Old Habits - The Baddest Blackworkers In The Business
Old Habits is Parloir’s favourite tattoo shop. It’s welcoming, as homely as mum’s kitchen and effortlessly authentic like parlours of old. Bossman Liam Sparkes is infectiously mischievous and his shop has the playful energy of a tree house full of old chums. Environment aside, the tattooing is tight. Sparkes is famous for his brutal style and his mentor, blackwork pioneer Duncan X is also on staff. Ryan Jessiman is the man to see for the prettiest pattern work; Caleb Kilby’s lines have the fluidity and style of calligraphy done with the sharpest of quills and Clare Frances and Elliott Hellbow are the downtown kids with dope takes on old classics and a growing fresh style all of their own. Justin Russell and Andrew May round out the all-star cast.
Old Habits Tattoo opened in November 2015 from a Kingsland Road, east London space formerly occupied by Shangri-La Tattoo, and was born out of a somewhat serendipitous set of events.
The owner of Shangri-La, Leslie Chan, decided to sell-up around the same time one of the businesses’ star artists, Liam Sparkes, wanted to open one, having tired of vagabonding about the world doing guest spots.
“It (Old Habits) came about as a natural progression,” Sparkes told Parloir while lounging in the shop’s courtyard.
“The grind of travelling got down to becoming soulless after a while and a lonely lifestyle. So, then the opportunity arose to take over the business, which was better than starting a new, new shop.”
Having honed his craft while cocooned in the established business, which began in nearby Shoreditch some 10-years earlier, Sparkes saw an opportunity to realise a dream while staying faithful to his roots.
“I was able to stay true to the pedigree, or the lineage, that I started from, which was through Shangri-La. And it came along just at the right time because I wanted to get off the road, or be still for a while. It was the perfect situation because Leslie would of sold it to someone else, but I was able to keep it in the family.”
Tradition and family are the lifeblood of Sparkes’ business that holds fast to the model of shops of old in an industry increasingly attenuated by the gentrification-like forces of Instagram and reality TV.
“I wanted to get that mix of old traditional shops where you feel edgy when you go in, but you also feel comfortable, like it is your own house. That feeling came from when I used to work at home, people would remark on how it was a nice atmosphere, and I wanted to keep that vibe going,” Sparkes explained, having earlier decried the discomforts of tattoo parlours he had encountered on the road “that you wouldn’t even want to walk into”.
Sparkes’ shop has a homely feel, with slouchy leather couches at reception and a dog named Lenny often lingering about, but mostly its because he has surrounded himself with mates. A jolly bunch of rascals he’s met on the road or taken under his wing who are exceptionally talented in their own right: Duncan X – one of Sparkes’ key inspirations – Ryan Jessiman, Caleb Kilby, Clare Francis, Elliott Hellbow, Andrew May and Justin Russell.
Sparkes: “Everyone has got their own thing, within the oeuvre… that’s what’s important.”
Old Habits, Sparkes explains of the name, is a “universal thing” and works for “everyone in various guises” and is a nod to the long-held belief that tattooers always had some “kind of problem, some kind of dysfunction”, which rings true amongst Sparkes’ cast of characters.
It also speaks to the heart of Sparkes’ brutal work, his general appeal and customer base.
“For my tattoos I centre on the problems people have, the quandaries, and I bring them out, so it is kind of like people’s old habits are always a problem. Easy to make, hard to break.”
While the shop has the pioneer of blackwork, in Duncan X, and arguably one of its most famous disciples in Sparkes’, Old Habits has ambitions far beyond this remit.
“I didn’t want it to be a blackwork shop and I hope it isn’t going to be stifled as a blackwork shop,” Sparkes opines, while conceding “that is the kind of thing that magnetises towards me” and you have to “do what you do best”.
“I want to keep it, like you can come in and anything you want you can get. That’s how the old-school shops used to do it, by catering for anything that anyone wants.”
“Another important aspect of Old Habits is when I was on the road I saw in all these different cities the legacies that these different shops had, and I think for me the legacy of Old Habits, I would like it to be known as some kind of bastion of quality and upholding the traditions and the history of tattooing as it used to be, with also a nod and a wink to the future, and evolving with the times. Because everything changes, especially in the tattooing game.”