I first met Tutti Serra when he did our Xam interview for issue one, and after that, I began to become more and more interested in his work. This led me towards Black Garden, which is – in my opinion – one of the best up and coming studios in the UK. There are very few new studios that can boast the talent that Black Garden do and it was great to have Tutti’s fellow tattooist and colleague Rodrigo conducting the interview as I got a real insight into how they got to where they are today.
Interview – Rodrigo Souto & Ben Lakin
Photography – Ben Lakin & Tutti Serra
So Tutti, where are you originally from?
I’m from a town in the state of Sao Paulo in Brazil called Americana
So when did you start tattooing? Did you start tattooing in Brazil?
Yeah, I started at home. Not the best way but I started tattooing friends, maybe five or six tattoos. Then because I lived here in London when I was 15, I decided to come back and try to be a tattooist in London, so when I was 19 I left Brazil. I stayed for one year in Italy just to sort everything out, like my documents and stuff, and then I came here and started my apprenticeship with Cesar Mesquita.
I know your father is a great painter. Have your parents’ paintings influenced your tattoos a lot?
Yeah, my dad has been painting for more than 30 years, and my mum has always been painting and doing some other art related stuff. They had an art school in my hometown, so I grew up in that environment. It helped me to be drawing around them and learning about colours and how to mix them. That background was amazing for translating to tattooing afterwards.
So back to the apprenticeship. How was it? Hard?
It was with Cesar from Self Sacrifice. I started hanging out with everyone from the shop and then because the apprentice at the time had to leave to go back to Brazil, I kind of got the position of apprentice. It was hard because it was in the Oxford Street area, so it was really busy with so many walk-ins. Also, the shop was huge so I had to clean the whole place, talk to every customer. For tattoos and for piercings and I had to clean the tubes and everything as well as finding time to talk to the guys about tattoos. It was hard work, and after hours, I was still practising drawing and tattooing friends until about 5 in the morning sometimes. It was very hard work but for only 6 months, so not long.
From the first tattoo you did in Brazil to now, how long have you been tattooing? And don’t say three years like you always do!
I started tattooing in my house here in London before I started the apprenticeship with Cesar in October 2006, and I did a few tattoos back in Brazil when I was 18 or 19.
So you’ve been tattooing as a professional for quite a while then!
I’ve been tattooing as a professional since 2006, so 7 years this year.
So can you tell us about your style now? When I met you it was more traditional – more heavy lines, black and solid colours and stuff, and now I know you’re doing something different.
When you met me I was doing New School, as the apprentice!
Oh my God yeah! Gnomes with mushrooms and stuff, it was horrible man!
I moved on to traditional because I started looking at some stuff that I didn’t have access to in Brazil, like the neo-traditional kind of thing – bold, simple but still with a little fancy drawing – details and stuff. I fell in love with that. I started to do tattoos that were bold, with solid colours and lots of black, and that’s all I’ve been doing since then. I use reference from Japanese artwork because it’s always been my favourite, but also because I worked with all you guys (Rodrigo, Cesar and Joao Bosco) in Self Sacrifice, and all you three did a little bit of Japanese back then. We started getting more custom customers and I didn’t get to do much Japanese because you started building a clientele. The clientele I was building preferred more traditional tattoos, so I got busy doing that. I didn’t do any Japanese at all, and then when I went to Japan last year I decided that when I came back I would start studying Japanese seriously and try to move my work in that direction. For the past year, I’ve been doing a little bit, I’ve been trying to translate my work to Japanese more and more.
So you’ve been to Japan and you went to see Rico, right? How was it to see an amazing Brazilian artist working in Japan?
It was amazing. Rico (Daruma Goya Tattoo) is one of my best friends. We met in 2008 and he started doing my front piece. We’ve been doing a few sessions each year when he comes for the convention, and we have become good friends. He’s been teaching me a lot, explaining stuff to me every week and being super-helpful and patient. He’s been the step towards Japanese in my career. So I am very very thankful to him. It was an amazing experience going to North Japan and staying at his house with him and his wife Shion, she’s a great friend too and an incredibly talented tattooist. It’s been great. Japan opened my eyes, it was an incredible change to my life.
(Ben) With the Japanese is he teaching you about the composition, or are you taking it right from traditional Japanese with the meaning behind things? Is that where you want to go with it?
The direction I want to take is very traditional, so everything makes sense and all the stories go with everything correctly. That’s what I really want to do and he always explains a lot to me. We are always talking through Skype, drawing together and discussing tattoos and drawings.
(Ben) Japanese seems to be going more modern now so this is great to see.
It’s going more modern and western which is great too, but the thing that caught my attention the most was the boldness and the simplicity of the traditional Japanese. I’ve been looking at Horihide’s work a lot. He is my favourite tattooist of all and he’s like eighty-five and he still does it full on. His work is really beautiful, simple and bold, and the most efficient I have ever seen – and that is the kind of direction I want to take. Bold and simple but it still works perfectly with the anatomy of the body.
How’s it going with painting, are you painting every day, or when you can? Do you try to set up a day to do it?
I wish I could do it every day, but because I work a busy schedule with clients we always have to end up drawing pretty much every day and I don’t have much time to paint. I try to do the most I can though, like this year I’ve managed to do a few.
“I believe we all have a different approach than most other shops that we know of. The main thing is how we treat the clients, because they are giving us the opportunity to do what we love most.”
Do you see yourself living and working in London for the next 10-20 years or do you see yourself moving back to Brazil and working there?
I see myself living here. I feel like London is my home now. I’ve been here for seven years and I love this place. I don’t see myself living anywhere else right now. That could change, but right now I want to be here. We are so passionate about Black Garden, so I want to become better and better every day, and right now I don’t want to leave here at all.
You mentioned Black Garden. How was it to open a shop with two friends in central London at only 25?
It was the best experience ever. Me, you and Cesar became kind of brothers. We spent more time together than I’ve spent with any other friends in my life. We think so much alike, it’s great that three people opening a shop who all think alike – success is the only direction you can take, right?! If we are all thinking the same then there’s nothing to stop us. We are so happy with the shop and we want to become better every day. It’s only been open two and a half years so it’s still a very young shop – there is still lots to learn and lots to do.
Who is working at Black Garden now?
Me, you and Cesar. Then we have Claudia, and there’s Jean who is tattooing now, and Alex and Mills the apprentices. We have Jordan who started not long ago and Alice who is starting now – she does a more realistic sort of thing. We also have Deni the manager, who does a great work at the shop and makes everything flow nicely.
Can you explain the vibe in the shop? Like how we work?
I believe we all have a different approach than most other shops that we know of. The main thing is how we treat the clients because they are giving us the opportunity to do what we love most. We treat them really well and always try to do the best we can do with the ideas they give us. If we want to make ourselves draw and tattoo better, we go about it by discussing and talking about drawing and tattooing. So every day we talk to each other about each other’s work and try to develop our ideas. Even if we don’t use the idea it’s nice to see another point of view.
We are very honest, even if it’s shit there’s no pretending. We will tell each other it’s shit – sometimes it hurts of course if you thought it was good.
Does the fact that there are more and more tattooists coming onto the scene bother you in any way?
No, not at all. There’s always going to be competition in any kind of profession. I believe if you do the thing you love, and do it with all your passion, then you’ll always get the work to do. If you’re really true to what you do then no one can stop you. The same way that more and more people are tattooing from home and doing shit work – they won’t stay and I don’t think there will be work for them forever. At some point, people are going to start to get more information through the internet and stuff about what is good and what is bad. The bad ones will be pushed to the side and the good ones, the ones that stay true, are always going to get the work. I think it all depends on the approach because I always say people will look at their tattoo and think of the experience they had on the day, so we always try to create a nice atmosphere. I think that’s what makes them come back: because we always try to give them a nice experience. Getting a tattoo is a big deal, even if it’s a little star on the wrist. Which for us would be simple and quick, but for the client it can be a huge deal – they are going to wear it and remember that day for the rest of their lives. So making the client feel comfortable and creating a nice relationship with them is one of the things we prioritise. The clients give you a lot of money – because it’s not cheap – and they are also giving you their skin for you to do the thing you love the most. So why would you treat them badly?
(Ben) I’m interested in some of the apprentices. You’ve had some guys start and come through your shop that are really good and I really like what they’re doing. I’d like to know a little bit more about how you approach taking on apprentices, how long you think they should do it for etc.
We have a friend of ours that came the other day to guest at the shop, he is an old school tattooist and he said he had a bad opinion on twenty- to thirty-year-olds having apprentices already and he was really against it, but he changed his mind about it completely from working in our shop. There will be young people starting to tattoo from home doing a lot of shit tattoos. There are around 300 tattoo shops in London, but probably about 1000 tattooists in the whole city because many will be tattooing from their homes – and that’s really bad. So if we take on one or two people to teach them what we do it’s not bad at all. Like Jean, he was a great designer already, he was doing great drawings already. But we took him as an apprentice and every day the three of us got into his head and talked to him. He’s there to help us and at the same time, we are there to help him. He worked hard for it. And if they’re willing to work hard and be part of the family then we want them to be happy the same way we are.
We don’t really have a timescale, like giving them a set time that in two years they will be a tattoo artist or anything like that. It’s got to be more about the individual and how they are going to take to it. Our apprentice Jean is already tattooing some small pieces, and things we think he can manage. People are already sending messages to him asking him to do a half sleeve, but we want him to go nice and easy. With every tattoo, he does we always tell him everything that was right and everything that was wrong with it – not in a ‘that was completely wrong’ way but more ‘it can be done in a better way.’ We watch him tattooing every day, that’s how we work with our apprentices – we actually teach them, everything we have learnt from the past 10-15 years. I know there are some studios that put the apprentice to work cleaning and stuff and don’t teach them a thing. If I had someone to teach me when I was 18 and tattooing from home, then maybe I’d be a better tattooist now! [Laughs]
We do the same with our apprentices as we do with each other when it comes to developing ideas and improving. With each drawing we point out what we would do differently – not saying that we think our way is better but it’s what we think is right.
We treat everyone the same. It’s the same with our clients, whether they want a small tattoo or a whole backpiece; they will be treated in the same way and we will always do the best we can. We believe that the more you give, the more you will get back. A guy came in from Brazil yesterday, he is a tattooist and messaged us asking if he could come into the shop to hang out etc. He came in and told us that us guys had made him believe he can do it, because we are three guys from Brazil living in London. He said that over there they had seen what we are doing and made them believe it was possible to have a good shop open with good artists and do it simply because we love it. We didn’t even know any of this because we don’t go to Brazil that much, we know loads of people over there but we don’t often get feedback. If people look at our shop and are inspired like this then it’s amazing. We are only in the very beginning too, though.
Ben: I think it’s the quickest I’ve seen a studio build up such a good reputation in England, you guys are definitely right up there. So in the UK, outside of those you have worked with, who has been an inspiration and has helped guide your work a little bit? And who first inspired you?
Thank you. The first thing to blow my mind was when I saw some old magazine with Filip Leu and Mauricio Theodoro for sure. Once I got to the UK the person who changed my ideas the most about tattooing was Xam. He completely changed my mind on what is good and what is not. It doesn’t matter at all stylewise, but the way he approached tattooing is amazing, I think he is a genius. Then of course, there’s Claudia, who changed my mind a lot on what can be done. On the Japanese side of things, there’s Rico for sure, Ivan Szazi, who works in Brazil, and of course, Horihide.
Ben: Do you look at other people’s work a lot and see what they are doing or do you try and get originality from yourself and then working on it from there?
I used to look at so many other people’s work, but I try not to anymore. You always end up picking up on a detail done by a certain person or a certain composition and it’s stored in your brain and will come out at some point. Rico told me that if you look at good stuff there’s no other way than copying it at some point because it’s so good, it’s too good, so you want to do it that way! You’re going to start copying subconsciously. I only look at stuff I really want to study, so I look at Horihide almost every day. I’m trying to study the things I want to do the most which is Japanese.
How would you say the time in your life is split between social and tattooing?
95% tattooing and 5% social! I have tattooing for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. Although I have a girlfriend now so I try to divide that time better, which is good because I never normally switch off from tattooing. It’s amazing because I now have someone to talk about other stuff with and to help me switch off a little bit.
Ben: Our magazine has readers that range from apprentices to experienced artists. What would you say to those who are just starting out and want to succeed in tattooing?
Work your ass off! Work to the best you can and try to dedicate 100% of yourself to it. Work hard, be happy, try to make the people around you that way too, and no drama!
Thank you so much for the opportunity of the interview. Thanks so much to my parents, friends and clients that always believed in me and are always there for me! THANK YOU!