Hi, my name is Jess and I am a blackwork tattoo artist based in Sheffield. Starting tattooing is definitely one of the hardest things I’ve done but massively and undeniably the best thing too. A few people think the tattoo industry is getting ‘oversaturated’ but I honestly adore it. There are so many styles and techniques now!
My journey into the tattoo business began when I put together a portfolio and asking at local studios to see if they had any apprenticeships available. I always tell people to research the studio you’re looking at and to make sure that they want you for the right reasons. I wouldn’t say my first studio was an ideal one but you learn something from every experience, even if it is the kind of things to avoid. It’s mentally really hard, you’re starting from absolute scratch. You might be able to draw but that definitely doesn’t mean you can tattoo. It’s an environment where you’re learning all the time and working with skin is really challenging. There’s a lot of things you only learn as you face them and you have to be able to adapt your technique to a given situation.
However, before I knew I wanted to get into the tattoo business, I have always been drawn to art from being a kid. I focused on art and textiles in college and then took Costume Design at university, with designing and character drawing being the most interesting bit to me (it turns out I can’t make clothes to save my life). I started getting tattooed at 18, just little things in spots I could hide them, but it wasn’t until I moved to Sheffield at 22 that I started getting more into the tattoo community and started to draw with more tattoo elements in mind. After a year of finding my feet in a new city, working in a fun but quiet coffee shop and getting tattooed by some incredible artists in Sheffield city centre, I realised that being a Tattooist was an actual job that I could go for. I think it was good to start at 23, I’d already experienced a lot of ups and downs and by that point I knew I didn’t want to work in customer service or retail and went into tattooing with a massive desire to make it work.
Flashforward to now, my working day consists of many customers and a lot of tattooing. The first thing I do is stretch! Tattooing takes its toll on your back (and every other joint) so I do around 15 minutes of really easy yoga to stretch everything out. When I get into work I clean my station and chair and then set up my station machines. When my customer gets in I say hello and usually apologise for running 10 minutes late. When a customer first arrives they have to fill out a consent form with basic health questions and then we’ll check out the design together and make sure everything is how they wanted it. We can do any small changes to the design that need to be made and then we’ll measure up the stencil to make sure it fits the area its going in perfectly. Its always best to be a bit open minded on size, a lot of the time things work better on the slightly bigger side to get in smaller details. When everything looks great and is the right size I make a carbon stencil using a stencil printer, shave the area on the body its going, use a little hand sanitiser just to make sure the skin is clean and then apply a thin layer of stencil fluid and let it dry for a few minutes until it gets tacky.
Next, I’ll apply the stencil and make sure that I’m personally happy with the position. In certain placements like near knees or elbows I’ll always ask the client to bend their joints as this can distort the stencil and you need to have a good idea how its going to move with the body. It’s definitely not like drawing on paper, skin moves and bends and anything on it will move to, I also ask clients to bear this in mind. Once I’m happy with how it looks I’ll ask the customer to check for themselves in a mirror. Placement of a tattoo is definitely a collaboration, what I think looks good might not be what the customer had in mind and what the customer wanted might distort or wrap too much. You just have to explain and work it out together, which is a lot easier than I’m making it sound! If the stencil needs to be moved its just a case of wiping it off an reapplying it in a new spot. I always tell people to not feel pressured into having it where I put it first time, its easy to move and its going to be on YOUR body so you need to be happy with it.
Then we get to the tattooing! Some people don’t like talking and that is absolutely fine, everyone deals with pain differently. You have 3 layers of skin, the epidermis is the outer later of skin, then you have the dermis and then under that you have the subcutaneous fat layer. When I tattoo, I want to go into the middle dermis layer. If I don’t go deep enough and only hit the epidermis, the ink will shed out with that skin and ‘fall out’. If I go too deep into the subcutaneous layer, the ink will spread and ‘bleed’. This causes a thicker/blurred line or make what looks like a small blue bruise at a certain point of the tattoo. Different skin types can be more prone to certain things. For example, if someone comes in a little older, their skin will naturally be more delicate and less elastic. Different areas of the skin also pose different challenges. For example, the skin on your shin is closer to the bone so I need be more careful with how deep the needle is going as it will be more prone to blowing out.
Once the ink is in the dermis, white blood cells surround it in an attempt to remove it as ink is a foreign substance in the body. This is why new tattoos go red and may swell. As ink particles are too big for the white blood cells to break down the ink ends up just staying in your skin and that is how you have a permanent tattoo. However, as your skin loses it elasticity the ink will inevitably move and shift. Sometimes I get asked by customers if I can give an estimate on how long a tattoo will take and its hard to give a time. It depends on so many things but namely how your skin is to tattoo and how well you sit. If you have slightly difficult skin to tattoo it will take a little longer and if you move a lot or need breaks it obviously takes longer too.
When the tattoos done, it is time for the aftercare. For my style with linework and dots, I usually recommend a solid cocoa butter and to moisturise and clean it twice a day for the first week or so. A tattoo is an open wound so its good to not let it get too dry but also it still need to breathe to be able to heal. I always wrap a new tattoo with clingfilm initially to make sure no dirt or anything gross gets in it before you get home. I also usually recommend wrapping the tattoo up on the first night too, just so that it doesn’t stick to your bedsheets. Tattoos spend a long time settling into the skin but after two weeks it should of shed the dead skin and the new skin should of come through, which is why tattoos looks shiny as they heal. Times do vary from person to person though and I always ask people to message me if there’s anything they’re worried about with healing and to send me healed photos so I can check everything is settled in ok.
Once the customers gone I stuff my face with whatever food is closest and then clean my station, chair, floor, nearest wall and anything else that has been used or is close to where I’ve worked. I try to do all my drawing on one of my days off so that I don’t need to do it after work, I’m usually way too tired. Another day I will be lining them in and getting a rough idea on line weights I’ll use and where the dot work and stippling should go. Studio Ghibli and Japan in general are huge inspirations for my work. I adore doing Ghibli characters and never really turn them down. I know they are not original art to me but I really enjoy tattooing them and the people that want a Ghibli tattoo are usually so nice and fun. I also love Japanese folklore, patterns and Yokai stories, like Japanese monsters and ghosts that are manifestations of worries or fears. I also love anything woodland or autumnal. I love doing little sceneries in diamonds or ovals with little cabins and pumpkin patches.
Obviously I love drawing and tattooing but I’ve made some incredible friends and learnt so much about issues that I would never of been able to understand if it wasn’t for tattooing. I’ve heard amazing stories, been given perspectives of the trans community I never would of known about and tattooed people who have such selfless unbearably hard jobs and come out of it all still smiling. The people I tattoo is the reason I carry on with this job, as cheesy as it sounds. I am incredibly lucky in that I have such a sweet and likeminded client base! I’ve learnt so much about so many different communities and I am so massively grateful for that.
Although, being a self-employed artist unfortunately means you’re in charge of admin and social media. I used to wake up at around half seven, answer messages while I got ready for work and get into the studio for 10am. Once I am done tattooing I need to clean and break down the work station, tidy up the studio and then get home around 7-8pm. Then I need to answer more emails and prep for the next day. Having more time to spend on social media is important as, Instagram is definitely a helpful tool in tattooing. Its a place where someone can view my tattoos, how they heal, my diary availability and how to contact my. Instagram is great because its free, its clear to use and it can have a really wise reach. Things like Instagram get bad when you focus too much on how many likes or followers you have. Tying worth to your tattoo based on how many clicks it gets can be really demoralising. Some of my favourite tattoos have the least number of likes, but that doesn’t change the fact that its still one of my favourite tattoos
Thus, my piece of advice to readers would be to never push it, you’ll find what you love and what you want to do. The more you worry and stress you will just feel miserable all the time. As much as tattooing sometimes stresses me out its definitely the thing I’m happy with right now. It also challenged me in a lot of ways, I used to be very uncertain and have no confidence in myself. Tattooing has definitely made me be a lot more comfortable with myself even though it was hard to get there! It’s also the first job that is allowed me the freedom to finally go to Japan. It was a dream of mine to go since I was a kid and I finally managed to go at the ripe age of 27!
Just a quick note. Having lost a sweet and wonderful close friend this year, be sure to reach out if you need it. COVID has been so hard on everyone and their mental health (on top of everything else). Be sure to reach out to friends and family as well as organisations like Samaritans and CALM who will listen and be able to give you a fresh perspective. I would like to dedicate this article to my friend, Rob, and all the love and kindness he gave.
If anyone is struggling with their mental health, please reach out to these associations: