Words: Anna Hoghton / Pictures: Remco Merbis
Ben is a Bristol-based tattoo artist who specialises in complicated cover-ups. Ben’s customers flock from all over the globe and he’s usually booked a year in advance. He used to pull seventy-hour-work-weeks in his studio on the famously independent Cheltenham Road (Bristol, U.K.) but now, as a father-to-be, Ben sees the value in slowing down. He’s a humble guy, who lives within his means and doesn’t want ‘to be the richest man in the graveyard’. For Ben, tattooing is about the art and the customer’s happiness, not profit. He gets to know the people who sit in his chair intimately and many become firm friends. Ben has an incessant need to create and says he wants to be able to continue to find his place in the tattooing world, but will stop when the time is right. He talks to us about stigmas, his love of Italy and the stories of the tattoos that left a mark.
How would you describe yourself as a maker?
I am a custom-tattoo artist. Everything I do is unique and one-off rather than copied. Occasionally, I will take things from pop culture or be inspired by other art, but mostly I make my own pieces based on the client’s brief and create compositions from the ground up. I specialise in very hard cover-ups that other artists won’t take on.
What’s your favourite place to make in and why?
This studio is my home. I’ve spent my life here. Twenty-one years ago I arrived as an apprentice and I now own the shop. I spend 45 hours a week within these walls – it used to be up to 70 a week, but that was killing me so I had to slow down for my health and quality of the work. It’s important to have a balance in life and I had to learn to say no to people, which was really hard.
Can you tell us about your piece that went viral?
It was a World War One and Two tribute to soldiers, covering up a huge tribal tattoo across a man’s shoulder and arm. It was huge in scope: covering both World Wars, with lots of different battle scenes and vehicles. I think it touched people for two reasons: the difficulty of the cover-up, and also the poignancy of the subject matter.
Why do you enjoy cover-ups?
I’ve always considered myself a service provider. I don’t pick and choose what I do, like some tattooists. I’ll do any subject any style and I don’t like to let people down. This has pushed me over the years to improve in stylistic areas I’ve been weak at. Now, I’m willing to take on pretty much anything. If it’s impossible I will say, but generally the harder the cover-up the more fun it is, after all, nothing worthwhile is ever easy. The more other tattooists have turned a cover-up away the more I have to do it.
How did you get into tattooing?
I studied art at Brunel and Filton colleges, then took a Saturday job at a chemist. I soon realised that I could not spend my life working in such an uncreative, mind-numbingly boring environment. I knew I had to find a way to make my living from art. So in 1996 I got a portfolio of my work and trawled tattoo conventions and shops in Bristol. The previous owner of The Tattoo Studio was impressed by me and agreed to take me on as an apprentice. He trained me up and threw me in at the deep end. When he left, I took over the studio with the help of my friends Dave and Steuart, and here I am today.
Why did you feel such a strong desire to lead a creative life?
I’m never happier than when I’m creating, whether that’s on a blank piece of paper, canvas, or customizing a motorbike. I need to be creating all the time – it’s like an inner voice and if I don’t let it out I go a bit crazy. Art is my therapy. People are amazed that after a long shift here I go home and draw. But it’s silent and quiet; it allows me to relax and unwind after a long day. Even though the Studio is a relaxed environment, there is a pressure involved when you're doing a tattoo for someone, rather than just creating art for a bit of fun.
Do you ever get nervous tattooing someone?
I used to. In the early days when I was learning, I think I was shaking so much I didn’t even need to turn the machine on! It was hugely nerve-wracking, especially my first tattoo - which I was given a five-minute warning for. The boss just shouted at me to come out and get my gloves on - I was terrified. These days, while I’m not cocky, I am confident in my ability, because I’ve done so many different styles over the years. That said, I’m always learning and enjoy a new challenge.
What are your customers like?
I get all sorts of customers from all over. Some come with a very specific idea of what they want. Others aren’t so good at verbalising and I’ve learnt to work out what they want. I get to know many of my customers really well. Some sit in the chair for hundreds of hours. Some people get their legs, back, stomach and head done. That’s hours and hours of work. You get to know someone really well when you spend that long with them and that’s why a lot of clients do become good friends. You hear about people’s lives and woes, their families, their jobs... everything. Also because so many of the tattoos we do are memorials you get a lot of poignancy. I’ve got teary on more than one occasion.
I get all sorts of tattoo requests form all sorts of people: from skulls to fluffy bunny rabbits. Some people have a real stigma about tattoos but they are conversation pieces and such a personal thing, meaningful and full of legacy.
A customer approached me very distressed because he had self-harmed a lot when he was young, and while years later he was a lot better, the physical scars prevented him getting close to a woman and forming lasting relationships. We covered the scars with a dragon design. A couple of years later my dad was doing jury duty and listened to a fellow juror talking about his tattoo. He was saying how nice it was, and my dad recognised it and chimed in ‘that was my son who did that’. That opened up a beautiful conversation about the story of the scars, which the man hadn’t mentioned before. It’s great that the tattoo was able to help turn that man’s situation around from shame and negative thoughts to an experience that was positive and healing. That sort of thing is immensely satisfying and something that people with stigmas about tattoos don’t see.
What’s the hardest part about being a tattoo artist today?
The hard part for me is watching all these ridiculously talented youngsters coming up who have been taught by other good artists. I was self-taught and these guys are running ten times faster than me. It’s hard to keep up and find my own little niche in the world of tattooing when so many good guys are coming up and surpassing the likes of me. I’m not jealous; I’m impressed. That said, they might not be able to match me in skills in cover-up or rework. I think that’s where my future lies. Three-quarters of my work is now cover-ups and I’m happy with that.
Like sportsmen, you have to know when you’re time is up. I will always do my best and try to improve. I’ve instilled in myself an ethos of: if I’m not enjoying it then I’m not putting my all into it and the quality won’t be good enough. I always try to keep myself motivated, moving forwards and happy. If I wake up one morning and I’ve lost that, I will either try to revive it or realise it’s time to walk away.
Where does inspiration come from?
The entire world inspires me: engineering, bridges, architecture, and nature. I love animals. I love motorbikes, landscapes… Everything and anything! When I was younger, my art was very much about aliens, dragons and skulls. As I’ve got older, it’s more about culture and fiction come to life. I’ve got this crazy painting that represents my take on the mechanics of organized religion on the ceiling above the tattoo chair! Photos, patterns on walls, door knockers… I just soak everything I see up and it comes out on a tattoo sometime.
What places from your past have made you?
Italy is a huge love for my wife and I. We started going there seven years ago. Our first time was to Florence, which is a beguilingly magical city - overwhelmingly romantic and architecturally stunning. The art history and culture there is magnificent. Everywhere you look is an overload of beauty. We’ve gone back so much since: three times last year, five times the year before. We just love everything about Italy: the art, the landscape, the people, the culture, and the food! Literally last night we booked to go back again later this year, hopefully with the baby. That’s going to be fun, taking a five-month-old on a plane…!
Bristol is also a huge influence on me as a person. I’ve lived here my whole life. I’ve done a lot of artwork based on Bristol, such as paintings of a transforming Hatchet pub (our local), a transforming Suspension Bridge, and paintings of the Matthew, the S.S. Great Britain. The Suspension Bridge is massively iconic for Bristol and every time I come back from a holiday and see the Bridge across the Cumberland Basin I just smile. It’s a symbol of coming home. Don’t get me wrong, there are some shit parts to this city, and some shit people and the traffic is diabolical… but I still wouldn’t be anywhere else.
What’s your favourite tattoo you’ve done and why?
I love the Motörhead tribute to Lemmy I did a few years ago before he died. It’s a composition sleeve piece that includes Lemmy’s portrait, a dead man’s hand, ace of spades, Jack Daniels… it's kind of a calling card of every kind of tattoo style I do. It’s portrait, realism, lettering, black and grey and colour. I love creating a composition, sleeves in particular. A back piece is a top and bottom, a left and a right. Whereas sleeves have to meet so there is no join. You have to think about the flow and movement and I love the challenge of it.
I took that client to a convention a few years ago and the reactions to that piece were crazy. People were taking photos all day long. Two of the tattooists I most admire, Robert Hernandez and Bob Tyrrell, saw it. Bob called around, asking who had done it and one guy pointed to me and I got called me over. Rob stopped what he was doing and shook my hand as well. I don’t often use the word proud because it sounds pretentious, but it was a big moment for me, and a huge boost. Respect from your peers is an honour.
What place do you think makers have in the modern world?
More and more, I think people are expressing themselves. We all modify and create our own world around us to one extent or another and some of us are lucky enough to turn that into a career and a business. Of course, there are some people who want to buy the same car as their friends and blend in, but a lot of us are looking for something a bit more unique. Makers, sculptures, artists, tattooists make people’s lives an image. Tattoos, in particular, are a way of marking yourself out as an individual. Of course, there are many who want the same tattoo as David Beckham or the latest trend. But they can also be unique and special.
It will forever be important - in a world that is ever-expanding and becoming more and more mass-produced and overpopulated - to remind yourself that you are an individual and that you have power because of that. You are not just an ant in the rat race. I think there will always be a future for makers.
What kind of place would you like to make the world?
The biggest problem I see with the world is selfishness: if we could just get people to think less about themselves, the whole world would be better. I think if you’ve got the capacity to help someone around you have a better life, then you should do so. I have a big issue with the mega-rich and think that they should give more away. I pay 40% tax and VAT and give away thousands of pounds a year to charity. I earn enough to be happy and the extra can go to someone who needs it - I don’t live beyond my means. I don’t have flashy, brand new cars and I try to give away as much as I can. I’m not saying this to pat myself on the back but to make a point that I think we could all think of others more.
Tell us about the studio?
This studio is a former butcher - some say it still is. We’ve kept a lot of the antique tiles when we refurbished it to try and get a vintage look. We like the old look. And the chair has been here longer than me. It’s sat through so many tattoos, stories and tears. We’re the smallest shop in Bristol - one artist, one studio – I don’t need to be bigger. I’m not about chasing money. So many are jumping on the bandwagon of tattooing being popular and cramming more and more artists into shops. I’d rather keep things relaxed and the quality of the work high. I don’t want to be the richest man in the graveyard; I’d rather be the happiest man here now.
A customer, Steve, knows how much I love Bristol from the conversations we have in the studio and watching my personal Facebook page where I post a lot about Bristol. He got his brother-in-law to draw this picture for me. It’s of the street that my studio is on, in the early 1900s, but with a tram with my name/studio on it. He has a summerhouse bar at the end of his garden where he spends a lot of time with his friends. We’ve talked a lot in the past about how important it is to look after yourself. Not just physically, but mentally too. We christened the bar the Soul Gym, because being with friends and relaxing is good for the soul. I did him an artwork with the title for the wall.
This small stencil was from a young woman who came into my studio quite emotional. She told me that she wanted a small tattoo of those words: Love Thyself on her ribs in the same place her brother had it. He was dying of cancer. I was completely booked, but made the time and managed to get her into the studio two days later. She came in with a friend who accompanied her. It was very poignant. There were tears.
A short while later I got a thank you card in the post. It read “I don’t know if you remember me, but you did my tattoo, 'Love thyself', and I showed it to my brother in hospital. He died two days later. And I want to thank you for what you did.” I read the letter with a huge lump in my throat. Knowing I helped her honour her brother means a huge amount to me personally. Not only did HE know she had the tattoo. SHE knew he knew she had the tattoo. And I know all that and what that means. There is truly no better way to explain to people how important tattoos can be to individuals or how fulfilling my job is. All the massive sleeves and back-pieces in the world can’t match the significance bound up in that small 30-second tattoo… I keep the stencil on my wall as a reminder of the positive mark art can leave.
Remco Merbis, founder (1999) and creative director of visual storytelling agency Pixillion.