Tattoo Panel: Vanmayi Shetty, El Harper, Tilda Mae Clarke & Laura Edith Roxby

In this !GWAK panel, we speak to studio artist El Harper, apprentice Laura Edith Roxby and stick-and-poke artists Tilda Mae Clarke and Vanmayi Shetty about the once fringe art of tattooing and its edging into the mainstream. Varying acutely in their approaches and relationship to the practice, these four tattooists share their insights on commercialism, the pressure of permanence and how tattoo intersects with their other creative pursuits.

1. Work by Laura Edith Roxby; 2. Work by Vanmayi Shetty; 3. Work by El Harper; 4. Work by Tilda Mae Clarke

MN: Could you tell us a little about yourself and your practice?

VM: My name is Vanmayi, I am a visual artist and a storyteller from India.

EH: My name is El Harper and i have been tattooing for around 8 years. Currently, I tattoo at Ministry of Ink in Farnham (the first town in England to be given "World Craft City" status). My work is mainly a combination of Surrealism & Folk Art, incorporating folklore, magic, nature and the occult. I have been lucky enough to tattoo in London, Manchester and San Diego and would love to visit many other places in the future! 

LER: So I’m Laura! I’m 25 and am based in Glasgow. Moved here from the North East to study at GSA and whilst in art school I used to work management in a tattoo studio. When my degree was over, I took some time to get together a portfolio and get into an apprenticeship! I’m definitely drawn to traditional tattoos - aside from the imagery, I love the history of tattooing and think it’s important to keep that alive today!

TMC: My name is Tilda Mae Clarke and I am a multidisciplinary artist based in Melbourne. I have always been situated within the natural environment, spending my time creating and expressing myself using the materials that surround me. I work in collaboration with Mother Nature creating energetic, sculptural paintings. Through the creative expression of a personal narrative, I am able to navigate and persevere through emotional challenges. This explores themes of fear and vulnerability, sexuality and feminism.

MN: How did you begin tattooing?

VM: My country has a long-standing history with mark-making techniques, used by various tribes and communities over generations. It’s these rituals and methods that first drew me into the world of stick and poke. I started my journey with hand poke tattoos around 3 years ago. Initially, I spent a lot of time researching processes and watching DIY techniques on youtube before I finally gathered all the required equipment to give myself my first tattoo. Now when I look back at that time, I don’t know what the driving force behind my choices was. I don’t know if I’d take the chance if it was presented to me in this phase of my life.

EH: It was quite the journey, basically the timeline goes something like this: 

I started being tattooed a lot and hanging out in various studios locally, then began to be tattooed at many conventions in the UK. I then briefly worked for a biker (who let me do a tattoo on the strength of me saying i had done it before) who just came in one day and fired everyone in the studio for reasons which were never explained. I then went on to work in London for a couple of chaps who didn't tattoo, but owned a few studios and believed they were gangsters. Finally, I had a bit of luck. I designed a half sleeve for someone and their tattooist asked who had drawn it and were they looking for work. I ended up getting an apprenticeship at that studio and did that for about a year, while working a retail job at the same time. That's the short version! 

TMC: Since primary school, I have always been fascinated with the art of tattooing. Growing up, my dream was to become a tattoo artist, but it always seemed so out of reach. In the summer of 2019, I met a group of backpackers and we traveled around the Australian bush. While travelling, I found the most extraordinary people who live on the fringes of society - so through this, I met some travelling tattoo artists. These artists introduced me to the therapeutic practice of hand-poking. I was hooked! I began tattooing friends and travellers for free to practice. Even though its seen as a definite no-no, tattooing in nature was so beautiful - it provokes a state of profound tranquility.

LER: When I moved to Glasgow, I was looking for where to get tattooed and made good pals with one of the girls tattooing me - Karolina Sylwia, who is an incredibly talented artist! Now years on, she is my best pal! She put me forward to work desk and organising the studio and all the online bits! So even though I was always wanting to get into an apprenticeship, this was my foot in the door, whilst finishing off my degree. It’s a few years ago now but feels like a lifetime and different person ago!

Work by Tilda Mae Clarke

MN: How does tattooing intersect with your other creative interests?

VM: Storytelling is such an integral part of my creative work - and the tattoos that I do are just an extension of this need to tell stories. 

TMC: My work usually consists of working with living subjects. I use my energy alongside the energy of nature to create artworks that explore our relationship. For me this runs parallel with tattooing, as it relies on an emotional and physical connection as well as a collaboration between two people. Hand-poking relies on a repetitive mark in order to create a line or shading within the tattoo. I have noticed this same repetition in my sculptural paintings as I sew or use mark making to form shapes or compositions.

EH: There's quite a lot of crossover. Often, I will simply begin an artwork and then decide afterwards if it's more suited to becoming a stand alone artwork or a tattoo design - some have ended up being both. Anytime i am drawing or mark making, It's honing my skills in drawing, tattooing or lino cutting. I am also working on a musical project at the moment, and I have used some of my tattoo designs and illustrations to create a soundtrack to the aesthetic of these images. 

LER: I actually think they’re very separate for me. On the one hand, I have a love for making these huge paintings and drawings. They’re very personal and freeing - even though imagery wise they’re reasonably similar and can interlink visually at times, there is a different process going on for me both emotionally and practically.

When I’m making flash designs, I think of how they’d actually be done, from lines to shading, how colours are going to work and add up as a tattoo itself. I still have the same fun but a design feels like it has a start and finish, when I’ve completed and page of designs there is a sense of satisfaction in it. A lot of the time I don’t get that in my fine art side of things - probably because there is a concept or personal experience behind it and that doesn’t just stop when I stop drawing.

MN: How do you connect with your clients? To what extent is this important to your practice?

VM: My tattooing process is entirely collaborative - My clients are always requested to arrive with an open mind. Once we meet we spend a few hours drawing and talking with each other - putting down emotions to paper. As time passes certain motifs and shapes start to come together to tell abstracted stories which eventually I tattoo onto my client. As you can imagine, this entire process works on mutual trust and respect. And because so much of it is about translating emotions and stories into wearable design, it has the tendency to be very taxing, but it’s also what makes this process so beautiful. I find myself changed after every tattoo. It’s extremely gratifying to help people interpret their stories, and own them. 

TMC: Getting tattooed is daunting, especially by a stranger in an unfamiliar place. I always aim to make the client feel as comfortable and safe as possible.I believe getting a tattoo is not so much about the new adornment that you’ve planned for years, rather the experience itself. The art of tattooing is defined by the patience and focus that is required to work through deliberate physical pain with an artist. For me this is quite spiritual, as the energy I exude is put directly into the skin of the client.

EH: Usually it's a recommendation, they are an existing client, or through Instagram. 

So it depends which one of those it is, but if they are choosing a pre existing piece i have drawn it's pretty safe to assume we are on the same page. Repeat clients usually visit the studio or email and give me some details and then let me run with it. If i haven't tattooed someone before, I often like to meet them first so i can ask some specific questions and try to really get the feel of what they are looking for. 

LER: I’m yet to tattoo and am in process of looking for new home to continue my apprenticeship, but I think it’s just appreciating the variety of people you meet in tattooing. People messaging me about my work from Instagram, it’s incredible. I’m always super humbled and grateful for anyone saying they’d like to get tattooed by me, or even just saying they like my work! Then in the studio day to day, you go from meeting someone who’s been wanting a tattoo for 20 years and just committing to getting their first and the next person through the door is head to toe covered and have 20 years worth of tattoos on them! Variety of people with different needs and values.

Connections to people and making a community is something so important to me - whether this is clients, the public, tattooists, or simply people who are interested in art! I’ve always been someone who wants to give to others and contribute positively. I’ve just been in the position to set up a little platform with two incredible tattooists, Laura Kennedy and Paige Davidson. We’re running a page called Sacred Hearts Art Club and have just had our first charity art auction in aid of charities supporting victims of domestic abuse. We gathered up 40 friends across Glasgow and Edinburgh between us and had everyone make a piece of art to donate and ended up raising a sweet £4,000! It’s so lovely to be able to have this common ground between people and be able to use that to do something for others. We’ll definitely be doing a lot more with the page! Exhibitions both physical and virtual, fundraisers and collaborations. Really excited to see how it expands.

MN: Is there ever a tension between the commercial aspect of tattooing and your own creative preferences and expression?

VM: I don’t rely on tattooing as my primary source of income, so I have the freedom to really have fun with the kind of work I do. 

LER: I think it’s maybe where you're at in your career or the type of studio you're in - even just the tattooist you want to be. Some people choose to focus on their own art and push to make flash and be tattooing that - others work more based on this street shop idea of doing walk ins, customer requests and generating work from those clients. A lot of the time artists you may know to have a style, and that’s what you see on their social medias, also take a lot of different stuff - whether it’s an outline of a star, a name and date of birth, infinity symbols! That’s the stuff what’s going on day to day amongst their own flash. It’s a job and you have to appreciate those tattoos between making what you want to do.

The age of social media and things just like celebrity culture and their impact on the industry are huge! On one hand it’s incredible for tattooists - they have a wider audience and more opportunities than ever, but there is also a whole scope of different issues it brings up. Like so many downfalls and frustrations, but you have to remain focused on your love of art, what you're making and the goals you want to achieve. It’s easy to get knocked in a society based on a competitive system of likes and trends but it honestly only counts for so much.

TMC: Yes, I have always been frustrated with how the tattoo industry is run. To fit in, your style of tattooing must be pigeon-holed into a certain set of aesthetic criteria. American traditional, Japanese, black and grey, realism, watercolour or neo traditional etc. A few years ago in Sydney I was hoping to start an apprenticeship; however, the artist I was going to apprentice under had told me I need to “pick a style and stick with it” and “find the master of that style and draw their work over and over again”. I had come from a fine art background and I didn’t fit into any of these styles. Then I came across the Melbourne tattoo scene and it opened everything up for me. Artists like Ange at Crucible Tattoo blew me away: she freehand tattoos her abstract paintings which are primarily made up of organic, repetitive marks. Watching her tattoo was like watching someone paint from their soul rather than a stencil. She also goes by pay by donation which allows people of low income to have an opportunity to be tattooed by them. In my own practice I want to follow Ange’s ways and cultivate a more therapeutic, accessible and soulful practice in tattooing.

EH: That's a very interesting topic right now. Tattooing is becoming increasingly corporate, so in some ways it seems the more money that's involved, the more restrictive it becomes - or at least there are certain pressures to fit in and be marketable. It's quite apparent that conventions and magazines show bias towards certain styles of tattooing and types of artists, because that's what sells and fits in with the image of the tattoo reality programmes and aspirational lifestyles. It's nice to see there's still another sort of section of artists who aren't really as fussed about these things and continue with a more underground/punk type of attitude (although i believe everyone markets themselves to some extent). I've been quite lucky. Overtime, I've built up a base of clients who like what I do, so there is a certain amount of freedom that comes with that. 

Work by El Harper

MN: Unlike other creative pursuits, tattooing has a very explicit, direct physical impact on those that engage with it. How do you reconcile that pressure of permanence?

TMC: I don’t believe anything is permanent, especially tattoos. They dissolve and break down in the layers of our skin as we dissolve too. They are in constant change, from being on the top layer of the skin, to sinking into the second. They fade with the sun and even change colour from black to blue. I think as society opens up to the idea of tattooing we begin to lessen that pressure of permanence. We often are fearful of decisions that may impact the future, but the present moment is all we have.

EH: Well, obviously part of the appeal is the permanence and the concept that you can have something on you forever. When you are the one putting it on the skin, it can be nerve wracking, but as long as you and the client are mutually happy, you tend to focus more on making it the best you can and hopefully enjoying what you are doing as well. Personally, one of my favourite parts is seeing the healed tattoos - especially a few months on when it's fully settled in: you know it has actually become part of the person. Another aspect I often think about is intention, as this is quite important in magick. This doesn't happen often, but if I don't gel with someone or they have been terribly rude to me, I may pass on doing the tattoo or recommend another artist as i don't want to transfer that negative energy into the tattoo. 

LER: I think you’d be overly confident if you don’t feel nerves about it, especially in your apprenticeship/earlier point in your career. Aside from the fears of making mistakes in the process of tattooing, the idea of permanence is something that’s exciting and it’s a privilege that someone wants to give you a space on their body.

Also it’s appreciating what position the client is coming to you from - you have those who love an artist's work and want their design to be on them for life, and are adding to a collection of tattoos, whereas another person has sat on this one idea for years and really had to commit to this idea of permanence. It’s that appreciation that everyone’s experience is different and that permanent mark you're making is entirely unique.

MN: Laura - your work is heavily inspired by traditional tattoo. How do you engage with and rework tattoo’s history?

LER: I really love traditional tattoos - the heavy lines, bold colour and the history behind the outsider culture of getting tattooed. It’s important to keep that going, especially when that can get very easily lost in tattooing now.

I'm always planning a hundred designs I want to create at every one time - it’s how my head has worked forever, no matter what I’m making. It’s just a natural process in how I work balancing my own ideas with referencing traditional flash, and what other artists are doing with their work. A lot of tattooing and designing is reproducing classic themes and designs - lots of artists choose to make classics and add their own spin on it. It’s nice, it’s like taking the seeds of a plant and replanting it to grow elsewhere (in someone else’s garden haha) or something nice and poetic like that anyway - just this really positive, inspiring recycling of art and tattoo history.

Work by Laura

MN: El-could you tell us a little about the intersection between folklore and aspects of the occult that influence your work? Why does tattoo act so powerfully as the conduit through which you explore these ideas and influences?

EH: Part of it stems from being fascinated by bands that were influenced by or incorporated their home landscapes into their musical sound, and my desire to attempt the illustration/tattoo version of that. Having always been interested in some of the  darker/hidden subjects, especially that which comes from the land, I definitely wanted my work to have a very rural folky feel. With some of the occult iconography and symbols, it comes down to intent again. It can of course be purely ornamental, but if a client wants something for a certain reason, I will work with them to achieve that, which, depending on what you believe in, could be very powerful, as the tattoo is permanent and they carry it with them always. 

MN: Vanmayi and Tilda - unlike Laura and El, your tattoo work is hand-poked. How do you think this process alters the experience, both for the artist and the client?

VM: My process, for the most part, relies on collaborations with my clients. It’s exhausting, humbling but extremely cathartic to honestly translate stories into art.

TMC: With hand-poking, we are forced to be mindful. The practice takes up a lot of time, it's slow and tedious but the repetitive movement and sound always puts me and my client in a trance. I have found with machine tattoos, the tattoo can be rushed and the volume can be daunting for the client There is only the needle in-between my hand and the client, encouraging a greater sense of intimacy and control. I had a tattoo I was working on for a few months - during this time with a person you create a deep and intimate bond as the trance allows a safe space for deep conversations.

Work by Vanmayi

MN: Where do you hope to take your work next?

TMC: I want to thread tattooing into my main creative practice, as I have always wanted to take tattooing into a performative direction. I see the practice of tattooing as an artwork in itself. It explores a unique relationship between the artist and the one getting tattooed. I'd love to perform something to illustrate this dynamic in front of an audience; to have people who wouldn’t get the chance experience a tattoo. I would also like to push this medium further in the art world. I want to incorporate other elements such as sound or movement to make a work.

EH: Always looking to go weirder haha and a move to even more freehand drawing and painting stencils onto the skin with brushes etc., going straight in with the machine to create various flows of nature. Currently, I am working on a concept with a lucky dip of facial features, so the different features would be chosen at random and the faces would be quite different on each client who receives one.