There was a time when sporting a tattoo would mark you gangster, sailor or punk. Today they’re adorned by young and old, rich and poor, straight and rebellious alike. In this series, we meet London’s finest tattoo artists to discuss the growing appeal of ink. Rose Harley works at Vagabond Tattoo Studio, where she sketches refined and intricate artwork on bodies. Photography by Rory James.
DISORDER: What first hooked you about tattooing?
ROSE: From 18, I worked in Greece most summers. One year I got a job in a bar and the owner was a tattooist and had a studio around the corner. I hung around the studio most days and helped with customers and their designs. I found it so thrilling that I could draw something one minute and then it would be permanently on someone’s body the next.
Tell us about your journey from first entering a tattoo shop to becoming a tattoo artist.
It was actually another eight years until I started properly working in a studio. The in-between years were a mixture of hedonistic travelling, studying design at University and working all sorts of other jobs, from farm work in the Outback to waitressing in London. Eventually I settled back in London and got an apprenticeship in a studio in Shoreditch. Tattooing was always at the back of my mind and it was only a matter of time before I came back to it.
What was your first tattoo, and how do you feel about it now?
A design I did of a bunch of coloured arrows. Although I wouldn’t choose that kind of tattoo now, I can still look at it fondly as the start of my tattoo journey.
Any advice for people getting their first tattoo – perhaps a style or place or motivation?
Don’t overthink it – agonising over every line or dot. Just go with something you like the look of. If you do a bit of research and get it done by someone who is talented in that particular style, you’ll never regret it.
How frequently do you get new ones? What’s next?
I go through stages of getting tattooed then having a break. Last year I got a lot of tattoos, so this year I’m happy to chill out. Next I'll try and get some awkward spaces filled in on my arms.
Tell us about your personal style as an artist.
I like to take delicate floral imagery and push it in a more graphic direction using refined lines and intricate details. I like to work in textures from dot-work to line-work shading to make it look more dynamic. I also like pattern-work and am inspired by geometric designs with a slightly tribal feel. I try and make my tattoos both feminine and masculine at the same time. With all of my work, the focus is to make a technically clean and polished tattoo.
What other artists do you admire – past and present?
There are too many people to list. It’s the artists that tattoo all day, paint all night, have families and other commitments, tirelessly working their arses off to be better.
What can you tell about someone by the artwork? And what do tattoos reveal about your own stories?
I do think our tattoos reveal a lot about ourselves. One on my leg is of a frog smoking a fag, [though], so not sure what that says about me!
Is there such a thing as a bad tattoo – what does that look like and what do you say to someone stamped with one?
Yes! Overworking the skin, blowing out the tattoo or just poor execution can lead to a bad one. Sometimes a customer will still like a bad one if it marks a special moment in their lives. [And] if they didn’t, I would try and give advice on how to cover or laser it.
What style of tattoo artwork excites you today? And, what do you dislike?
There is no style I really dislike if it’s done well. I think that there can be a lot of elitism in the industry when it comes to style. It annoys me when artists look down their noses at other styles like they are not as cool or as worthy. I am excited by so many different genres of tattooing. I would love to know more about Japanese tattooing, [for example], but that probably takes another lifetime to study!
How has tattooing changed with sudden exposure on social media? Were there particular moments – a celebrity, a television show – that you remember a shift in the culture?
It started when famous people began to show them of as fashion accessories. Footballers, pop stars, and models have really made them mainstream, [while] Instagram has provided a platform for showcasing tattooists’ work, making it accessible for people to look for ideas and the right artist.
What defines the tattooing community? And how do you act or adapt within it?
Apart from some drama and inflated egos, I think most tattooists get on and support each other. There’s definitely a community there, stemming from shared experiences. I think we are mostly quite similar people having gone through the apprenticeship process, and then striving to be creative and good at the craft.
Are there assumptions from the “straight” world about people that have tattoos? Is there a tension?
Is there really such a thing as the straight world? I’m sure some people hate tattoos. There are some in the older generation that disapprove and judge – [and] that’s their prerogative. But then I have tattooed a lady who was 85, and she loved them.
Are there still taboos in tattooing? Do you ever tell clients to think twice?
I wouldn’t call them taboo, but I tend to not do hands, fingers, necks or faces unless I know my customer well and have tattooed them for a while. It’s a big step and can change your life forever, so it’s not to be taken lightly.
Are you more into the craft or into the art?
I would say it’s fifty-fifty for me. I love the technique involved in drawing a tattoo. The execution to make it look flawless is all about the craft. But to get a truly incredible tattoo, you need your work to be unique and creative.
What is your proudest moment?
It’s hard to pinpoint one moment. I am proud when I finish a tattoo and think that’s the best one I’ve ever done. It doesn’t happen often but when it does it makes everything worthwhile and the rest of the day ends in a high – until the next day when I try to better it.
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