Mat Lapping has his hands full – least of all with the numerous awards he’s won over the last 12 months. With one thing and another, it’s taken us quite some time to put our heads together and find the time to align ourselves - as fate would have it, the Gods threw another spanner in the works on the very day we arrived. How does that old quote go again? “When a man wantonly destroys one of the works of man we call him a vandal. When he destroys one of the works of God we call him a sportsman.”
Or do we? For ‘sportsman’ we shall instead read ‘Creative Vandal’. A lot has happened to Mr. Mat Lapping since we last spoke to him in the spring of 2010. Then, he was just two weeks away from opening his new studio, Creative Vandals in Hull, his wife was expecting a baby and Andy Walker was settling into life as his apprentice. Skip forward to the present and Mat’s studio is now eight months old, he won ‘Best UK Male Tattooist 2010’ at the Tattoo Jam industry awards (an award he is very proud of), won ‘Best of Sunday’ at Tattoo Freeze 2011 (his second consecutive Freeze award), Andy is going great guns and Mat’s wife has had a baby boy, Jude.
And then the studio got turned into a waterfall…not by choice I should add.
And that is where we pick the story up. A quick trip down the A63 to Hull and I find myself standing in the middle of a gutted tattoo studio introducing myself to Andy.
While we wait for Mat to return, Andy fills me in on the damage. “Just before we went to the convention (Freeze), there was just a little damp patch and then when we came back there was a massive leak. There was water just pouring from everywhere. It turned out to be a burst pipe three floors up. It’s coming in from everywhere.”
While Andy is taking us on the water damage tour, Mat returns. “You won’t be getting no photos today mate! It is a bit chaotic!” is his wry greeting and I am pretty amazed at how cheerful they both seem, considering the studio wont be open for another three weeks.
We continue the conversation about the water ‘problem’. “We got to the point where we thought, this is getting really bad, so we rang health and safety and he came down and told us that we couldn’t tattoo in the studio!” To add to the problem, Mat’s landlord was away and they were unable to get hold of him. Looking on the positive side of things, because Mat was renting the shop, the landlord was responsible for the repairs and when he came down to the shop, he soon had builders in. That still left Mat and Andy three weeks without a place to work. “We’ve been offered spare chairs in other studios which has been really cool. We’ve got a couple of places on standby but it’s still hard because we have to have someone at the shop to answer calls and re-arrange customers. It has been a bit mental!”
“The one thing we didn’t want to do was say, ‘right we’ve got this leak’, because people would just say, put a bucket under it! They wouldn’t understand the extent of it.”
We soon realise it’s too noisy in the studio and we are just getting in the way of the builders, so a quick decision is made to head to a pub around the corner. Before we head off, Mat pulls a CD of pictures he has burnt for us out of his back pocket. The CD is broken in half. As I start to wonder if this day is just not destined to go well, Mat and Andy turn the whole thing into a joke with Andy throwing in the classic one directly at his boss, “That’s not just a little crack is it?” I am learning very quickly, with these two, everything has a funny side.
As we walk over to the pub, I chat to Andy about how things are going with his apprenticeship. “I’m sort of not his apprentice anymore, though I think I always will be,” says Andy with a smile, “He’ll always tell you I’m his apprentice. I’m his bitch!”
Andy goes on to explain that he has been tattooing for two years now and that he had never tattooed before meeting Mat. “I had never picked up a machine before – next thing I know, I’m tattooing on a grapefruit.” I had always thought that this was an urban legend in the tattoo world but Andy points out, in his case, it is not. “You can get the fake skin but even the fake skin is like flat so you don’t really get the textures and shape. That’s one of the hardest things, going from drawing on something that is flat to something that is completely rounded or that moves.”
Mat is off the phone (yes, on top of everything else, he is also in the middle of moving house) and rejoins the conversation which has moved towards clients design ideas.
“We only do custom stuff in the shop now,” says Mat, “But obviously clients bring reference material in, stuff they’ve printed from the internet. But the mistake the guys make when they bring stuff in is, if they want a tattoo of an angel, they’ll look for tattoos of angels…rather than pictures of angels. If they bring in some great artwork or pictures it will look miles better than copying some one else’s tattoo. And you’ll get something unique.”
We arrive at the ‘quiet pub around the corner’ which turns out to be a pretty packed Weatherspoons. (Note to self; think twice if Mat invites you out to a pub that is ’a bit busy’). While Mat goes to get a round in, Andy and I start showing each other our ink in what reminds me of a kids ‘trump card’ game. First he shows me a moustachioed Mario Mushroom on his wrist done by John Anderton to which I respond with my half sleeve by Phil Kyle and then it’s back to Andy with an awesome neck piece done at a Las Vegas convention by Jime Litwalk. This quickly turns into a conversation about how none of us can go under the needle for long periods of time anymore - my level of endurance is about two hours and then I start to feel really rough. During this time, another punter at the pub, who has been quietly listening to our conversation, decides to join in. “I can’t take the pain,” he informs us sipping ever so coolly on his beer. “The last one I had was too much.” Our collective interest has been piqued and Andy asks him what he had done. Like a magician, about to perform a trick, he shows us his hand. “I had this,” he says pointing to his ring finger. We all peer down to see P E N. Andy, ever the gentleman responds with, “Cool!”
After expecting a sleeve or a mad back piece, that’s about the best any of us can manage. As we head back I can’t help but wonder if PEN stood for Penny or Pentonville. I guess we’ll never know!
Back at the table, Mat explains that everyone in Hull has a tattoo story. It’s an industry that has boomed in this city. “When I first started in 2003, there were four or five tattoo studios in Hull and now there’s nearly thirty. They all think it’s as cool as fuck to be a tattooist now. They think you’re on what…fifty, sixty, seventy quid and hour, but you’ve got a shop that is more expensive to run than your house. You’re buying your supplies, paying your rent… sometimes you’re coming away with maybe minimum wage out of it. And then you’re getting someone who is tattooing out of their bedroom, with a machine they got off of E-Bay for fifteen quid. It ain’t the easy ride everybody thinks it is.”
We start throwing around the idea, that maybe we are at a point where this wave everybody is riding on will burst. That the tattooists who are good will carry on working and the one’s that aren’t, will fall along the wayside. “Yeah, the standards are getting higher and higher,” says Mat. “People wont take crap anymore. The good thing with the programmes on the telly, is that everybody has now seen that you can get good tattoos. They book in and see a three or four month waiting list and they’re willing to wait because people are beginning to realise, if you wait, you’ll get something smart out of it. People used to think you got to get some shit in before you get the good ones. You got to earn the good ones!”
“The problem is,” adds Andy, “There are still so many people who will wake up in the morning going, I want a tattoo today, I don’t care who does it, I want the cheapest price and they’ll go anywhere to get it. People like that are still keeping that shit alive”. We carry on chatting about the catch-22 situation tattooing is facing at the moment but as with most pub ‘putting the world to rights’ conversations go, we don’t come up with an answer. The future of tattooing is still anyone’s guess and there will be many more conversations and arguments but illuminating of nothing else.
And talking is one thing these guys like doing almost as much as tattooing. Once you get Mat and Andy going, it is hard to get them to stop again. They’re like the vocal equivalent of a runaway train. I ask them if it is like this in the studio when they are tattooing customers. “Yeah, we don’t shut up actually,” says Mat.
“We have banter all day,” adds Andy, “We like to get the customers involved. Sometimes we have to stop tattooing cause we’re wetting ourselves. Or the customer is going, ‘you’re going to have to stop because I’m laughing so much’.”
This is the kind of spirit I like in a studio. I tell them that I hate sitting in the chair for three hours in silence, with only the buzz of the machine and my pain keeping me company. “Nobody wants to be sitting there thinking, only half an hour has gone!” quips Andy smiling.
“Or he hasn’t said a word to me!” laughs Mat.
The conversation moves onto how the internet has opened up the world for customers and artists. “The net has been great,” says Andy, “Mat will come into work one day and say, you got to check this guy out. Just finding some amazing guy you have never heard of, doing some awesome stuff.”
“And they’re always tucked out in the middle of nowhere aren’t they,” adds Mat, “In the middle of Peru or something. I always think, where the fuck is he finding all his customers from? They’re in the middle of the rainforest and they’ve all got sleeves and back pieces.”
Getting serious for a moment, we move onto Mat’s sketchbook, ‘Use It & Abuse It’, that he released just before Freeze. I ask him what was the thinking behind the book. “It’s more about closure than anything else. I want to move on from that style and I want to start developing my own rather than bits and pieces from everybody else. You know, you start off doing flash… and I did a shit load of flash working in a flash shop… and then you start creeping your own bits and pieces in there. The sketchbook is like, ‘that’s it now, I want to move on’. That piece I did at Freeze (the one that won Best of Sunday) that’s totally me. No reference, straight onto the paper and then straight onto the skin. It’s not taken from anything.”
I like the idea that the sketchbook is a full stop before moving on rather than a ‘here’s something new’ book. It is as if Mat is tying up loose ends so he can concentrate on the future. We start discussing how hard it is to get anything published these days and the merits of self-publishing and once again Mat shows he has thought everything out rather than just jump in and rely on luck. “I only did a small run,” explains Mat, “I wasn’t sure if it would sell but I have shifted them all and if I get more interest I’ll do a reprint. I just didn’t want to end up with a garage full of books!”
From here the conversation starts spiralling into general banter and much laughter, Freeze and conventions in general being a source of some great stories. Mat recalls when they went to a Las Vegas convention, taking a cab down the strip. “Everything was all clean and shiny and looked perfect and then when we left this other cab driver took us home a via short cut. We ended up driving through all these neighbourhoods that you don’t think exist. At one point we drove past a police car with it’s lights on and some guy leaning over the bonnet being arrested. The police had guns out and everything.”
I asked Mat if he was planning anymore conventions in the year ahead. “I’m doing Liverpool and that’s it. He,” pointing to Andy, “is going to do more this year. I want to give Andy the chance to get about with out me being there. I mean, I’ll still be there I just wont be working. I just don’t want to be one of these people who keeps his apprentice on a lead. You know, you’re my apprentice, follow me about. I would rather have two good artists in a shop than one artist and an apprentice.”
Wise words. And this is the thing that has stuck with me throughout the day spent with Mat; you’ve just got to keep going and thinking ahead. The studio has been turned into a water feature, clients are being re-booked, everything is on standby for the moment but things are good.
What’s that thing they say when the going gets tough? No, not that one, this one: “Roll with punches and spit like a dog”.
That’s those damn vandals for you.
Creative Vandals36 George Street
Kingston upon Hull,
HU1 3AJ 01482 227996