“I love meeting the misfits”: inside the weird and wonderful world of Britain's leading female tattoo artists

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Gone are the days where the word “tattoo” conjured up pictures of grizzly, bearded men slumped on the back of motorbikes clutching beer cans and sporting beer bellies to complete the look.

Today you’re more likely to see the likes of national treasure Helen Mirren, rocking her hand tattoo at a red-carpet film premiere or Cara Delevingne showing off her bohemian tattoos at the beach.

For a long time, female tattoo artists were also pigeonholed into some kind of novelty ‘wild’ box, but not anymore. 

We meet the women behind the ink who are making their mark on Britain's tattoo industry, pushing boundaries and shaking out all the tiresome stereotypes in a once male-dominated industry. 

“Letting somebody permanently mark you takes a lot of trust - people open up to me”

Brighton-based tattoo artist Jess Perry, 24, has been in the business five years. She firmly believes in 'tattoo therapy'.            

What got you interested in the tattooing business?

I have always been into the gothic / rocker / motorbike lifestyle since I was a kid. I remember getting a temporary tattoo at Alton Towers when I was 10 years old. My step-mum wanted me to get one of Tweety Pie and I came out with a big skull and a rose.

Been artistic and into alternative stuff went hand-in-hand with me becoming a tattooist.

What is your favourite part of the job?

The excitement you get when a customer books in with a really cool idea like Doc Brown from Back to the Future or Itchy and Scratchy from The Simpsons. I'm also about to start a sleeve of monsters and demons from the TV show Supernatural, which I think is really cool. Every tattooist likes doing different things but these for me are what really make me get excited... Or maybe it’s when you place a supply order and you get to unpack it. It’s like Christmas. Sad, eh?

What are some of the best moments of your career so far?

I get to meet some really interesting people. All sorts of people get tattoos and some of them have some amazing stories to tell. There have been times where I’ve not stopped laughing or I’ve been brought to tears where I’ve just felt so moved by the people I have tattooed. It really is a great job. I like to call it ‘tattoo therapy’, because letting somebody permanently mark you takes a lot of trust, and because of that people start opening up to you.

I think getting tattooed helps people more than we know. I did a portrait of someone’s Grandma who passed away a few years before, and a few weeks after I had tattooed her, I saw a post on Facebook about how much the tattoo has helped her deal with it, and it’s so nice to know I am able to help people like that.

What’s the worse part of the job?

Customers who don’t look after their tattoo. We spend hours prepping and actually doing the tattoo. As much as it is a piece of work on their body, it’s still our work and it has our name on it. If they don’t look after it and it heals badly, not only does the tattooist look bad, but we then have to go back over it and fix it.

What’s the next big trend in the industry?

I’m hoping the next big thing will be colour portrait sleeves and backpieces, because that’s what I do. But I think dotwork and geometric stuff still has the rule of the roost at the moment.

What do you think of the trend of temporary tattoos that the likes of Beyonce has just brought out?

Why not do it? If you want to jazz yourself up a bit with a temporary tattoo then go for it. It’s a good way to help people decide if they actually want a real tattoo as well. Try before you buy.

Have you ever rejected a design that someone wanted to get?

There have been a few times I’ve had to reject designs. The worst tattoo I have ever done in terms of it being a bad design idea, was a picture of a poo on a stick, on a man’s bumcheek, with the words ‘poo on a stick’ above it. I had just finished my apprenticeship so was in no position to be turning work away at that point.

What are your favourite tattoos to do on people?

Colour portraits, definitely. Ever since I started that’s the direction I’ve wanted to go in. They’re so fun to do, the amount of different colours that go into them is just amazing. It’s like a really challenging colouring book. 

“I love anything witchy, natural or botanical - and I get to guest tattoo all over the world”

London-based tattoo artist, Rebecca Dewinter, 30, travels all around the world to meet clients and loves the “everyone looks after each other” spirit of the industry 

What inspired you to be a tattoo artist?

It’s a contemporary art form and a traditional one, at the same time. I was an engraver and illustrator prior to becoming a tattoo artist and was seeking a medium in which I could create something with a purpose and that was much more personal than other client based work.

I've collected tattoos since I was 14 (naughty), so tattooing has always seemed like a natural way of documenting how you feel or what you like on your outer body.

What is your favourite part of the job?

I really like the ritual aspects of the set-up process. Also the folk art forms that the equipment enables you to make, and the folklore tales that you get to spell out on a client's skin. I guess that’s three parts!

What’s the worse bit about your job?

Talking to clients via email. Prior to the internet you would have had a face-to-face consultation about the design. I still favour this but now its mostly typed words that are exchanged, so its hard to gage who that person is and what would best suit them, or even what they're talking about!

Tell us something people may not know about the industry.

Unlike many other creative industries, there isn't a lot of jealousy or backstabbing going on. People in the industry refer to each other as family, genuinely compliment each other and help guide and look after each other. It’s a unit and on a global scale. I'll be leaving London to work in Black Medicine Tattoo in Vancouver Canada towards the end of the year. I've never met anyone there. It's as simple as sending an email and you can 'guest' anywhere you like. I just had a lovely invitation to work in New Zealand this morning.

Right now, minimalistic tattoos are massive. What’s the appeal?

I think minimalistic tattoos spur from a natural progression of art and design and mirror our current striving for a healthy and clean lifestyle. With Instagram, a tattoo artist's work is much more accessible. You can find an artist whose art really resonates with you.

I don't use colour as I find it untidy. Within Blackwork, you can create the simplistic and wonderfully naïve imagery that will retain its classical romanticism for decades to come. It definitely will become more illustrative and open to interpretation. 

What are your favourite tattoos to do on people?

Anything witchy, natural or botanical is right up my alley.

What tattoos do you secretly hate doing?

I don't like to tattoo clients' ribs (although I do it often), in part because it's painful for them. And also because this area receives a lot of wear as your body gets older. In particular, girls ask for designs here, as they've seen a girl with a photoshopped tattoo on a blog somewhere. They don't think about what the design will look like on the ribs when they're 60 or after they've had a baby. Longevity should always been taken in to consideration, so designs need to be tailored for specific areas.

“I love meeting the misfits and dealing with the double life of high-powered professionals”

London-based Lesley Chan has been in the business for almost 30 years and owns a tattoo parlour in the heart of Dalston east London.

What made you want to get into tattooing?

It was down to illumination. I had to ask myself, what platform would enable me to draw, engage with people on an intimate level and build a career.

What's the best thing about the job?

Watching the needle go into the skin and listening.

And the worst?

Watching the needle go into the skin and listening.

Have you got any tattoo horror stories?                                

Mostly it is not the actual tattoo but the attitude of the person.  The worst tattoo was in a teeny heart with the words ‘I love c**k f**k’ on a man in his inner thigh. After that, somewhat nauseous, he requested the image of this upon parts of his body best left to your imagination.  I refused.

What's the highlight of your career?                                                                               

Meeting the misfits, the unassuming grandmas and kicking out the crazies in the shop. I love dealing with the double life of some high-powered professionals. Also it was very special when I got to tattoo three generations of one family wanting remembrance tattoos of a boy that they lost.

Which tattoos are your personal favourites?

I love using mythical folk, big peonies and monsters as subjects. I also like the peculiar places people like to get their tattoos too. I have tattooed a tongue before, which I loved doing. I'm also going to tattoo our receptionist's armpit with a gorgeous chrysanthemum so I can't wait for that

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Stylist Team