More Than Words
Monty Richthofen, aka Maison Hefner, is a modern-day poet and tattoo artist reminiscent of the late Jean-Michel Basquait whose sardonic spray-can commentary on life in the late 70s and early 80s in Lower Manhattan made him so famous he burned through the art scene like an asteroid until his death aged 27.
As Basquait did under the tag SAMO, Monty has put a kaleidoscopic spin on clichés, weaving them into millennial dog-whistles of witty ambiguity and cutting social commentary so deft he’s become the Pied Piper of the internet-age.
Cherub-faced and just 23 years old it is no surprise Monty’s musings speak to the hearts and minds of a culture so vacuous it can be ensnared in a handheld device – but Monty, just like his minimalist tattoos, is so much more than clever word-play.
He is whip-smart and tender in a way tattooists seldom are with a utopian view of a trade so infectious you can’t help but believe he might know how to free it from the shackles of tradition without letting it get crushed by commerce.
PART I – The Spew-Up That Captured Monty’s Imagination
Monty’s desire to leave a mark was born in Aix-en-Provence, on a bus ride with his chums to a boarding school he’d been sent to from his native Munich age 15. He recalls marvelling at his classmates rubber-necking to catch a glimpse of a wall defaced with a graffiti throw-up another student had painted, “and I was like, ‘wow, cool’.”
The student taught Monty how to sketch then he went solo.
“I kind of realised that creative expression would be part of my life when I realised it was much more fun to go and paint a train by yourself than go with all your friends to a bar to drink Grey Goose and get into fights with French guys,” Monty recalls.
Graffiti led to tattooing, something Monty had no previous interest in. A few of the older boys in the boarding house had ink, but he thought it was “super trashy”.
In Berlin a graffiti artist Monty knew offered to tattoo him, “and I was like why not” and after the next one also chose a spot on his flesh to mark, he asked Monty to reciprocate.
“I was like, ‘hey I’ve never tattooed before’ and he just said, ‘there’s always a first time’. And this statement really convinced me, because there always has to be a first time.”
Monty tattooed a star holding a bottle with the words ‘funky stuff’ written underneath, but because he didn’t know how to use a stencil the image was mirrored: “After that I didn’t tattoo for quite some time.”
Monty was accepted into a media studies course in Edinburgh after high school but he never made it to class, realising part way through the course that he had “completely forgot while I was in Berlin painting graffiti, taking heaps of drugs and meeting my ex-girlfriend”.
Monty credits his parents with teaching him curiosity and in Berlin he found a wonderland to explore, age 18: “It was the first time I was confronted with actual subcultures. It was the first time I was confronted with real partying, real graffiti, real train writing. I didn’t look for anything it just came to me. I wasn’t trying to belong to anything, I was just open to experiences.”
He continued: “For my age I already knew at that point what I wanted to do. At that moment it was to paint and express myself and to put myself in situations that I was not necessarily comfortable with because it brought me excitement.”
Graffiti taught Monty the non-technical skills of tattooing – to take risks, to stand by his work – but marking walls was temporary, unlike skin, and the artist wanted his work to have longevity.
“With graffiti you can’t create what you intend to with tattooing. With tattooing you create something that is quite permanent, at least it leaves a mark you can’t just wipe off… unless you have very good laser treatment… so you achieve something that is not possible with graffiti. Something that people see, and something that people carry with them always.”
After being tattooed in London by @luxiano31 – a Mexico-based artist whose background in graffiti is still evident in his work – Monty decided to tattoo full time despite having almost no experience.
“The biggest thing that stuck with me, that he said, was if you want to do it you have to do it with 100%,” Monty recalls.
Returning to Berlin Monty saved up for a tattoo machine and power supply and got started.
“I just didn’t tell people I wasn’t really able to do it, you know, fake it until you make it, trial and error. And that is what I did and through this trial and error I gained this confidence, and maybe it was this false confidence but if you don’t have any confidence at all you’re never doing to make it. Through believing, ‘why shouldn’t I be able to do it’, I just started and at some pint, quite quickly, people didn’t question it anymore.”
Monty’s signature phrasing came about after someone he was tattooing saw his distinctive handwriting, a cursive that has won him a cult-like following.
“They saw my handwriting and quite liked it and then a lot of people liked my handwriting. It was through graffiti I had this steadiness in my writing. In a way, you know, it was very pure. I didn’t try and style it and with the text, I never tried to style it either… I was just keeping it really simple.”
Early renderings included: Wave to cops then paint whole cars and French kissing in the club.
PART II – The Voice Of The Internet
Monty has never taken an art class. He studied theatre in school and while currently a student at London’s Central Saint Martins – where former alumni include, Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Stella McCartney – he is studying performance practice and design.
Monty personifies this.
Just before midday on a Friday outside a brown-brick rabbit warren that claims to be artist studios and a gallery, but is more a flop-house, Monty appears with the chutzpah of a circus clown with bright red braces holding up a pair of oversized blue trousers, paired with a matching jacket, crowned with a woollen hat more fanciful of colour than a peacocks plumage.
The trousers and jacket are beat-up originals of the type first worn by railway men and engineers in France in the late 1800s. Simple and practical as their French name – bleu de travail (meaning ‘blue work’) suggests, the outfit has an unflattering silhouette, but on Monty, topped off with flyknit Nikes, it has been elevated to high fashion.
(Monty’s Central Saint Martins project, Who Am I Without You / Another You’ – which comprises of a five-minute video and an immersive installation said to give viewers a “window into a subculture that is unknown to most” – is shortlisted for the MullenLowe Nova awards that recognise fresh creative talent. From 1,300 graduating students, just five awards are presented to students whose work represents “truly original creative thinking and execution”. Voting closes on Tuesday – SUPPORT MONTY HERE. )
“I don’t think about a lot of stuff before I do it, just afterwards,” Monty says of his outfit, quickly directing the conversation back to his work.
“So only when I started to do all of these writings I realised that I could put my visions and my desire for change, my criticism, in a positive way, into it.
“I just thought I have something to say. Especially after coming to London and seeing the gentrification… you see all of a sudden what it means to be in such a hyped place, especially in Central Saint Martins. Its such a hub and your confronted by fashion and trends and consumerism and coolness, or at least an attempt to be cool. And I guess I started commenting on that and people liked it.”
Monty’s lines are ponderings “that come through observations and conversations” he jots down in notebooks. When the pages are full, they’re closed. “I think it is quite nice, it’s a progression, you move forward… I move forward in my writing and in my tattoos.”
And they resonate with those raised on social media because he ignored it so long no one ever got sick of hearing his perspective on platforms often used to narcissistically calculate self-worth. By being a late-explorer of the digital landscape Monty’s observations carry none of the fatigue and rattle of the myriad of one-liners that have ricocheted and tumbled in re-tweets and re-posts.
“We have to start from the beginning,” Monty announces when asked about becoming the voice of the Internet.
The first confession: “I never had a Smartphone.”
“I was always very critical of my ex-girlfriend who was on Instagram. Before bed I would always tell her, ‘Why do you have this stupid phone? Put it down’. I never understood. Even when I started tattooing I didn’t have it (Instagram).”
When a friend made Monty an account, the circuit of conversation was complete: “I realised that this whole crowd that I want to criticise, or I want to awaken, they are all on the internet so this is why the internet became a very useful medium for me because I could reach the audience that I would not in real life.”
The flipside: “Now I’ve become part of this whole thing and now people are criticising me for being part of this Internet culture.”
While Monty is well-known for his catchphrase tattoos he also does bigger pieces that are arguably more controversial – unrefined renderings of the type that sit at the extreme end of ignorant art.
“The drawings I see very separate from the tattoos,” Monty explains.
“When I tattoo drawings I need to feel like this person is actually much more of a canvas and I like to do big pieces and I like to really go free. With drawings, for example, I don’t look so much at the technical aspect but much more at composition, much more at freedom of expression.
“With the writing its almost like I need to do it to get my thoughts out because by tattooing my thoughts on someone else they walk away with them to a certain extent. I can let them go. With the drawings, I don’t let them go. I quite like them.”
PART III – The Meaninglessness Of Markings
Monty has a tattoo on his upper thigh to remember his late father, who worked in film (The good may die young, but will never be forgotten) and getting it was a form of “therapy” he now tries to replicate with his clients in a process that sees him recreate the experiences he enjoyed and endured amassing his own collection.
“I let a lot of friends tattoo me that don’t know how to tattoo, because for me, again it doesn’t matter what is done, but who has done it and the situation under which they have done it,” Monty says of his own tattoos which include a rat fucking a cop, internet glasses, a chicken saying FTW and a variety of toilet stall-like doodlings.
“I’d rather have something, a memory from a girl that I was seeing than from some asshole tattooer that I have no connection at all with. Someone I just gave money to.”
This desire to make a connection, rather than just a mark, is best exemplified by Monty’s My Words Your Body project which sees him engage in an hour-long conversation with the client before encapsulating the experience, or their “essence”, in a turn-of-phrase.
I didn’t like having to explain to them, so I shut up and smoked a cigarette. #mywordsyourbody
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When Parloir first met Monty earlier this year we witnessed the unveiling of one such inking on a young girl called Alina who works in the field of domestic violence and abuse, and as Monty put it, “is a very helping and caring soul and this tattoo captures the essence of this person.”
The tattoo seemed extraordinarily underwhelming and not worthy of such ceremony but the look on the client’s face when she saw it showed the mark Monty had left was more than skin deep. Alina cooed with excitement and gripped her belly with both hands as though to trap all the butterflies of happiness inside.
“The tattooing often it just takes ten minutes,” Monty confesses, after being questioned on what the client is actually paying for – words on their skin, or an audience with Maison Hefner.
“So it is a question of what you pay for. But the way I have started to think about a lot of these things… the tattoo doesn’t start from it being written down. There’s this whole experience before that I lived through that then leads to me writing it down, which leads to me tattooing it… or through conversation. So it has a life long before someone chooses it.
“Its like, for example, you raise a child. Before you let it out in the world you make sure they are ready… you need to make sure it is ready to leave the nest, or for this person to take this tattoo.”
For some stuck in the tight-pens of tattooing tradition, Monty’s taking the piss with his production line of street-poetry hipster-stamps. His work has featured on Sucky Tattoos, the re-post Instagram account that shames bad work rather than celebrate it, like Snake Pit.
“What a lot of people hate is that the writing takes, theoretically 30 seconds. To tattoo it takes 10 minutes. And so for me I can really quickly produce and produce and produce, whereas other people might spend six hours on a design. They redraw it. The customer doesn’t like it. So this brings frustration… ‘Why is he tattooing so much and gets all the recognition for something that is so quickly produced?’ But it’s the same with (Mark) Rothko, ‘Oh it’s just red paint’. But you didn’t just think of putting just red paint with maybe a bit more red paint.”
PART IV – If You Don’t Know, You Don’t Know
Monty’s success lies in his ability to harness an arsenal of ambiguity to engage the imagination to the same extent it enrages tattoo purists. His flesh also speaks to this chaos over conformity ideal, with his tattoo collection equally confusing to those who want art to be the perfect technical execution of its subject matter.
“The idea is always much more important than the actual execution,” Monty explains, before championing the work of Auto Christ, the Israeli artist whose puerile scrawls seem executed under blindfold.
“A lot of the time people just simply don’t get it,” Monty says, as he sucks on a cigarette at the kitchen-table-come-desk in his bedsit that’s across the hall from his studio.
“For example, tattoos from Auto Christ, who I think is so avant-garde. He is one of the people who shook up tattooing in a very honest way. Never for trends, it is just his way. And either you get it or you don’t. If you need to explain it to someone they obviously don’t get it. And also, I don’t think you need to justify yourself for anything, neither as an artist or the recipient.”
Tattoos, Monty believes, “can be anything” and should be viewed beyond the actual act and the end result.
They are a conversation between artist and client, private from the funhouse mirror of social media where likes and follows monopolise ideals of merit.
“So, for example, works like, from Auto Christ, these people start to challenge these ideas of conventions and so for me, the reason why I would get something like this (a rat sodomising a figure of conformity – a cop) is simply to show I support this. I think it is funny. And for me, my body is not necessarily decorative it is more a collection of like-minded thoughts. The tattoos I have, the people that tattoo me, most of the time are very liked-minded, aesthetically or politically.”
While tattooing has a rich history marked across millennia, Monty sees it as just a medium and given it’s been the artistic expression of tribesmen, criminals, sailors and punks – all doyens of rebellion – he’s perplexed why some within the industry try and dictate how it grows.
The commerce that came with popularity seems like the obvious reason: Instagram supercharged stardom for artists and shops popped up like toadstools.
“There should be no conventions,” Monty states. “There should be respect for other people’s work but also you want to try and push the barriers. No art form progresses if you don’t push the barriers.
“It has always been a culture that was against the norm, but now there is a norm again. What I don’t understand is why do we want to keep a norm? As soon as you see a norm you should try and disrupt it, especially if you’re from an anarchist background, if you question rules, which I’d say a lot of tattoo artists naturally do.”
Monty wants tattooists to shun the conventions that have turned tattoo parlours into factories with masters and minions. He wants the client to become the focus, not just the canvas, and for the process to become much more than a consultation and a mark.
“You need to challenge everything, the techniques, the concepts, the placements and the environments people get tattooed in, but also the process leading up to the tattoo…there is so much to discover and I think we would really be digging our own grave as a scene by not encouraging this,” he says.
“I would love to get tattooed by someone similar to my approach because I think it taught me so much to know more about the people that I tattoo. It taught me so much about my own practice. Gave me so much more confidence about my own practice that I am surprised more people aren’t doing it.”
Change is the only way forward in a trade whose traditions are being eroded by the forces of gentrification like the high streets that surrounded the salons, and no one knows this more than the Voice Of The Internet – Maison Hefner.
“In the age of the internet you need to provide new stuff the whole time otherwise you will get replaced. If you continue to do what you are doing for three years, by the fourth year no one will talk about you. You will be forgotten.”
Emiel Steenhuizen isn’t your typical tattooist – in fact, he rebels against its clichés with the earnestness and orderliness of a gentleman.
Starts his day at a time more suited to an office schmuck. Keeps records and provides debit, often undercharging out of sympathy, and leaves afternoons free to ponder. Most recently he published a children’s book.
For his next tattoo, the Dutchman wants the word Risotto inked. He’s very fond of the Italian rice-dish, as he is Pinot Noir. Its significance is already seared into his flesh and during his interview with Parloir he routinely refreshed his palette with practiced gulps of it.
Emiel is a gourmand of mouth and mind and tattooing for him is not his sole focus, it is a means to an end, an artistic service that sustains his life and earns him time to spend how he pleases – often on other endeavours, and to be a forever-present dad to daughter Dahl, six, whose work adorns his Amsterdam studio.
“Although I am a tattooer, I don’t really consider myself as one,” the 37-year-old explained, having earlier detailed how every member of his family is artistically inclined – one brother is a singer, another is a school teacher who does lino prints in his spare time, his dad does realistic paintings, his grandfather was a designer “that makes beautiful paintings and etchings” and his mother and sister make stuffed dolls and puppets out of wool.
“I have no idea what I am,” Emiel says. “I’m just a person who makes things. I really like making things. I wrote and illustrated a children’s book. I made commercials and music videos. I make linocuts, paintings, collages. I made a child.”
Emiel is unsure how to define his relationship with tattooing. Parts of the industry, like conventions, he avoids, finding the food-court-frenzy atmosphere, “vulgar and disgusting”.
“I think all the things my dad hated about me becoming a tattooer are illustrated at a tattoo convention,” he opined while reiterating that he does not want to be a “hater of tattooing, because I’m not”.
“I do love tattooing. It is a fun thing. I have no idea what my relationship with tattooing really is. It pays the bills, which is a very important thing in my life. I can feed my daughter, myself. And that’s good. And it pays for time to spend on other things. Because without tattooing I would not have made my children’s book.”
Emiel’s journey into tattooing is as unconventional as his children’s book – Yokka Wants A Tattoo. There was no punk or rock band beginnings he simply stumbled into a salon blindly believing he could barter for a tattoo with his art school drawings.
Instead Emiel got an apprenticeship of sorts. Initially he turned it down, but while bartending thought better of it and returned to the Utrecht parlour.
The experience did nothing to endear him to tattooing with the owner wanting him to pick-up the needle after just three-months.
“I stayed for two years but left with the idea to never tattoo again because I hated it,” Emiel recalls, while conceding he “fucked up lots of people”.
“I hated the way it (the shop) functioned. The people I had to tattoo. The designs I had to do. And I thought that was tattooing. There wasn’t Instagram then so I couldn’t see what other people were doing. The only thing I had was like tattoo magazines with porn girls in them and shitty tattoos. I didn’t know anything.”
At that point, Emiel only had two tattoos himself. One, the type a girl might get on a backpacking trip around Thailand – a tribal salamander on the ankle. At 21 he cycled 1500km from the Netherlands to the south of France and near the finish he thought, “This is a nice moment for a tattoo”. After fingering-through a flash book he chose the amphibian, unaware he could commission a custom design.
“The next day I was on my bike looking down at the steer and I see that the logo of the brand on my steer was a black silhouette of a salamander. So like, subconsciously, I’ve been watching this logo for three weeks. I never paid attention to it but it brainwashed my head. It’s a hideous tattoo. But I’ve still got it.”
Having met a girl Emiel moved to London, literally downing tools – “I even left my tattoo machines at the shop”. She had been awarded a prestigious art scholarship from the Dutch government and Emiel pursued, hoping to realise a “dream to work as a director”.
London was a “very hard city” and Emiel eventually returned home, but not before having a run-in with Tomas Tomas, then working at the now closed Into You Tattoo.
A friend of Emiel’s was visiting and wanted to get a tattoo from Tomas Tomas to continue one Emiel had started on him in his-style. Tomas said no, then after some pleading, ‘yes’. When Emiel’s friend explained he wanted a pattern of bird feathers, the answer changed again.
“Tomas was like, ‘it’s a shit idea I’m not going to do it’,” Emiel recalls. “And that was it for me. It was like, ‘yeah, you see tattoo shops are shit and full of arrogant people’. But now I understand why he didn’t do it because it really was a shit idea.”
Back in Amsterdam Emiel went to Admiral Tattoo Studio to get a tattoo by Lina Stiggson to remember his time in London. Again, he walked out with an apprenticeship.
“She was like, ‘you worked as a tattooer but you stopped… why? It is the best job in the world. You have to go back’.”
Emiel stayed there for eight years, leaving earlier this year to open his own studio.
Now he tattoos a maximum of two people a day. He prefers one, but “I am very bad at saying no”. Opens shop around 9, closes at 1pm: “Then I have the rest of the day to work on my publishing company. My drawings. Thinking. Whatever I like to do. Go home early. Pick up my daughter from school and make a meal. Which I try and do every day.”
Children’s books energise Emiel, partly he thinks, “because it is new and I’m discovering how it works”.
Yokka Wants A Tattoo, as the title suggests, tells the tale of Yokka who wants to commemorate the passing of her pet with a permanent mark.
Four publishers rejected it; it’s assumed, because of parents’ unwillingness to introduce tattooing to their children so young.
Emiel, himself, says his daughter, who’s obsessed with a cheetah Thomas Burkhardt inked on his shoulder, can’t get one until she’s 21. The age he got the salamander.
“But I think by the time she is 21 tattooing will be a very unpopular thing because there has been a fashion of getting heavily tattooed in the decade before her, in her parents decade. So I don’t think tattoos will be a big thing when she’s big. It’s so common now.”
Emiel self-published his book and then set about his next challenge, getting it into bookstores: “If I go to traditional children’s shops or book stores, they’re like ‘nah’, they don’t want to have it. But If I go to children’s concept stores with cool clothing and backpacks, you know, cool toys… they’re like ‘I fucking love it, give me 35” (the book is now available at Museum Voorlinden and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam).
Emiel is now working on a second book: “The fact that I am my own publisher they don’t have to be a popular children’s book. I can make a stupid one,” he announces, smugly.
But this one has a little bite to it. It’s about a dad with psoriasis the skin condition that causes red, flaky, patches of skin covered with silvery scales. It has ruined Emiel’s skin, and swallowed his tattoos whole, since he was 25.
Emiel started getting the condition after a series of panic attacks.
“So it started 12 years ago and since then it has just been snowballing, worse, worse, worse and at this moment it is the worst,” Emiel explained, lifting up his forearm to show where the condition has completely covered a tattoo he got when his daughter was born. It’s done similar things to apiece from Talley Matthew on his chest.
But the book, like Emiel’s, demeanour and his tattoos, isn’t dark – it’s playful.
“I think it is very interesting,” he explains of the book’s message. “Because I have it. And I hate the fact that I have it. But for my daughter she looks at it in a very different way. She doesn’t know me different than having psoriasis. For her it’s completely normal. She’s not disgusted by it. For her my tattoos are the same as my psoriasis. And she knows things I avoid because of it. Like swimming pools. She knows things I like because of my psoriasis, like good weather.”
The book, Emiel says, will play on this contrast of emotions: “I find it very interesting how she looks at it. I’m going to play on these contrasts in the book. Like, for instance, if I wear shorts, dogs will go to my legs, to lick my psoriasis, that’s what dogs do. They go for the wound and they want to heal it, which is annoying because when I wear shorts dogs will come to me. For me that’s a negative thing. But for my daughter, she adores dogs. And I attract dogs. And she wants to pat them all the time. So I’m going to play with these type of things.”
While Emiel’s ultimate dream is to move to the south of France – his wife-to-be will run a bed and breakfast and sell ceramics while he tattoos, paints and writes books “in the sun, which will be good for my psoriasis” – his more immediate plans are to return to London and work at Liam Sparkes’ parlour, Old Habits Tattoo.
Emiel met Caleb Kilby – who he “really admires” – while doing a guest spot at East River Tattoo in New York and “really wants” to get a tattoo from Clare Frances: “I really like her work. There’s… I don’t know… every tattoo she does is different. It is strong and black but to me it is different. She picks a lot of things up.”
While Emiel may shun the occupational typecast of tattooer, his relationship with tattoos is perhaps more profound than many in the trade due to his psoriasis, which is perfectly illustrated by this anecdote he tells with nonchalance.
“Recently I was tattooing a girl and her mum was present and she was like, ‘I don’t like her to get tattooed because I put her in this world with this perfect skin, now she’s getting tattoos’. I wasn’t put in this world with perfect skin. I’ve got shit skin. My body decides to have weird spots that I don’t agree on. So I really like to get tattoos because I can chose the tattoo. Where it goes. What it looks like, blah, blah, blah.”
At 60 years of age Mark Mahoney is no closer to putting down the needle and thinks he will probably “fall over in the tattoo shop”, the Shamrock Social Club, a parlour as famous and immutable as the strip it sits on.
“Financially I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to do that (retire),” Mahoney told Parloir.
“I haven’t planned for it. CNN, whatever, was like asking me about the money and that… money for tattooers is pretty abstract, cause chances are whatever we make one day we’re going to spend the next. That’s been my experience. But I don’t think I’ll ever retire, I’ll probably fall over in the tattoo shop, I think.”
Mahoney continued: “I like to do stuff outside the shop (he fixes classic cars), but I wouldn’t like to be outside the shop too much. If I won the lottery I’d be back to work two-to-four days later, I’m sure. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Opened more than 15 years ago at 9025 Sunset Boulevard – nestled between The Viper Room – where River Phoenix OD’d on drugs on Halloween 1993, and Soho House – the Shamrock has become a Mecca for the trade for which Mahoney is a Godfather, in every sense.
Silver-haired and sangfroid; impeccably dressed in 70s New York mobster meets rockabilly-garb, Mahoney cuts a timeless figure so sharp he’s been described as a “living skeleton Elvis”.
Mahoney’s lived through it all and done so unchanged cultivating an authenticity so organic, rich, and graceful that Hollywood has cast him – Black Mass (2015), Unstoppable (2010) and Déjà Vu (2006) – and its stars and starlets look up to him for his star power, while not box-office-big, is un-manufacturable.
Russell Brand once said the pompadoured-prince is “so charming and enchanting I kept getting myself tattooed just so I could suss him out”.
Lana Del Ray considers Mahoney a muse. He played her baby-daddy in the music video for the aptly titled, ‘Shades of Cool’, and featured in another, ‘West Coast’.
“He’s one of my biggest personal inspirations. He’s easygoing and really cool,” Del Ray said of Mahoney in a Clash magazine interview.
It’s this celebrity connection that has kept Mahoney in the media of late, with the raconteur being hit with endless Hollywood-related questions about his clientele while being the first artist in residence at new London boutique hotel, The Mandrake, where he worked from October 3-16 for a starting price of £2,000 a tattoo.
The hotel, which has art “at its very heart” says of inviting Mahoney to work: “Ask anyone with any interest in the medium and they will tell you, Mark is an uncontested heavy weight legend of the art form. It is not just that he is ‘Don’ of black and grey, or that his client list would make the head of the greatest talent agent on earth weep with envy, Mark Mahoney is a great artist and a man of depth and enormous soul. For us at the Mandrake, art is about the reality of creativity, soul and culture and Mark for us is exactly what we value.”
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Mahoney spoke of David Beckham to the media telling one broadsheet how the former footballer “didn’t pee for about seven hours” and seemed impervious to pain. Adele was “badass”. A tattoo on Lady Gaga was the most challenging. In 2012, while entombed in a levitating perfume bottle, he etched a cherub into the back of her head at New York’s Solomon R Guggenheim Museum to celebrate her Fame fragrance launch.
He inked both Tupac Shakur and Biggie – (The Notorious B.I.G sought out Mahoney for his first and last tattoo, a bible scene on his back, just days before he was shot dead in March 1997) and Mickey Rourke many times, before he famously soured when Mahoney couldn’t squeeze him in before the actor-turned-pugilist had a boxing match in Russia. Brad Pitt, Daniel Day Lewis, Jared Leto, Rihanna and Johnny Depp make up an endless list of admirers.
The latter refers to him as his “brother”.
Depp is one of Mahoney’s oldest clients with the black and grey master first inking him underage, when the now A-lister was a broke kid trying to get his band signed, aged 17.
While Mahoney’s celebrity encounters are perfect front-page fodder they’re frivolous when weighed against his back-story, a full-throttle ride through the underworld all the way to the red carpet.
SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT
The Irish-Catholic Bostonian broke the law to break-in to the trade in 1977, having earlier developed a lifelong crush during his first visit to Buddy Mott’s Tattoo Spot in Newport, Rhode Island, aged 14.
“I was like, ‘fuck that’s it,” Mahoney recalled of visiting Mott’s parlour. “I just wanted to tattoo as quickly as I could. That’s what I needed to be doing.”
In a film by Ivan Olita, Mahoney recalls telling his parents of his ink ambitions. They were “less than amused”.
“And maybe I thought I had to try extra hard. If I’m going to be one of these filthy, dirty tattooers, I’m going to be a good filthy, dirty tattooer,” he told Olita, before going on to speak about his “Catholic guilt” and his desire to seek “absolution” by guiding his customers through the crossroads of their lives, which often inspire their designs.
At first, Mahoney, a Museum of Fine Arts in Boston dropout, learned tattooing from his friend, Mark Herlihy. The pair had been trying to buy equipment from Rhode Island, but in the wild-west days of tattooing, no one helped anyone. Herlily solved that by joining the navy. He then bought a case of Budweiser over to Mahoney’s and a set of crude tools and Mahoney figured it out in real-time on the flesh, at a time when tattooing was illegal in Massachusetts.
Work was plentiful in the clubhouses of biker gangs across New England where a young Mahoney branded drunk-Hell’s Angels with racist symbols, while working in rooms draped with swastika flags, before following the best work to its source – New York – where his sister was kicking-about with Andy Warhol.
In Manhattan, Mahoney fell in with the punks inhabiting the Chelsea Hotel, where he tattooed Johnny Thunder and attempted on several occasions to ink Sid Vicious, whose girlfriend Nancy Spungen was found stabbed to death at the Bohemian landmark in October 1978: “He (Sid) could never decide, or he’d get in a fight with his old lady… I’m not sure if I ever actually tattooed him or not.”
It was there Mahoney fell in love with heroin, a habit that cost him his first tattoo parlour, opened in 1985 and closed four years later. He unburdened himself of the habit 25 years ago after a stint in rehab and meeting his now wife Nicole, who manages Shamrock and a vintage store they also own.
“Absolutely, (I would do tattooing again). I wouldn’t change a thing. I guess I wouldn’t change a thing, except I wouldn’t have done so many drugs. I probably could have retired on the money I spent on drugs,” Mahoney says of his journey.
Of learning tattooing, Mahoney told Olita:
“You almost have to fall in love with tattooing itself, the art of it, at first, to really learn it. It’s kind of all encompassing, you know, you have to throw yourself into it, it doesn’t leave much room for love. By the time I was a good tattooer I was so entrenched in the drug world and everything like that. I never even thought about quitting dope until I met my wife.”
Heading west Mahoney settled in Long Beach on the Pike, the famed amusement park that was dotted with tattoo parlours, where scores were settled with firebombs and bullets.
It was here Mahoney began the prison gang-style black and grey work that he’d become synonymous with which customers now wait upwards of six-months to get at Shamrock which he opened in 2002.
The shops motto, “Where the Elite and Underworld Meet”, speaks to Mahoney’s journey and his desire to open a shop where everyone is welcome, a far cry from the “gruff one-word answer” parlours of his youth.
In a documentary on Mahoney, Indelible Ink, one client says of the father of fine-line tattooing: “It took me a while to understand. All I knew is that walking into the Shamrock was healing. Mark Mahoney seemed more like a priest than a tattoo artist.
“It’s not so much what he says, although when he does speak you listen. Maybe it’s because he knows. Yeah, Mark Mahoney is a shaman and the Shamrock is his church. The moment you enter the Shamrock Social Club you feel it’s hallowed ground. If you ask him about it, he’ll change the subject, but he knows.”
While gentrification continues to eat away at the Sunset Strip, Mahoney remains unchanged and the Shamrock, as the Hollywood Reporter recently noted (in an article headlined ‘The High Priest Of Hollywood Tattoo Artists’), remains a ‘weigh station for the West Coast aesthetic, a home for legends of the trade such as Freddy Negrete and Rick Walters as well as a launching pad for protégés such as Dr. Woo (Mahoney took him on aged 13).
Mahoney’s tailored-suits and sharp-tipped shoes have perhaps made him Teflon to time. But he’s also remained authentic because he’s never sold out in a trade as supercharged and instagrammed as the fitness industry.
Fellow pioneer Ed Hardy had his legacy all but erased by licensing his name to a range of garish garments.
“I never ever consciously decided that (not to become a brand). I don’t make any grand decisions about this is right and this is wrong, I just take them as they come,” Mahoney opined.
“I look forward to selling out though. I’m just waiting for the right opportunity to come along… No, I’m kidding.”
Shit tattoos are also still a must for the mix: “You’ve got to (have them) man. I think you’re a square if you don’t have them, fuck having all perfect tattoos,” he says, having earlier recalled how his daughter Amalia tattooed a Betty Boop on his leg as she learned the craft.
Green-juice toting mums and daughters from Bel Air, Brentwood and Beverly Hills now frequent the Shamrock, where Amalia (@loki_mahoney) – “such a talented kid and an amazing artist” now also works, Mahoney says he doesn’t mind.
The Shamrock is a social club after all.
“The real people will always want to get tattoos. I’ve done my share of hoodlums and I expect I always will, it is you know, nice that other people, squares, can enjoy the thrills of being tattooed too.”
(Main imagine by Shane Russeck @shanerusseckphotography)
The Conqueror Of Seven Continents
Tattooing saved Adam Vu’s life – more than once.
Earned him a get-out-of-jail-free card in South Africa last year and spirited him from the oppressive grasp of addiction, with the Californian instead chasing the dragon of his own creativity around the globe to unlock his signature style.
“I can never be mad at tattooing, it has literally given me everything and every out possible,” Vu explained while forking down a Caesar salad to settle a stomach turned shit-machine after a breakfast of fish and chips.
Vu, whose family fled the Vietnam War in the 1970s to settle in the States, is, as his Instagram declares – “a conqueror of seven continents” – but his greatest exploration is one far more common to mortal men, the fight to overcome ones environment, and oneself.
Vu is the black sheep of his family, he explains, as Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black plays over the stereo at Salad Box on London’s famed Brick Lane, a short-stroll from Seven Doors Tattoo where he worked a few days in August and September.
“I’m pretty much the only weirdo in the entire extended family that pretty much doesn’t have a normal 9-5 or whatever. I could never wake up early enough for that shit.”
Growing up between Orange County and Los Angeles Vu, 31, didn’t have a very artistic childhood and says he “never really drew anything besides a dick in a textbook until I was 21”.
A MORAL RESTRAINT
He did however, design band flyers for his group, a horror-punk outfit called Moral Restraint and other local acts, a happenstance he now credits for teaching him a “lot about composition”.
Vu was the longhaired lead singer for the group from age 11 to 20 when the cultural currents of skateboarding and punk rock were king in California.
Moral Restraint, Vu said, at their peak opened for “all of my favourite bands… in their modern incarnations… that I grew up listening to,” like the Misfits and Black Flag, before he decided to drop the mic and wash-off the skull make-up for good: “After all of it I was like, ‘man I kind of suck at this anyway… you’re not going to make a living making punk music’.”
At 17 Vu got a part-time job at a local tattoo parlour (he declined to name), “as the shop bitch”, mainly because he wanted to get tattooed for free, having been inked for the first time at 14 – a Misfits skull on his shin with 138 etched underneath.
“I always knew I was going to have tattoos,” Vu, whose arms are blotted with brightly coloured tattoos mainly done before he turned 18, recalls.
“I remember being a kid and watching pro-wrestling with my older brothers and seeing these roided-out dudes, covered in silly tribal tattoos, and I was like, ‘oh man I want one’. Or like seeing my favourite bands play and seeing all their tattoos. Or watching Robert De Niro in Cape Fear with all his tattoos, or Escape from LA with Kurt Russell with this huge snake on his chest. Shit like that. I always knew I was going to be a tattoo guy.”
After high school Vu went to a community college for two years before transferring to a state University where he majored in Fine Arts, gaining a bachelors degree in fine art painting. Around 21 he decided he wanted to be a tattooist.
By then Vu had been at his local tattoo shop for almost three years, earning $200 for working six days a week, while also studying. But they weren’t interested in teaching him and by then tattoo TV shows were multiplying across networks like wet gremlins, with Miami Ink quickly spawning LA Ink.
“Unfortunately I said I wanted to learn how to tattoo around the same time as everybody else that was my age,” Vu recalls, before adding: “Another unfortunate aspect was that no one took me seriously because I was a kid. Because they’d watched me grow-up from 14, they didn’t want to teach me.”
When In Rome
Vu eventually left and after speaking with an Italian artist doing a guest spot at another Orange County store (@samezcherrytattoo), he was offered the chance to come to Rome: “I talked to her about my situation and she said, ‘well if you ever come to Rome I can show you some stuff’.”
Desperate for quick cash to get his tattoo teaching started, Vu fundraised for a plane ticket by “regretfully” selling prescriptions on the side and women’s shoes at the mall for six months:
“I had to make money. I was barely eating. I couldn’t get a job anywhere. Not a real job. I had tattoos and that but I was also going to school full time. Living out of a car. This isn’t something I’m proud of or anything. I had to make money and I wanted to go to Rome because if I wasn’t going to get a chance learning how to tattoo here, I was going to do whatever I could to get this plane ticket.”
In the summer of 2007 Vu left for Rome “with like $20 to my name and a gigantic suitcase I found in the garbage”. There he worked in a tattoo shop, began oil painting, learning portraiture and watercolour, “all the fundamentals of tattooing”.
“She (the tattooist) gave me a chance. She was the first person to give me a chance, who took me seriously and saw potential.”
Returning home Vu realised that none of the five-odd shops in his neighbourhood were going to give him a shot so he approached Lowrider Tattoo, a parlour specialising in black and grey work: “All these Chicano guys, doing portraits, clown girls, sad girls, day of dead girls… lettering.”
“I figured if I learned these techniques then I can apply them to my designs at some point in the future. So I was in there, one of the most intimidating situations ever man. Tough as nails Cholo dudes guarding the door, guarding every room, not really guarding it, but just hanging out… they were different times dude. I was like a longhaired Asian punk dude.”
There Vu met Jose Lopez who he bills as a “fucken God damn legend, one of the best black and grey guys in the world, Godfather of Chicano tattooing, one of them… the nicest guy”.
Vu began the very next day, first as an apprentice for a year, then as a tattooist for 18 months, largely doing black and grey portraits. It was, Vu says wistfully, “some of the best years of my life”.
“However,” he added, as though interrupting himself: “I wanted to learn more. You’re only as good as the five people you surround yourself with so it’s important that you kind of change up those five people every so often. Treat it like school.”
Moving to Los Angeles, Vu got a job at Will Rise Tattoo, a busy street shop on Fairfax Avenue where he learnt “like crazy from really good traditional artists and lettering specialists”.
It was the best of times and the worst of times: “It was great but it was also really depressing because I wasn’t doing anything special, artistically wise, I just wasn’t. There was no identity in my work.”
Three and a half years passed and Vu’s prescription pill addiction to opioid pain medications, Oxycontin and Norcos, got “really, really fucking bad”.
“I was doing a lot of that shit. I thought all I ever wanted to do was tattoo but then once I was doing it there was something missing,” Vu recalls. “I can understand life could be a lot worse. I could be doing lots of lame tattoos and I should just be grateful for just working. But I just felt like I wasn’t actually doing anything creative or bringing anything to the table. There wasn’t any of me in the stuff I was doing. Partly because I didn’t realise what I was doing or trying to convey. Just having higher expectations and not meeting them.
“The whole addiction thing. I don’t think addictive personalities really exist. Not for me. I had a lack of motivation in me when I felt I was doing nothing special. In turn, it oozes into the other aspects of your life. When every day becomes so predictable and the same it’s like, ‘how can I make this more exciting’? And when you pop a few painkillers and shit, like, cool, everything’s happy. I became the person I wish I was all the time. You’re more sociable. You’re more confident. And the most boring tattoo can be interesting. How foolish of me.”
Having been tattooing for almost five years Vu was a wreck. Professionally unfilled and in a “shitty relationship” he buoyed himself with Norcos and Oxycontins “just to get through the fucken day”.
“I just wanted to travel. To get out of Los Angeles, out of California,” Vu explained.
Vu travelled to Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam and got “bitten hard” by the travel bug: “You’re seeing all this shit through foreign eyes. I guess you just get inspired by shit. It doesn’t have to be artwork. You can fall in love with places. There’s just so much inspiration that you just don’t even know about.”
Within two weeks of being back in Los Angeles Vu realised he needed to leave again. The next six months were spent travelling around Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan after first detoxing from Los Angeles, “I needed to get clean, every single time I went home old habits would die hard… I would just keep taking pills just for the familiarity of it”.
“I wasn’t even going out to parties,” Vu explained. “I’d pop pills and sit at home and draw. I’ve done all the partying I’ve ever wanted to do. I wasn’t motivated when I was back around familiar shit.”
In Asia Vu did his first tattoo sober in five years, “I was sweating bullets… my hands were shaking, it fucken sucked”. But he only picked up a machine sporadically, “to sustain my trip”, breaking out his kit to do a, “Mandela or a feather breaking off or an infinity symbol”, to cover a meal or shelter.
Sally's Out Of Body Experiment
Sally looks dead, but instead of a morgue the artist lays rigid, chained away, in a white-walled room concealed behind a shop selling houseplants and botanicals in southeast London.
With a mummified head, modesty obscured by Hanes briefs, Sally looks like a cadaver prepared for a post mortem, or burial following a torture, for which the sterility of the room magnifies in the imagination.
But on a Wednesday night in East Dulwich, shortly before 6pm, the pain is yet to begin – and it’s all Sally’s idea.
Welcome to Out Of Body, a boundary-busting piece of performance art by a tattooist who is not so much living up to their moniker, Sally RIP, but embodying it.
The maiden show sees the 26-year-old invite the public to tattoo their body “without restriction” – no experience is necessary and there’s no stylistic or placement parameters – though Sally’s head is covered in a pillowcase, “that could potentially get a little too crazy for now”, and so is their crotch.
However, the latter concealment is not a cotton border not to be crossed: “If someone is really inclined to remove them, that is available to them.”
“I’m not looking to know who gives me what tattoo because I feel like that will create biases as well, based on my relationship, prior, to those people,” Sally explains to Parloir before Out Of Body begins.
“I would like to make sure I have an objective point of view on each tattoo I’m given.”
The Canadian’s lust for leaving permanent marks is not driven by subjugation to the trade’s much lauded traditions, or delusions of artistic immortality, but a love for the most pure of pursuits, that of making human connections. Sally has always been more interested in the “intimacy” shared between artist and client than the inked-outcome and the wider-culture.
“That is what I am most excited about. I think the outcome or the product of those experiences is secondary. What it is about for me is having this interaction with this person and giving them the opportunity to, like reify and dedicate themselves to their identity on their skin. I’m just a conduit of that.”
In a professional capacity, Sally never tries to sway clients’ design decisions, something the artist is taking a step further with Out Of Body – a reverse of roles, done blindly, with complete passivity, in the hope of subconsciously unlocking a higher plane of understanding about the exchange of blood and ink.
“I’m always interested in performance art and interactions and I think that over the course of my experience tattooing, it is what I have been most interested in this entire time and what has been most striking to me… the things that happen outside the actual tattoo, or the finished result… I often think in alternatives or opposites. So when I think of tattooing I think of what is everything, but the tattoo, and I think that’s what has eventually led me to this place now.”
Sally has an eclectic collection of tattoos so anti-aesthetic they’re cool in a way that could never be contrived – comic book-like doodlings collide with fine-line praying hands on the face and a noose on the neck. So, the tattooist isn’t worried about what the public will add: “I don’t exactly have what most people would refer to as a lovely set of tattoos, so I’m not exactly worried and I’m more excited about shifting my understanding of the aesthetic of tattoos as well. I’m very excited about what I’m going to get this evening.”
Supervised by Sally’s friend Ross Hell, whose head the artist recently branded with a skull and bulldog, some 18 viewers of Out Of Body stepped over the chain divider, picked up a pink tattoo machine, and for a good number of them, made their first permanent mark.
“So who is going to go first,” Hell announced, gazing at the then crowd of half-a-dozen hipsters, including his good-mate Dylan Proudfoot who was too occupied with swilling down a 500ml can of Stella Artois, to step-up.
The first participant told Parloir, “it was hard without a line (to go by),” as the Pearspring shop door chimed, signalling another guest to the hidden Marie Blythe Gallery behind, which was obscured behind rows of hanging baskets.
The next participant wrote her name on Sally, as though scrawling on a bathroom stall, “I couldn’t think of what else to do”.
“That was really cool,” she told her friends, animated as a child at Christmas, as Sally lay silent, hands at sides, feet upright, awaiting the next desecrator and their crude design with slow, shallow breaths.
Behind Sally a chain noose was displayed and at the opposite end a veiny cock with an inquisitive knob, curved as though its attention had been aroused by a scent. But the crowd that swelled to around 50-odd barely took their eyes off the performance, stepping outside only briefly to smoke, or open free Asahi.
Sam Radcliffe travelled 351km from Liverpool, to see Sally, though concedes “personal circumstances meant I needed to remove myself for a little while also”.
The 22-year-old, who has almost as many tattoos as years on the planet, has followed Sally online and came along because, “I wanted to support them, and what they do, and be apart of this”.
“The only regret of this trip is that I wasn’t able to get a tattoo from Sally. I would have liked to have stayed longer… but I feel very fortunate to have been able to see Sally.”
Sam’s experience with tattooing is a few stick and pokes “of no great success, in intimate situations where the person has trusted me”; none-the-less his comprehension of the essence of Sally’s performance was astute. He also unravelled the orchestrated elements with precision pointing out that the pillowcase Sally wore was as much for the participants as the artist-turned-canvas.
“It is brave, but I also think it is a logical expansion of the stick-n-poke culture that I think Sally has represented, sincerely represented, for a while. I think they are as commoditised as the machine tattoos and they are something to be shared with those who you know, or respect, or connect with.”
Tattooist Justin Fink, aka Justin The Bastard, said the artist was a trailblazer in an industry often obsessed with its roots: “That is the beauty of art it is a non-static thing. Artists shake shit up, you- know-what-I-mean? And tattooing was definitely in danger of becoming a stagnant thing.”
Fink said that he shares a lot of the “same sort of feelings about tattooing as I imagine Sally does”, but while he would never cover his face and let his clients take over, he loves the steez of spontaneous tattoos: “Some of my favourite tattoos are the crazy things my girlfriend did… they just look awful. But I’m not looking for the most beautiful tattoos ever. And I think this thing (Sally’s show) is throwing up a whole new dynamic when I think about how I feel about tattooing in general.”
“We are in a really interesting climate,” Fink opines.
“I’ve been tattooing for a few years now and I’m now making the effort to get out there and chat to other tattooers and I get told what people think of me all the time… it’s so interesting how some people are so angry about how some people are undermining the industry, and its kind of like, ‘when did it get fetishized into this supreme art form, where you book this appointment, then wait six months and then pay 500 pounds?’ The reason I got into tattooing and the thing I love about Western tattooing, is sailors and prisoners… sailors used to get off the boat and get quick and easy flash and I love that people come into my house, and I’m like, ‘choose a picture off the wall and I’ll put it on ya’.
“And Sally turning it into this art thing, this performance, it’s great, even Maxime (Sang Bleu founder Maxime Plescia-Buchi) said, a while back, that tattooing has become this backdoor into fine art I think that’s great. I consider myself an artist and I think it is great going more in that direction, rather than say, being a craftsmen, to create this technically wonderful thing on the skin. So I think it is going down that road and I praise people like Sally for doing that.”
The day after the show Sally, while in transit to Peckham for a flash day with Hell, was yet to fully comprehend the tattoo machine mauling endured on Wednesday.
“I haven’t really had a moment to reflect on them,” the artist said.
“I’m still kind of waiting for that moment to sit with them and reflect on them and really take them in. But from what I can see, I am so, so excited. And primarily I’m excited to reflect on them over the course of my life, because I do think, that a lot of these people I wont meet again. I don’t know who they are and I don’t know which tattoo they gave me… but I just get to have a relationship with the tattoo.”
Sally said the three-hour inking was “definitely not like any other session I’ve ever had”. Some moments the tattooist was “spacing out, just because I was desensitised to my environment. I was living mostly in my head”, while other times, more practical and mundane things came to mind, like the future of the show.
“What was really interesting is that, without any visuals, I was really just, while getting a tattoo from someone, just picking up on the energy they were bringing to the session. I could sense if someone was nervous, or more excited, or more familiar with the process. But regardless, it was just amazing just to experience receiving a tattoo from someone completely pure of intention. It really felt like someone was giving me a tattoo because they really wanted to, you know, develop some sort of intimate exchange with me. There wasn’t a specific intention, or design, or goal that was trying to be achieved, it was just an opportunity for someone to intimately relate themselves to me through this tattoo and that’s really what I felt each time someone was tattooing me and I’m really excited about how it went.”
Sally’s legs, back, ribs and chest were inked, but the tattooist believes the uniqueness of the experience overshadowed the agony: “It was quite cerebral and I felt like I was almost being carried through it by that intention, or something, it wasn’t as painful as I thought it was going to be.”
Sally continued: “There were definitely moments I just went blank which was pretty exciting but I was also thinking about just the project in general, how it was going, what I wanted to do with it once I was done. Mundane things like that. And then, just considering and reflecting on the emotions I was going through as well, that I was having these exchanges with complete strangers, feeling that I couldn’t see what was happening, that I was sacrificing my body and that I didn’t know what it was going to look like when I got up. Just reflecting on those things as they were happening. And then there were moments too where I would be curious as to what was going on. Like it would get really quiet for a while and I would think, ‘am I just in this room alone’?”
Despite that, Sally never felt lonely, or exposed on the bench in just briefs.
The tattooist did feel vulnerable, but that was the point:
“I don’t think that necessarily I relate to vulnerability in the same way that most people do because I’ve found in my life, through other experiences, that when you truly make yourself vulnerable you actually have nothing to lose. So you’re not in a position where anything can be taken from you, you’re actually just being 100% honest with the people around you, and then whatever happens, happens.”
Sally added: “So yeah I felt vulnerable, but that was the opportunity that I had, and that I was giving to people to really get that honest experience, that honest relationship that we could develop in that moment.”
The performance mirrors how Sally approaches every day life, always lingering to wait for a spark of conversation to congeal into a connection.
“This was a perfect opportunity for that (human connection) and it definitely went into the design of this project. We collide with each other on a daily basis in moments that can span a few seconds, a few hours, or a few years and the level of intimacy is always pliable. It can always be increased or decreased, and I think tattooing has always meant that for me. I don’t relate to it in the same cultural sense as maybe the culture, or the industry, or the community at large would suggest. For me it is a lot about the intimate exchange with the person I’m tattooing. I think it is important for me to encourage that in my daily life because if we don’t have each other, then really what do we have?”
Sally, who is due to leave London for Toronto this weekend, plans to take the show on tour, something that will further blur the “lines of ownership and credit for each tattoo” collected during the performance.
“I love what I can see already. There’s so much character and personality and story beneath them, but I personally don’t know what they are, so that’s the fun for me, to consider what they could be, but ultimately know, I’ll never really understand.”
Liam Sparkes On Why Everything Must Be Destroyed
Liam Sparkes is at war – with everything.
Has been since he was a boy. Age 11 he sent a sketch of an armoured personnel carrier to the Queen. The London tattooist, raised on tales of conflict from grandparents who had manned frigates and parachuted behind enemy lines during the war, thought she might need it. She didn’t.
Slouching on the reception couch at Old Habits Tattoo, the east London parlour on Kingsland Road for which he is proprietor, Sparkes’ stories all tail-back to battle and even his 10-eye military boots, like his body, bear the scars of many tours of, not so much duty, but debauchery, for the 38-year-old’s appetite for destruction largely sees him seek and destroy – himself.
“I feel like life is war. It definitely feels like it, in every sense of the word,” he says fanging back fags.
“Going away to foreign countries. Fighting a war there. Getting a chopper out. Getting sewn back up at home base, then going back out for more. I like to go hard really and I really don’t know when it will stop.”
Sparkes’ party-boy reputation is well earned but it is a sideshow in the circus of his creative process that sees him dowsing in the darkness of his urges and sifting through the ashes of experience for the essence of his art. Not the beautiful kind that’s instantly admired and easily forgotten, but the brutality and absurdity imbedded in the ugly that sits in the throat and stains the subconscious.
“I am working 24/7,” he explains of his all-consuming approach that sees his art not so much imitate his life, but become it: “All the shit that I like to go and do comes out.” (Sparkes’ Instagram stories have the kaleidoscopic-styling of an acid trip – actuality not accidentally achieved by the auteur.)
He adds: “It’s more just a lust for life and I just feel like I need to get shit done, sooner rather than later, and thus the war on time, the war on myself, the war on life. War.”
Sparkes is admirably liberated and earnest as his eyes are blue in his pursuit of not only pleasure but professional and personal fulfilment. There is a method to his madness and it is of purity far stronger than the pills and potions he necks to fuel it, which is often all that is spoken of. For Sparkes, everything comes from the same cauldron, so everything must go in. Brutal tattoos, it seems, require a thick broth of experience for the applicator to draw from to ensure authenticity.
“That’s the truest… that’s integrity at the end. That’s the only way you should be. You have to do everything, with everything. You have to use everything you have as one thing. I couldn’t see it any other way really. You embody your art,” he explains.
Sparkes doesn’t so much personify his art – he is it in its crudest form, exorcised and ready to die again. His body is a museum of the etchings of the early blackwork pioneers, Duncan X and Thomas Hooper, and his style owes a lot not only to them, but his grandparents stories, which are the genesis of everything.
“Everything that goes around war, such a terrible situation. The absurdity and brutality of it. I guess that’s where… I just think the ethos of my whole thing, life is absurd and brutal, you know, you just can’t help but laugh at everything and I think war is a perfect metaphor for the analogy. Absurd and brutal.”
Collecting tattoos, Sparkes opines, is a “destruction and an ornamentation of the body”.
“I realised when I started getting tattooed that this body is just a vessel and you can do whatever you want with it, and I was like, ‘why didn’t I destroy it sooner?’”
Everyone, Sparkes later explains stoically, “Deserves a chance to be destroyed”.
War craft were among the first things Sparkes drew as a kid. Soldiers later became thugs, the ugliness of their pronounced brow won him over: “It just looked better. And I guess that kind of works with the tattooing now. Bad, ugly, shit looks better than something mega hot, mega beautiful.
“I don’t know why. That’s my taste maybe. Beauty and imperfection, imperfection in beauty, maybe it’s a fascination with that.”
Russia, for those very reasons, keeps drawing Sparkes back – “this beautiful art, beautiful culture, coming from this brutality”.
AN INDECENT EDUCATION ON THE ROAD
After high school Sparkes studied sculpture for four years at Camberwell College of Arts before taking a job with the late Welsh sculpture Barry Flanagan, famed for his bronze statues of leaping hares.
The work, on a farm in Ireland, didn’t last: “I just remember thinking when I was doing sculpture, that I was doing this thing and I had no experience of the world. I did, but like only as a 20-year-old… how are you going to make sculpture when you don’t know anything about the world? It was kind of an absurdity at that time. So now, in some ways, I am just gaining more experience, for fodder, for the creative output.”
But even in his early 20s, Sparkes had experienced more life than many twice his age with a wanderlust inherited from his jeweller dad propelling him on lengthy solo trips around Europe. He was also beginning to find fame banging the drums in a band called Trencher under the stage-name, Lock-Monger. The trio got signed to Southern Records, put out three albums and were one of the last groups to perform a Peel Session in 2004.
The music was much like the tattooing style Sparkes would later become famous for: Brutally fast, deceptively complex, and absurd – songs included: ‘Fucking A Corpse’ and ‘I Lost My Hair In A Skiing Accident’. The band grew their audience on the road amassing a deranged cult-like following around Europe where they partied as if possessed.
“It was super-super debaucherous, like playing while completely fucked on mushrooms. Acid. Touring is just waiting around. There’s nothing to do in a band. None of us drove. So we had some of the craziest trips for weeks on end. Drinking hard when you got to the venue. Then sleep in some shit hole. And then do the same again.
“We’d do everything. Acid, mushrooms… not crack or heroin, well, opium, more or less everything expect crack… more or less anything we could get our hands on. We used to ask people in the crowd, as we were finishing, for drugs. Me and the bassist were fiends for it.”
PUTTING DOWN THE STICKS TO PICK UP THE GUN
Music was ultimately sacrificed for tattooing, an interest that grew like a vine into Sparkes’ mind before overcoming it completely.
At art school Sparkes met his mentor-to-be, Thomas Hooper, who was studying drawing but had already began tattooing professionally. Clean-skinned and unimpressed with the garish 90s ink he’d seen in the hardcore scene Sparkes began searching for someone who could do “engraving-style” tattoos. As it turned out, that’s exactly what Hooper did.
Sparkes got his first tattoo from Hooper in his early 20s. It was meant to be a red circle but Hooper filled it in so it became a dot. An all-seeing eye on his chest cavity was next and Sparkes was hooked: “Me and the wife were getting tattooed at the same time… it was kind of like a thing we did together. She’s got a lot from Hooper and a lot of old, good heads.”
Sparkes got married at 23, having met his bride-to-be, an American, at a gig in Brighton. She had Visa troubles they resolved in matrimony. Sparkes, who worked at Soho Original Books at the time, tells of the shotgun ceremony like it were a verse on Craig David’s Seven Days.
“I took a day off sick, on a Thursday. Took a flight to San Francisco. Married on a Friday. Went around shopping on Saturday. Flew back on Sunday, back in time for work on Monday. They (the shop owners) had no idea I had got married… had been in San Francisco for three days.”
The couple who “just wanted to be together and that was the only way it was going to happen” later moved to Kingston, in southwest London. The bookshop was a perfect job for Sparkes who educated himself behind the counter while also using the books as reference material for illustrative work he was doing for bands.
“It was a gestation period for where I am now because it made me sit down and focus,” Sparkes says, of the shop whose basement sold pornography and dildos, something that he says may well have “deadened me to vulgarity”.
Somewhat fittingly, now, more than a decade later, the basement of Sparkes’ business is littered with pornography. The toilets are a mosaic of 80’s smut cut outs and above the cistern, is a nativity scene-of-sorts: A crucifixion in space with lollipops, lays and a lizard mask. It is memorably absurd. On the ceiling above his workstation a woman uses her mouth to hold a metallic vibrator in place, inside the vagina of a co-performer resting on all fours, in turquoise high heels (Sparkes is adamant he did not put this up). The surrounding wall of the liar is a collage of offensiveness as though a perverted magpie had searched the globe for items shimmering with vulgarity to feather its nest. The mood board includes eight mug shots of women, next to pictures of their vaginas – a cunt-face comparison.
But in Sparkes’ presence the images are playfully un-offensive, rendered meaningless by his infectious mischievousness – mere checkpoints of a restricted morality that has no currency where old habits and dirty secrets are worn like war medals.
Sparkes bookshop-produced flyers were a hit and served to advertise his expertise more than the bands they were meant to promote, and later served as a calling card for fans seeking him out for tattoos.
“It didn’t really cross my mind (to be a tattooer),” Sparkes recalls, “every now and then I’d start designing my own tattoos which is a bad idea. But then I started designing tattoos for other people.”
Of designing your own tattoos, Sparkes opines: “I just think it is a terrible idea. You have this thing on you forever that you designed, and it’s your mistake. If someone else does it they’ll probably make it a lot better… otherwise you’ll be left with something on yourself that you made so you might as well have done a shit and you know, given it a name… I think it’s such a stupid thing when someone comes with exactly the thing they want.”
While out walking in Kingston Sparkes had an epiphany of sorts – he wanted to become a tattooist. Now he just needed to find the time: “Mostly life was music. We lived in a hardcore house. Everyone was touring. I didn’t really have time for tattooing.”
HOOP DE LOOP
Hooper told Sparkes what he needed to get started and that his first canvas needed to be himself. Serendipitously he then met Tas who was working at Into You Tattoo, but needed a drummer for his band. Sparkes joined his group and exchange was given a tattoo machine.
Sparkes began on his legs mainly doing “liney-Saints” and on a few close friends and poultry: “Hooper told me, ‘if you want to start tattooing it has to be your life’, and at that time I had this, that and the other going on, but then it just turned and I realised this is everything I want to do. And it became an obsession. I had to tattoo all the time. I used to buy chickens every night and tattoo them if I didn’t have any skin to do.”
Sparkes began doing consultations in the bookshop and “hustling in bars” and before he knew it he was tattooing six days a week from his Old Street apartment.
“It was ram jam. And after a while it got to the point that I didn’t need the bookshop anymore because I was making more at home than I was there, which was nothing… and I’d then spend all of my money on getting tattooed.”
Along with Hooper, Duncan X began tattooing Sparkes and the pair have been bonded ever since with the blackwork master now working at the station opposite his prodigy at Old Habits following the closure of Clerkenwell’s Into You last year.
“He (Duncan) was doing exactly what I was interested in. He was doing the stuff that I wanted to do. He was the originator of it. And also back then people who had tattoos from Duncan… it was like having a skateboard, or something. You spoke to each other because you had it. If you had a Duncan tattoo you knew you liked twisted black tattoos. And all of his customers were kind of like, a little bit awry.”
“And he taught me so much. So many different principles of where we stand as doing blackwork. The offensiveness of it, which we both enjoy, but he taught me how to appreciate it. I’m not such a fan of offensive tattoos, or wasn’t, but now I really see that tattoos are offensive just from being like a scar on the skin, so in a way it is just like they are being true to themselves.”
Sparkes didn’t do a traditional tattooing apprenticeship but he effectively managed his own education flying to the States to observe Hooper hone his craft at New York Adorned, while also getting his own blackwork suit fitted.
“I’d stay in squats, maybe tattoo a few people in the squats in Brooklyn, then go and get tattooed by him, then I’d spend all my day watching him in the shop. He’d let me sit next to him, or in the corner, for weeks at a time. And I’d not do anything else. That was the main way to learn, just watching him pull lines… and then doing it myself, making mistakes and learning from it.”
Sparkes can’t speak highly enough of Hooper, whose “technical ability is flawless’, and Duncan X: “I’ve always made it known that Hopper and Duncan are my inspirations. And it is important to keep the history alive like that, by telling who the originators are. And that’s why I’m so happy now that Duncan has had his comeuppance from all these years. You used to be able to walk in and get a tattoo from him the next day, now you have to wait a year or something.”
After divorcing his wife of six years, Sparkes moved to Brick Lane where he continued to build a following, working out of a flat he shared with a Polish girl, above a taxi shop. He worked six days a week taking only Thursdays off to drop acid and sell books in nearby Spitalfields market, “just to get out of the house”.
“So, the book selling didn’t go well,” Sparkes recalls. “I’d just take acid and end up with no books. Well, the one’s I didn’t want anyway. I started making less and less money… I was tripping balls… but I was just working myself to the bone six days a week and it was just to get out of the house, so it didn’t matter.”
THE SHANGRI-LA DAZE
When Sparkes got too busy working from home he went to Shangri-La Tattoo in Shoreditch where he showed them a portfolio of his work, some of which was on his skin. He was offered a job but didn’t accept it for several months, “there was a lot of trepidation”.
Before blackwork had become established, Sparkes did Duncan X-style tattoos “slightly differently done”.
“I tried to do a Duncan/Hooper mix… I couldn’t go and get tattooed by Duncan and then show him tattoos that I was doing that were exactly like his… that would be just barefaced, shame faced.”
Sparkes’ work, he explains, was cut-down with lots of space around it, much like the minimalist line work tattoos now multiplying across social media as though a new trend: “That was what I was starting on and people were like, ‘that’s way too simple, that’s not even half finished… and there’s no colour in it’.”
Newly single, Sparkes’ partying found a “fifth gear” and he went “super hard” while hitting the road, often with Maxime Plescia-Buchi, whose geometric mastery has since seen him develop the tattooing Mecca that is Sang Bleu, and with other industry stalwarts, Guy Le Tattooer and Rafel Delalande.
He also began stints at East River Tattoo in New York where he has been a regular now for seven years.
“That escalated things a lot because people weren’t going to New York much as tattooers… people just weren’t travelling as much for tattooing in general, like majorly, like they are now. Chad Koeplinger was doing it a lot, he was my inspiration for travelling and also for tattooing.”
Sparkes, who by then had been fired from one band and quit another because “I was over it… I had been on the road touring, for like 10 years”, says he never saw tattooing as a “way to party” and to carry on the rock and roll lifestyle of his youth.
“Number one was always tattooing, just for tattooing. And it saved me in a lot of ways as well because I have those tendencies… so it just gave me the opportunity to grab life by the throat and do whatever I wanted.”
Sparkes continues: “One day I had the thought in my head, ‘what would I want to do if I could do anything I wanted, whenever I wanted’, and it would be to travel the world, you don’t worry about life, and go travelling, get fucked up, just do all the things I like to do. So I still respect tattooing for allowing me to do that. And that’s why I still have such a work ethic and common sense because otherwise you’d mash yourself up.”
Sparkes credits his appearance in Forever The New Tattoo as being an escalation point in his ascension: “It changed a lot of things and made us… it was kind of a compilation album with a lot of friends of mine. Every tattoo shop now has it. Things over-grounded after that. It was just an explosion of customers, I couldn’t not tattoo. It was a harvest. It was fucking insane. But at that time I was doing a lot of birds and flowers and things people kind of like.”
Sparkes’ style constantly evolves but the imagery has “always got worse”, he concedes. Super-minimalist pieces morphed into thicker-line engraving style tattoos before a “black-phase” – after meeting Guy and Raf – got out of hand, “I got really obsessed with blackening everything and that went over the top”. Now, Sparkes says his style is a “mix of all that – balance, contrast, obsessions”.
“You can’t do that stuff (brutal tattoos) without having a back-up, you know what I mean? I feel like I’ve come full circle. I’ve been able to do now what I wanted to do all along because I’ve done all that legwork, of just doing flowers and birds and what not. But I just don’t really believe in those tattoos anymore so I don’t want to do those things that I don’t believe in. Same with colour.”
Sparkes’ taste for the ugly comes down to a desire to make art that lasts and he credits Axl Rose as an early inspiration. The Guns N Roses singer’s tattoos were perfectly placed for maximum effect and like the crude works worn by criminals, “he just owned them… people need to own their tattoos”.
“It’s the same with the beautiful paintings and the beautiful tattoos. I appreciate them of course but you spend less of your time looking at them, I find. I’ve noticed, well, at least with me, I’ve found the amount of time I give a flawless tattoo, or a flawless painting with perfect brush strokes… it’s just false, it’s not the reality of things. Everything is imperfect. Life is imperfect.”
Tattooing, like everything in life, has been gentrified and debased but Sparkes has made peace with that rationalising it away as simply a consequence of there being “too many people in the world” – another of his obsessions: “I’m so upset. I think about it every day.”
When blackwork mainstreamed, however, Sparkes felt more personally violated:
“Tattooing for me was an obsession that became a need, rather than a want, and it was something very sacred for me, and at that time, when there was the explosion of all blackwork and stuff like that, for me, it felt like… I have no problem with it now… but at the time I felt like this path that I had found in this forest, this little pathway… and walking down its serene and it feels unexplored, you know, like when you’re a child finding this un-trodden path, and then suddenly people start walking on the path and littering everywhere and they make it look like shit. That’s how I used to feel. But now I don’t give a fuck. I used to have a big problem with that when a lot of copying began. But I have no authority over anyone because everyone is a copier. Now-a-days days there’s just a lot more people so there’s less chance of being original.”
Originality for Sparkes is what tattooing is about. It drives him and it pains him: “There’s some times, months to years, where I will be resting on my laurels. There has been over the past decade or whatever, times when I’ve just been coasting and I know it, or maybe I don’t. But you know everyone gets tired creatively.”
Life on the road was about pushing himself physically, and creatively – “it’s living, it’s really living” but Sparkes ultimately found it “lonely and soulless” which led to him opening Old Habits Tattoo in November 2015 (read about Sparkes’ decision to open the shop here).
“There’s the romanticism of it all and then there’s waking up in some shit bag room, whatever, in some other city, somewhere, looking yourself in the mirror… and you’ve just been up for days, or treating yourself like shit, and you just want to go home to your mum.”
Sparkes doesn’t “like mentioning on record” the depths to which his depravity has dived, but the delinquency is done simply for “fun” and the logic is as earnest as it is sound: “That’s all I’m trying to do. That’s the bottom line. I’m just laughing at life because it’s fucken brutal and absurd and I’m going to have some fun while I’m here. I like what they say in that book, ‘when you die, no one gives a fuck, so I’m going to have my fiestas when I am alive’. When it gets old and boring, I’ll stop.”
Michele Servadio On Transcending Tattooing Traditions
On a massage table he laid, rigid as a corpse, dressed only in chinos and trainers as a camera hovered above his eye-line, focused on his chest. A shoji screen shielded his feet as a student-flat party of scenesters in black satin, denim, leather and lace, gathered around his neck swilling wine from disposal cups, eager for the composer of this Frankenstein-esque scene to begin his work.
Outside, on Dalston Lane, east London, equal numbers dressed black as a funeral procession buzzed like moths beneath the Sang Bleu sign as they sucked back cigarettes on a Monday evening in late February.
Holding a tattoo gun like a scalpel Michele Servadio began to mark his canvas of flesh as a rumbling soundscape searched for a rhythm and the screens reflected his work.
Like a jackhammer the gun dislodged pigment, setting off car alarms like a thief in a car park, shattering brick walls and whipping the air into gale force winds as the subject’s father edged through the crowd: “Sorry, that’s our son… I’m just wondering what they’re doing to him”, he offered, apologetically, as his boy became an instrument of industrial sound.
Reaching a Mad Max climax the images on the screen reverberated as Servadio dug deeper, as if sawing-open the sternum with an angle grinder, fracking for his subject’s soul, as sonar sounds echoed and the procedure ricocheted across a dozen iPhone screens.
Black rubber gloves smear black ink across the subject’s chest like a finger painting as the music climbs the high canopies of consciousness into metaphysical recesses and dreamscapes.
The boy’s chin is high, his throat soft as tissues, as Servadio stands above him examining his work – an abstract scribble. Silence gives way to howling applause as his subject stands, slight as spaghetti, and poses for pretty girls with fancy cameras and a pink-haired lad with a gold retro cell phone charm earring who secures his skateboard like a baguette under his arm as he steals a few digital keepsakes of the evening.
The subject’s dad gives a thumbs-up as the skater retreats into the crowd and tries to impress a girl with talk of having his dick inked.
Sang Bleu is a paradoxical place for Servadio to perform for he has not so much rebelled against the tattooing scene, for which the shop is a mecca, but ignored it altogether.
Yet his installation – Body of Reverbs – the headline act of Maxime Plescia-Buchi’s latest project launch – TTTism, a contemporary tattooing Instagram vision realised in print – signifies his ascension and the mainstreaming of his mixed-medium exploration, which began in London with performances involving Sitex security screens – the metal sheets landlords ambitiously use to keep out squatters, which Servadio was for three years after packing a bag and his bike, to relocate, from his native Venice, in 2010.
The decision was made on a whim, with a mate, having spent “three… maybe four years” at a visual arts school in Venice where he moved to escape the boredom of his hometown, a village called Arzergrande, and to develop his drawing, “the only thing I could do and the only thing I really enjoyed doing”.
Pictures by @giacsto
The course was “nothing academical”, but Servadio passed the time “mainly doing my own things… I’ve never been a good student”. He did illustrations for Punk bands, painted and skateboarded – the sport whose 80s’ skull and snake motifs – made famous by Powell Peralta’s Tony Hawk and Mike McGill – were the genesis of his early tattoo work.
While initially thinking tattoos were “tacky”, Servadio nonetheless inked a jawbone on his own thigh age 20 or 21, before turning the gun on his friends.
“As soon as I tried, I was like, ‘this is the thing. This is beautiful’.
“Tattooing taught me to avoid what is not necessary. Minimal works.”
Servadio’s background meant he “didn’t learn drawing with tattooing… I had a style already”.
But like most artists trying to break into the trade he tried the route of servitude but never got an apprenticeship. An attempt left a sour taste in his mouth – “it was a really bad experience” – and a later trip to a tattoo convention in Milan compounded the feeling that the tattooing scene was rotten.
“Ten years ago it wasn’t so easy to learn… people were very closed minded and materials weren’t as available,” Servadio said, before adding that his real frustration lay with this “beautiful medium, with such strong traditions”, being confined and controlled by rampant egos.
“I didn’t trust the scene. I do it for friends, not as work.
“I didn’t trust it, ‘fuck that’… tattooists are full of themselves. I didn’t respect it or want to be part of it so I stayed by myself.
“Then this Blackworkers Instagram thing came along… but it is such an empty box. You can put anything inside it. Styles are crystallising and confining artists in boxes.”
AN ARTIST’S LIFE
In London Servadio lived a bohemian life, moving into a house that friends – “the craziest people ever” were occupying in Stamford Hill, “such a good spot… with people with a really good sense of community”.
“Living on twenty quid a week, it was my happiest time in London… I had no expectations at all. I didn’t come here (London) to work in some café, to clean up shit to pay rent… that’s not life, that’s a new era of slavery. I didn’t want any part of that at all.”
Music, tattooing and art continued to be the only pursuit, “It was like, ‘so, what we doing today people?’”, and nothing was left unexplored, including the Sitex security screens, “the symbol of squatting”, which Servadio and his friend, Mattia Portello (akaVera Spektor), took off the windows and played like instruments.
Servadio’s next artistic home was on the water, in Lower Clapton, “we rescued an abandoned war boat from the 1950s, a mine sweeper”, whose interior was transformed into a printing workshop.
“There was already a guy living in it called Camden, but we took it on as a project called ‘Minesweeper Collective’ and rebuilt the whole deck… I never tattooed in there though, ‘fuck, it was way too dirty’.”
(The 156-foot Ham Class Minesweeper HMS Ledsham was moored in Greenwich in Deptford, having been salvaged in 1998 and renamed ‘The Mindsweeper’. In 2008 it was accepted onto the Registry of Historic Ships as a vessel of historical significance but it was destroyed in a massive explosion in January 2017.)
Servadio spent his evenings at an atelier nearby, “God that sounds so wanky… a studio”, where he showered and stored his stuff: “I was transitioning”.
He had by then made a solid spiritual connection with tattooing partly through the writings of Dr Betti Marenko – now a research and programme leader at London’s Central Saint Martins – who had investigated the practices and politics of bodily modification through the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari. Servadio had discovered one of her books by chance while looking through anthropological books in a library in Venice.
“I was like, ‘oh, alright’ and I just got into it. I was like ‘fuck, this is it, this is exactly what I had in my head but I couldn’t put it together’, and that was it.
“I studied how she viewed tattooing… how contemporary tattooing fits into the culture we live in. And it’s just a product,” Servadio told Parlior.
“That was a turning point for my tattooing, that’s how I wanted to make it. It is how I connected with tattooing.
“Marenko explained tattooing as a connective way between an act of the body, the body on the skin, interacting, and the skin being a border between the tattooist and the client and the rest of the world. Of the past and the future, represented on the skin.
“(She examined) What happens to the individual identity when the body is indelibly marked? Is it possible to conceive permanent body modification techniques as reconfiguration techniques of the subjective self?
“She made a theory where she connected the tattoo practice with the machine theories of Deleuze, and the Vectors of Guattari: Tattooing as practice of self reconfiguration.”
Using all of the money he had, Servadio sought out Rafel Delalande, who was then working at AKA London, in Dalston (but now tattoos from Shadwell’s Seven Doors Tattoo) for his first custom piece, and his perception of ink culture changed: “I really wanted to get a tattoo from him. But I didn’t know how to feel about it… I didn’t want to go to a shop,” Servadio explained.
“But he was such a kind person. So good in so many ways… he is one of my favourite tattooers. A really cool guy.”
Delalande did two faces on Servadio. One was of “non-conformist Lombroso picture” (Italian criminologist and physician, Esare Lombroso, often referred to as the father of criminology) and the other was a woman’s face, done in a similar style.
Servadio is “fascinated” with “non-conformist shapes, reminiscent of 1800s criminal tattoos”. In exchange, Servadio did a snake on Delalande and some lettering in a “black metal kind of way”.
“The whole idea was that these two faces, these non-conformist faces… because they’re on my knees they’re always bending and deforming, the concept behind it… I took it quite lightly at the time but after looking at it, and living with it, you build concepts behind it and it gets deeper and deeper,” Servadio said of his tattoo thought process.
“I think that’s the beautiful thing about tattooing. You might approach it lightly and then you think about it, and you realise what’s going on all around it, with the concept. The meaning gets deeper because you have more time, not just to think about it, but it lives with you. So you really come to embody the design and the concept behind it. So I can talk about it now more than at the time when I got it. At the time I was more sure about it, ‘I want the Lombroso stuff’, but now I have a bit more culture on the topic, or maybe I’ve just lived longer with it on my knees.”
Delalande introduced Servadio to the late artist Jon John, the founder of AKA Berlin, and he was asked to join the art collective in London. With some reticence, he accepted: “I had the boat, studio, atelier… life was good… but I was like, ‘yes, fuck yeah’.
“But at that time I had no Facebook, no Instagram… no social media at all.” (Servadio now has 36,000 Instagram followers)
AKA later became The Dungeon and Servadio again struck out on his own, working from a private studio in Hackney Wick where he tattooed until around two years ago, “due to the state of the building”. (He still uses the space for painting, print- making, “weird stuff”, experimental tattoo research, but he is now largely on the road doing guest spots, of late at Red Couch Tattoo in Milan, Sang Bleu Zurich, Hard Work Tattoo in Rome and Old Habits in London among other studios).
A MIRROR TO THE WORLD OUTSIDE HIS WINDOW
Servadio’s tattoos reflect “the life outside my window” and the bohemian brick wasteland of Hackney Wick, whose charm has survived a dozen-rounds of gentrification, courtesy of the 2012 London Olympic Games and Hackney’s endless thirst for craft beers – was a perfect palette of romanticism, nostalgia and change.
“It is about what you live every day… the environment, the buildings, the small towns… Hackney Wick with its old industrial buildings, the brick walls and barbed wire, the broken bottles… and they’re tearing it all down. It’s nostalgic things; things from my window… the basil dying on my Window Sill.”
Servadio doesn’t like to “take from books, or trace… a lot of tattooists are really good at it… spotting a cool image, but if you tattoo it, it is like the image belongs to you”.
“I draw from reality. If I take from a book, I like to close it and draw from my mind free from the attachment of the image.”
Before hitting the road, every Thursday, Servadio hosted life-drawing classes at his studio, “it is zero point one of ideas”, and sketches later became etched on to clients’ skin, even pictures of his girlfriend, “in bed, at home, or where ever it was”, a happy happenstance caused by the collision of his sketches and flash ending up in the same portfolio. “It doesn’t look like her… the hair is different… you can always change something,” Servadio explains.
His own tattoos are mostly “a collection of trades” with other artists – a classic patchwork of images scattered across his arms, front and throat, although he has a big piece from Xoil on his back of Modigliani. “They can’t be big, because we often don’t have time… and I want to make space for everyone”, and they’re random – “on the spot”.
Servadio’s back piece was a shotgun decision: “It is a drawing that Xoil found on the back of an art school in Geneva. There were many bad copies of famous paintings made by young students. I totally connected with him, understanding that, that iconographic source was beautiful and honest, true art. I remained impressed by this drawing which was a copy of a Modigliani painting and in 5 minutes I decided on getting it on my back.”
Body of Reverbs, like his tattoo collection, was born in a very natural way.
“I was joking with a friend about it, how it was really right there in front of me,” Servadio recalled from the lounge of his parent’s home earlier this year.
Returning from his tattoo studio, around 2014, Servadio began using a microphone and a synthesizer to see “what a tattoo gun sounded like… so I was playing a tattoo machine”.
The experiment soon became an act, initially called Garabato (scribble in Spanish), and Servadio toured Europe performing it with Paula Delgado: “With Paula the experiments became an act, she was taking care of the performative side of it. And we toured together in collaboration with other artists.” However, he often did the act with no audience at all, “just with the person getting it… examining what are the possibilities with permanent marking of the body. I wanted to break boarders”.
Servadio explains that Body of Reverbs is a “modern ritual in which technology serves to amplify the sensory experience” with the sound of the tattoo machine being captured and “live-processed by a sound artist through effects and synthesizers”.
“The tattooer and the musician influence each other advancing in a progressive loop. The subject jumps into a synesthetic darkness between visual and auditory pain, operating deeply. The concept, a form of ‘post-tattoo’ practice, was born from the need of rebuilding lost aspects of tattooing, which nowadays is perceived and understood more and more as a mass product.”
For those on the table, Servadio says, the sounds and sensations are often “very unrelated – opposite to the pain – because the experience is so involving, it can take the pain away, or it comes on in waves, up and down… someone said it felt like quite a trippy experience”.
At the Sang Bleu performance the music was “very industrial… very strange, but with a clear and direct message”, but at other performances it has been ambient, or involved an actor, and most recently print making – art conceived out of the flotsam and jetsam left on the tattoo table. The performance has become, as one audience member deducted – “total art” – an art experience with zero waste.
“At the end the idea was to create a whole product that embodies all of the aspects of the experience of what happens in that time and space… there’s the tattoo… we are recording on tape, all of the sounds that were processed… and the print making process was made of the blood, and the ink and the plasma, and all of the things I used to work on the tattoo.
“It’s a total artwork, it’s a performance then it produces a print, and the sound, the actual tattoo and the person there. I had some one making the print, I was tattooing, and someone was doing the artwork… it was a collaborative thing. Someone there was like ‘It’s like total art you know’.”
In London, in February, Servadio’s subject was pre-chosen. The design, a collaboration: “I had tattooed him before. He wanted to get it done last time (I performed). Normally I find someone on the night. Someone is always up for it.
“He wanted something strong. Metaphysical. Not a snake with a skull.”
While Body of Reverbs is an avant-garde performance, Servadio doesn’t want it to be viewed as entertainment as “tattooing is already cheesy, with all these fucking TV shows… this began as something very underground… it is something more”, and he is torn between the idea of doing it simply as a guest spot, or doing it for every client, “four times a day”.
Servadio sees himself as a “kind of Sharman”, guiding his clients and audience to higher artistic plains, but while humbled by the “tradition of tattooing”, his ultimate vision is sky-high: “I’d like to do it (Body of Reverbs) in the Alps. People would come and stay overnight and get tattooed… that is the dream at the moment.”
“It (Body of Reverbs) started as a brutal performance because I wanted to shake the basements, the foundations of what is tattooing today. I wanted to… but now, it is okay because I understand there are very wide possibilities. So seeing myself as some sort of Shaman, it is a good way of understanding the process, but not just as an artwork and not just as a tattoo, made in a different way, in a fancy way, but understanding that you are working on people… so it’s that subjective reconfiguration that (Dr Betti) Marenko was talking about.”
Eight years after stumbling upon Marenko’s writing Servadio, before the Sang Bleu show, wrote to her and sent her videos of his performance and much to his delight she “completely understood… and I was really, really, glad because she had provided me with some understanding of why I am tattooing all those years ago”.
Performing at Sang Bleu signified to Servadio that he had gone “full circle”, from initially rejecting tattooing culture, to redefining the experience and its artistic boundaries at the very heart of the London scene.
“Definitely I had the journey that took me from the squats, to the underground events, to the fetish dungeons, to Sang Bleu… it is full circle. I think Sang Bleu embodies the 360 degrees aspect of what is contemporary tattooing in a way. They are really high, but at the same time they can embrace something that is very underground in a way.
“It is everything, and the opposite of everything, it is this big whale that is swallowing everything… it is the place that says, ‘this is what is going on today’. And to be there, with the performance… it is so good, because we can embed it in any situation, we can do it up in the mountains, or we can do it in Sang Bleu, or we can do it in a gallery or a fetish dungeon, or in a squat… which is fun. And every time it is different and the people are different and the feedback is different… that’s the beauty of it.”
Homebaked With Ross Tanner
Sixteen minutes after knocking on the front door of the Tanner residence, in Tottenham, north London, Ross Hell appears with eyes glazed as a doughnut in Adidas trackpants and a pink sleeveless t-shirt, of his own design, bearing a crudely drawn Mickey Mouse, flashing an anatomically exaggerated appendage.
Some 13 hours after rising at 5.30am to refurbish houses, Hell, real-name Ross Tanner, has just showered and devoured dinner and a post-shift spliff in preparation for his next job, as quite literally, a home-baked tattooist.
In the front room, his parlour, a now bespectacled Hell begins his MacGyver-esque process of making a stencil by slouching into the couch and pulling up his t-shirt. Using his stomach and tracing paper, Hell draws an arch around his bellybutton that will serve as the baseline for tonight’s tattoo.
Jake wants a belly rocker saying Revenge, a seven-letter word that, over the next hour, causes a slapstick sequence of events.
Hell, by his own emission, “is a shit speller”.
Having found an old-English style font online, the baby-faced 36-year-old flips his laptop upside down and begins tracing out the first three letters, the last of which, he figured, would sit above the bellybutton. That is until he realises revenge has seven letters and starts over, as his client knocks on the door expecting the stencil to be done.
Jake reminds Hell, “it’s seven letters, we’ve had this conversation twice on the phone”, as Hell, laughing, concedes “I’ve fucked it up twice already”.
Putting the blank stencil on Jake’s stomach, Hell explains that the placement of the letters, “is the hardest part”. “Yeah, and the spelling,” Jake retorts.
Hell returns to the stencil as Jake who has driven down from Margate, Kent, steadies his sternum with his fist, as his stomach vocalises his indigestion from an earlier meal of “dirty chicken” – a grotesque melody of burps that continue until the tattoo machine overwhelms his discomfort.
“You can’t come down here and not have it,” Jake explains. “It was a bit posh though. I want to give it two stars or less. It didn’t feel right. It’s cheating isn’t it? But it did give me indigestion so maybe it did do something,” he opines.
“Banging, banging… I can’t fucken wait,” Hell announces with stencil in hand, having some minutes earlier run out of paper, a letter short of completing it.
Jake, tall, with a shaven head, gold rings and a gold tooth, dressed in Adidas trackpants and matching slides, is typical of Hell’s working class customers who largely find him via Instagram. He has a few DIY tattoos on his pins (a hangman and Wu-Tang symbol), pieces from – Liam Sparkes and Doktor Lakra – but wants “dirtier” work and to be decorated head-to-toe real quick.
Before Hell even starts his tattoo Jake asks when he can get a spiderweb done, which delights and bemuses the artist: “Have you seen my spiderwebs? They’re pretty ghetto. They’re not symmetric at all,” Hell informs him.
“Just chuck it on. I don’t care. After the first one I don’t care. I’d let anyone tattoo me,” Jake replies before inquiring if Hell had got him any Valium.
“Nah, my mate is a bit of a cunt,” Hell replies, steadying his glasses on the bridge of his beak and adjusting his headlamp.
BARK WITH ME NOW!
Earlier this year Hell, (who sells himself on social media as “council housed and violent”, and offering “affordable, working class chav punk shit”) along with his crew of ‘Scratcher’ strays, the Underdogs, really got under the skin of London’s tattoo elite.
On Instagram the group called out the tattoo establishment for being an exclusive club of elitist egomaniacs who charge exorbitant amounts – an offensive often undertaken in lengthily, cuss-laded captions, heavy with hyperbole but empty of eloquence (#fucktheshops).
To Hell’s credit, he’s largely avoided social media agitation, but earlier this year he stuck his head up and like in a fairground game of Whac-A-Mole, he was swiftly reminded of his place. He later suggested on Instagram that “people got the wrong end of the stick”.
“They see tattooing as such a sacred art that they kind of don’t want it to change. Where I think art is something that should constantly… it should always be changing forever,” Hell explains of the ‘us and them’ sentiment expressed by some experienced tattooists.
Hell says he isn’t “anti-shops”, taking his time to carefully choose his words because it’s a “delicate subject”:
“It’s more like… I was talking to a few people and they’ve had a hard time with shops. And it’s not every shop. There are so many cool shops. But there are shops out there that charge ridiculous money for ridiculous things… you know. It’s just, yeah, that kind of shop where they are basically ripping the person off to pay the rent.”
Hell singles out Liam Sparks’ Old Habits Tattoo as one of the better parlours: “I do go to shops. I go to Old Habits. It is probably the only shop I do go to. I’ve never been to Sang Bleu. I’ve never stepped foot in there. Only because, I don’t know, I just like… I’ve heard… there’s almost this upper echelon vibe where they’re better than you. I don’t know. That’s the vibe I get.”
While the tone of the Underdogs anti-shop missives has often been angry, arrogant and juvenile, it’s evident, especially from talking to Hell, the Scratchers are simply sick of being discredited and want recognition of their place in a culture that has far surpassed the traditions often cited like Holy Scriptures to prevent it getting into the wrong hands.
Scratchers, the “derogatory” term given to a growing army of self-taught tattooists working from anywhere with a power source, have also claimed online to be “changing the game”, a boast that has infuriated some within tattooing who think they’re simply not good enough to work in a shop.
While claims of a revolution are laughable, in one sense, because the Scratchers work is neither superior nor overly original, there is a mild sea change happening within tattooing and you need to be outside of a shop to see it.
And on a Thursday night in April, in Hell’s front room, as Jake wanders freely about the modest abode, as if it were his own, shirtless, sipping tea and devouring durries, it’s evident. Not only has DIY tattooing gone mainstream but also thousands of enthusiasts – if Instagram Likes are anything to go by – actually prefer the crude aesthetic an amateur executes automatically, and the relaxed home environment that comes with it. Price is another key component with tattoos costing about a third of those shop-bought.
REVENGE healed the @shawn_michael_powers original tied up girl design FRESH for @jacobzissou #tattoo #tattoos #tattooed #bandqcrew #diyislife #ignorantstyletattoo #homemadetatts #diymassive #punk #punktattoo #girltattoo #shawnpowers #diy #rosshell #underdogs #UNDERGROUNDTATTOOING
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A lot of this change is down to social media. Instagram has supercharged tattooing, creating rock stars out of its top practitioners while also fast-forwarding the fame-game so much that ascension is often indiscriminate of artistic merit.
“I think tattooing culture is changing massively,” Hell states.
“It is definitely acceptable… people definitely find coming to a persons house… it’s definitely more refreshing. It is a lot more personal,” he adds as the TV in his lounge shows a vet rolling up a latex glove before losing his arm inside a cow’s backside to repair her prolapsed vagina – a grapefruit sized bulge of repugnance sitting below her tail like a deflated pink football.
THE UNDERDOGS FROM HELL
Earlier this year, Hell, along with Steven Donohue started the Underdogs which initially appeared to be a collective of nine homegrown artists, but is now a term used by any tattooist operating on the peripheries. The collective have put on three flash days in Hackney, east London (In February, April and June) from a studio less than two-miles from Sang Bleu and Old Habits.
“It’s just an idea. And more to steer away from the derogatory term of Scratcher, you know. To get these people together,” Hell says.
In an Instagram post from March 20, Hell earnestly details his reasons for forming the group, while thanking supporters for sharing a flyer advertising one of the events.
THANKS TO EVERYONE THATS REPOSTED AND SUPPORTED THIS FLYER MADE BY THE EXTREMELY TALENTED @agoodlookingdog … ANYONE WONDERING WHAT THIS IS ALL ABOUT MY ULTIMATE GOAL IS TO ERADICATE HATE, RULES, AND TIRESOME LABELS BEING SPAT AT PEOPLE LIKE ME THAT TATTOO FROM PRIVATE SPACES, ANYONE THATS NOT LUCKY ENOUGH TO HAVE RICH PARENTS KNOWS HOW HARD IT IS TO SURVIVE IN THIS SICK RANCID WORLD, SO ALTERNATIVE MEANS AND ROADS ARE TAKEN BY SOME OF US TO SIMPLY BE ABLE TO AFFORD THE BARE NECESSITIES THEREFORE WE TREAD OUR OWN PATH, WE WRITE OUR OWN RULES…IF YOU LIKE GENUINE WORKING CLASS HONEST PEOPLE COME TO THIS EVENT AND SUPPORT THE CAUSE… UNDERDOG TILL DEATH… #diyislife #diymassive #underdogs #undergroundtattoo #workingclass #punk #skins #chavs #trappers #grafters #onelove #commonasmuck #fuckcops #fuckracism #fuckhaters #acab #underdogs #love
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While not turning tattooing on its head, what Hell’s Underdogs are doing is making tattooing accessible to everyone that wants to get inked (Traphouse Tattooer charged £30 a pop for the month of March and banged out several hundred tattoos) while also inspiring a new generation of tattooists in the belief that all they need to launch a career is a needle and an Instagram account to promote their work. Not a largely unpaid apprenticeship they’ll struggle to find, or afford to undertake.
Hell: “(Affordability) That is a massive part of it. I’m from an estate. I have a lot of friends that don’t have a lot of money. I’ve tattooed most people on this road (his street). The kids from the estate, I do their gang tattoos. They come to me and say, ‘look I’ve gone into a shop and they won’t do it… or they want this much.’ But I’ll do it for them. Of course I will.
“But more, it is like who wrote the rules, and I know generally, you should follow the rules, but I just don’t think everyone needs to do this three-year apprenticeship thing to be able to work in a shop, because not every tattooist does that.”
While Hell wants to unify and galvanise those tattooing outside the shop-scene, ultimately, that’s what he wants to be part of, and he always has: “I’d like to have my own place and have all these Scratchers work for me. That would be great,” he says wistfully.
“Eventually, my dream is to get a shop. Or work in a shop. Have my own shop, with like-minded people. But I think I would fill it with people that are not generally seen as traditionally taught people.”
Fourteen years ago that almost happened with Hell starting an apprenticeship at Happy Sailor on Hackney Road. But since then, the closest he’s come to a full-time shop job was doing the plumbing for Sparkes when he transformed Shangri-La Tattoo into Old Habits in November 2015 (Hell has however, done a number of guest spots at shops across the UK).
In retrospect, Hell wishes he’d completed his apprenticeship, but the life he’s forged since has provided him with a cauldron of crazy experiences he will no doubt be able to draw from for the rest of his life.
“It was just really fucking hard to find the time to do it. It was just time. And I just had none of it. Because I had a bar job and a building job, simply to pay the rent, and the bills, so I kind of lost interest in it. I fell out of love with it (tattooing) for like eight years,” Hell explained of putting down the tattoo gun.
Hell had a similar break-up with BMX, a sport that saw him grind his way from council-estate kid to a rock star on wheels before he “quit riding for the faster paced lifestyle of modelling and drugs”, as BMX publication, The Albion, put it.
Hell is dismissive of that suggestion. He was getting older and needed a real job and it was never a choice between riding and recreational drugs, he told Parloir.
In an interview from 2011 in The Albion, writer George Marshall described Hell as having a “fuck it” approach to riding and a “stand out Sid Vicious dress code” and detailed how he disappeared from the sport “into an abyss of rumours involving drugs, private jets and A-list models” before re-appearing half-naked in fashion magazine spreads aboard luxury yachts.
The trajectory, like most things in Hell’s life, could be traced back to tattooing and to his friendship with Sparkes, who he credits as being a “mentor and a mate”.
When Hell moved to London, from Hastings, he met Sparkes who did “some of his first tattoos” on him, and at his flat he met then model of the moment, Alice Dellal.
Dellal’s punk rock look saw her be a muse for fashion photographer Mario Testino and front a Karl Lagerfeld Chanel campaign, and for a while she took Hell along for the ride.
Hell is keen to downplay this part of his life as just another job he did to “pay the bills”, and he tells how it came about with vague disinterest: “We was on a shoot one day and they asked me if I wanted to be in it, and after that they signed me… (to) Next, which she was signed to at the time.”
Hell continued: “Weirdly enough, I met her at Liam’s (Sparkes), getting tattooed. That was the modelling. It was never really serious. But they were mad times back then, mad. I was young. I’m a lot more settled now. And obviously I’ve got a kid.”
The debauchery is well documented in The Albion article where Hell recalls his graduation from playing up in whorehouses while on tour to attending A-list parties with Dellal.
“I was travelling round the world going from shoot to party, with her. That time I was in Cannes on the Dolce & Gabbana yacht. In that magazine they thought I was in that band the Gallows, before they realised I wasn’t really anybody. Cannes was fucked up. I got thrown out of a party there with Claudia Schiffer and all those fucking people. That party was total red carpet, photos on entry with my bird and then free vodka shots with Pixie Geldof and Peaches Geldof… ‘dickheads’. I got so fucked that I got chucked out. Another time we flew first class to Dubai with beds and shit, just so Alice could DJ at one party.”
After the modelling Hell went back to being a plumber and builder. He then met his current partner, Lisa, a Swiss national, via Instagram, where he’s now clocking up thousands of followers, not only because of his tattoos, but his daily videos where he calls out “that pointy cunt (The Shard) and provides a level of intimacy and access never offered on Keeping up with the Kardashians. (Most days include footage of him feasting on bakery basics, hammering nails, smoking joints and his mates squeezing out turds with the bathroom door open).
Love took Hell to Switzerland and led to Lisa putting a tattooing machine back in his hand: “The reason I picked up a machine again after eight years was because Lisa bought me a (Chris Smith) machine and gave me the opportunity to tattoo solidly for a year from her flat whilst she went out to work and paid the bills.”
Hell adds: “I owe everything to Lisa.”
When Ivy was born, just over a year ago, the trio moved back to London as “this is where I can earn money, with the building thing”.
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But sooner or later Hell hopes to quit that and focus entirely on tattooing, rather than doing both jobs, almost full-time, while also selling a range of his branded clothing: “Lately it has been going pretty mad… but I’ve got three mouths to feed,” Hell explains, before adding, four if you count Riot, his bandana-wearing dog.
In April, Hell tattooed every night and 2-3 people each day during the weekend, driven by a desire to give his daughter the childhood his family could never afford. His diary for the following months was equally full.
“I just keep thinking of Ivy, you know, and eventually when Lisa goes back to work I won’t build anymore. I will do tattooing full time. It has always been the plan. It’s just having the money and being able to do it. And taking that step, which I should have done when I was younger… I started this 14 years ago… but I’ll get there.”