An Underdog Called Hell

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.

 

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”.

 

#faces 😂 by @stxd #ivyfuckingrose

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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.”

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