The Art of Inkling
In the 80’s it was the one sure way to make your Mum cry. The 90’s saw it become a way of marking yourself as part of a tribe, that tribal band or butterfly being a small symbol of rebellion to hide under your suit and reveal on a weekend. The millennium brought with it celebrity and sleeves and with more than 25% of adults having at least one tattoo, it’s one of the biggest growing parts of the UK beauty industry so why are so many of us still so scared about making that first trip to the tattooist?
“I think the traditional tattoo experience is intimidating” says Neil Anderson, owner of the offgrid, bespoke tattoo art studio Inkling, based at Leicester’s Phoenix Arts in the heart of the Cultural Quarter. “You have this mental image of biker gangs, of thrash metal blasting out and dark, smoky shops, lined with sticky folders full of old school designs with the sound of a needle buzzing away behind a closed door. And, to be fair, that is what a lot of it was like. What you have to remember is that throughout the majority of the human history of tattooing, it was a rite of passage and a big part of that was the experience, you started as a child and left as an adult. Things are very different now.”
He’s not wrong. Sat talking to Neil in the light, airy Inkling studio and you could be in an art gallery. A double height picture window let’s light stream in to the open plan workroom. Original art covers the walls and Spotify plays a random, rotating playlist of 90s indie, 80’s disco, jazz, funk and a little bit of rock for good measure.
A professional tattooist for over twenty years, he shares the space with two other artists, Katie and Michelle, both specialists in their own arenas. The atmosphere is relaxed, light hearted, conversational and creative.
“I became attracted to art as a teenager” says Neil. “I’m originally from Canada and was initially influenced a lot by First Nations art, it was all very graphic and decorative. Then my father got a job in South East Asia, I experienced a whole new world, my mind got blown; confronted with the raw animal side of human nature I found design in all of life; everything there is patterned, textured, decorated, and embellished. My parents started to talk to me about what I was going to do with my life and must have picked up on my interest in design and so I came over to England to attend art school in Chichester. Within the first week I ended up doing an assignment on body art and the obsession began.”
“Whilst at college there was a mobile tattoo artist who would come round on his motorbike and tattoo you wherever. In the kitchen, on the sofa, a chair, if you’d got one… By seeing him work, the actual process of the tattoo side of things, I was really inspired and from then on just decided this was it and my focus was on human anatomy, history and image reproduction. Mostly my tutors just left me too it, probably thought the poor boy’s lost, back then, what, twenty-four years ago, it wasn’t viewed as a career, it was mostly seen as a negative subculture. I remember explaining to my Dad that I was going to be a tattoo artist and he was like is that even a career?”
Neil has proved that it most definitely is. Leaving college, he started an apprenticeship at a next generation seaside tattooist, Shamanic Body Art, and learnt his craft. “It was very exciting experience but quite an intense atmosphere, let’s just say they were quite a rough and tumble bunch… I ended up doing five years there under Frank Moore before moving up to Leicester, with Brian the body piercer, to set up Abody on Loseby Lane. I spent ten odd years there and then moved on to establish Inkling here at Phoenix Arts.”
Since then Neil has combined his training in design and fine art with the traditional tattoo skills learnt during his apprenticeship and has gained a reputation, not only for the quality of his work, but for his ability to freehand draw designs direct onto skin and create works that are truly unique and original.
“We do have traditional paper books here” he laughs, “but we don’t use them very often. Most people just use their phones nowadays! I remember a time when we only had the library and magazines for image reference, but that’s all changed with the internet. Most clients now come in with pretty specific designs that they’ve seen and want to recreate or to use as inspiration. We will help pull together something for them based exactly on what they want.”
“We get a lot of people coming in looking for us to adapt existing work, cover ups from tribal work they had in the nineties, Chinese symbols; you know the sort of thing, but it’s endless nowadays. Inspiration comes from every direction and in all sorts of different styles, it really is an exciting time in the history of body art. People are achieving awe inspiring levels of artwork that not only compliments but enhances the body in a scale never seen before.”
So, who are the average Inkling customer? “Mostly professional adults 30’s-60’s, pretty secure in their place in life. They’ve had ideas in mind for some time and now they are ready to carry their thoughts on their arm. They’re definitely art appreciative people.” “We offer a pretty flexible service so sometimes I can be found here at all times of day and night which helps if people are time poor. Some people come in with their tablet and wade through emails as we get started on their ink whilst others sit back and enjoy a little bit of me time. Some tattooists may hate to admit it, but we are really part of the beauty industry now and it’s more like a pamper session for yourself than a traumatic experience. What you have to remember is with large scale custom work, you really have to put a lot of hours into it to achieve next level work, which is what we generally have come to expect from tattoo studios now.
So comfort during the process is key, customer care in the tattoo industry is actually a thing now! We definitely have a balanced mix of female and male clients, though it tends to fall more to the female side partially because we have two female artists here, Katie and Michelle, but also because we have quite a caring attitude towards our clients, their needs and desires. We’re all very laid back, lots of cups of tea, plenty of biscuits and laughs, whatever helps you thru..”
What advice would Neil give to anyone looking to get their first tattoo, start a big piece or undertake a coverup? “First thing is don’t be intimidated or led by anyone but yourself, a modern studio will undertake a consultation process for a big or bespoke piece of work to help you understand what is possible and what is involved in the process. They should make you feel comfortable with what you are getting and who is doing it.
Feel free to look at their work, ask questions, don’t feel as though you have to make your mind up there and then. Some of the process grows as you go, as you learn how different artist like to work; it’s definitely not like any other shopping experience. Check out the vibe of the studio and be openminded; you carry the memories of your experience as much as you carry the images we introduce to your skin so it’s got to be right for you. Generally, when you find a tattooist you trust, you tend to stick with them, it’s a bit like starting a relationship, so choose wisely.