I’ve followed the work of Sam Ricketts for a long time, with him starting out close to where I live, even getting tattooed by him around 6 or 7 years ago. His incredibly bold designs always struck me and constantly evolved style. Sam is a tattooer who’s work is never static, but always executed perfectly. I couldn’t wait to have a more in-depth chat with him about his time in tattooing.
Interview by James McCauley
Photography by Sam Ricketts
Hi, Sam. So let’s start from the beginning. When did you first becoming interested in tattoos?
I think for me my first interest in tattoos I can remember was around nine years old maybe, and I saw a guy in a pub garden with my parents, and he had a dagger on his arm, and I guess I just kept looking at it and wondering why he had it. I suppose that was my first memory of tattoos. But after that, I guess it stems from listening to early punk bands and hardcore bands and seeing all the tattoos on those guys that made me want to get a tattoo.
Did you do a more traditional apprenticeship?
Yeah, I did a 2-year apprenticeship six days a week at Mantra tattoo in Cheltenham under Mark Moore and Paul Scarrott, but I was the whole shop apprentice really. I lived an hour from the shop I apprenticed in so I had to drive in early to get there for 9 am and then I would usually leave around 8 pm. Cleaned tubes. cleaned more, took bookings, made coffees, answered the phone and cleaned loads more. I didn’t get paid, and that’s how I think it should be I just did hard working old school apprenticeship I mean it was super hard don’t get me wrong, but I think that it’s supposed to be hard… the guys weren’t going just to show me everything they know for nothing, right, I had to prove I wanted it and deserved it. I also feel this is where I really fell in love with tattooing and the craft. When you live and breathe it, it’s a special thing not just passion or commitment it literally took over my life and the feelings never stopped.
Did you always want to do traditional tattoos? Who were some of the artists that inspired you in those early days?
Yeah, I always drew traditional style looking tattoos, for me it was what I could relate to the most solid colour black shading and a consistent, simple line weight. I think a lot of it was also my ability too, I mean I didn’t do any art degree or anything so I just drew simple stuff because that’s all I could. I think apprenticing, in general, made me push my drawings as I was made to draw all different styles. Which I look back on and think really helped develop my work.
As far as influences back when I was starting Steve Byrne, Scott Smith, Jef Whitehead, Chris Deter, Uncle Alan.
If I was still making the same tattoos I made 5 years ago I would say I wouldn’t of been working hard enough then ya know.
Did you find it particularly hard in those early days?
I found tattooing super hard… I mean super hard. Some people can pick up a machine and just bang; they get it… but for me, I think I really struggled to get my head around the application of tattooing for many many years. Don’t get me wrong; tattooing is never easy, I think it’s just the understanding of it that grows.
If you could go back, would you change anything thing about your early time learning the craft?
I don’t think so. I think as cliché as it sounds, it all happens for a reason. You have to do terrible tattoos to understand why they suck haha… it’s all learning and also I think it’s all about having experiences with it, the good and the bad we remember them all.
Is there anyone you want to thank from those early days?
Yeah, I’d like to thank Mark Moore for giving me the job in the first place and Paul Scarrott for the push and help. I started apprenticing in 2007/8 I’ll never forget those times and eternally thankful for giving me the opportunity.
I’ve followed your work for a long time now, even got tattooed by you about 6-7 years back! It’s very obvious that your work is always evolving, what’s the thought behind reinventing your work so often?
Yeah, you know what I think it’s like anything really, progression takes time, and you learn through the years more each year. When I first started, I was just stoked to make tattoos! I didn’t really think about the design as much or how it will age or how it sits on the skin etc… I was just tattooing ya know.
Then when you see work come back in shop year or so later, I was like man that looks awful now, and then I would think ‘but why’? The drawing? The shading? How much black? How big is it etc.? So starting to question what makes a better tattoo and start to look at my work more and more in to make changes but still be myself. Then you learn from it so evolving and progression I think firstly stems from seeing old work years down the line. I don’t want to make tattoos that look ok for six months I want to make tattoos look good in 6 years and on. If I was still making the same tattoos I made five years ago I would say I wouldn’t have been working hard enough then ya know. I want to get better and better and learn more as the year’s pass.
It’s pretty well known that you paint A LOT. Do you use your paintings to test out new ideas and compositions for your tattooing down the line?
I’ve painted for around 11 years now; I was painting before I tattooed. To me, painting is just as important as tattooing and yeah, I can explore ideas and layouts with painting that may make a cool tattoo or may not haha, but it’s just a painting so it doesn’t matter. It’s still a creative exercise for me to enjoy and let flow.
Could you run us through your painting process? What are you listening to/ watching/ drinking when painting?
I usually try to draw most designs straight on. I feel more natural then and let the ideas and shapes flow unless it’s a symmetrical design. I usually have a nice cup of coffee. I paint with Indian ink, watercolours and gouache. Paper wise I’m not fussy, I’ll paint on most types.
You seem to have a pretty eccentric and wide collection of influence for your work. Could you tell us about some of them?
I’m influenced by so much. Earth in general, alchemy, religion, science, nature. So much that takes my interest, the influence for me is endless.
You have a young family now, do you find that influences your art? How do you balance tattooing and being a father and husband?
I do, yeah. I feel since having River and Fox; I feel I’m trying to really push my work and be the best I can. I feel I owe it to them and my wife Zoe to work harder and harder. I don’t want to let them down. As far as balancing tattooing, fatherhood and being a husband, as I’m sure lots of tattooers will agree… my kids are my world and they come first before anything, they are my biggest achievement and my greatest teachers. Tattooing is a huge, huge part of my life but the family comes first, so I make sure I take set days off with them, and when I travel, I can take them with me also. Plus my wife is amazing she is an amazing mum, and she understands that I have to work lots and travel for us and our future also.
You’ve done guest spots and conventions in some incredible places, where has been your favourite place to tattoo?
Yeah, I’ve been super lucky to have travelled and worked in some amazing places, but my favourite shop I’ve worked in was Electric tattoo in Asbury Park, New Jersey. A great shop with great people.
You have a pretty wide array of friends within tattooing, all great artists themselves. Are you influenced and inspired by being around them so much?
Yeah for sure, inspired in the way that it makes me want to work harder and paint more and just become a better tattooer in general. There are so many great tattooers around that I think everyone is inspired to want to push themselves too.
You’ve spoken to me before about wanting to give back to tattooing. What do owe to tattooing and how are you trying to repay the craft?
I owe tattooing everything really. I get to do this for a job, I get to travel, I’ve met all my best friends through this. So many cool opportunities that the least I can do is actually work for it. Showing respect and dedication to tattooing, painting and just working hard getting tattooed by other tattooers, etc. is the least I can do to somehow show the gratitude to be able to do this for a living. I’ll never be able to show my full gratitude, but I’ll keep trying forever.
A lot of the tattoos you do are pretty far out, it must be great to have so many people willing to let you do your thing and run wild with your ideas?
Yeah, I guess some of my stuff may seem pretty far out, but I think subject matter wise it’s not, it’s just the way it’s laid out that make sit look strange. I’ve always loved the unusual looking stuff, it grabs my attention and interests me straight away, makes me look longer. Most of my clients just give me the subject matter they want, e.g. skull, fish, bird, etc., etc. and they want me to do it how I like, which suits me fine and feel lucky to do so. But I also just love doing straight up tattoos too like a dagger or just a nice flower etc. It really depends on the client for me; I’m not gonna push something wild on someone who doesn’t want it ya know. The reason I painted and made the flash book recently was I have so many ideas I just needed to put them down on paper, and it’s been amazing, I’ve tattooed nearly all 90 drawings. I think sometimes it’s easier for me to paint and people to choose a piece of flash as I feel lots of people don’t know what to ask for from me, they prefer to choose a piece of flash as they don’t really know what it is or what the image is, they just like it. Which is super great for me, I’m just happy people get my work tattooed. So thank you!
What machines and ink are you using at the moment?
Machines I use are Max Stahlhammer. Marcos Atwood, Shagbuilt d20 and Dave Bryant.
What’s next for Sam Ricketts?
I hope to travel more in the next year, more in the USA and a big trip to Australia. Other than that, just really I hope to continue making tattoos as best and as interesting as I can and to be the best father and husband I can be.
Lastly, could you tell us your favourite story from your time in tattooing?
Hmm, let me think … maybe the time me, Jay Soos, Chris Martin and Erik Von B went to Avebury and did hand poked white horse head tattoos on our ankles under a big tree. It was a special time and my first hand poked tattoo and walking around after with Erik was a great time.