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Opera North - The Little Greats

Gray Silva on Tattooing 80 Year Old Women

9 August 17 words: Gray Silva

Tattoo artist Gray Silva, of Netherfield-based parlour Rampant Ink, tells us how he got into inking, his inimitable style, and why you shouldn’t come to him if you’re after a cliched tattoo of a cloud in the shape of Bart Simpson’s bum…

illustration: Ned Wilson

The first tattoo I ever did? Awful. It was a sun with a face in the middle. My mentor said “Ooh, fancy. Three colours in that.” I’d used red, orange and yellow, and it was horrible. That’s the thing about tattooing: nobody’s a natural. Tattooing on skin is like using a pencil that doesn’t want to go in the direction you push it, and doesn’t want to touch the surface you’re working on. The only way to learn is through repetition, so most tattooists have covered their thighs in terrible pieces.

Before getting into tattooing, I was studying for a design degree in Leeds. One day my mate decided he wanted a tattoo, so I said I’d go along. I got chatting with the tattooist about a drawing I was doing, and he told me to bring it in so he could tattoo it on me; a back piece and half sleeve later, I thought about tattooing as a career. The guy lived above his studio and if the weather was decent, he’d wake up and say, “I’m taking the kids out today, the shop’s closed.” That was the life for me.

I eventually asked if he’d teach me, and he told me to “F**k right off.” So, I kept getting tattooed and asking him. I think I wore him down more than anything and eventually he relented. I worked for him for two years, seven days a week, for free, doing anything and everything and soaking up every morsel of information I could. Of course, the bills had to be paid too, so I worked in a nightclub five nights a week; I don't remember sleeping much in those two years. And you know those hangovers where you can’t move your head up and down? Well tattooists spend all day doing that, so a heavy night out was a no-go.

You need to be able to talk to people while they’re in the chair, too; build up a rapport. The stories people tell you while you’re tattooing them can be really personal; we’re a little bit like therapists. Although I could write a book with some of the hilarious things people have told me, too.

When I first started tattooing, our main clientele seemed to be bikers, drug dealers, prostitutes, the military and football fans. These days, it’s a much wider section of society, stretching across the class divide. We increasingly see “yummy mummys”, doctors and we’ve even had a high-court judge in our studio.

One of my favourite clients was a lady in her eighties. She came in on the day she buried her husband to get her first tattoo: a fairy. It was the first thing on her mind after laying her husband of over sixty years to rest. I’ll never forget the mischievous look on her face as she confessed to me that she’d always wanted a tattoo but “The miserable bastard would never let me have one.” Beautiful.

A lot of people come in wanting tattoos because they’re a trend or because they’ve seen them on someone famous. Personally, I can’t bear the thought of tattooing one more footballer-style religious sleeve on someone – you know, angels, doves and clouds that look like Bart Simpsons’ cartoon arse crack – because they don’t allow any creativity. They’ve become this decade’s bulldog wearing a football shirt and, as a custom studio, we pride ourselves on producing original work.

My style is bold, abstract and graphic, with a little cubism for good measure; it’s like I see the world as a series of straight lines. I used to get punished at school for not drawing “properly”, and my lecturers at university would give me Fs for drawing like that, too. Now I have clients who fly from all over the world to get a piece done by me.

It was the forerunner to Picasso, Franz Marc, who inspired me to draw the way I do, but it was the French tattooist, Bugs, who encouraged me to tattoo this way. He tattooed my arms in his unmistakable cubist style and showed me – and told me, repeatedly – the importance of tattooing as an art form rather than a technical exercise. I’ve never been more grateful for a piece of advice.

Clients put a lot of trust in me to get it right, and I put a lot of effort into creating their piece, so it’s incredibly satisfying when they love the work. I gave a client his second ever tattoo the other week, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone happier than him when I’d finished. He kept saying, “I can’t believe that’s my arm.”

There’ve been times when I’ve been worried that a client is going to regret a tattoo. Claire, Danica and I put so much time into our client consultations, particularly if we’re trying to explain why we think the artwork they’ve presented us with isn’t going to work. It’s important to guide people through this stage to ensure they get the best piece possible.

Rampant Ink is going to be celebrating its twentieth anniversary next year, and I think a big reason for our longevity is we always try and stay as current as possible. We have a steady stream of guest tattoo artists that visit frequently from around the world, and a core of full-time artists dedicated to constantly learning and improving. The minute I stop doing that, I’ll become one of those “old guys”, who moans about tattooing “not being like it used to be”. I don’t want to be one of them.

Rampant Ink website

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