Tom Spencer is a man who has led his life at a furious pace! Once apprenticed to Dan Gold and a veteran of the music scene, Tom’s exploits have been as colourful as the fantastic tattoo-inspired stained glass he creates. Now dividing his time between two bands and crafting the wonderful glasswork he’s fast becoming known for, Tom took a little time out from his dizzying schedule to chat to Skin Deep…
Hi Tom, care to tell us a little about your younger years?
Arty parents, arty upbringing, dragged round various galleries by my hippy haircut. It worked, though. I’m not happy now unless I’m creating something; glass, music, writing! I went briefly to art school and got an A level in graphic design (just like Rodney). Then I left to be in bands. It’s what The Clash had done!
I was in Big Boy Tomato, The Lurkers, Sugarsnatch, The Yo-Yos, The Dogs D’Amour amongst many others. I now have two bands on the go: The Loyalties and Fast Lane Roogalator.
During The Yo-Yos early years of skintness (we ended up making a bit of dosh signed to Subpop), me and the drummer lived in the skanky basement of Nick Reid’s tattoo shop in Acton (who now runs Skunx Tattoo in Islington). I did my first bit of tattooing (on the daft drummer) during late night drinking sessions. After the Yo-Yos drug-addled demise, I was disillusioned, hung-over and lost. I ended up doing a year’s tattoo apprenticeship with Dan Gold; it was my first attempt to get a proper job. As many of your readers will know, working for Dan was no Tesco’s. He’s a fantastic artist but a total nutter (when present). I realised that to become a great tattooist requires total focus. I was still a musician at heart.
How did you get into the world of stained glass?
My mum (Lou Spencer) went back to college in the 70s (Chelsea School of Art) and did a mural course. She ended up specialising in stained glass. She’s had a business in west London ever since. One of the things I did (amongst many) to pay the rent in between musical ventures was to pick up glass-working skills. First just fitting windows, then repairs and then onto making panels. Most bands can end up building, wiring, plumbing and decorating a house - that’s by the time they realise that their music won’t buy one!
Why tattoo glass? Did you see a gap in the market for such a venture?
No, it was sort of a lucky accident really. I made a couple of panels for the bar in my house. I’m not an alcoholic; I just have a cool kitchen! It’s covered in rock’n’roll shite, so I thought a panel of a dagger through a rose would look good. I then made a glass jukebox. Then ironically, I was fixing the side of that same bar and I chopped through my finger. I had an operation, then couldn’t work or play music for a while. While I was sulking round the house, my girlfriend suggested putting pictures of the new panels online. It worked; I got orders. And it’s carried on from there.
Whom or what inspires your work?
I love tattoo art, and always have. There’s a wealth of inspiration there, and I haven’t even touched on Japanese stuff yet - I can’t wait to do a koi carp. Otherwise I’m inspired by music imagery. I can’t get enough old rock’n’roll and punk stuff. I’m surrounded by art. My landlady is mosaicing the whole of the outside of her (my) house. It’s a mixture of Tiki, graffiti and traditional styles. It’s known as the Treatment Rooms in Chiswick, west London. It also means there are always arty types round the house and they often find their way up to my bar.
What kind of people commission work from you?
Bars, tattoo shops, and a lot of individuals order small panels as presents. I’ve just got my first commission for a boat!
What do you love most about making the glass?
For the first time, I’m in control, not relying on others. It’s good knowing panels last for hundreds of years (without bricks thrown at them). I doubt if one of my CDs will be played in 150 years, but one of my panels might be lurking somewhere. It’s an art form that hasn’t changed since the 1500s, apart from electric kilns and soldering irons, yet what I do feels original because of the tattoo inspiration. I could do with a few less cuts though.
You were apprenticed to Dan Gold weren’t you? How did that come about?
He tattooed me when he worked at Bugs’ in Camden; he liked my band, I loved his work. We went on a bender or two…there’s no such thing as a swift half in Gold’s world. We became good friends. He was setting up King’s Cross Tattoo at a time when I was lost and looking for something. I became Grasshopper!!
Why did you decide to move away from tattooing?
2002 was a messy year for me. I lost my dad, grandmother, girlfriend, home and then my job as a result. I went on one for a while and let myself get pushed away from tattooing. It’s so competitive; everyone wants your job. But, as I said earlier, if I had been fully into it, I wouldn’t have let it go.
You’ve played in quite a few bands over the years. How has that worked alongside the stained glass project?
I’m in control of the bands I’m in now. I don’t mean I’m the boss, but I’m not going to be sent on tour to America for 6 months unless I want to go. I was touring with The Dogs D’Amour as the glass stuff started taking off. As the tour went on, I got more and more agitated that I should be home getting on with commissions. I found a replacement guitarist and jumped ship. Of course, as soon as I was home sweating over a panel, I wished I were back on the bus, the good ship hedonism. I know I made the right choice though.
Do you still keep busy on the music front?
The Loyalties’ album (So Much For Soho) is out in June here, Japan and Canada. We are in the process of licensing it to other territories. There are a few short tours this year. Fast Lane Roogalator is my family band - me and my brothers put it together after my dad’s death. He was a singer/songwriter - John B Spencer. It was to carry on his work, but also our way to help get over losing him. We are playing the Rhythm Festival this summer and a festival in Crete (it’s a hard life, eh?). We have an album out later this year.
Tell us a few tales from the road…
This one time at band camp…NO! What goes on the road, etc. Having said that, I am working on a book on that subject that a TV company are interested in. It’s fictional officially, so I don’t incriminate anyone, including myself!
What else do you get up to when you’re not making stained glass or music?
Just got married to lovely Maz, and I have two children – Stephanie, 18 (who always wants credit) and Alfie, 9 (who wants to play for the mighty Queens Park Rangers). I’m trying to fight the screaming urge to always go down the pub by spells on the wagon and by keeping fit. I also love smoking. The ban has made me so pro smoking, can’t get enough of it. Probably would have given up otherwise. There’s a song on the Loyalties album called ‘Love’s a Drag’ where I vent my spleen.
What are your future plans?
I’m happy, so more of the same - interesting commissions and a bit of touring. I could do with earning more though. It’s so hard to make ends meet, especially in London. I don’t want to charge more - I just want everything else to cost less. Maybe I need a manager!