that’s because I was based at One Stop Charlie’s. I was pretty much on the road all the time working at a lot of shops, doing a lot of different guest spots and a fair few conventions. I think conventions have dwindled out a little bit now though. I have less and less desire to work them. Especially in England with the shop where it is now, we are quite central. It’s not too far to travel and England’s not a big country. I will always be more comfortable at a shop than I would be working out of a box at a convention. I think it’s beneficial to the customer and to me to make a bit of a travel to get tattooed by me rather than to have to sit in a little booth and work out of a toolbox at a convention. I also think with the English tattoo convention scene it’s become more and more kind of cliquey and it’s just something I have less interest in. I have my friends in tattooing, and I respect the people who I respect in tattooing. If someone has respect for me, I’ll have respect for them, and if they’re nice I can get along with them. I feel at conventions now it’s all about who you know and who you’re friends with. I didn’t get into tattooing to make friends.
I think for the foreign conventions for next year I’ll probably do a few in America and maybe some in Europe. I see more point in doing that, as the people I’ll be tattooing at those would be the people less likely to be able to come over to England. In America it would be different because it’s such a big country, but with England it’s so small that it’s easy to get to anywhere.
There are different people at different levels of tattooing reading this magazine, from apprentices to those just starting out. Is there any advice you’d give to those just coming into tattooing?
I think that, with where tattooing is now, it’s so based around social media, and it can blur the line of what you should be doing in tattooing and what the internet says you should be doing. With people who are tattooing at any stage, they get very wrapped up in how many followers they have on Instagram and how many likes they get on a picture. It’s a good time to get into tattooing as everything is available to you, anyone can get hold of any reference, and everybody know where to get the good supplies from. So if you’re just starting out you should be concentrating more on caring about everything you do.
With me personally when I first started tattooing, I was so young and it was kind of different but not so much. I just wanted to jump in and do back pieces and sleeves from day one. I made the mistake of doing all those big tattoos and now I look back at them all and they’re something I wish I had never done. I’ve worked with Hannah at our shop and Jemma as well, and both of them are really good examples of apprentices. They paint a lot and they work hard. All of their tattoos started off small and basic. I feel that when you’re an apprentice and you’ve just started tattooing, you shouldn’t really be looking for the respect of your peers just yet. You should just be trying to master those small tattoos and then move up. I think the time to start worrying about competing with other people is when you really know how to tattoo and are completely comfortable. There’s no real rush to jump in and do anything too crazy, too intricate or big within the first few years. My advice is to just be a good person really, it goes a long way with somebody if you’re genuine – people are going to want to help you out more. If you come in with a bit or an attitude you’re going to kind of get a mark next to your name.