A drive up the A1 finds me in Whickham, looking for Martin Couley’s Tattoo Studio. Feeling a bit lost I make a quick phone call and realise I am parked outside it. The studio is quiet, unassuming and private. It doesn’t stand out with big flashing lights announcing it’s presence, it sits quietly waiting to be found - and it’s not too long before I find out that the man behind Couley’s Tattoo Studio is pretty much the same…
As we begin, I worry that he is going to be too quiet, that his strong, silent presence is going to hang heavy over the next few hours. But quickly I find I am totally mistaken. Martin is merely getting his thoughts together, sussing out the situation before leaping in with both feet. Martin likes to take his time with things, he values his privacy but once he gets going, the passion for his art takes over and there is no stopping the man.
“I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember,” Martin begins. “I’ve always drawn. I’m dyslexic which is a big weakness where as my strong point is drawing. I’ve always been into fine art. My Dad painted Boris Vallejo style backdrops for theatre and I was always there, this little kid running around following him, watching him do these paintings on massive scales. I would see his fine detail and just think how fantastic it was. The shading, how the lighting worked… I was going to join the army when I was younger and then something happened, I couldn’t tell you what it was or why, but suddenly I wanted to tattoo. I would like to say it was because I got one but I think it was because I got this tattoo magazine off my friend’s parents. It dated back to the eighties, I’ve still got it. I was fascinated by it. I was seeing the likes of Bob Tyrrell and Marshall Bennett and I was thinking, that’s fantastic, how do they do it. I wanted to be just like them, if not better.”
Since he started tattooing in 2004, at the age of 18, things have been a bit of a rollercoaster ride. Every time he seemed to make a little bit of progress, something would come along and knock him back. “I started in a sun bed shop funnily enough. A friend of a friend. It didn’t turn out so well, the lad who was supposed to be teaching me got sacked a week after I started, so I was left on my own. On top of that, the guy who owned the shop was just interested in the money and after about six months, we had a big fall out and I left. I went on the dole and one day at the job centre, there was an advert from a tattoo studio looking for an artist. I rang up and went for an interview and the guy took one look at me and because of the way I looked said, ‘I’m not giving you the job!’ Then his brother, who had read something about me in the paper, recognised my face and I ended up getting a call back and I started. I was there for three and a half years.”
I ask Martin if these were his apprenticeship years. “In a sense it wasn’t because I was already tattooing. Like I say, a lot of it was self-taught. People can tell you things and you can learn things off people, don’t get me wrong, he did tell me a lot and he did show me a lot but I think it’s one of those things that you’ve got or you haven’t. And then it went tits up. We ended up clashing a lot.”
The whys and wherefores of why it went “tits up” aren’t that important, as he says, “it just went wrong somewhere along the line,” but once again, Martin found himself out on his own. This time, he had no pictures of the work he had done over the four years and he had no equipment. “He had wiped all my work clean, nearly four years worth of work, he cleaned it all out before I had a chance to even take any of it. I had no machines, no nothing.”
Finally, in 2008, Martin decided it was time to open his own studio. He converted a couple of rooms in his parent’s house into his shop, completely refurbishing them, getting everything passed by health and safety and then getting his license. This all took about two months and to help keep the money coming in, he worked in a spare chair at a friend’s studio. “I was doing four or five days, with Mike Haslam in Carlisle, travelling backwards and forwards in the car and on the train. He helped me out a lot - kept the roof over our heads. Both Mike and Mark Gibson helped me out loads, something I will always be grateful for.” When his studio was finished, Martin repaid the favour by working two days a week at Michael’s studio.
“When I first opened I didn’t have any clientele, I didn’t even tell any of my clients where the shop was. I didn’t even tell them I was leaving. Everything I’ve got now is through word of mouth.”
I ask Martin why he decided to open up his studio in Whickam rather than in town where there would be more chance to get business. “There’s too many artists there man. I got a lot of friends with studios and I know that I would do well but I just wouldn’t do it. I have been on this estate for eighteen years. I know a lot of people here.
Another thing is, I like working on my own because I think the client/artist relationship, is a big thing. It’s a massive thing getting to know somebody because it can inspire your work, it can make you comfortable and it can create a friendship. Personally, I feel when you have a lot of people working the same shop, you lose that. I get a lot of people who come in here and they love it. It’s not like walking into a studio, it’s like home from home. I even get some regulars who come in just for a visit, a quick cup of coffee.”
With the choice of staying in Whickam made, I ask Martin if having his studio at his parent’s house has affected how people view him and his work. “I know a lot of scratchers and at one point I got classed as a scratcher. Someone at a show said that I wasn’t a proper tattooist because I was tattooing from home. I have a licensed studio, that’s not scratching. Scratching is doing it from your bedroom or your kitchen or something like that.” This point makes me smile as Martin’s studio is in better nick and is cleaner and more inviting than a hell of a lot of other ‘city’ studios I have been into.
We start discussing scratchers in general and Martin has strong views on this subject as well. “I get a lot of scratchers that come in and a few of them I have respect for because they will come to us. You know, can you help us with this, can you help us with that. So I give them advice. And some of them are improving, they want to better themselves. They don’t want to do it as a quick way to make money for the weekend, they want to do it for a living - and a lot of people probably don’t agree with this but I’m happy to show them things, give them a bit of advice. The industry will probably turn around and say I shouldn’t be doing that which I can fully understand. They’re doing a lot of damage, the young ‘uns that are getting their kit off of eBay and tattooing their mates for weed. They can’t get away with that, that I don’t like. People like that are not welcome here.”
On the other end of the scale, I ask Martin if there is anyone out there who he really rates as an artist. “What I have always found is a true good artist, is someone who can turn their hand to anything. It’s like Bez - he was doing his portraits and then he got sick of it and he’s changed and he wants to better himself in other things. I got a lot of respect for Bez because he didn’t really know me but he was sending a lot of work my way. Constant work. People were going to Bez saying, I want this done and he would send them over. And I would send some back to him and this is how we’ve built a relationship. When I started out I was working seven days a week to get this studio off the ground and I just got sick. I was talking to Bez and he told me, ‘Don’t become a victim of your own success. Don’t work yourself into the ground.’ That’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given.”
Bearing that in mind, what does he see for the future for himself and Couley’s Tattoo Studio? “I had said that I was going to take a year out and focus on this (the studio) and my family. I am fully booked for months but how I try and work is five weeks on and then a week off to keep it together. I want to do the Ink for Heroes show because it’s for a good cause. I lost a friend out there, last year on New Year’s Eve. He had only been out there five weeks. I thought it was going to be a small charity thing but from the sound of it, it’s going to be huge. Then I’m going to do Edinburgh and Carlisle. Carlisle is a good show. A small show but a good show with great atmosphere. They choose their artists well.”
He also hopes to open another studio soon, maybe this time in the city, but as with all things Couley, it’s not as straightforward as it seems. “I don’t want to move myself. I would like to open another shop and fill it with talented artists. I’d like to stay here and keep it private for my clients. I think they would appreciate it.”
And that’s Martin. Serious about his talent and focused on everything surrounding it. He knows what he
wants and he sets about getting it or as he puts it: “I’ve always set goals in my life. I had set a load of goals for the time I was twenty-five and I had hit them all by the time I was twenty-one. I set some more and then hit them again. Don’t get me wrong, some of them I have met and then have had to hit them back on the head, due to circumstances.”
Martin may have been dealt a few bad hands but his strength and focus have won through and chatting to him today, there is little I can see that will knock him off course for too long. And if it does, well he’ll just pick himself up, pull himself together and start again.
Ink For Heroes
The Ink For Heroes Tattoo Convention, is a charity run tattoo convention whose aim is to raise money and public awareness for soldiers that have been injured in combat. As the organisers state, “Hundreds of people are giving their time and professional services free and all the proceeds are being donated to both the ’Help the Heroes’ and ’The British Legion’”. This particular convention is close to Martin’s heart as he lost a close friend, Sapper David Michael Watson, on New Year‘s Eve 2009. “ I had known David as a friend since primary school. He joined the 49 regiment as a commando and then joined the 33 engineer regiment doing bomb disposal. He out there in Afghanistan doing this job when he died, a job he lived for and which he took very seriously. I was proud to have known him.”
The convention is being held at Catterick Leisure Centre in North Yorkshire on Saturday 18th and Sunday 19th June. Over the course of the weekend, Lal Hardy (NewWave Tattoo Studio) and Martin Clark (Bluebird Tattoo Studio) will be giving free tattoos to any injured military personnel. For more information on the event, visit Ink for Heroes website at www.inkforheroes.co.uk.
Couley’s Tattoo Studio22 Broadpool Green
Newcastle upon Tyne