The act of permanently marking or decorating the skin is a tradition that has its roots seated deep within thousands of years of history, dating back as far as the 3rd millennium BC. However, modern tattooing, or electric tattooing – the form most familiar to us – is barely over a century old. And in that time, tattoos have moved from the social realm of the upper classes (in the earliest days of tattooing), to the military in the early 1900’s, and to criminals, bikers and the rougher echelons of society in the mid-to-late 20th century. Since the turn of the 21st century, however, they have become a prominent part of mainstream culture, with over a third of the population in the U.S and the U.K having embellished their bodies with ink.
One of the most influential contributing factors to the rise of tattoos in our generation is the stark and unflinching sense of individuality that can be brushed upon the human body by them. It’s true; whilst fashion allows for a surface level exploration of self-expression and identity, our skin is the ultimate and most intimate canvas for showcasing who you are as a person, what interests you, the stories you have to tell and the experiences you’ve had.
If you know me personally, then you’ll know that most of my waking hours – the ones not spent reading Gothic fiction, playing Jurassic World, or online window shopping – revolve around the world of tattooing. From the tender age of ten or eleven, I was already pretty much hardwired to the art form, and the awe and raw excitement I felt from the first time I realised that you could permanently decorate your skin will never escape me. I distinctly remember drawing on myself with pens and buying sweets that came with temporary tattoos, and I remember sprawling ideas on my notepad and sketching, albeit awfully, designs for the day I turned 18. Yes, I had plans for what I wanted tattooed on my body nearly eight years before it was even legal for me to get tattooed. Strange child, I know. Nonetheless, I have known for the best part of my life that tattoos interested me, and from my early teens I immersed myself in information concerning the art, soaking up every drop of knowledge I could about the various styles of tattooing, its history, and the traits that make great tattoos.
When it comes to a great tattoo, I think, on a technical level, the most important thing is clean lines. Everything else comes second to that – if the artist you are considering can’t tattoo with unfaltering lines, he or she is not the right artist. With regards to the conceptual side of tattooing, the best tattoos, I find, tend to be the ones where the artist has been given most creative license – after all, they are artists before they are tattooists. One last point would be to allow breathing space in a design; cluttering a concept with too many ideas never seems to go well. Oh yeah, and despite what many people may have you believe, tattoos don’t have to mean anything, not at least in the conventional sense of the word – in fact, most tattoos will mean something simply by the fact that an idea, an object, a moment meant enough at a time in your life for you to consider taking it to your grave, as morbid as that might sound.
Styles of tattooing have always poked at my curiosity. The differences in the body art of Japan, the United States, Polynesia and Europe are intriguing in many ways, and whilst I can completely appreciate the softer beauty of Japanese tattooing and the striking qualities of Polynesian, it is in traditional American and the prison foundations of Russian artistry that I find myself most in awe. I like tattoos that, well, look like tattoos; thick, bold, clean lines, with muted colours (predominantly black). For anyone who likes similar work, here is a list of my favourite artists:
Philip Yarnell (Southend and London), Joe Ellis (Leeds), Tom Flanagan (Leeds), Lukasz Christopher (Leeds), Sway (Leeds), Gre Hale (Manchester), Matt Cooley (Manchester), Matty Darienzo (London), Duncan X (London), Jemma Jones (Leeds), Bob Geerts (the Netherlands), Katya Krasnova (NYC), Todd Tattooer (Lyon), Gakkin (Kyoto), Thomas Hooper (Texas), Sarah Whitehouse (Manchester), Charley Gerardin (Melbourne), Alex Bawn (Hull), Simon Erl (London), Dan Morris (Manchester), Alexander Grim (St Petersburg), Xam the Spaniard (London), Jamie Greaves (Leicester), Liam Sparkes (London), Tony Nilsson (Oslo), Paul Dobleman (California), Maxime Buchi (London), Bailey (Leeds), Grace Neutral (Travelling), Hannah Snowden (Sheffield), Kelly Violet (London), Scott Move (London), Robert Borbas (Hungary), Thomas Bates (London and Norwich), Alex Tabuns (St Petersburg), and Phil Tworavens (Travelling).
That’s not even half the list but I’m a little tired of typing names now so we’re going to have to call it a day there. And for anybody who wants a more in-depth list of tattooers, fear not, because I’m thinking about starting a tattoo travel guide, in which I’ll give a full list of who I think are the best tattooers across a wider array of styles, and across the world. The guide will not only be a work of reference for those looking to be tattooed, but will also document my personal tattoo experiences as I have them. Exciting, I know.
I had a couple of requests on Instagram for a closer look at my own tattoos, so here are a few photos of my current collection, with a brief description of who made the tattoo and what inspired it:
Artist: Philip Yarnell. This one was a symbol for my fascination with old ships and my love for the sea.
Artist: Joe Ellis. I had this set of Great White jaws done because the tippy-top of my bucket list is to free-dive with them.
Artist: Bailey. This one is a representation of how much I used to love the clothing brand, Drop Dead, to the point where it became part of my Twitter username for a number of years.
Artist: Mors. I got this Bert Grimm heart purely because I really like the design, and Mors, an artist from France whom I love, was guesting in Leeds.
Artist: Joe Ellis. The Artful Dodger needs no explanation. My favourite Dickensian character, and a performance by Jack Wild that needed to be commemorated.
Artist: Rick Pedro. This was my first ever tattoo on my 18th birthday. It’s a symbol of Tolkien’s initials that I found printed on my copies of The Lord of the Rings.
Artist: Philip Yarnell. I wanted a tattoo to represent my fascination with the Joker as a character, and my respect for Heath Ledger’s portrayal of him in The Dark Knight.