Working for Skin Deep magazine means I get to see lots of tattoo work, either sent to me on disc or as photographs. One of the most prolific senders of tattoo work is Leigh Oldcorn from Cosmic Tattoo.
There isn’t a month that goes by without Leigh posting me new images of his tattoos. Over the last three years of doing this job I have seen his work progress to a higher level with each disc he sends me. I thought Leigh was pretty much a black and grey demonic/portraiture artist but he has expanded his repertoire to include stunning colour tattoo work to the same exacting high standards. Leigh was featured in this tome years ago and as Cosmic now has a second resident artist – Julie Clarke – we thought it was high time that we spoke to both these very talented tattooists and caught up with what’s going on at this compact and friendly tattoo studio. Welcome to Cosmic Tattoos in Colchester…
What inspired you to tattoo then?
I got kinda’ in the wrong crowd when I left school so it was 3 days after I left school that I went and got my first tattoo done and it was bulldog on my forearm in Middlesborough, and it was kind of liked the smell and the buzz, there was just something about it. I was always into drawing as a kid and never really stopped and I think it is genetic, because my Dad was a good artist, I’m not saying that I am but he was and so I never went to art school or anything like that I just did O level art, left school at 16 and just bummed around until I got my first tattoo done and basically just started drawing designs. I mean I just looked at the designs in studios and started drawing things I thought the tattooists might like and I would just take them
in to the studios.
So did you get free tattoos?
Oh no, I wouldn’t say I got free tattoos but I was just kind of like trying hard to impress them with the drawings and it wasn’t even necessarily that I wanted to be a tattooist myself, I was just at a loose end and wasn’t working. I was just a young kid and thought it was nice hanging round in a cool shop and so it just formed into an sort of informal job, dealing with some of the customers and going and getting the tattooist his dinner, that sort of thing.
You didn’t have friends or relatives into tattooing or anything?
No not really, I mean this was back in the mid eighties so I didn’t really know anyone with tattoos or anything, do you know what I mean? There was just a group of us that just went and got one and that was it.
You know about love at first sight and that sort of thing? Well that was it, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do but as soon as it happened - that was it, I was hooked!
How long have you been in the studio how long have you been tattooing has it been long?
Well basically I helped out in the old tattooists’ studio for a couple of years. This was like before thermal copiers and all that so you had to sit and do hand drawn transfers and so I used to sit and do all that crap for a good couple of years and then slowly but surely he would start teaching me things so I would sit and watch him and so on, but he wasn’t really looking for a second tattooist to be there permanently so I started moving around the country a bit. I ended up on the South coast helping out in a couple of shops down there and then eventually I moved up to Chelmsford in Essex. And so it ended up that I was helping out in shops on the South Coast and I would go down there at weekends John Wards in Southampton and Johnny Clarke in Gosport and then I would be working from my house in the evenings. I mean I was all health registered and everything but I was a scratcher, I mean I had some world famous tattooists teach me but I only got shown the basics and the rest I learnt myself the hard way. I mean this was in many ways before the Internet because these days it’s a lot easier. There are courses on the internet where you can buy your equipment, where as in those days it was much harder you had to integrate yourself into it, you had to work your way into the industry you had to find a tattooist who, if you kissed arse enough, would order your equipment for you. It was much harder then, it was a much tougher nut to crack in those days. So that’s takes me up to like, Chelmsford and I thought that I really ought to get my own shop and be my own boss, I mean I was 30 and I really didn’t want to work for anyone else anymore. I wanted a shop in Chelmsford but at the time the shop rent and all that was through the roof, even more expensive than here because it’s closer to London. So Colchester was the nearest I could get so I opened up this place in the very end of 1998 so it’s from January of 1999 that I have been here, coming on for ten years now.
How did you find Julie then?
Julie was working at the Colchester convention, the first Colchester convention, she got to hear I was looking for a tattooist to use the other room and it just worked out really well and she’s been here ever since.
Everyone gets on okay?
Oh yeah, there’s a really nice atmosphere in here it’s a friendly little shop, there is no rowing, no domestics and I think the customers like that we’re not sitting in the waiting room smoking fags staring at people. There is just a really friendly atmosphere.
Any plans to expand or move on?
I’ll probably stay in Colchester, it’s as good and bad as anywhere else, it’s a friendly sort of town, and it’s pretty vibrant and could be a lot worse. Would I like a better shop? Of course, everyone strives for better. If I were in the position one day to buy a bigger shop then I would and really fit it out nice, but until then this is a really nice hard working little shop and the rates mean I can keep my prices down as I keep the over heads low and I think I give pretty good value for money. I have seen people charge a lot more for a lot less and I am a pretty fast worker.
I don’t hang about and I want to give people value for money.
I suppose the first place where you were hanging out watching bits and pieces was sort of like an apprenticeship?
I suppose it was yes, Alan McLlallen he’s retired now moved to Thailand lucky bugger – he was kind of a role model, big brother figure it was fucking hard work there, in Middlesborough. He always worked 6 days a week, every week, never took days off, never took holidays, like me. I work 6 days a week and never take holidays. He never made excuses and just sat about, he always sat in his room working hard. He is reaping the benefits now I suppose. Well you have to earn a living, I mean, I have a mortgage, rent and wages to pay.
So do you think an apprenticeship is the best way to get into this business?
I think you have to be persistent, really, really persistent, If this is really what you want to do in life, don’t come asking me to help you. I really only got help because I took shots for years, I scrubbed the floors, did the shit and worked virtually unpaid for ages. I mean I get young lads coming here and they have had one tattoo. They have a star on their arm and then come in with bad drawings saying they want to be a tattooist but they will tell you they are the next best thing since sliced bread.
I think that what it is these days is you have to be able to draw where as you never really used to have to, there used to be so much stenciling but I can’t remember the last time I did one off the wall, it is all freehand and a lot of the time I won’t even draw stuff up. I will just get my get out my markers and draw the design straight on to the skin. I do it all the time and I do about 2 to 3 big pieces a day now so the customer gets a nice, one off piece.
As far as apprentices go, there is a certain customer base and there are only so many shops you can have. Unless people are getting a new tattoo every month like people get their haircut. There are only so many tattoo shops that will be able to sustain that amount. What I think is going to happen in the future is that the quality of people in the industry is going to change, people who were previously street artists and painters are going to think wait a minute I can make a better living tattooing. I don’t have to sit outside taking shit from people I can get my own shop, and so the quality of artists is going to get better by natural selection. I think you will have one hundred people wanting to get into tattooing but only two are the dogs bollocks and so only they will succeed.
Every time you open Skin Deep magazine there are some amazing tattoo artists out there. There is that Mike Devries guy from the States, fucking hell, I’ve never heard of him before but when I saw his work in Skin Deep and it was like ‘I will never be able to do that in a month of Sundays!’ Incredible work.
I mean ten years ago, there were ten tattooists in the UK that you have heard of every time you went to the Dunstable convention you would be like oh, I wonder if there is one of these guys downstairs. Now you go to conventions and the place is fucking full of people who are great. The standard is way better now.
To make an impression on the public and on the people who read Skin Deep has become a lot harder, I mean that is a good thing, it’s harder for us, it’s stressful but competition is good because it makes you pull your finger out and you have to work harder and care more about what you are doing because otherwise you will be out of business next week. It’s good for the customers and in a tough love sort of way - it’s good for us.
I am 38 and I think I am finally starting to get there it’s been a long time coming though.
So my message is don’t listen to me, do what you have to do to get ahead and don’t come asking me for help. In a round about way I have given you help by saying that, you wait some little bastard is going to come and ask me for help now!
Do you think the ability to buy equipment off eBay and programmes like Miami Ink have made tattooing too accessible and made it the rock and roll lifestyle to jump on the bandwagon and become a tattooist?
Do I think there are too many in the UK? I think it’s on the up but I also think that’s natural, the best will survive, well the best business brains anyway as people are getting more into self publicity so it’s not just about tattooing now, it’s about PR.
Who would be your main influences?
The first would be Tom Ptollomy, back in the 90s every tattoo I saw was beautiful. The colours, the shading and everything about them was beautiful. Another person beside him is Darren Stares, he is a fucking superb all rounder, he can do pretty much anything and everything. Louis Malloy, I remember my mate at a show where I worked in Middlesborough, had a whole collection of Louis Malloy designs and out of all the designs he had there, it was always Louis’s that I loved the most. They were so beautifully drawn. You see Louis in magazines and at conventions and he is always smartly turned out he is a true example to follow.
Rob Doubtfire doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, Alan Lowther, you never seem to hear much about him but every time you see a tattoo in a magazine, he seems to be able to do everything. And then from abroad there’s Bob Tyrrell. Obviously, I don’t think pound for pound there is a better tattooist in the world. I know Paul Booth is an icon and Anil Gupta I don’t get why they don’t go on about him enough, the precision and the craft he puts into a tattoo, he’s like a living secret. So there you have plenty of tattooists that I find real inspiration from.
What about a favourite Style?
Black and grey right away. Saying that, I am doing more and more oriental work but that is customer driven. A while ago it was all tribal but now it’s all Koi carp. I don’t get these artists that are like oh I don’t do this I only do that, oh I am very selective with my clients? I am like mate, how do you pay your bills? Whatever a customer brings in if I think I can do it justice, I will give it a go.
Depends whether you want more recognition?
Well I don’t know which way to go on it sometimes Instinctively I am a really shy person and I don’t like blowing my own trumpet that’s the gods honest truth. I send photos to your magazine because A: I am kinda’ proud of the tattoos I have done and B: I want customers to see that I am capable of doing certain kinds of things, I suppose Skin Deep is like an impartial judge of your work as well as they are only going to pick work that they like and that will make a good image inside their magazine. I have looked to go on the forum (www.bigtattooplanet.com/forums). I registered and I would love to go on and help people give advice and guidance but I find some of the self publicity and sycophantic behaviour that goes on nauseating, ‘I have done this one today I have been on my travels check out this one’. That’s why I don’t really go on the forum because it’s a double-edged sword. How do you try to look cool whilst keeping some of the mystique? Robert De niro, why was he such a cool bloke? He didn’t do any interviews or anything, he just made bloody good films, and then on the opposite side you have Jamie Oliver. I am sure he is a bloody good chef but because he plugs everything, everyone thinks he is a knob, so what do you do?
So who would be your ideal customer then?
Ooooh, I have lots of them, yeah I have lots of ideal customers. My actual customers. I am not joking it’s a compliment that they choose me to do their work, that they spend an hour or two in my shop. They could go anywhere else but they don’t, they choose our shop and a lot of them will say ‘do what you want’, and that’s a compliment. When you get given a theme and can do what you want. Those are good customers, the ones that let you do what you want and trust you to do it well.
Why is it that all these tattooists are bitching and moaning these days? I read that tattooists are whinging, saying ‘I am booked 3 months in advance, I’m a slave to my shop,’ It’s like mate, you are on at least 50 quid an hour yeah, you get to draw on people and it’s not exactly a hard life. It’s not like working at McDonalds taking shit all day so stop whinging and just enjoy it. Rejoice and think ‘thank God I have the privilege to do what I do.’
Do you think it’s better people getting their own ideas together?
Oh yeah, I don’t mind doing some stuff freehand and making stuff up for people but people have got to do some of the work themselves. It is no good going to a tattooist and saying well will you make something up for me? We don’t have time to be going on the net looking for images of things, so do the research yourself. Where do you draw the line? I can be sitting here drawing for two hours but I don’t charge for that time. I mean those are the good things people aren’t getting tribal and bulldogs necessarily as much anymore, they are getting far more interesting artistic stuff.
On the down side there are far too many people getting things like stars and following the herd a little bit. They want three little stars in their wrist. I am just waiting for the first person wanting the Britney ‘little kiss’ on the wrist. It happens every time someone in the public eye has something done and others copy. It was the same with the Beckham angel. I just wish people would be their own person a bit more and get something that they like. Be yourselves!
Got any ambitions?
Ambitions? To be honest I feel like I have achieved my ambition which was to own a successful little tattoo studio. I would love, it’s never going to happen, but I would love one day even if it just once I would love to be mentioned in the same breathe as Bob Tyrell or someone like that, do you know what I mean.
Who would you like to thank?
First of all all the customers everyone who has had work done in this shop over the years because without you what would I have? Secondly, all the staff that have worked here thanks for all the help and hard work, all the good tattooists out there for being a fucking inspiration, all the bad tattooists thanks suckers, I am earning good money for doing all your cover ups. Just thanks to all the tattooists who have been kind and helped me along the way, there have been a few of them but they know who they are, erm and that’s pretty much it. Just thank you
How did you get into tattooing?
My Mum surprisingly, she’s a line dancer, I think that says quite a bit! I was at Art school and stuff and just before I went to university I got my first tattoo, I was with a guy who was a skinhead and really into that kind of thing and he took me to Wally Polton. Bloody hell, I that’s going back a bit isn’t it? Well I took a picture of a painting that I wanted on me and he took me to the house, and all I kept thinking was it’s ok he’s got a pink Cadillac and he basically said absolutely nothing to me just spent the whole time watching telly’ but he did a fabulous job for me, I had a woman turning into a dragon on my back - me turning into my mother – no seriously, from there on, I was hooked!
I am from Colchester originally and from there I went over to Ipswich, I actually came all the way to Leigh here with my portfolio for an interview years ago and it didn’t work out – he didn’t want an apprentice. So yeah, I moved to Kent and everywhere down South, everyone was really helpful but I couldn’t get an apprenticeship, So I kind of pretended I knew know to tattoo and got some equipment.
So when did you get your first break?
My first year I actually set up anyway with my sister as she has a hairdressers, because I couldn’t buy the equipment unless I had a license so I thought I’ll get the license and do that. The first sort of break was when I went over to a convention well actually it was the Welsh convention in Cardiff, It was in Blackwood and that was when I first met Isabel Varley, she was fabulous she took me under her wing for the whole convention and John Treharne was working there as well. As soon as the two of them learnt I wanted to tattoo, as I took some friends with me who had tattooed, they spent the whole time having a go at me because I didn’t want to work the show.
I was just really lucky really as I did a lot of mural and portrait painting so people let me tattoo them because they had seen my artwork at the time.
How long have you been at Cosmic?
One and half years! Oh how time flies, only five minutes ago he was showing me now to do a regimental cap badge.
Did you face any barriers or issues with becoming a tattooist? Is it something you had always fancied doing?
Well since my mum sort of suggested it, because I was doing a lot of henna at the time and doing my work at college. I was really fascinated with drawing on people and one of my first memories or really looking at a tattoo was when one of the life models at college had a Chinese symbol on her arm, there were three of us at the back of the class knocking each other saying ‘You ask her, no you ask her’ so eventually I went up to her. There she is completely starkers’ and in the broadest cockney accent, she just went ‘Oh this, I have no bloody idea what it means but it looks nice don’t it!’
So from there, it was the person who really helped my career was Carl from English Rose, because I went to a tattoo convention and back then I was blonde hair, small dress, I mean this was like 10 years ago and I think he felt a bit sorry for me. Well anyway, he was speaking to Sam about the tattoo studio guide and they put me on the register and everything and then I got contacted by Asgard Tattoos in Southampton to run a studio down there that was a first big break in tattoos.
That’s nice because many people say Tattooing is a closed shop?
I think it is but if you show willing and the fact I had been to Leigh several years previously for an apprenticeship, he was like ‘oh, you’re back and you’re still in the business?’ A lot of time when you go in for an apprenticeship it is exactly like people say in interviews they want to be a tattooist now and don’t want to work at it, they’re not interested in the hard graft.
So how do you find working conventions?
Oh brilliant, it’s fun working at them but you don’t get to see or speak to anyone, I must admit I like going to them more as a social thing, I mean that is how I met Darren Stares and he let me sit in his studio watching him for hours as he was tattooing the oldest person in town. He was just so much fun, just such a lovely guy. But again when they see someone that is interested they really can’t help you enough. You also get the other side of things where people aren’t quite so helpful but I think that is getting rarer.
I was asked to tattoo at Erotica in Manchester and that was where I tattooed my first penis! He was a 6ft 4inch Californian drag queen and he squealed like a little girl, it was great. I didn’t have to stretch it that much as he a had a massive pad lock at the end of it! But that was a hell of an experience, the whole time I was chatting away to people and everyone was going tsk, tsk, it was like a little tribal design but unfortunately I haven’t got many photos of it as many of them don’t look like I am tattooing him because of the angle that they are taken – if you know what I mean!
So you get a lot of parental support?
I must admit over the years I have been so lucky they have really supported me I still think deep down Dad wants me to get a proper job but they are really happy that I am happy. I think my Dad quite likes it because there is quite an age gap between me and my brother and sisters I mean like ten or twelve years and my sister has her own hairdressers and my brother has taken over the family business my Dads garage, and then his youngest daughter’s a tattooist. Nice and diverse. It’s great.
As a female did you find it more difficult to get your foot in the door?
Yes and no, People don’t think that you are being serious but they also don’t see you as a threat so they’re like ‘Oh go on then, sit and watch’, which I don’t mind playing up to a bit and being like (innocent voice)“ Oh thank you”
So you haven’t found the chauvinist side of things?
Well you do get a little bit as people are like ‘ok, you’re not serious you’re a girl’, but at the same time it’s nice because when you go out with friends they’re like ‘Yeah she’s a tattooist’ and the men are like ‘Oh, you’re learning are you?’ But it’s quite nice because I can just say yeah and can talk about something else for a change. I mean you can’t get away from it but they always seem to say ‘you’re learning are you?’ then they come into the shop and they’re shocked saying ‘So you’re not the receptionist then?’ and I’m like ‘no, cheers!’ So I get to be like so this is where I tattoo!
So who are your main influences?
Basically it’s really the guys that got me started. It is fabulous all these tattooists, especially the ones that specialize in just one thing, which they seem able to do abroad but I don’t think you can in England. I was reading a while ago about Bob Tyrrell about how he spent six hours on a portrait, which was quite small but all I thought was, I can’t see six hours work there. I mean it is perfect and fabulous tattooing but no one in England would pay that, surely? I am intrigued to see where it is going but I think you have a to a be a good all-rounder if you want to get anywhere.
Anyone you aspire to at the moment?
I must admit there are so many, and it is getting so mad – I actually must admit I enjoy watching Miami ink. You can’t knock it as it is making people actually bring artwork in to help the tattooists. I met them in London and I am actually going over to Miami to see them next month. I tell you what someone who I really thought was amazing was Herbert Hoffman he did the living picture books with black and white pictures between 1878 and 1952. And he is this little German guy and he was like ‘come here little girl come and sit on my knee and have a photo’ but again it had to be translated by about 10 different people. He’s a photographer and has had a go at tattooing himself and has picked up a few things. But I find it so fascinating to see how he captures images.
Any other tattooists?
Theresa Gordon-Wade, again I have chatted to her for hours at the conventions, she was so - there just aren’t the right words. She really cares about what she does and people come up to her and you see her get all excited, she seems to treat everyone with the same sort of passion whether she is doing a little piece or a full leg piece.
I must admit that you look at the magazines and see the amazing work and you could reel off a huge list of names but what I like is that people are getting so much more arty now, and really pushing the boat out.
All of my tattoos have been done by people who are great and have been by people who I know and work with and really appreciate the help they have given me and stuff it is almost, its almost my story it seems such a shame to cover it all as it is a part of who you are and it seems such a shame to loose it. But then again if you have the opportunity to have work done by a great artist such as Guy Aitchison and something small is in the way, well I suppose it have to go.
What do you do when you are not tattooing?
Well I am trying my best to get more into painting now because I used to do a lot of painting and then I stopped for the tattooing to take over so I could practice as much as I could and I think I lost a little bit.
I am in a scooter club myself and my partner both share a PX200 scooter chop. It is so much fun especially on something small like that and you can actually pick up. I have got also got a motorbike; I’ve got a Kawasaki Mean Streak. It is so sweet and I dropped that as well and it took four of us to pick it up! So I am hoping to do a couple more bike rallies this year. I also like to see live bands too.
Seen any major changes in the last 5 years or so?
Must better I would say, the days of sitting there and burning your fingers prints off is really gone now, I think even a couple of weeks ago I soldered a couple just because I thought I want think ink to be slightly different and its nice to have the skill.
I am sure a lot of young artists wouldn’t know how to make a needle these days. It is good to have that knowledge so that if I want a needle to be a certain way I can make it. But on the other hand to see the way that the industry has gone and the way people see tattooing now to been seen opening a fresh needle in a packet can’t be beaten.
Anyone you would like to thank?
Especially my parents. They have done so much for me and put up with me balling my eyes out “I don’t know what to do with this life” and also my mum let me tattoo her so early on in my career. They really did support me. My partners have also helped me along the way, it was always a standing joke that I just filled up the canvas then moved onto the next one but it wasn’t ever quite that bad!
They know who they are. Also Carl from English Rose Tattoo. And yes I have to thank Craig, he runs the Colchester convention and helped to introduce me to Leigh years ago and Leigh of course for putting up with me, I mean he let me walk into a job. I think the studio is a bit small and I am really trying my best to get him to go a bit bigger but we are lucky with the nice friendly atmosphere and I don’t know where we would be without Laura. How she can answer the same questions day in day out as if she has never heard them before and always with a smile is amazing. She’s absolutely wonderful and her mum as well, who does a couple of days here too.
I’d also like to thank my family and friends who have supported me and donated skin over the years. The tattooists who have let me pick their brains and let me spend time watching them work, or to work with them. And to the customers who trust me to mark them for life. And the army, they travel far and wide to come to Cosmic for their regimental tattoos, especially the parachute regiment. Thanks for the support guys!