Nuclear Ink

Tattoos, or rather tattoo studios, are like nuclear weapons. And before you think I have gone completely bat-shit crazy and joined the likes of Katie Hopkins in vilifying ink, allow me to explain.

Tattoo studios being like nuclear weapons is of course an analogy, just to make that clear to any conservative grandparents in case they were preparing to come rushing in to say: “I told you so”. It is not because tattoos are expensive, unnecessary, and once used their effects ruin your life, though this may be completely true for nuclear weapons, it is not for tattoos.

Neither is the comparison because of the concern parents would show if their kid were to come home with one. Though some mums and dads are shocked by Callum’s first piece of permanent artwork, this would be nothing compared to the heart attack they would suffer if Callum were to walk through the door cradling a ballistic missile with a two-ton nuclear warhead.

What I mean by the analogy is that like nuclear weapons, as tattoos and tattoo studios become more widely accessible, the quality of the product decreases, and the danger to the average citizen increases.

With any popular trend, item, or fashion accessory – as tattoos have seemingly now become – there comes imitation, wannabes, and decreases in quality. As in any economy supply and demand are intrinsically linked, so as more people look to get tattooed, so more tattoo studios open to satisfy their desires. This is not necessarily a bad thing as there are hundreds, if not thousands of highly-skilled artists based in the UK that need somewhere to work from. However, with little to no regulation tattoo studios are springing up at a rapid rate, and not all those who open them should be given the title of artist.

When I first came to Brighton in order to study at University I noticed that there was a large number of tattoo studios in comparison to what is really, quite a small city. For the 300,000+ inhabitants of the area there were a number of places to visit and I thought that the demand for ink was being satisfied. Fast forward to the present day, and it seems I must have been wrong, as I have spotted a number of new studios that had not been present a year or so before.

At my most recent count there were 13 studios in Brighton city centre alone that are open for tattooing (there may even be more), and though it is possible that every one of these produces artwork only of the highest quality, it is more likely that some of them do not. With waiting lists at some studios in the area set at around 18 months it makes sense for other businesses to open in attempt to cash in on demand.

Back over the border in Wales there has been a huge rise in the number of tattoo studios, with the BBC recently reporting that there is now one for every 10,000 residents.  The report, that was carried out by Experian, showed that “the number of parlours across the UK leapt by 173% in the past decade.” Twenty years ago, Cardiff had only three studios, but today’s figures show that there are 48. As is the case with Brighton, it is possible that all these studios provide the highest quality service, but the likelihood is that not all of them do.

Quite obviously tattoo studio proliferation is not an event that is happening in the UK alone. Across the globe numbers of tattooed individuals is on the rise, and so too is the number of studios supplying the artwork. I was fortunate enough to be able to talk to Sara Blades recently, who is the manager of World Famous Tattoo Supply, and she agrees that an increased number of tattoo studios is not necessarily a good thing.

Having been in the industry for a number of years Sara says that the last decade in particular has seen tremendous growth. She admits that “the industry is over-saturated” but unfortunately there are “so many people being tattooed… there is enough business to keep everyone busy”, whether you are highly skilled or not. She says: “the problem is everyone wants to be a tattoo artist and only a handful have the skills needed.”

I also had the honour of speaking with the legendary Vyvyn Lazonga about the changes she has seen throughout her time in the industry. As an artist who began her career in the early seventies there is perhaps no better person to speak to on the topic. Through the wonders of modern technology we were able to correspond over the internet and Vyvyn provided me with a wealth of informed opinion and experience.

Vyvyn holds a similar view to that of Sara, saying that a 173% growth in the industry within a decade is not a good thing. She says “it definitely dilutes the quality” and the popularization of tattoos has led it to “become something totally different from what it once was”. An honorary graduate of the old school, Vyvyn seems frustrated at what has become common practice, and the state the industry is in today. In terms of the learning process for new tattooists, she believes that “what is happening today is an abomination”. The problem is that people are “getting equipment and then just going at it, opening shops, and then teaching others with no skill, or respect”.

As is the case with any occupation, in order to reach the top you have to put the hours in, and you have to work for it. Many, if not all, of the greatest tattoo artists have spent years learning the trade, perfecting techniques and gaining knowledge through apprenticeships and guest spots. In the rush to meet the demand of the ink-hungry public, it seems that crucial parts of the development process are being skipped completely as wannabe artists ignore apprenticeships and set out on their own.

The danger of having “tattoo kits” and tattoo machines on websites such as Gumtree or eBay is that any Tom, Dick or Harry with internet access, a healthy bank balance, and a love for tattoos can purchase them and almost immediately make their mark on the public. This decision to take matters into their own hands is one that the BBC labelled “a dangerous trend”.  Professional tattoo artists are increasingly having to cover over botched, badly-done amateur inkings, as the trend to Do It Yourself ropes in more victims.

Matthew Turner – a man that has been kind enough to answer my questions in the past – is an apprentice based in Swansea who started at the bottom two years ago and is slowly progressing up the career ladder. He believes that in order to be a tattoo artist “you need to find a good [mentor] who is willing to take you on and will teach you how to do it”. He says that an apprenticeship may be “a year or two of unpaid bottom of the barrel work, cleaning and doing everything you are told”, but it is necessary if you want to make it as a legitimate artist.

Matthew echoes the thoughts of the BBC when he tells me that inexperienced tattooists purchasing equipment online and offering their services is  “dangerous”. He says that using cheap inks increases the likelihood of infection and cheap needles “are just going to create bad quality tattoos”. If it is true that a workman is only as good as his tools, then even the most brilliant artist would struggle to produce high-quality pieces using internet knock-offs, let alone an inexperienced amateur.

Though the sight of more of my inked brothers and sisters on the streets is a welcome one, it does make it difficult to see the forest for the trees. Such is the rise in popularity and the abundance of new studios on the high street, we would be forgiven for thinking all is well in the world of tattooing. We must not allow ourselves to fall into that trap however, as with wider access comes increased risk. Just because it is available, does not mean we should use it, and just because it exists, does not mean it belongs. This is true for both nuclear weapons, and for certain tattoo studios.


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This article was originally published in Skin Deep issue 244.

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