Grace Neutral – tattoo artist, documentary presenter and living, breathing artwork; forked tongue and elf ears and inked blue sclerae – has such personal warmth.
We visited her studio in proper east London, in a crumbling industrial estate that also houses the HQ of fashion designer Pam Hogg. “We”, being a Disorder capsule crew of photographer, hair-stylist, make-up-artist, writer. On arrival Grace’s warmth and openness overtook us in a wave and occupied our Uber ride post-match analysis. Body mod? What body mod? – is the point. The pixie alien aesthetic is more than skin deep: Grace’s love is palpable, uncontainable, reaches all nine senses.
We’re in her studio, Femme Fatale, and Grace has just finished up on a tattoo. She practices hand poke tattooing, which doesn’t involve the machine; it’s both more craft-y and more punky, the kind you can do in prison or your bedroom, but here it’s artful. The former ballet dancer’s art is a big aspect of her creative output, ink on paper, black on white, with themes such as Time And Space – looking like incidentals from a stylish graphic novel or Japanese anime. Or cool tattoos that haven’t been tattooed yet. You can buy them from her webshop, which is managed by her mum.
Through most of our visit there is a tattoo going on, another of the Femme Fatale squad wielding the ink gun, machine buzzing, disco playing, blunts blazing, plus two dogs and the photographer’s lights: the small space demands our nimblest footwork. One of the dogs is Grace’s puppy, Mildred – named for the Worst Witch. Mildred pisses then craps then pisses on the floor. These couple of hours were that exciting.
DISORDER: Do you still dance?
GRACE NEUTRAL: In my head. Around the house. In the mornings with Mildred. But not really. I don’t go to dance class or anything. I find that part of my life really emotional. Not in a bad way. In a good way. But if I see a beautiful performance I get really overwhelmed and emotional. And if I go to the theatre, just the whole environment is very nostalgic to me. So I like to do that sometimes, go to the theatre and really put my head back in where it was when I was younger. But I couldn’t do that all the time. I don’t really have time to go dancing. I would like to. I do yoga. I’m so busy – tattooing’s taken over my whole life.
Why is your puppy called Mildred?
After Mildred Hubble. The Worst Witch. There were the books and they made a film in the 1980s. And Tim Curry [actor best known for Rocky Horror Picture Show] was the dashing wizard who came to teach the girls. I love Mildred Hubble. I used to watch that as a kid, religiously. [To the puppy, as they pose for photographs:] Resting bitch face, Mildred.
Do you feel part of a tattoo zeitgeist?
I just do what feels natural to me. I would never want to worry about whether I was in fashion when it came to my art or tattooing. The style of tattooing that I do, geometry and pattern work, has definitely gone through its popular phase, because things like Pinterest and Tumblr take over when it comes to tattoos. And you see certain trends developing, what styles become more popular. Lots of 1990s-style tattoos that people hated for so long, these awful white-man-tribal and cheesy shit like dolphins, that’s all coming back – like 1990s fashion is coming back. You see how fashion and tattooing are definitely going together. But I just try to do my own thing.
Who are you clientele?
I really hope that people come to get tattooed by me because they love my artwork. But I try to put out this unconditional love and energy, just with everything I do. My mum always said, what you put out you get back. A lot of people who come to me feel that energy. They just want a new tattoo experience, I guess. The old school tattoo experience is intimidating, male dominated. But there are so many other types of studio.
How involved are you with other tattooists?
So there is definitely a community. In London, it’s very small. It’s very small in general. Sometimes it can get a bit clique-y. But in general the community in London are amazing. I’ve had a lot of help from lots of different people, especially the elders. Liam Sparkes gave me a job at Old Habits [in Dalston, east London], which was amazing. Nikole Lowe gave me a job when I just started out, when I was pretty shit at tattooing to be honest with you. She saw something in me. I only worked for her for a year, but – really inspiring to work around tattooed women in the industry and see a woman who’s been working for nearly two decades and still at the height of her game. When I first started tattooing I didn’t really hang out with many tattooers. I worked with tattooers in the day, but I’m a hermit anyway. I spent a lot of time alone at home just drawing and painting. I feel like I have a family in tattooing now. That’s all I ever wanted, to create and make good art but to do it around good people and feel like a solid unit.
Is there more you want to do with your look?
I’m going through a pretty big change with my tattoos. I have lots of old tattoos. My right arm is three layers. I had a sleeve I got done when I was young, it was very light, black and grey, birds and nature. And then I didn’t like that, I grew out of that, so I got another sleeve over the top. And then over that I’m going to get another piece [a mesh pattern] – and that’s the start of what I’m going to do to my whole body. One of my dear friends has a tattoo shop in Leeds. His name is Sway. He’s an amazing tattooer. And he is basically going to do a blast-over body-suit over my whole body. So I’ve started it already: blacking out huge sections, pattern work. He’s going to cover all my existing tattoos apart from a few – I have a swan on my back, which I’m going to frame the head of and have things around it and make it one big piece rather than covering the whole thing. But the majority of it is going to be covered up. That’s very scary and daunting and a big journey that I’m going on, but I’m really excited about it.
Does this transition signal any regret about the work on your body so far?
No regret. But you definitely grow as a human being. And your creativity grows. And the things that you used to be inspired by may not inspire you so much any more. But I don’t regret any of these tattoos – if I didn’t have these tattoos that I wanted to cover I wouldn’t have this opportunity to do this cover up. Without the textures and the layers and the stories that I have on my skin already it’s not going to be the same. If I had no tattoos and we did this body-suit it would be beautiful, but it wouldn’t mean the same to me.
Do you ever feel that the tattooing world has possessed you?
Yeah! I’m just so addicted to my job. I’m fully possessed by tattooing. If you want to do this job well you have to dedicate your whole fucking life to it, you know? People think being a tattoo artist is really fun and really cool because it’s popular and tattoo artists are like rock stars. But it’s only a cool job if you actually have a passion for it. Because if you don’t, you’re just going to be shit. Because you won’t want to do all the work to become the best artist you can be. And that involves drawing every night until your fingers cramp up and going to bed at, like, four in the morning. And then getting up in the morning and tattoo a full day.
What’s the essence of tattooing?
Tattooing is like a healing process for some people. And whether people know it or not they are coming here for some kind of therapy. Tattoos make you feel good. People embellish their bodies because it makes them feel good about something, whether that’s commemorating somebody who’s died or just adorning your body with something that boosts your self-confidence. And that’s a really addictive thing to know that you help facilitate people feeling good. So I would do it all the time. [Laughs.]
If you did quit your job, what would you do instead?
I’d take copious amounts of drugs. [Laughs.] I don’t know. I guess it would have to be creative, a sculptor, something to do with art. But if you take my creativity away from me then I just wouldn’t see any point of living. No, that’s not true. It would be good maybe. Because then it would free up time to help more people. But then I have to remember that I am helping people by tattooing. This is the job for me.
Is there a moral aspect to who you tattoo?
Unless it’s not going to work as a tattoo, everyone has the right to get what they want, where they want. I’ve done some pretty radical tattoos on people. I met some awesome 18-year-old Swedish kids when I was hanging out in Sweden years ago. There were these two girls, and they asked if I would tattoo them. One wanted her whole throat tattooed with a half mandala [symbol of the universe], and she didn’t have any tattoos. The other wanted both of her breasts tattooed mandalas, and she didn’t have any tattoos. And a lot of people were like, are you going to do that, it’s her first tattoo. Yeah, I am going to do it. They’re 18-years-old. Legally they’re allowed to make the decision to come and get a tattoo. I’m not anyone to tell them what they can and can’t get. I’ve hung out with these girls. I’ve spent enough time for me to establish that they’re not crazy, they’re not out of their minds on anything or they’re not making any irrational decisions. And also, as an 18-year-old girl who was getting tattooed, if anyone turned around to me and said, I’m not going to do that for you – fuck you, I’m going to find someone that will. Because I want this, I’m going to get it. And I knew I could do a good job with the tattoos so I was like, fuck yeah let’s do this. And to this day, I’ve known them for years, and they love it. They love their tattoos.
Any advice for someone who wants a first tattoo?
If you’re thinking of getting your first tattoo, just know that your opinion is just as relevant as the artist’s. It’s about finding someone who’s going to meet you in the middle. Or like, you’re going to be on the same creative page. Rather than someone talking you into something that you don’t feel comfortable with, but you just go along with it because they’re the professional. If you don’t feel comfortable you have to speak up, because the energy of that is going into your tattoos. And that’s never a good thing.
Does that go for your body modifications too?
I got my tongue split when I was 19. Some people might say that’s too young but I don’t regret it nearly ten years later. You have to make these decisions with a healthy body and a healthy mind and you have to do it 100% for yourself. With body modifications, the procedures are generally more risky and more intense – as in getting it done and caring for it with the healing. And there are no body modification artists compared to tattoo artists. Cos it’s such an underground thing still. If you’re thinking about getting something done, you have to do your research. Find an artist that you think is capable. Make sure you see pictures of fresh and healed pictures of the procedures that they’ve done. Don’t get me wrong: I have been the guinea pig. But I would never recommend that to anyone.
Where did your “alien pixie” look originate?
I didn’t sit down one day and say, I want to be a fairy. Without sounding too odd, I feel very aware of certain things – energies and things like that – and very sensitive to the world in general. And that made me feel very alienated for a very long time. I went through all the phases and didn’t feel understood by a lot of people. I thought I was insane. And then, I guess, I was so vulnerable, but I have a lot of energy and a lot of love and I’m, like, boiling over with it. And for a while some of the wrong people saw the light in me and wanted to come and take the light for themselves. So for a very long time, shit was really weird. This was a really good coping mechanism for me, to transcend into a better form of myself. People started saying this word ethereal to me. That’s the most beautiful compliment anyone’s ever given. And if I can try to feel more ethereal then I feel more beautiful and then I won’t feel so insecure about certain things. It’s really nice to be made to feel beautiful.
You’re really beautiful.
Oh thanks. But it’s nice when, erm, people are just on a level and love is just – it’s hard to explain without feeling emotional. I don’t know. It’s just such a big thought it overwhelms me. Yeah. Strange that one. Sorry, I’m fine. I just have a watery… an emotional eye. [To Samantha:] I’m ruining the make-up, I’m sorry. I’m sorry! [To puppy:] Oh Mildred, what happened? I never cry… Yes I do, I cry all the time. [Laughs.]
Photography: Yoshitaka Kono
Make-up: Samantha Coles using MAC Cosmetics
Hair: Judit Florenciano
Clothes: Grace’s own
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