In each issue, Nine Mag brings you an artist on artist interview. So, what better way to kick start the magazine than with a dialogue between Brazilian artist Tutti Serra of Black Garden, London and one of the industries greats, traditional tattooist Xam from the equally prestigious studio, Family Business. Both good friends, this promises to be an interesting read.
Interview – Tutti Serra
Photography – Xam
So Xam, you are one of my favourite tattooists and I have known you a few years but I don’t know your first memories of tattoos; what were they?
My Grandad was the first and only member of my family to have a tattoo. He used to joke with me and say that he had got it in prison. My Grandma used to say that tattoos were no good. So, I guess you could say that is my first memory.
So when did the idea of tattooing start?
When I was doing graphic design at art school, some friends approached me to draw tattoos for them. At that time, I wasn’t particularly interested in the actual craft of tattooing.
I was only about 15 years of age then and in Spain, tattoos could be done on a person as young as 12 years of age. A few of my friends were interested in getting tattoos but they didn’t have any money. One or two of them suggested I should do it but I really didn’t have a clue where to start. However, it got me thinking so I decided I would have a go to see if it was something I really wanted to do. I bought a couple of machines and some pigments and that was the beginning of this journey.
You started at home?
Yeah, I did. The wrong way, but I had no other choice at the time.
And how was the process from ‘willing to do’, ‘starting to do’ and then ‘getting into a tattoo shop’?
At the beginning it was more for my friends, a fun thing to do, and something new. I didn’t think of it as a job or a future career. I soon realised that I was shit, everything I was doing was wrong and so I tried to get an apprenticeship. This proved to be very difficult; I visited a few shops in my city but most people were in it to make lots of money and weren’t really interested in sharing their expertise.
So I thought ‘I can either do this my way or I can quit’ and, because I was really enjoying what I was doing, I decided to give it a go; and that is how I started.
So, practising on friends?
Yeah practising on friends, drawing a lot and figuring out things like, how to make needles, how to insert colours etc., so sort of “trial and error”.
“At the end of the day you are providing a service. You’re not the right person to choose just what you want to do.”
Yeah and how old were you?
I started when I was about twenty-one. I already had a tattoo when I was really young. I was ‘high’ and went and got tattooed with a friend for no reason at all (a big mistake) but that is when I actually decided that tattooing was what I wanted to do.
That’s cool. So I know you’re originally from Valencia in Spain right?
So, the first shop you worked at was in Valencia?
Yeah, it was. After three years at art school, I left and went back to Valencia. I was studying in Madrid but had no job, and I didn’t have anything to do so I decided to carry on with my studies. I got really bored there and started to skip classes and hang out in a local tattoo shop. The owner invited me to work in the shop and so I spent around three months working there. That was my first experience in a professional environment if you can call it that, which it really wasn’t.
What were the most popular tattoos you designed?
I think at the time I started tattooing in Spain, younger people wanted to get tattooed more than ever before and, there were quite a few unusual requests! There were times when people used to love back tribals, or arm bands of barbed wire, or little butterflies and dolphins.
You get to work on lots of different areas of the body with different skin, different people, different ideas, rather than focussing on one style straight away. It’s good because once you do a bit of everything, it’s easier for you to develop something different. I will say I’ve done a lot of tribal; I’m ready for it when it comes back!
Cool. So you’ll tattoo…
…anything. At the end of the day, you are providing a service and it’s up to the customer to choose. I mean, if someone comes to you because they like your work, you might be able to adapt it a little to what they want.
Especially as they’re wearing it for the rest of their lives.
Of course, it’s their choice! I’m not the right person to choose what they want, so… I try to give them what they want in the best way I can.
How did you get into doing custom work? Did you convince people to change a little bit?
Well obviously you get to a point in your career when everything’s the same, you end up doing the same type of work and you want to get better. When you feel like this you know it’s the right time to push. I was always working with a customer’s idea but doing my own version of it. If someone came in and picked something off the wall, say a dragon or whatever, I would have it ready the following day together with my alternative version (what I thought would look better because of the composition or the size or the placement or whatever). It’s then just a matter of trying to convince the person that it’s a better design. So this is a little bit of how everything started. People start coming because ‘this guy will draw it for you and it will be a one off’.
Sounds good. What made you choose England now and what made you choose Spain back in the day?
I don’t have a particular reason why, but I always had a feeling I wanted to come and visit London since I was a little kid. I had no particular reason for thinking this would be the place for me to work, it was just a matter of always wanting to. I guess after three years of tattooing in Spain I felt like it was the right time.
Three years, yeah. I came here when I was twenty-four. I knew what I had in Spain and so I decided to travel and if I didn’t like it, I could always return. My first plan was to come for like six months and I’ve been here thirteen years.
England’s got a really good tattoo history and people are more interested in getting tattooed here than in Spain. I thought it was a good place to come and I’m still here!
I’ve known you for a little while but I’ve never asked you a personal question and I really don’t know but how many years have you been tattooing now?
I think probably next year will be seventeen years. Old man, ha-ha!
So you got to London the first time travelling?
Well not actually traveling. I got a job in a restaurant. It was a big step for me to leave what I had in Spain. I was working in a graphic design studio, and I was tattooing as well so I left everything to come here, to give it a go. I was working in a restaurant as a kitchen porter for a while, because I couldn’t speak a word of English and I thought it would be easier to start somewhere at the bottom and from the bottom I can go up!
Did you know anyone in London at all?
No, I came alone, I stayed alone, and I didn’t know anyone.
How long was the process until you got to know someone?
I ended up visiting a shop in Camden Town which was owned by a Mexican guy called Jorge so it was kind of easy for me to speak in Spanish at first. I also met one of my best friends, Piotrek Taton. We were working in that shop together and he was the first person I got to know within the tattoo scene in London. I stayed in that shop working for a few months, and then we left and carried on working in another shop.
How many shops did you go through until you ended up at Family Business?
I think four shops. Camden Town, Angelic Hell in Wandsworth and Soho. Then I worked at a shop called Sacred Art in Stoke Newington. I moved to Frith Street (previously Angelic Hell) and from there to The Family Business.
How is the shop?
The shop is cool man, there’s a good atmosphere, good people. We have some great international guests as well. It’s a good feeling when you think ‘I’m going to work and I feel good’ you know you’re going to go there and have a good time. We always try to share ideas, talk about designs and so on….
Do you do that much?
Yeah we do it quite a lot, like with Joao Bosco for example, we used to live together and we spent a lot of time at home working on designs, showing sketches and so on, we help each other a lot.
Yeah I can imagine, Joao is a great person to share this stuff with.
Yeah he’s a great artist, I learnt a lot from him.
So do you get to draw with people in the shop or do you draw at home?
I draw everything at home, the only thing I draw in the shop is last minute changes if the customer decides they want to move something around but I like to prepare all my work beforehand. I’m not saying it’s the right way to do it but it’s the way I’ve got used to doing it. I like to sit down, think about the idea, get my reference, prepare some little sketches and take it from there until I come up with the final drawing or the final sketch which is the one I’m going to show to the customer. All my initial work I do at home, I like to reference a lot, like what we were talking about earlier, a lot of people asking for the same subject, it gets to a point where it becomes difficult to come up with a new version so you need to spend a lot of time referencing, unless you do the same thing all the time but I don’t think that’s much fun.
So designing and planning, how do you organise your customers’ designs? Do you draw much in advance or close to the day or…?
I used to draw well in advance, if I had the chance at least, three weeks before, not the final drawing of it, just putting some ideas together. Now I don’t have a lot of time so I prepare everything say a week before I come up with the sketch and two or three days before the final version is drawn.
How do you draw, at a consultation like a quick sketch with the customer? Do you draw on the skin then you take the size of it?
It depends, some people come with a very clear idea of what they want to get so I don’t need to do any drawings. If it’s like a one point tattoo then thats ok but if you’re doing a sleeve or a back piece then they tell you about all the elements they would like to add, so it’s good to play a little bit, talk to them and see what’s going to work best. At first, you’re going to end up changing a lot of the designs, because what I come up with at first might not be the right thing after. If I can I will draw on the day but I prefer to do it at home.
Do you do much freehand, do you draw on the skin a lot?
Not really, I used to freehand when I was doing more Japanese and stuff like that, for backgrounds mostly. At the moment, most of my work is just one piece even if it ends up being a sleeve. I do draw on the skin but basic stuff, roses and skulls, things like that, stuff that doesn’t need a lot of accurate proportions, a rose has flow, you can do what you want with it but if you’re going to draw a woman’s face or something like that you can’t fuck it up so it’s good for me to have it on the table first. Even if I find it easier that way it makes my work faster, I’d rather not spend all my time drawing on the skin when I can be tattooing.
How do you organise yourself with new projects? Do you start one new piece every day or a few pieces in a week?
It all really depends on the job that I am doing, if it is a sleeve normally I like to plan it. Usually the first step is to have a consultation with the client at least a month before so we can have a chat about it and prepare some basic ideas, I’ll give them some sessions and take it from there. As a rule I don’t take on new clients until I’ve finished the existing ones because I don’t like leaving things for too long. I don’t like working on a sleeve that’s going to take a year to finish or a back piece that’s going to take three years to finish. I’d rather get on and focus but like I was saying, when you finish it, that’s it, you might not ever see that person again or they might decide they want more work done so I keep working with them until they decide they don’t want to get tattooed by me anymore.
So you said you draw a lot at home. Do you draw every day or is there a day you reserve only for building machines or painting?
I don’t want it to become like a routine because then it becomes boring. I do what I feel like doing on the day unless it’s something I really have to do, then I do it, because there’s no other option. If I can, I prefer to draw in the morning; I wake up early so I spend a couple of hours drawing, then on my days off I might set up my whole day to do either machines in the morning and drawing in the evenings or just machines or just drawing. It depends on how busy I am on one thing or another. I try to have half of Sunday off that’s the only day, doing nothing, that’s good.
You were talking before about references, what is your favourite?
Well, I’d say Dover books are like the holy grail of references, whatever you want it’s in there. It’s not that you’re going to find your particular style of tattooing, you find that from drawing but you can get all the extra bits from books. Books are my main source but these days you can get a lot of stuff off the internet, from magazines or even by going to a museum, reference is always in front of you, you just need to find it. But I’d say for me books are best; I spend most of my money on books.
Ok cool. Apart from the above, are there any other places that you take inspiration from?
Any other artists not related to tattoos or anything like that?
Too many to mention, London’s got a lot of good art museums and stuff, especially for things like jewellery, hair styles and clothes, but then again sometimes it’s just easier to buy a book and reference from home because you don’t always have the time to go around museums.
You were saying about clothes and hair styles and stuff. At the moment if you had to start a tattoo now what would be the subject you would go for?
I really don’t have a favourite idea. I like it when the customer comes in with an idea and I try to come up with a new version of it. I haven’t invented anything, no one invents anything, everything’s been done already. If someone comes and they want a girl’s head with a rose, it’s like how many times have we done that so it’s just a matter of how you approach it, how to do it a different way. It’s either with the expression of the face, the style of the hair, the jewellery or the clothes you’re going to put on, so it doesn’t end up being like a copy of a copy of a copy, I like to change it a little bit to give someone something original, not that you have to but I like to do it that way.
Do you like tattooing stuff from old flash from the 1900s and stuff like that or do you always have to have a newer version?
Well what I like to do is bring my own approach to it. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with tracing old flash, tattooing it as it is, it can be a cool design, and it can be well applied but I prefer to play around a little bit. Having said that, if someone comes and says I want this as it is, I’m going to do it. If that’s what they want then that’s what I’m going to do but if they’re happy for me to change it and give it a bit of my own twist then I’ll enjoy it more.
We’re seeing a lot of traditional and Japanese getting done in a more modern way and people changing it a lot but with still the same source of ideas, then we have hyperrealism and everything else. What do you think of that? I’ve seen from your work you do mostly traditional and Japanese but what do you think of these new styles?
I don’t know, it’s not something I’d feel comfortable doing. Maybe I didn’t spend enough time in my life doing portraits or realistic drawings and it never appealed to me. I like how some hyperrealistic tattoos look when they’re fresh but I don’t know how they’re going to hold through the years, knowing that the body is gonna age and colours might fade. I’m not one to say because I really don’t understand much about that style of tattooing anyway, I find it more artistic, like a painting more than a tattoo. For me, tattoos need a solid line to define the shape of the design, solid colours and everything. I’m a bit sceptical about how they are going to look in a few years but…we’ll see, time will tell.
You were telling me about what inspires you like books museums etc, do you travel to get references and that kind of stuff?
I travel but mostly for fun and to relax. It’s good to go and visit places and learn from other cultures, it’s always inspiring to be in different places and get new ideas for your work. I mean you might see something completely new and get inspired straight away….
What’s the most exciting place you’ve been to?
So far Japan, without a doubt the best trip of my life and you know it.
Ha ha ha that was the best trip of my life too!
Yeah, that was a life-changing experience on all levels. Seeing the country, the people, and the amount of art, the architecture, everything was inspiring, it was for me anyway. It was a good time in my life to be there, it helped me think of different approaches to tattooing, you know when you see all this stuff and you come back from there and it’s completely different, it gives you new visions to carry on.
Even Rock Rock bar in Osaka?
Ha ha even Rock Rock in Osaka!
“So many good people are doing some amazing stuff, and the good thing is all of these people are doing their own thing.”
For me, you are and always will be one of the most talented tattooists I’ve ever met. You could work in any place in the world you went to, so do you see yourself living in London for a while or do you see yourself going to another place in the future?
Thank you. At the moment, I’m happy here. I’ve been here for a long time so maybe this is my place, but I would like to travel more, I would like to do more guest spots but I really don’t have much time so I have to plan well ahead to go to one place then another, you might not just want to go as guest and work, when you have a break you’d rather just go and chill, but I think London is the place for me right now.
So how do you see London tattooing comparing to other big cities like New York, Sao Paulo, Tokyo, and Melbourne?
I really can’t compare because I haven’t been working there. I have friends working in different shops in different places, but I think the world has a big network, especially with the Internet you already know what someone is doing, someone’s work who’s “across the pond”. It’s not like before when you wanted to see someone’s work and you had to wait until the next issue of a tattoo magazine to come out, now it’s so easy to upload a photo online and that’s that. It’s much easier. The whole thing is so much more connected at the moment which is good in a way, and it’s bad in a way as well. Like before you had to come up with your own ideas, you’d be like ‘oh shit how the fuck am I going to do this and that’ whereas now you’ll be like “oh man I was thinking of this” and someone will have already done it, then you have to change it. It’s easier for people to get influenced by others which I don’t think is a good thing, it’s good to admire other artists’ work but at the same time, you don’t realise it, subconsciously you end up basing your work on a lot of other people’s work, because it’s in your face all the time, whereas before you couldn’t see anything so you had to come up with your own thing. I’m not saying it was the right thing, it might be a piece of shit, but at least it was original, an original piece of shit.
So what do you think about all these TV programmes and such like?
Well, I was quite excited at the beginning, thinking that the media was interested in our craft, thinking that was a good thing for the general public so they don’t look at us like weirdoes with tattoos. In a way I thought this is cool, but I think it went the wrong way. The media used tattooing to make money out of us, there’s always people who are going to sell themselves and then people that don’t, always depending on the approach, who is behind and who is editing. You know, what you’re going to watch isn’t tattooing, it’s made up by all the people that have nothing to do with tattooing. I remember watching a few episodes of Miami Ink, Chris Garver was in it and I think that guy’s an amazing tattooer, to see that live, you know him working at a convention or whatever I thought “fuck man I want to see if I can pick up some tricks from that guy” but you end up picking up nothing because it’s just a TV drama show or whatever. Then I stopped watching because there was nothing on there for me, it was a programme made for the general public, not for tattooists and that’s it. Whoever thinks otherwise is wrong!
Did you feel any difference, did it make people come up with nicer ideas or …
Yeah but it’s like a double-edged sword, you’re going to get good stuff out of it but you’re also going to get bad stuff out of it. The good stuff will probably encourage people to want to get tattoos, and maybe wanting a cool idea they’ve seen on TV, so if they see someone on TV getting a Koi they’ll come to you saying “man I want to get a koi done”, and if I haven’t done one for like three months then it’s cool to do that. At the same time, you’ll get a lot of people wanting to tattoo because they think it’s a cool job, which there’s nothing wrong with that but, to join the tattoo industry you have to have something to give to it, if not then you might as well just do something else, I think.
You do great machines as well Xam, I have one which I use every day and I love it, how do you find time to work in the tattoo shop but still have time to make these amazing machines?
I used to have more time before, I had a little workshop in Spain, I could do a bit of welding and milling but right now I don’t have time for anything. So basically I work on the designs and send them to a machinist friend of mine, so he’s the one that will cut the frames from a block and then send them here for me to assemble and tune. I’m putting the frames together here. When I go back to Spain I like to play around at the workshop but I don’t have the time here with the amount of tattooing I’m doing at the moment. I would have to either cut days at work but right now my main focus is tattooing. I started building machines as a hobby and to understand my tools, I wanted to know what the machine was doing, if I needed it to do something different and how to change it to make it do a better job. So when I first started building machines it was a bit of fun, but also to pull it apart and understand why a machine works in a certain way depending on what sort of job you’re going to do, you want one for big lines, for thin lines, for shading, or solid colour, that was the main thing. So say you’re a painter and you keep buying new brushes because you don’t wash them, I’ve seen people having problems with machines and then just putting it in the drawer and getting a new one, but it would be nicer to spend a bit of time working out what the problem was, maybe it’s just a basic thing, a little turn on a screw or whatever then the machine is going again. There are certain things that everyone should know, just the basics. Like how to change a spring is such a simple thing. When it comes to tuning, it’s good to have a bit of knowledge because they are your tools.
Yeah for sure. You’re one of the fastest and most precise tattooers I’ve met, is that after you started building machines or is that something you pushed in the beginning to be fast, or it naturally happened?
I think it’s a natural thing, when I first started I didn’t know anything about tattoos I just tattooed the way I did. The machines I was using back then were running really fast so I think you kind of adapt your hand to the machine, which in my opinion is the wrong thing to do, your machine needs to adapt to the way you work, you shouldn’t adapt to the way it works because you might end up buying a new one that runs totally different to what you’re used to. For you to change just for one machine I think is a pain in the ass. Depending on how you like the throw, fast, slow or whatever, it should work with you. But I don’t think I’m fast because of the way I developed my machines, it’s just because that’s how I tattoo. I don’t know how to tattoo slowly, I can’t do it, like some people say “slow down!” but I just can’t.
Do your machines take a lot of time out of you even though your machinist is cutting the frames and you’re just putting them together here?
The only thing that takes a lot of time is the engraving, when I just have to put a machine together it’s easy but the tuning takes a bit longer especially when someone is specific about how they want it tuned. Sometimes you put a machine together and it’s not running the way it’s supposed to so there’s a bit more time to be spend on it. It’s very easy for me to assemble a machine. It’s like a little kid’s toy but you need to make it work, you can put it together and make it look beautiful but you also need to make it work. It might take time, but it depends on what they ask for, then the engraving is another side of this project that takes a bit longer.
With engraving, that’s the thing that makes you look at a machine and say this is unbelievable and so unique, I haven’t seen many people doing that. Do you want to talk about the engraving or how you came up with that?
Nah I mean, I just like it, I started just to do something a little bit different. You know there are a lot of great builders out there trying to do their own thing, something unique. I remember when I was in art school I did a lot of etching, engraving and stuff, so I thought I could give a different look to a machine. I’m not the first one to do it, there’s a lot of people doing this but I’m trying to give it my own feel. It’s like going to work on a bus or taking a Ferrari you know. It’s better to go to work in a nice car! But at the end of the day it’s just a tool, I’m just making it that little bit fancier. That’s all.
Do you have a favourite tattoo machine builder that you got inspired by?
A lot of people are doing good stuff, there’s Seth Ciferri, Mike Pike, Chris Smith, to name a few… So many good people are doing amazing stuff, and the good thing is all of these people are doing their own thing. At the end of the day maybe the machines are going to be tuned very similar to one another, it’s just the look of it, when you’re a collector you want to have one of each which is cool. I would like to have as many machines as I could. What I like about these people is they put a lot of thought and effort into their machines and they’re coming out with stuff that’s really cool, new ideas and tricks, not only on the looks but on the performance of the machine itself. Thinking about spring size, length, geometry, you know what I mean. I think you have to deconstruct, you have to pull something apart and think, I’m going to change this part and see how the machine works, maybe it runs worse, maybe it runs better, it’s a matter of trial and error. You need to try a lot of different things until it comes up with the way you want it to work for you, which is what I’m doing right now with my machines, I think I came up with a kind of geometry that I like to do the type of work that I do, which I think is the correct way of doing it. So it’s on the right path.
Do you use your own machines to do your own tattoos or do you try others…
I use my own stuff because it’s what I’m comfortable with; I build my stuff in a certain way. If I want to do big groupings or small groupings, or whatever, I do use other people’s machines because I like them, because how they feel on my hand or how they work, and obviously they make things easier. If you’re using a piece of shit you’re going to do a bad job or it will take you longer but yeah I mostly work with my machines.
“There’s no age limit in Spain, you can get tattooed at any age, even if you are 12 years old.”
Ok, and do you have plans to do bigger quantities of machines in the future?
No I like the way I’m doing it right now, I’m not doing it to become rich, I enjoy it, it’s sort of a hobby, and I like the fact that I spend a lot of time working on a machine for someone knowing they’re going to use it all the time. I don’t want to put a machine together and tune it real quick then sell it, you lose the whole thing, if I can and I have time I like to use the machines beforehand to make sure they run to someone’s specifications. I’m OK as it is now, I’m not thinking of having a big company or anything like that.
How long have you been doing machines?
I started rebuilding stuff probably about seven years ago or something like that, then I started with a bit of the welding when I was back home. I went home for six months and this time I spent a bit of time welding, that’s how I learnt to weld machines and stuff. I think full-on with the new stuff I’ve been doing it for about five years, I’ve done a little bit of welding and bracing, the odd bit of work on cast frames and now I’m just working on CNC. I think it gives you the perfect alignment, everything’s where it has to be so when you have to tune a machine it’s easier to do it that way.
Do you build rotaries as well?
No, it’s something that I have in mind, but I would have to study all of the processes, even if there was no tuning to do after, but I don’t know how to explain, there’s already a lot of really good people doing rotaries. If I don’t have anything new to give to a rotary machine then what’s the point, just to build another one? It would just be a money making thing. If I see there’s something missing that I can come up with then it will make sense, but if it doesn’t then there’s no point when I already have so much to do anyway.
Do you have any preference between coil and rotaries?
I use both, it just depends on the job, the area you’re going to tattoo, the skin, like sometimes one thing is going to work better at the job than the others. I prefer, if I have to use a rotary I will use it for very fine lines and doing script but I don’t like them too much for black and grey or big lining groupings, for that I prefer a coil machine.
Ok Xam, how do you see the future of tattooing? More mainstream or more underground?
I think right now it’s mainstream enough, I think the media has already taken too much from us, or we sold it to them like prostitutes, but you know what it’s like. I would not like tattooing to go back fully to how it was but I do miss the old days when it seemed more unique, it’s too trendy at the moment, there’s nothing wrong with it, there are still going to be plenty of people getting covered in tattoos, and people right now who are getting tattoos just because its trendy then in a year or two some are going to regret it, some won’t, but I did prefer the way it was a few years’ back, people were more individual, right now everyone has tattoos. It is good for us, it’s our business, we make a living out of it, we have to pay our bills so the more the better but at the same time I think it was nicer a few years’ ago.
You don’t think…
I spoke to someone about this a long time ago. Especially here in England, thirty or forty years ago when you had the punk scene with all the skinheads, you could see how the younger generations, back in the day, were getting a lot of visual tattoos. It’s happening right now but in a different way. I believe back in the day, the young generation became an old generation and the new young generation came in and didn’t want to be like the older ones. You don’t want to be like your older cousin or your dad, why? Because you want to rebel against their beliefs, I think this is what happened back in the day with tattooing, it doesn’t mean it stopped people getting tattooed, it will never stop people getting tattooed, but there was a craze when people were getting a lot and the younger people were like “fuck man I don’t want to look like my dad or someone else” I think is happening again.
There’s a big tattoo craze thanks to the media but I think eventually it might slow down. I think when the kids now become legal they will look at there older peers and think fuck that, I don’t want to be like you. But then maybe in thirty/forty years time the same thing will happen again, I mean you never know, people say tattooing is here to stay, tattooing has always been here, it’s just a matter of how much. But I think it’s going to slow down eventually. There is more knowledge, there’s more information, so maybe if it slows down, the people who actually care about tattooing, the good people that are working hard to get good at what they do, they will be busy doing their stuff and the people that are shit will hopefully “fuck off and do something else”. So yeah that’s it.