I had the pleasure of visiting The Swansea Tattoo Co. for a painting evening conducted by Lee Hadfield. I have met Lee once before and just like the first time he was on top form.
This feature is broken down into two parts, an interview with Lee and an article on the night with some feedback from the guys involved. Studios are not something that usually need to be featured in magazines but Swansea is the exception to the rule and you will see why…
Article – Ben Lakin
Photography – Rich Luxton
How long have you been painting for?
I’ve been painting in a tattoo style since I started tattooing in 2006.
Were you painting before you started tattooing?
Actually no, before I started tattooing I used to do a lot of pencil stuff like charcoal and pencil portraits and things like that, but since I’ve started tattooing I got onto inks, watercolours etc.
Did that affect your tattooing initially? Were you tattooing more portraits and stuff like that?
Yea, when I first started, all I did was black and grey, if someone came into the studio for a tattoo I would talk them into black and grey, that was it, I couldn’t even get colour to stay in, even now with my colour stuff, I either paint like a child with bright colours or I just do black and grey.
So when you started painting tattoo style stuff, where did your inspiration come from?
When I started painting tattoo flash it was just for me to try and find good colour schemes. I found learning to do traditional stuff really difficult, this was because before I started tattooing I used to do drawings, illustrations and realism.
When I started tattooing I really loved traditional imagery, it was really eye catching for me, it was so simple. When I was trying to draw something traditional it would always end up too detailed and then I would try to strip it back, looking at friends and how they do it, like Jelle and Pedro’s stuff the guys do that come and guest spot in the shop all the time. Then obviously trying to get my own colour schemes on the go, but you can’t be different these days, there are so many people doing it, there is always someone better than you so all you can do is take a bit of inspiration from people and try to get your own thing going on.
Why do you think you didn’t end up going down the neo-traditional realistic route?
To be honest, I think I did for quite a while when I first started tattooing. I was doing really dark black and grey sort of stuff and to be honest, I did all right at that. I had a lot of work at conventions, like back in the day when I wanted to enter the competition side of it I was doing well at it. Then I got a little bit bored of it and I really find traditional tattooing appealing to me. It was the simplicity of it, so the painting side of it was just trying to get to that, try to study how it’s done without actually tattooing it on someone.
Would you say it helped you develop your colour palette in the way of tattooing?
Kind of, I just use really simple stuff.
Where do you start when transferring your image onto paper?
Same as most people traditional wise, everything starts with a really good reference from the past, the old boys got it right the first time round, you can’t make anything better than it is. You can brush up on the line work and stuff and try to make it your own way, but if you look at any successful traditional artist it’s all referenced, so I think a good tattoo starts with good reference and then you just try to make it your own.
Do you draw a lot of references from historical tattooists?
Yea for sure! There are a lot of female tattooists out there that have some good work. If it’s not traditional style tattooing, it’s religious style tattooing. I do like quite a lot of dark black and grey religious stuff. I don’t like to give away too many of my secrets but I find a lot of reference from stained glass windows. I don’t think many people look that way to try and find references.
I love stained glass windows.
The church is one of the richest organisations in the world, it always has been, and they’ve had the most artists from history.
It’s the same as traditional artwork, you have to look for the best reference.
Do you work in any other mediums now?
It’s all painting and tattooing really, sometimes my life gets really busy so I don’t get to paint as much as I like, sometimes I get a month where I knock out a few good bits, tattooing and designing tattoos takes up pretty much all of my time. I think if you’ve got a relaxing Sunday you might start thinking about doing a print, I use focal points, like conventions, I like to get a print done for every big show I do. I don’t always have enough time to tattoo everyone, but you can always sell them limited edition prints, and that pays for your petrol down and your hotel room so that’s nice.
Do you think you’re going to stick with how your style has developed?
It changes all the time man, almost everyone gets too comfortable and bored of the same style, you might get a guest artist come down and get inspired by them.
I would say 60% of my day is taken up doing Japanese tattooing, but I don’t post it or take pictures of it because I don’t want to be known for my Japanese.
Do you have the same sort of guest artist come through the doors now as Thomas Street? (Previous studio)
Yea we had quite a few from Thomas street but that was a few years ago, I’ve met new mates now and they all want to come and visit. The guest artists mostly come just to hang out, go fishing and shit like that, they aren’t interested in just coming down to some tattooing, they all want to make the most of it.
I didn’t know as many artists when I was at Thomas Street, so I didn’t have the influence for my Japanese and stuff. If the fishing is shit, we’ll paint, if the surfing’s shit, we’ll paint.
Something I noticed, since I was last down is how the studio has moved forward. The artists that worked here, like Steve and Amy have made so much progression. For me, there are a lot of good studios about, but this seems to be a very progressive place to be. What do you think are the main reasons for this?
I think everyone here pulls together pretty good, and I don’t want to blow smoke up my ass, but I think I inspire people quite a lot. Because I’m ex-military, I’m always full of spunk and that. I’m always pro-active, so I can spur on people to get into new shows and that.
I look at Amiee and Steve, I’m proud of Steve, skinny big cock, but he’s also getting really good at tattoos now. He isn’t naturally good at drawing, but he sits down for hours and will crack on till he gets it. Amy is fucking amazing at drawing shit straight away, I’ve never met anyone who can draw stuff so quickly. She doesn’t paint much because she is a lot better at tattooing. She does paint though. The reason people paint is to progress their tattoos, but if their tattooing is good anyway, why bother, y’know?
In this issue, we decided that we would go down to Swansea to spend a night of painting with Lee and some of the Swansea Tattoo Co’s crew.
Aimee Cornwell and Steve Jenks were set up and ready to go with Tyler Monaghan, one of Swansea’s many guest artists joining us for the night. We hired a mini-van to get down and were joined by Jo Chatt of Prick in London, Loz Phillips of Blue Lotus in Worcester and a couple of guys from our place, Lauren Gow and Hugh Sheldon.
I first visited Swansea towards the end of last year to interview some of the guys for another magazine. I had known Ben, the co-owner previously but had not had the pleasure of meeting Lee Hadfield, although I had heard a lot about him. I first met Ben doing supplies and we had chatted at numerous conventions. He is a guy with great passion and respect for tattooing and at the time we made some very slow days go a little bit quicker talking tattoos. He has mentioned that he was good friends with Lee and at some point they were hoping to open a studio that would set them apart from all others around. I was obviously intrigued to see what he had up his sleeve. After seeing them open just over a year ago and witnessing the hype online with the quality of tattooer working there as well as the guest line up I had to go take a look.
I took my first trip down with Hugh and I have to say I was not disappointed. Before meeting any of the guys we stood outside an awesome shop, all hand sign written with a touch of class. When we walked in we were hit by walls of floor to ceiling hand painted flash by some of the greats. I had also noticed the attention to detail of not just the look of the studio but the design too. I had asked Ben where he had taken inspiration from and he mentioned both “Tattoo Paradise” in Washington DC and the “Chicago Tattoo Company”. Everything in the studio had its place and was there for a practical reason not just to look good. I was introduced to the guys working there (although Jelle was not there at this point), Lee was the last person that I met and the guy just has an immediate impact on you. His attitude was different to anyone else that I have met in tattooing. Such a positive guy with a ruthless sense of humour. There is no one exempt from Lee’s wrath but I don’t think anyone minded, in fact it was embraced. The guys were all very welcoming and we had a great day down in the studio. It was clear that although everything was very light-hearted, this was a place for serious tattooing.
When we arrived for the painting night it was good to catch up with the guys and have an opportunity to get a group of like minded painters together to let them do what they do best. Something that I really enjoyed was the varied level of experience that was there. Some of the guys had been painting regularly for years and some had been working more in other mediums. This didn’t seem to matter though, just more experience to share around. The guys had set up their beds in the main tattoo room and there was plenty of boards to go around. As always it is good to introduce a few beers into the situation to lighten things up and it seemed to do the trick. Centre of the room was Lee and to begin with he did a great job of making his guests feel welcome with some pretty funny stories.
As everyone settled in to the painting I began to interview everyone about their experience and the different techniques that they used. Something I found inspiring was how open everyone was being. For many it is instinctive to keep some of the secrets of how you do things to yourself but there was a great attitude of sharing the knowledge so everyone could improve. The feedback varied, there were some that had not painted with others and others that were painting with different artists all of the time. It seemed that when interviewing the Swansea guys they had the same kind of thing to say; “Lee pushes us to keep painting to help improve our tattooing”. The guys I had brought down were all regular painters but all said that the vibe they got and openness from the guys gave them more to think about in terms of progressing their own work.
What I found interesting that came up a few times was the respect and use of old flash. Lee mentions it in his interview, “The Old boys got it right the first time around”. When asking all of the guys about reference, although they all varied with artists and different areas of art they took inspiration from, they all talked about old flash from the past. We see a lot of people tattooing old Owen Jensen, Sailor Jerry and many of the other guys from back then but taking inspiration from these guys then bringing your own flair is something that is great to see. The idea that “Bold will hold” is something that cannot be denied when looking at some tattoos that the old boys did years ago so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
If you paint a lot it can always help to paint with others and try and gain new perspectives on things. If you are tattooing and not really experienced in painting it has a lot to offer. It is a great basis to work on so many aspects of a tattoo without actually putting a needle into the skin. In terms of design and colour palette it allows you to make mistakes and make adjustments. It gives you a chance to do the same kind of piece but experiment multiple times. The feedback from all of the experienced painters that were there it is that it is something that has improved their tattooing, which is ultimately the point of the article. If you are reading this and serious about tattooing, take a look at some of the responses to the questions regarding materials and techniques that could give you an insight of where to begin.
How do I transfer my drawing to paper once I am happy with what I have?
One of the more common ways is to draw it on tracing paper, then use a light box and blu-tack it to the back of the paper and trace it with a really light pencil. Some artist like to draw on the back of the paper and just flip it straight over using the light box to pick out the lines. You can sketch the drawing onto some normal paper, then trace it by taping it to the new pieces and again doing it on a light box.
What are some good brands of paper to use?
Archers Cold press (this is great for smooth fades)
Hot press watercolour paper (smooth textured)
Gummed watercolour board
What paints are available and why are they good to use?
Windsor Newton (watercolour)
PH Martins (watercolour)
What kind of pens are good to use?
Uniball fine liners
What brushes are good to use?
Lots of the guys have different opinions on this. Some of them like the cheaper brushes but like the rounded tips to help with the curves on pieces. Some like the more expensive. White nylon polar brushes have been known to be a good option. Any kind of watercolor nylon brushes will make a good starting point. If you want to really push the boat out, look for some squirrel or horse hair brushes. These are some of the top on the market but expect to pay around £30 per brush.
These are by no means the only ways to do things and the only products to use but this is some feedback we have had from some painters that are producing some really nice work.
A massive thanks to the guys involved. Go check out all the guys involved on instagram.
Lee Hadfield – leehadfield
Aimee Cornwell – aimeetattoos
Steve Jenks – jeenks91
Tyler Monaghan – tylermonaghantattoo
Hugh Sheldon – hughsheldon
Lauren Gow – laurenjaynegow
Loz Phillips – lozphillips
Joe Chatt – ihaveadeathwish