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. To begin… Sarah Schor works at Sang Bleu, a tattoo studio in Dalston. Photography by Rory James.
DISORDER: How did you get started?
SARAH SCHOR: I went to art college in Edinburgh and did fine art. A tattoo shop opened on my street. I didn’t have any tattoos at the time but I really liked that he did American traditional tattoos and he had a lot of them displayed in his window. Something about them spoke to me. I went in initially to see if he wanted to do a collaboration. I had been working in other fields on collaborative projects. Long story short, I just got interested in the whole craft side of it. Ended up tattooing one of the guys that worked there. I was doing all these repeat patterns of babes with guns. And he got something tattooed from there. And he asked me, do you want to try it out? Not advisable. But at the time I was like, sure yeah. I did a little stick woman with boobs and holding guns. And that was the first tattoo I ever did. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I eventually ended up getting an apprenticeship at that shop.
How long from being a woman-with-a-need to being a tattoo artist?
It wasn’t very long. My apprenticeship was pretty short. It was less than a year ‘til I was tattooing full time at that shop. I just crammed a lot of work in during that time. The guy’s American. One of the original Boston hardcore punks. He wasn’t really into the idea of having an apprentice as such. But all the guys really helped me in the shop, not just him. They would help me out when I asked questions but I would basically do all the shop stuff, scrubbing the tubes, cleaning, answering the phone, being the receptionist, everything. And then, when the shop shut, I would tattoo people for free. And I would do that every night, five days a week. He opened at 9am until nine, ten at night, and I would just get as much work in. Maybe I struck it lucky. I got a lot of people offering themselves up. But about eight, nine months later I’d started full time, getting paid to tattoo at that shop.
What was your first tattoo?
My first one was by him, when I first started wanting to tattoo. It’s a big, garish Day of the Dead skull on my thigh. And I did that typical thing that everyone does when they get their first; I wanted to cram loads of stuff into it. I want it with this! I want that included! You know? So yeah, it’s got a banner and a dead swallow in it. It’s not anything I’d get done now but is of the time.
What would you advise people to do for their first tattoo?
I don’t know if I’d advise anything in particular because you’re always gonna end up not particularly liking the first one. But I would say, don’t hang everything into it. Probably I’d advise against what I did. Which I’ve seen other people do as well. Which is, cos it’s your first one you have all these ideas building up and you want to put it all into the one tattoo. Just pace yourself. The simpler the better, in a lot of ways, with tattooing. One clear statement.
What about a place on the body as a place to start?
There are pros and cons to going in a really difficult spot first. You’ve got nothing to gauge it against and you’ve still got all the adrenaline. So it’s almost better to get all the shitty spots out the way first. Cos you are full of adrenaline. Now when I get tattooed I’m like uhhh, want it to be over. I have less tolerance than I used to. It really depends on the person.
How frequently do you get new ones?
I had a huge dip, I guess, when I had my daughter. Cos you can’t when you’re trying for a baby and you can’t when you know you have one and when you’re breastfeeding. So there’s that whole period of time, and afterwards it’s just getting back into it. You’re in that situation where you’re tired from lack of sleep and thinking, do I want to put myself through voluntary pain? I got a rose and a scorpion. It was an excuse to get a scorpion and her middle name’s Rose. And two which are hand poke by Tati Compton; Oliver Macintosh did these two. They’re the only ones I’ve had done since, but I’m getting back into it. That’s something that happens a lot of the time with people who’ve been tattooed for many years. You have phases where you suddenly get loads. Cos it is addictive and once you get on a roll it’s easy to say, oh I’ll get another one soon. Equally when you haven’t for a while it’s hard to get back on the horse.
Can you age people by the particular artwork they have?
There are always styles in tattooing like there is in any kind of adornment to the body, fashion or otherwise. You know like the eighties tattoos, people got the cartoon characters, Daffy Duck. That was really popular back then. Nineties you got all the cupcakes, kind of morphy stuff with the power lines. And then the early 2000s was the Victorian theme that everyone did to death. Outline stars were super popular for a while. You can definitely track certain fashions. Which is why I have issues when people turn their nose up at certain things. At the minute I’m doing a one-woman campaign to bring back tribal and update it. Because neo tribal is ideal for the body. It flows with the curves. It’s made to fit. It’s mostly drawn on. Unfortunately when certain things become popular there’s an inevitable backlash. Even things like tramp stamps, people kind of laugh about them. They’re a legitimate thing! There are some fashions, like the white-only tattoos which are going to look like nicotine stains in the future, but tribal works.
Tattoo artistry is so visible because of social media. Do you like the exposure?
I’ve had a few comments. I did one recently that was a vagina with tribal around it. I guess it’s kind of extreme. Sophie downstairs [at Sang Bleu tattoo studio] has it. It’s got a little butthole as well. With the comments online I don’t know if people were more offended by the vagina or the tribal. Or the combination of the two. I know it’s kind of an extreme thing but I was surprised at the same time by the vitriol. Mostly from a lot of male tattooists funnily enough. About the vagina, but also the tribal – it blew their minds.
Is being a female tattoo artist akin to being a female rock star, operating in a macho culture?
There are elements. There’s the tatt-bro guy. I get comments: “you tattoo well, you tattoo like a guy,” I got told once. And that was a good thing, a good quality. It’s just funny. I don’t know what they’re expecting me to do, like swirly whirly flowers and stuff like that. There are more subtle, insidious things as well, like maybe they would naturally launch into a conversation with you about machines, about the technical side of things. There are certain assumptions that I think everyone has, whether they like it or not, about the opposite sex. Really does depend on the circumstances. It’s not super dominant a thing. I’ve not encountered it all the time, but I have noticed it.
Are there assumptions from the “straight” world about people that have tattoos? Is there a tension there?
With the outside world? It’s more mainstream now than it was even ten years ago. There are still a lot of preconceived ideas. Even in my family. About intelligence. Culturally: “oh you’re into classical music but you have tattoos?” They expect you to be in a biker shop listening to heavy metal, stereotypical kind of thing. It’s normally the more well-to-do type person. They see the tattoos and there’s a bit of snobbery there. They think you’re going to be a certain style, a certain type of person and not as cultured as them. Maybe it’s a class thing. But I think that has changed a lot with the internet and subsequent TV shows bringing it more into the mainstream. People having it in their living rooms, watching it on TV. And the internet opened it up to so many more people. Before the internet people had to seek out, to buy a magazine. It’s so easy to seek out from the comfort of your own home. If you have to buy a [specialist tattoo] magazine, if you have to go into a tattoo shop, that’s a bigger commitment.
Has that changed the tattoo demographic?
I’ve tattooed people from all sorts of different backgrounds, from surgeons, doctors, lawyers, builders, waiters. There’s no type of person that I haven’t tattooed. More people feel they can. The internet has definitely changed the accessibility so it’s a lot faster paced, just culturally a bit more disposable. Ten, twenty years someone who was a well-known tattoo artist would have built up that reputation slowly. And they would be up there as that person who is respected. Ed Hardy [legendary Californian artist, now retired], for example. Whereas now, it’s flavour of the month, who’s the most popular person. Tattooing for maybe a year and really famous because of their exposure on the internet. And that changes how you go through your career. Just the very fact that the general public can – it’s almost like Tinder, swipe, swipe, swipe, like that one, don’t like that one, it’s the same thing.
Are there taboos in tattooing?
Tribal vaginas, obviously. But less and less. A lot of people have face tattoos, it’s not that unusual now – from my perspective, but I’m around it all the time. Maybe if you asked someone who didn’t have a tattoo they would find it shocking.
Or, put another way, do you ever tell clients to think twice?
I would say that to someone who wanted their hands or neck tattooed, and they hardly have any tattoos anywhere else. I do always say – what do you do for a living, take their age into consideration. If they’re 18, 19 years old, they’re going to be more impulsive than someone in their 40s who’s thought about it and got their job and kinda know what they’re doing somewhat more. There still would be things that I’d raise with people. And there would be things I’d turn down – from when I first started tattooing, anything sectarian, which you’d sometimes get in Scotland. Anything racist, offensive. People who don’t seem compos mentis. It’s a delicate line, because it is all about personal freedom.
You went to art school; do you still feel like “an artist”?
I do personally. I know other tattooers who don’t feel like that. And one isn’t more valued than the other. I really respect the craft. And I respect craft-based tattooers massively. Some tattooers, less and less, would feel more comfortable tattooing from flash [sheets of artwork] that they wouldn’t even have drawn themselves. People would come in and pick something and they’d tattoo it. So that’s a whole side of tattooing that’s completely legitimate. It’s dying off somewhat now. Not as popular as the custom tattoo. Which people actively seek now. Probably because of TV and things like that. A lot of customers have said, “I don’t want something someone else has got.” Part of me thinks, but there’s hardly anything original under the sun – apart from a tribal vagina [laughs]. The main difference is an artist will create a new thing. They’ll seek out new stuff… or they’ll enjoy drawing from scratch. Although I come from that art background it would have been wrong of me to get into tattooing only wanting to further my art career, to channel my artwork just through the medium of tattooing. I think every artistic tattooer has to respect the craft if they want to do tattooing justice, if they want to serve it properly. Because it is a craft, and there are limitations. It’s almost divorcing the ego from the situation. An artist is a selfish, egotistical person by nature, right? A craftsman you think of as being more humble, behind the scenes. So it’s a weird thing to marry in yourself.
What do you do with your ego moments?
The Instagram thing is quite seductive. And you have to be aware of that, comments, likes. You have to acknowledge that it affects you in order that it doesn’t affect you too much. You have to stay true to what you want to do and not pander to what you think will be popular. To a point. We all have to earn a living.
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