Like Nine Mag’s cover? Then you’re sure to like this feature. The piece was just one of the gems created at a mandala painting workshop hosted by Bert Thomas at Skyn Yard.
Traditionally spiritual diagrams used by Buddhists and Hindus as aids to meditation, mandalas are symbols which Bert is particularly skilled at painting and Nine Mag were lucky enough to be among a few invited to watch him demonstrate. After, in an atmosphere buzzing with creative energy, guests including resident tattooists Phillip Yarnell and Charlie Coppolo as well as Hugh Sheldon of No Regrets and Luke Jinks of One Shot Charlies all shared their individual techniques, talked tattoos and chatted to Nine Mag about their work.
Interview – Ben Lakin
Photography – Rich Luxton
Skyn Yard, Essex (England)
OK, if you just run me through this mandala. How did you come up with the design in the first place?
Normally I don’t have a design in mind. All I know I’m going to do a painting and it’s going to be red, but that is it, I try not to force anything, I like to see where it will take me. I work in layers moving from the centre to the edge of the paper. I map out from the centre of the page; then I work outwards in circles of varying sizes. To do this, I have to mark it up with a protractor to give me the varying degrees to work out from. You start with 180° (just a straight line through the middle of the paper), the half that which will give you 90° (this will now split the paper into quarters) from there you break it down to 45°, 22.5° and so on. From this, you’ll end up with a good grid to start building on.
I tend to work from the middle so I’ll draw a small centre, start to paint it and try not to force anything. I don’t like to draw the whole thing then paint it; it’s not how I like to paint. I just want it to build itself if you know what I mean?
Why do you find that better?
There’s no boundary while you’re working. If I were to draw one completely I’d already know what it looks like and I’d get bored of painting it, it’s as simple as that! If you’ve drawn up the whole thing and you know what the image is going to look like, it’s just a colouring-in book. I like to do it that way just so I don’t have any limitations on where I can go with it and because I don’t know the outcome, it makes it more exciting for me to actually do it.
In preparation for each new layer, I will draw just a small segment on tracing paper. This allows me to make sure that each segment in each layer is precise replications of one another. This is key to the overall proportions of the final design.
Can you talk me through the process a little bit from the beginning, how you’ve come to the colour combinations that have been used?
This is another good reason not to try to force anything; sometimes I might draw a shape, then on the next layer out I might decide that what I was drawing wasn’t necessarily correct. This means I am able to take back and recreate it. If I was to draw the whole thing up and put colour in the composition, the structure might not work as well as it could have if I had worked slowly in layers out to the edges. Obviously, you have to bear in mind your surroundings and your spatial awareness because as you’re working outwards, you’re getting closer to the edge, giving you less room each layer. As they get larger, you have to account for the fact that the next layer is going to be larger than the one before so this is essential to be thinking about it throughout.
Do you have an idea as you’re going into a piece about what colours you’re going to use?
The one I did here I had quite a specific colour spectrum I wanted to use. I made that one slightly more moody than the one here (above), so yeah I like more bright colours usually, they’re more fun. I try not to use more than four colours, as a rule; this tends to work for me. If you use three colours, you’re quite limited so you’ll end up with areas where the same colour will meet. The more colours you add obviously, the more layers you can have without the same colours meeting, but if you add too many colours, your eye can’t take it all in. You can end up with something a bit overbearing and you find yourself getting dizzy when you’re painting it as well. When I’m continuously working in a circle, especially on the larger ones, it can make you slightly disorientated because you’ve got such a crazy looking piece of artwork in front of you. It’s a bit like meditation because it’s so repetitive, it’s like turn it, do a bit, turn it, do a bit, turn it…
Do you find the process relaxing?
Yeah, I find it really relaxing.
What about tools? What equipment do you like to use?
I use a really thick and heavy cotton board, I do sometimes use Arches paper but it’s not my favourite I must admit. I use a lot of pens, as well as paints, the black markers that I use are laundry markers which tend to soak well into the cotton and they don’t bleed too much. Where I do use a pen, the Arches and some of the rougher papers bust your pens up quite quickly and you end up going through loads of them. The pens sort of lift bits of paper off and you get a bit of a mess so I tend to use a smoother pressed board.
How did you come to pick those sort of materials?
Just through trial and error. I was using Arches for ages, using different watercolour boards, illustration boards, then just by chance I happened to do a painting that I wanted to send somewhere, and it needed to be rolled up in a tube so I chose some of that paper just for the simple fact you can’t roll the illustration boards and they’re quite big, that’s how I stumbled across it. It doesn’t shrink down, you don’t have to stretch it, its thick enough and heavy enough because it’s not on a great big board, I can roll it up, I can transport it, I can turn it round nice and easy. I don’t have to worry about bending it, the board would tend to snap so I don’t have to think about not laying anything on it, it’s just a nicer thing to work with. The paints I use tend to be liquid acrylic where most people tend to work with water colours. I get on with the acrylics.
Why do you get on with those more?
When you’re painting something that big and you’ve spent thirty or forty hours on it, you spill water on it and the paint’s going to move like PH Martins would, you’re fucked! Haha, that’s too risky. That’s why I use them and the indelible pens that don’t move when they’re laid down.
So why do you think other people don’t tend to use that method?
I’m not too sure. That’s just the method preferred I suppose. I know PH Martins are a lot easier to work with so they’re a lot quicker, but they’re not for me.
What led you into the mandalas, what led you down this road of painting?
The mandala thing was more like a bug, I went to this Horiyoshi exhibition in Somerset House and it inspired me so much that I wanted to spend more time painting and it just so happened that the painting that I did when I got home was a geometric flower that got a little bit out of control. It got bigger and bigger. I thought, ‘I’m going to sit down and do this’, I wanted to paint and I wanted to do something that was fairly simple but that was a challenge, a real chore to do. I wanted something that I was going to sit down and that I was going to have to go back to, once, twice, maybe more times. That’s why I use such a big pieces of paper. The one I did when I got back from Horiyoshi was twenty-two by twenty-two inches. The reason I did it so big was because I wasn’t too sure how far I was going to go with it. It could have come out ten inches, but I went to the edge! If I could have found a piece of bigger board I would have done that – I couldn’t find anything bigger. They come in twenty-two by thirty boards so I have to chop the end off. That’s the widest I could get it and that’s what I work to now. When I find bigger bits of wood, I’ll make bigger ones.
Just bigger or do you want to develop them in different ways?
Well the one that I did, the bigger of the two, that seems to be where I’m going. I just think that they work well in that format and they’re really well-structured pieces of artwork. You can see the time and effort if you look at some of the detail. You can see how much time has got to go into one to create it and how much maths as well. Maths is a big thing for me. I like engineering, I like numbers, it works. If you use numbers and you’ve got an eye for layout, you can make something beautiful out of not a lot.
So Tibetan artwork, where does the inspiration come from for pieces that you have done and where did the inspiration come for the subject matters you use? Like this new piece you’re doing is a lot bigger…
I’ve got a book, ‘Celestial Gallery’. It’s got a great big Buddha on it; you must have seen that book before?
That was basically all I needed. I was doing the big geometric flowers and from there, opened up that book, saw there was so many circles, squares and maths in it and I thought ‘yeah I’m going to have some of that.’ I’m not too well-read on that kind of stuff. I like the artwork. It’s simple and effective but really complicated all in the same blow. The image is simple but the math is quite complicated so it’s sort of a nice mixture between the two. It’s not an oil painting, it’s not overly photographic or realistic or anything like that. It’s just simple images that make a real confusing and complex image at the end.
I did an interview with Andy Dykes, who said you like dabbling in the machine building and that aspect of stuff, do you think the numbers and geometry come into it?
My Dad’s an Engineer. When I was very early on in my tattoo career, I actually considered leaving tattooing all together to go and be a civil engineer myself. Engineering has always been in my blood and before that, I was a BMXer. With engineering and BMXing, there’s nuts, bolts, threads and things like that too.
It’s interesting, it’s not a cross-over you normally see with those two trades.
Well no. Technical drawing is a skill I’d like to get better at. To become more of a draughtsman, I really enjoy it.
What about machines? Any plans?
Yeah, I’ve got some frames coming, ha ha – I haven’t built them myself. I’ve just had some side plates cut as well, I do make up some of my machines but that’s a hobby, that’s not something I want to try and get rich from. I think if I can produce a machine within this country that is cheaper than three hundred quid it will save me ordering one from America. It’s as simple as that! I can sell it for pretty much what I make it for; it can save people a lot of money and it’s a good hobby to have. I think if you understand your tools, you’ve got a lot better understanding of what’s going on down this end. At the end of the day, they’re the things that make a tattoo, your hands and the machine. If you don’t understand your machine, then you don’t understand what’s going on. I think every tattooist should be able to take apart, clean then reassemble their machine. All the guys that work for me can and they could even before they started learning to tattoo. Your tools are your trade at the end of the day; it’s the same with not understanding your paint’s; you’ll muck up a painting. If you don’t understand, your oil paints don’t mix with your water paints you’ve got a big problem when you start painting, same with if you don’t understand that one machine does one job and another machine does a different job, you’ve got big problems. I think it’s important that people understand their machines and how they work.
Skyn Yard, Essex (England)
So how many years have you been tattooing?
It’s difficult to say, I’ve been working here for close to six years now. The first year and a half I spent here I had no intention of tattooing, ask Bert! Then one day he decided to teach me and it started from there. It was a pretty lengthy apprenticeship because I didn’t have any art background so I learnt backwards. I learnt the technical stuff first, then the art side of it, so I’d probably say I’d been tattooing for four years I suppose, something along those lines anyway.
So you’ve obviously always worked in Skyn Yard?
Yeah, I started here about six months after it opened. Basically, Bert was in need of someone helping out around the shop, doing the tea, doing the cleaning up, etc. I was looking for work at the time, and I spent a lot of time here anyway, so I offered my services just to help out and then it became a permanent fixture and I progressed from there.
So, if you started backwards, did you do any painting or anything beforehand?
Not really, we were so busy here at the time; it was Bert and another guy and they were so busy. I picked up the small walk-ins that they didn’t have time to do so they could keep tattooing the larger pieces. I basically did all the stuff that was literally trace and go and then, later on, I started drawing and improving my artwork. My painting never really got going to start with. My mistake was that I was using cheap materials; cheap brushes, paints and card. I couldn’t get on with it. I couldn’t get the result I wanted so I dropped it. It’s only the last six months that I’ve picked it up again and spent some money on it. I’ve done what I’ve done with tattooing and bought some good materials and tools and now it works for me. I’m not completely happy to the extent I want to be with it, but I’ve got to a point where I’m pleased with the results, which is good for me. The thing is, because I learnt tattooing before I learnt art, my painting wasn’t to the same standard as my tattooing. That’s what frustrated me and made me not want to do it.
That’s cool, and how often do you get to paint would you say?
Not as much as I’d like. I’d say I get a couple of evenings and weekends and I slot it in where I can. If I get a cancellation or a no show then I’ll do a bit of painting or sometimes in the mornings as I tend to get here quite early. If I’ve got all my drawings done for the day then I’ll get some painting in or start or finish something. So I just slot it in where I can but it changes from week to week.
Working with Bert, do you find you use the same materials as him? Does he influence you a lot?
Yeah, absolutely! Bert and Phil influence me; Phil especially, as Phil has a major art background and he knows a lot about it. I absorb everything I can from those two. When it comes to materials, tools, and painting, I really do open my ears and listen to what they’ve got to say, we use similar materials because they know what they like and it works for me too.
And have you had a chance to paint with any other artists?
Not really, only today, which is good for me because it gives me a chance to see how other people do things. As I said, I’ve only ever worked here; I’ve done a couple of guest spots but never had the time to paint with the other artists there. I just tattoo, and then perhaps I’ll go for a beer, then go home. It’s good for me to see how other people do things. It can be vastly different; obviously, the results are similar but there are different ways of getting there.
With your painting, do you think it’s helped you develop your tattooing at all? Or more the other way round?
Yeah, I’d say both ways; It helps your tattooing as much as the tattooing helps your painting. Painting’s great for pre planning a tattoo if you’re not entirely sure where to go with it if you’re not sure on the placement or something like that. Painting is a failsafe because if you get it wrong you can just screw it up and start again; you can’t do that with tattooing! But with tattooing, I wing a lot of it! Sometimes when I’m tattooing I think, “oh that would look good in the painting I’m doing at the moment!” So it works both ways.
And the general environment here, would you say it’s quite creative?
Yeah, well we’re a custom shop, we always have been. There’s no flash on the walls or that sort of thing, so everything is creative. Very rarely will we work from existing designs; so yeah, definitely creative.
Skyn Yard, Essex (England)
How long have you been tattooing?
I’ve been tattooing for about two years now; I’ve been at Skyn Yard for about two and a half and I started tattooing about half a year in.
So this is where you started?
Yeah, with Charlie and Bert.
And what sort of background did you have? What sort of art background?
I went to Hertfordshire Uni and studied Fine Art then luckily enough Bert waited for me to finish so that I could start here.
That’s cool, how does your Fine Art degree relate to what you’re doing now?
I don’t know really. What I did at uni was completely different to what I do here but I think it just helps in general having done all the drawing and stuff! I don’t think I’ve bought anything across to tattooing; maybe I have but I’m not sure! It’s hard to tell!
So you did a lot of painting at university then?
Yeah, it was all horrible painting; it was a lot looser than anything I do now, although I still try and do the odd one that’s a bit closer to what I used to do.
OK and what about materials? What do you like to use when you’re painting?
I just use acrylic ink and I don’t normally use colour, only black. I use SW acrylics just because they lay out so well and they’re so easy to use; it’s perfect for what I need them for.
Would you say Bert has had a big influence on the way you paint?
Definitely, especially at the beginning because I never used to paint how I paint now; it did really help.
And have you had a chance to paint and tattoo with other people yet?
Not so much. I did a little bit up north when I went to Rain City for a bit but apart from that, it’s just been these guys.
And are there any other artists that you’d like to tattoo or paint with?
Mainly Guy le tattooer; I’ve worked with him briefly and I’ve got a tattoo from him but I’d love to spend some time painting with him!
One Shot Charlies, Stourbridge (England)
So Luke, how long have you been tattooing?
I’ve been tattooing properly for a year or so now. I started tattooing in January 2012 and I did a year’s apprenticeship before that. Obviously I was tattooing friends and stuff for a couple of months before I started tattooing full time, but in January I started doing about three or four tattoos a week and from then it sort of built up to what I’m tattooing now which is pretty much three or four a day.
Where did you learn? Where did you do your apprenticeship?
I did my apprenticeship at Infinite Ink in Coventry. There was a guy there called Nick Baldwin who taught me most stuff. We had quite a similar style so I naturally went to him.
What’s your style?
I’d say it’s traditional in the sense that it’s got a lot of bold lines and black shading. I tend to stick to about three or four colours and not go overboard with them. It’s got a bit of a weird twist to it; I try to do my own thing rather than just rehashing what I’ve seen before. I studied illustration at uni which I think helped. I’m influenced by a lot of illustrators and I try to bring that side of things into it. My work’s got a bit more of an illustrated edge to it I guess; it’s a bit more stylised.
And did you paint a lot in those days?
Yeah, I did a lot of painting, but it was more folky type stuff with a lot of block colours. It wasn’t too related to tattooing; it was more folk art, like Native American style stories. I think that’s where my style of tattooing came from. The type of faces I was painting back then have sort of progressed and have grown with my tattooing now. It was at uni that I started painting and getting tattooed and it was there that I realised I wanted to get into tattooing, so when I left uni I started blasting out loads of flash sheets. There was about three or four months where I’d just paint solidly after work; any spare time I got I’d paint until maybe 12 o’clock every single night and then I’d get up and paint for a couple of hours before I went to work. When I had a big enough collection of paintings, I approached tattoo shops and that’s how I managed to get into it I guess.
Now that you’re tattooing do you find as much time to paint?
I was saying to the guys earlier that this is the first painting I’ve done in six or seven months, the one before that was just a tiny one! Since I’ve been tattooing full time I hardly get any time to paint. I have to commute to the shop as well which takes four hours a day! I could do more but I always start stuff and only eventually get round to finishing it. I want to do a lot over Christmas and my New Year’s resolution is to try and do a painting every month or so! Whether I actually stick to it is another question!
How have you found it up here with Bert?
Yeah obviously Bert paints a lot of these things; a lot of mandalas and what not. He’s starting in the middle and working his way out. He uses a lot of different materials to me so it would be cool to go back and try those out because I’ve only ever used water colours and a paint called gouache which dries flat and sort of covers up lines. Instead Bert uses these SW acrylic inks and he sort of paints over lines. But yeah, there’s loads of different stuff I want to try out.
And how do you find it getting to work with different artists?
Yeah, it’s cool to hang out with people whose work you’ve seen and who you really look up to. I’ve seen Bert’s, Phil’s, and Charlie’s work before and I’ve always thought, “fucking hell these guys are doing something really cool down here”, so to come down and hang out with them is great; to pick their brains and to chat with them about tattooing and what they’re using etc. Even watching Phil and seeing what machines he’s using; it’s all useful stuff and it’s cool to see what everyone’s up to.
Yeah, it would be good in the future to see you do some of these paintings and see how they come out; I’m looking forward to that!
Yeah man! Well obviously I haven’t finished that one today but as soon as I get home I’ll try to get back on it, haha! Hopefully, I’ll try and get it finished soon!
No Regrets, Cheltenham (England)
So Hugh, how long have you been tattooing for?
I’ve just finished my apprenticeship at No Regrets in Cheltenham. I’ve just started tattooing! It’s still very early on in my career really.
What was your background before you got into tattooing?
I’ve been drawing and making art throughout my life. When I left school I wanted to continue with it so I did an Art Foundation course. Having completed that I went off to Bristol UWE uni to study Illustration, I graduated in 2011. Whilst at uni I became more and more interested in tattooing; my own work became more influenced by tattooing but also I started to get a lot of tattoos myself!
So, in terms of painting, what sort of experience have you had?
I paint most nights after work as I feel it really improves my tattooing in terms of designing and also developing my own colour pallet. Since doing my apprenticeship I’ve started doing a lot more watercolour painting; I do use bits of gouache as well but mainly I just use watercolours.
What type of materials do you like to use for that?
I use a lot of PH Martin’s ink, with flat and fine brushes preferably, but I’m not too fussy. I like to use smooth, hot-pressed paper; I’m not such a big fan of the more textured stuff. I’ve recently been mixing up my mediums and experimenting with the way I want my work to look.
I’ve noticed that you lined your mandala first yet Bert seems to go for the method of working out from the middle; what do you think about that?
I think it’s a really effective way of working as it gives a more spontaneous, organic look because you can keep adding to it and growing it outwards.
Have you had a chance to paint with any other tattooists or artists before?
Yeah, Luke Jinks; he’s a really great guy! I’ve done bits and bobs with him and I’m hoping to do more stuff with him in the future. We also have a painting night at the studio on Thursdays so I have had the chance to paint with everyone from the shop as well as other guest artists that have visited.
So in the future is there anyone you’d like to paint or tattoo with?
It would be a wicked opportunity to paint with someone like Bailey Hunter Robinson; I absolutely love his work! I love the way he designs and I find his colour ways are timeless. Stevie Edge is also someone that I’d love to paint with as his paintings are super hard and bold which is great!