The Fire is in My Heart | An Interview with El Tragico

Known for a characteristically dark blend of the traditional and surreal in his tattoo work, we chat to !GWAK member and creative powerhouse, El Tragico, about his work with curation and illustration, first tattoos and his creative beginnings.

Portrait by Andrew Clift

What drew you towards being a creative, and later towards tattooing? 

As an only child, I had to make up my own games and such to keep myself amused, so I think that definitely helped with my imagination and improvisation skills. I love the outdoors but have never been terribly sporty, so I would sort of hide away like a tiny Victorian goth poet and just read, write, draw and create.

You could say I came to tattooing quite late (I was 28) but I was always interested in tattoo and tattoo art, which I had first discovered through punk music and various books. I was drawn in by the idea of being able to be creative in a full time job—as well as being able to be heavily tattooed and it not be a problem, and to be seen, at the time, as being ‘on the edge of society’ haha.

What was your first tattoo? 

My first tattoo was on the top of my right arm. It's a sacred heart on fire, with a banner saying "The Fire is in My Heart". I saw it on a T-shirt and thought it was wonderful—so I got it done on a ‘walk-in Saturday’ by Becs at Jon Nott's shop, Bespoke (called Trollspiel then). I waited around most of the day, was pretty nervous, and accidentally trod on the foot switch during the tattoo. 

How would you say your style has evolved? 

Well, I would like to think it's improved over the years!  Originally it was mostly bright Traditional/American Traditional with a weird twist. It was actually very bright mostly out of necessity—I could only afford so many inks/paints to work with, so I did have to improvise—but being in that position did also teach me a lot about the style, and gave me the skills to create powerful and dynamic pieces, without the complexity.

Gradually, it just got darker in theme. Aesthetically, I have always been a big fan of contrasts, so by removing the colours, I could make them even more extreme. The next stage was using different line weights and incorporating some woodcut style shading. More recently, the addition of dot work gradients has completed the look and feel of the current version of my style.

How do you see the relationship between being a tattoo artist, an illustrator and a curator? In what ways are each creative discipline interlinked and to what extent are they separate? 

The tattooing process is definitely top in terms of being the most physically and mentally demanding, partly due to it yielding the most permanent results, but I don't think it would be as fully rounded without the illustration and curation elements included. They are all their own entities but also linked at the same time—for example, some pieces that can be achieved with illustration, which I find is usually the most solitary of the three practices, may not fully translate to tattoo. 

Curating is a lot less hands-on than tattooing, but, at the same time, part of the tattoo design/illustration process is arranging and collecting images and materials for each piece—see my overflowing book collection for further reference! The main difference with curating as

opposed to illustration or tattooing is that I am showing/collecting/looking after the work of others. It means I can get away from being too self-contained. I love being able to engage with my friends or other artists while helping them gain exposure or recognition. 

What is the most rewarding aspect of your work? 

Definitely being able to help clients with their self-image. There's an excellent interview with Duncan X (who i have had the pleasure of being tattooed by) in which he states "I wanted to destroy the old version of me", which fascinated me. Many people often see tattooing as trivial, but I think they underestimate the impact it can have. Much like myself, clients often will use tattoos to mark points in their lives—whether it be sad, happy or to mark an achievement/new direction. 

On another level, the best feeling is when someone chooses a design from my personal book at a convention/in the studio, as I know they have seen it with no preconception, and fallen in love with it enough to have it tattooed without any sort of coercion. It's incredibly rewarding to be able to draw and create things for a living and then people have them put on their skin forever.