Realism specialist David Corden was a ventilation engineer for 15 years before taking up the needle under the supervision of Jim Gambell at Ritual Art Tattoo; and for most of that time his inner artist had lain dormant, until an offer from his future boss changed everything...
When is a tattoo artist not a tattoo artist? When he's a ventilation engineer, of course. Don't worry, this isn't an attempt at humour or a demented bit of pseudo-science where needles are essential for 'aerating the body' – it's biography.
“Nine years ago I took a design I had done myself to Jim to have it tattooed on my arm,” David explains. “During the course of getting the tattoo done we realised we had a lot in common and shared a lot of the same likes and dislikes artistically. After the tattoo was complete Jim asked me to bring in my portfolio.”
Sounds simple, right? Not quite. David did indeed take in his portfolio, but it took him a little while. Four years, to be exact. “I thought his interest was purely artistic,” he says, “I had no idea his intentions were to offer me a job.” But by chance Jim was tattooing David's cousin, his name came up and the request to see the portfolio was made again. “Call it fate or whatever, I was off the day my cousin called to say 'chuck some work in a portfolio and come down'.” By the end of the day, he'd been offered the apprenticeship. Does he regret the wait? “No. I don't think the timing was right for either of us back then. But once I'd got my first tattoo, like a lot of people, I started paying attention to everyone else's ink. I started to pick up tattoo magazines and think 'bloody hell, I didn't know you could do that!' So when the job offer came along four years later I realised what an opportunity it was.”
Once he'd been given that opportunity he jumped to it and started work at Ritual Art. It was an old school apprenticeship – months of “turning up every day and doing the grips, making the lunches and the tea and so on, just watching Jim work and asking lots of questions” – but he was more than happy to take his time. “Being older (he was 34) I knew how serious it was to put needles and ink into people's skin. I wanted my first tattoos to be good, and I thought if I knew how the machines worked and how to put the ink in I'd do as well as I could.”
Ritual Art's focus is on custom work and he was encouraged to steer clear of flash; so what did he use for inspiration in the early days? “In the beginning it was Robert Hernandez's work,” he says. “Up until seeing his art I hadn't realized just what was possible with a tattoo machine. He's probably still my biggest hero today.”
With the engineering tools safely gathering dust, David could focus on developing his signature style of inkwork. He's all about the realism, and always will be – “it's all I've ever wanted to do and I can't imagine it ever changing.” As for honing his technique and improving as an artist, the steady stream of customers at the studio soon saw to that, and he tightened everything up with constant repetition as well as keeping an open mind. “I've always been quick to try new machines or new needles when they come along, even if I'm comfortable with the setup I already have. You should never be closed to trying new things because maybe one of those things is all that's standing in the way of you becoming a great artist.”
As time has passed, has he discovered any quirks to the way he works? Some artists prefer a brutal heavy metal soundtrack, for example, while others like things a little more mellow. “There's always music on in the studio so that if a client is shy, they don't feel compelled to talk,” he says. “Having said that, I'm very sociable and love to spend the day talking and having a laugh with my clients.” A self-confessed “pretty slow worker”, it's probably helpful to be a people person while the time ticks by; his reputation for a gentle touch when tattooing also comes in handy. It must work: “Some great friends have initially started out as clients!”
Keeping It Real
So how does he like to work when it comes to starting a new piece? “I quite often find that people bring in a very exact image that they would like me to work from, anything from a portrait to a pic of a family pet,” he says. “Although sometimes they'll bring me several images to give me a feel of where they would like the design to go and they leave me to come up with something original for them. I'm happy to work either way.” He does have an in-built quality control standard – once an engineer, always an engineer – that means he'll turn clients away if the images they provide are in bad taste, or “are of such low quality that I can't do anything worthy of being a tattoo from it.” This doesn't mean he'll unceremoniously hoof them out the door, of course – he'll usually recommend an artist who he feels is better equipped for the job in hand.
If turning away work sounds like a luxury... well, it is, and he acknowledges this. “We do have the luxury of being busy, so we never have to take on any work that we're not passionate about doing. This may not mean that your idea is necessarily a bad one,” he adds, diplomatically, “it could simply mean that in this instance we're not the right artists for you.”
Ideas that work are vital if you want a tattoo from David and his colleagues. If you're going to see them you can expect a few things – a nicely lit studio, a relaxing atmosphere – but you should also expect to do some research before you arrive. “We do ask that clients do their homework before coming in to see us,” says David. “If you just come into us because you want a new tattoo but have no idea of what you want then you'll be turned away.”
You get full marks for your homework if you bring plenty of reference material that will let David come up with the right design for you. What you don't like can be just as helpful as what you do, he says: “If people are very clear about what they don't want, we sometimes ask for examples to prevent any wasted time during the design process.” David's a relaxed chap to talk to, but he and the Ritual Art Tattoo team take their art seriously, so if a client comes in with an idea deemed 'stupid', they can expect to be told about it. “We want to put everlasting artwork on skin, not jokes that are funny for five minutes and regretted for years,” David explains. “But by the same token if someone has an idea that's on the right tracks that we feel could be developed into something far better, we'll always say so.”
The Real Thing
Which leads us to the slightly murky question of what 'something far better' might be – what does make a really great tattoo? What are the key ingredients? “To come up with an idea that's truly original is seemingly impossible nowadays,” says David, “or you can have a great idea but can ruin the tattoo with a poor understanding of the human anatomy. A tattoo has to fit, flow and compliment the body part it's on.” It's like getting your outfit wrong, he explains – the wrong outfit on the wrong person won't look flattering, and nor will an otherwise great tattoo that's been badly positioned. It will lose its impact. “For me, the best tattoos are those that make the wearer look better. Something that doesn't just fit the body but actually enhances it. It doesn't matter if it's colour or black and grey, it just has to be something with that wow factor. It's not always something you can quantify but you know it when you see it.”
Working in the weird, unquantifiable twilight zone that is artistic taste has its creative freedoms, but also its downsides when clients don't take well to having their designs turned away. “One of my biggest pet hates is when someone brings in a design and thinks we're legally bound to do it as tattoo artists,” says David of these occasional conflicts, “and who are abusive when we turn them down.” And then there are those who break the 'good tattoo not cheap/cheap tattoo not good' rule with the error of haggling over price (for shame!) – “the only thing that will achieve is pushing the price up and making their tattoo more painful. FACT. Haha!”
Presumably he doesn't try to beat artists down on price when he gets new work done himself, then... and when he does go under the needle, it's with artists whose style is very different to his own. “I want tattoos from people that I admire, because of the way their minds work; that is, differently to mine,” he says. “I don't see myself as very creative – rightly or wrongly – I just copy things. What others do amazes me because of their ability to create something out of nothing.”
Getting a new piece also changes his own tattooing. “Having new work done gives you an appreciation of what you're doing,” he says. It also helps him remember that some people are coming to him for their first tattoos, “and I don't think that's a bad thing.”
With a solid work ethic he ascribes to his years spent working on building sites, David Corden is clearly a man who loves the unexpected path his career has taken. He's at the studio an hour early every day and is always happy to chat to clients and other artists, trying to improve his tattooing. It goes to show that patience – all four years of it – can be a virtue, and it's safe to say he's happy with the way things have turned out. “It comes down to the fact that we draw pictures and get paid very well to do it,” he laughs, almost in disbelief. “We just draw on people, and it's wicked; what's not to love? I'm happy every day!”
The First Tattoo
David did his first inkwork on his cousin, who kindly volunteered his skin. “A few days before we did it he said he wanted it to be a portrait of Jack Nicholson in 'The Shining'. I thought, 'you wanker!'” he laughs, “'but alright then, let's go.' It came out better than I expected.
“But it turned out my cousin had very good skin and I was lucky; my next three or four were a nightmare!”
Although he'd always drawn portraits, David hadn't worked on anything for several years before he started tattooing. “I knew I was wasting a talent, but I didn't know what to do with it. I never thought it would be tattooing, but now of course it's a credible art form and it's getting better all the time.”
(Check out David's Facebook profile to see his first tattoo. It's in the 'portraits' section, and unbelievably good for a first attempt.)
The Ritual Art Tattoo Experience
“Our studio has a very clean and modern look. It's all stainless steel and natural wood with bright lights in each work station. It's very spacious, so there's no feeling of being cramped which, I think, helps both clients and staff feel relaxed. It's very important to us that the client feels they matter; we don't want anyone to think that they're just that day's money.”
The Artist's Artists
Who does David rate at the moment? “Damn...the list is endless. Internationally the artists that I follow most closely are Elvin Yong, Teneile Napoli and Jamie MacKay. On the British scene Jason Butcher and Jo Harrison are still at the forefront but I also follow the work of Matt 'Oddboy' Barratt-Jones, Leah Moule and Emma Kierzek. “But the person whose work blows me away at the moment is Markus Lenhard. The way his designs fit the body and the amount of depth to his work is astonishing. I'm very jealous of his talent.”
Ritual Art Tattoo133 High St
contact 01634 267777 www.davidcordentattoos.com