"Growing up in a small Highland village, I had always had an overwhelming urge to escape. I’ve always craved adventure and anything out of the ordinary. I didn’t think I could ever be satisfied staying in Embo. I craved new experiences. From boyhood into my early teens I resorted to the usual random vandalism brought on by boredom, hormones, and some would say, hyperactivity. Admittedly, I was a bit of a tearaway."
"Ultimately, I chose a common escape route, to leave the Highlands. I joined the Marines. With not many other prospects on the horizon, it seemed the easiest route to a life less ordinary. It was during training at Limestone that I first became acquainted with tattooing. Some boys from my troop came back from shore leave with what were in hindsight, some pretty poorly done tattoos. I was fascinated none the less. No one from where I came from had tattoos, and for me they held a mysterious attraction. The boys that got them were actually dealt a severe punishment for damaging government property, but that still didn’t dissuade me from going to a tattoo parlour in Exeter the very next week to get my first piece.
I opted for a tribal design on my upper back. It was a traditional tattoo parlour and to my untrained eye the two-dimensional black shapes looked to be the most contemporary when compared to the bulldogs, panthers, cartoon characters, etc. There was also an element of risk removed from the equation, since the tribal designs appeared to offer less room for error that the tattooist may possibly make! The tattoo was applied in less than two hours with little discomfort and I left the parlour feeling a great sense of achievement. I was only seventeen at the time; maybe the tattoo artist turned a blind eye because I was in the Marines, and I felt like I had taken another step towards manhood. There was an element of machismo to my first tattoo experience; it was an important part of my expression of independence and individuality. It was about being tattooed for the sake of it, it wasn’t necessarily an artistic expression. That came later.
Before my tattoo was even healed, I was discharged from the Royal Marines. Aside from being in peak physical condition, there was a crucial flaw relating to my performance during basic training. I couldn’t shoot. This skill is absolutely fundamental to being a Royal Marine commando, so off I went back into the civilian world.
The small highland village was harder to shake off than I had anticipated, and I ended up back in Embo. I worked as a builder there for a year, but consequently felt unfulfilled and needed to move on. The capital city of Edinburgh beckoned. A friend had moved there six months prior, and from his reports, it seemed a much more exciting place than Embo. That was all the information I needed, so I packed my bag and headed to ‘Auld Reekie’.
Two weeks after my arrival in Edinburgh, I was sharing a flat with my friend and working for a security company. With my interest already pricked by tattooing, it didn’t take me long to acquaint myself with the many tattoo studios Edinburgh had to offer. Whilst working as security at a Hearts football match, I happened upon Ace Tattoo on Gorgie Rd. Ace is a traditional style shop, owned by the larger than life, Billy Brown. The shop’s rough and tough image contrasts with the friendliness of the staff, and I was taken in by their openness and by the quality of the work. It was there that I met Paul Slifer, a tattoo artist originally from the U.S. After the first meeting we discussed doing some large-scale work, as, if there was one thing that was certain in my topsy-turvy life at this stage, it was the decision to become heavily tattooed.
Tribal style tattoos still held my interest, and, on the strength of his reputation alone, I booked some time with Paul to do some freehand tribal designs from my wrist to shoulder. My appointment was scheduled for one week later, and after doing some sketching on my arm with a pen, Paul went to work. Two hours later I had all of the outlining done and about a quarter of the filling in had been finished. After two weeks healing time I returned for my second appointment and had the rest filled in. Five hours of tattooing in total, and my arm was permanently transformed. During the tattooing process, I developed a rapport with Paul. He had shown me his portfolio and photos of tattoos he liked, and had informed me of his ideas about tattoo art. This experience proved to be an eye opener to the possibilities of what tattoos had to offer.
Secure in the knowledge that I had found an artist capable of executing elaborate designs, I began to plan out my other arm with a more representational image. I’ve always had an interest in mythology, religion and symbolism, so I chose to have a serpent emerging from the flames. This depiction can be read in many ways, and is a combination of Christian and Pagan imagery. The dramatic content in religious art and theology provides fertile ground for tattoo design and continues to be the inspiration for most of my tattoos.
My right arm took six, two-hour sessions to complete and consequently the tribal design on my left arm looked painfully barren when compared to the rich colours of my latest acquisition. Paul suggested some Japanese style water as a background for the tribal, this we completed in four hours, and it perfectly complemented the flames on the other arm. In a period of four months, I now had a pair of heavily tattooed arms. You could say that I was well and truly obsessed by tattoos by this time, with the subject occupying my thoughts for most of my waking hours. So what next and where?
Quasi-religious iconography still being my main source of inspiration, I would go to see Paul with a basic idea and he would transfer it onto paper first, then onto my skin. At that time I was going back for tattoo work once every two weeks. Needless to say, the vast majority of my paycheck was going to Ace tattoo as my upper body was steadily being coloured in. It was at this stage that the debate on whether to tattoo my neck began. I was very keen to have this done but Paul was much less enthusiastic about the idea. In fact, Paul, on many occasions expressed his concern at the speed at which I was acquiring my tattoos. He would ask me why I chose to get tattooed and if I fully understood the consequences of being heavily tattooed (i.e. discrimination, unwanted attention, etc). He also asked me what I wanted to do with my life in the future! I had to answer these questions with clarity and conviction to convince Paul that I was prepared to take this all on board. There was also a fair bit of pestering on my part as well.
After convincing Paul to tattoo my neck, I plucked for more mythological/religious icons, the raven and the cross. Upon their completion, I felt a great sense of freedom in the knowledge that I would never lead a conventional life. I was thinking that I would like to work in a tattoo studio, doing anything, since it is the one real passion in my life. For me, just being around the tattoo process, never mind getting work done myself, is inspiring and fulfilling in itself.
One day I asked Paul if there was possibly a position in the shop that I could fill. Paul said that unfortunately they couldn’t use me as the staff were all well established there, but he did offer to put in a good word for me with other tattoo artists that he knew. By this stage I was beginning to tire of the security job and the prospect of working in a tattoo studio was immensely satisfying. I probably should have curbed my enthusiasm though, since it is much more difficult to get work in a tattoo studio than I had imagined. I continued working for the security firm for another month, all the time waiting to hear if a job in a studio had come up. Eventually I started working in a nightclub. That lasted for about three months during which time I was still waiting to hear some good news from Paul. It never came. I was feeling slightly dejected, uncertain about where my life was heading, and did what a lot of people do when they are feeling confused. I went home.
It was time to regroup and Embo provided a calm environment to organise and prioritise my life. During the day I worked as a builder again, and at night I began to write to tattoo studios across Britain, looking for any available work. This proved to be another fruitless exercise, as I received no replies. After another three months in Embo, I had saved some money and was again ready to take another stab at Edinburgh. I began working in the same nightclub and was starting to worry that I was developing another monotonous pattern in my life. Things were definitely not going to plan. Then, after about two weeks of being back in Edinburgh, my luck was to change. I was walking down a city centre street when I was shouted at by a person in a parked car. It was Paul, he and his brother in law were taking a refrigerator to the new tattoo studio that he was just about to open!
Paul had heard that I went back to Embo and was wondering what I was doing in Edinburgh. When I told him that I had moved back to the capital, he offered me the job as front person at Red Hot and Blue Tattoo studio then and there. Obviously I didn’t hesitate to accept. Red Hot and Blue Tattoo was opened in June 2005, as a custom tattoo studio. Paul was growing increasingly frustrated doing flash work and felt the need to go on his own and to take his tattooing in a more artistic direction. He told me that he had me in mind to work the front of shop at its inception. Being something of a walking portfolio for Paul, combined with my dedication and enthusiasm for tattooing, I was his number one candidate.
So, here I am now at Red Hot and Blue Tattoo, doing a job I love. My knowledge of tattooing, in all its aspects, increases every day that I am here. Paul has a large amount of books and reference material on the noble art, and is an ardent and informative guide on the subject. People frequently ask if I will learn to tattoo myself. Unfortunately, with very little natural drawing ability, it is unlikely. At this moment I’m completely satisfied looking at, talking about and getting tattoos. I recently had my stomach and back completed. I also attended the London Tattoo convention as well as the first Perth convention, taking home two trophies from the latter. I feel I’m becoming more involved with the tattoo community in general, and I’ll just have to see where that takes me.
If there’s one thing of which I am certain, it’s my undying devotion to tattoos and the desire to be involved with the art in one way or another. If there is something I’ve learned from this journey, it’s that perseverance, devotion and dedication brings forth fulfilment. I’ll continue to collect tattoos until I run out of space. A body only has so much skin, but my interest in tattooing will never be exhausted."