James Robinson’s discrete rise to prominence has made him one of the UK’s best-kept secrets in tattooing. His delicate and beautifully composed work has won him many admirers and considering he has only been tattooing for eighteen months, you have to consider him one of the leading lights in future years. Based in Brighton’s INKA studio, James talks to Skin Deep about his journey thus far…
Where did you grow up and what aspects of your childhood, positive and negative, do you most remember?
I grew up by the sea in Weymouth, Dorset. So I am a West Country boy at heart. I am also one of triplets with two other brothers, who have no artistic talent, so I think I absorbed all of those genes. I also have an older sister, so my childhood was busy within a large and close family. Everyone now supports my career, though at first that was not the case. I have now gone on to tattoo my brother's back and have even tattooed my father! This was a gesture to say that they support my career as a tattoo artist, which they can see has artistic merit, and is not just suited to people in prison cells.
When did you first become interested in art, and more specifically, in tattoos?
I have always had a creative flare and when I was extremely young, I was always drawing horses, birds and other things from nature. It is funny that the things I was drawing at that age have now become my niche market as they are what I most like tattooing.
It was when I was a teenager that I became fascinated by tattoos. I was not fascinated by the idea of marking someone for life; it was more the idea of embellishing someone’s body that fascinated me.
You started getting tattooed at an early age. Tell us about the first work you had done and explain how it has progressed since then.
I was naughty. When I was 16, I made some fake I.D. and went into a local tattoo shop and came out with a tribal gecko on my hip. It really hurt and is now very scarred and the lines are all blown. It was my first one and at the time, I didn’t know any different. With regard to the early work, I can say that I didn’t make very good decisions, consequently my arms and legs are all a bit of a mix match and I’m now in the process of getting them covered. My more recent work has been better thought out. I love my hands and chest, which I designed and am very pleased with. I am now getting more established artists to tattoo me with some of my own designs and it's fun to see how others work.
At what stage did you decide that tattooing was the career for you?
Whilst I was at secondary school, I had to have careers advice. I said that I wanted to be a tattooist, but because there are not specific courses on tattooing, I was advised to concentrate on my art.
I therefore went on to do A-levels in Fine Art, Graphics, Photography and Art History. This led me on to a foundation course in Art and Design and Lens Based Media, where I specialised in illustration. I then went on to do a BA (Hons) degree in Illustration from which I graduated in 2006. I almost lost hope of ever achieving my dream job as I found it so hard to break into the industry. So when I moved to Brighton, with my flat mate, Anna, who runs Sacred Stitches, www.sacredstitches.co.uk, I got a job in a shoe shop in order to pay the bills.
So, how did you eventually break into the industry and how hard has it been to establish yourself?
It has been extremely hard! I bought machines and everything I needed to get me going off the Internet, without really knowing what I was doing. I then started practising at home on willing close friends and myself.
At the same time, I was working in the shoe shop 5 days a week and in the evening working in bars until the early hours of the morning. One day, Barbara Allen, from INKA Tattoo Studio came in to buy some boots and I made sure it was me who served her. She ended up inviting me to the studio, as she liked the work that I had done on myself at home. I pestered her into letting me work for free on reception on my two days off and this allowed me to gain more information and expand my knowledge in the art of tattooing. I did not have a day off for eight months but ultimately it paid off. I slowly moved from reception to downstairs. I got all of my friends from the gay bars I was working in to come into the studio and thus built up a client base from within the gay community. Basically, it all took off from there!
You have built up a great reputation in a short space of time. How has this come about?
I have only been tattooing for about a year and a half. My reputation has slowly been built up by word of mouth and now people are asking for me by name, which is great as in the early days, I had to rely on walk-ins.
I have a lot of gratitude for Barbara Allen as she gave me the opportunity to work in a studio, when others wouldn’t. She has honestly made it possible for me to make my dream job come true. By working in her studio, I could see how others worked and we now all bounce ideas of each other, which means that we all continually experiment which ensures that our work doesn’t get stale and stationary. It's great to see how my work has evolved, although I still have a long way to go!
Tell us something about your personal style in terms of tattooing. What are your favourite designs and why?
I feel that people come to me because I do a lot of organic, natural, flowing designs based around nature, many of which incorporate flowers, butterflies and especially, birds. I think I am getting a reputation as the Birdman of Brighton, but I don’t mind as I enjoy doing them.
I have always judged a good tattoo by its line work and it's only now that I have moved towards a style of tattooing with little or no line work. I do enjoy adding hints of coloured line but have recently steered towards the use of light grey line work, like a pencil, which I then build up with coloured shading to give an illustrated, painterly effect. I am constantly learning something new through experimentation, which I can then apply with other clients.
I love the fact that my work is continuously changing. When looking at work I may have done a couple of months ago, I often think to myself that I could have done things differently, but I think that’s a good thing, as it will ensure my work does not become stagnant and will hopefully continue to improve with time and experience.
You are currently based at Inka in Brighton, where there are many tattoo studios. Tell us about that and about your particular client base.
My initial clients were friends and the bar staff from the gay bars where I used to work. Often people would ask them where they got their tattoos done and they would be referred to me, so I became well known within the gay scene.
Working in a busy part of Kemptown, which has a large gay population, I found that both men and women felt comfortable and secure being tattooed by me in a friendly environment. The style of tattoos that I do fits in well with Brighton’s fashion scene and seems to be attractive to both sexes. Though my work can be seen as quite feminine, intricate and detailed, it’s amazing how many butch/camp builders I have had to tattoo as well…ha ha! I get all types of customers from all walks of life. I am now getting people from Cornwall, Birmingham and even Paris booking in with me. So it seems that people are now willing to travel long distances to get tattooed by me, for which I am very thankful.
Do you consider being an openly gay tattooist to have been a positive or negative factor in terms of your career and the clientele you attract?
It has definitely been a positive. My clientele is happy that there is a studio where they feel comfortable. The main thing is that everyone who works at Inka is friendly and everyone gets treated the same.
I do also have a large number of heterosexual customers, but again, Brighton is so laid back, no-one really cares and as sexuality is not a big deal, it's doesn’t put people off.
We initially met at the Brighton convention. Do you attend many conventions and if so, what is it that you enjoy about working in that environment?
As I’m relatively new to the industry, I’ve so far only done two conventions, (Brighton). I don’t really like working under pressure. I am one of those people who likes to research a client's tattoo and play around with it in advance, so there is no stress, rather than doing it on the spot. I would much rather tattoo people in the studio where I know they would get 100% of me. I feel that there is an element of rush and distraction when I work at conventions. I would prefer to walk around and take everything in rather than being in the middle of it all. I don’t want fame; I just want recognition from other artists for being a good artist.
When you are not tattooing, what other pursuits do you enjoy?
Tattooing has consumed my life and a lot of time out of work is taken in preparation for people’s designs. I like working hard and get a lot of gratitude out of doing good artwork. However, I do enjoy Monday cocktail nights, so I feel sorry for any of my customers who get tattooed by me on a Tuesday! Ha ha!
What are your plans for the future in terms of your career and life in general?
I love Brighton so much and can’t see myself moving away in the foreseeable future. I have just moved into a luxury apartment on the seafront, overlooking both piers, the sunsets are really beautiful. So I will be here for a while.
Although I don’t like working conventions, I would like to do more guest spots in other studios in order to meet new people and to see how other people work in order to expand my knowledge of tattooing. Who knows what the future holds, I look forward to the progression of my career and hope that people like the artwork that I will be doing in the future.