Often people focus on the negative points of having visible tattoo coverage, ranging from getting funny looks in the street, through to finding it a major hurdle to be taken seriously within certain professions. Many police forces even have an official ‘acceptable/unacceptable’ list of subject matter for tattoos.
Instead of causing problems, my tattoos usually garner a positive response, and have often been the starting point of enjoyable conversations with people whom I would not normally expect to speak with. For others, having tattoos and standing out can work to their advantage. One such person is Troy ‘Diablo’ Roe, a Muay Thai boxer based in North London, who has taken the time to talk to Skin Deep about some of the similarities between his tattoo experiences and fighting, as well as how the two came together when he visited Thailand.
How long have you been training for, and is this your sole occupation?
I’ve been training for the last 6 years at the Diablo Gym, in Barnet, under Simon Wells and Will Kelly. It wasn’t full time but between training, pre-fight training and actual ring fighting, it has certainly felt like a full time job! Joking aside, I’m so heavily involved in the boxing now that although it isn’t paying all the bills, it is definitely my lifestyle. It led me to leave the fabulously dull world of building maintenance to allow me to dedicate more time to the sport so I took the gamble, quit, and now work as an actor/model/gun for hire and personal trainer when I’m not boxing.
Before we go any further, can you give our readers a brief introduction to Muay thai boxing?
I’d be happy to: Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand. It is more a fighting art than a martial art. It descended from battlefield fighting that involved bows, swords, pikes, etc. Unarmed combat involved using fists, elbows, knees & legs as weapons, and it’s known as the science of 8 limbs.
Since such times it has developed into a ring sport much the same as western boxing, but the same weapons are used so fighters have a greater arsenal. If following full Thai rules, fights last for five rounds with each round being three minutes long; in many western countries we’ve adapted the rules to disallow elbows (and for novice fighters, knees) to the head, and fights instead run as five rounds each lasting two minutes.
How did you get into it?
I had been looking at getting involved in some form of combat sport and while living in South London I happened upon a small gym run by Martin Smith. I went a few times, but then moved across the river and couldn’t be bothered with the commute. A friend of mine from the hardcore scene was training at this gym in Barnet so I got the address and turned up one day. I started in the usual way, turning up now and then, sometimes going away on tour... After a couple years’ training I went out on a couple of gym and novice shows, then at the start of ‘06 I was offered a fight at the well known York Hall venue in Bethnal Green. It was my first fight without shin-guards against a lad from Lumpini, Crawley. We had a right ding-dong but he beat me on points. I was a bit gutted but the bug had got me! I wanted to fight again as soon as I could!! Since then I’ve had 15 fights with a 9 win, 5 lost, 1 drawn record. I’ve been lucky enough to be on some great shows against some top fighters. Fighting for me is not about winning shiny belts and titles... I mean they’re a nice by-product, but it’s the buzz I get & the reward for working hard and sacrificing everything else in your life for a few weeks for a chance to show off your skills against whoever you’re in there with, and make my trainers and stable mates proud of the account I give. A nice belt and big metal trophy means nothing if I get back to the changing room and my corner tell me I looked like shit!
Were you into tattoos before you got into the sport?
Oh yes. I was drawn to tattoos from a very young age. I remember being in the Cadets when I was a nipper and this old dude who was a Sergeant had all these blued-out old tats of pin-up girls, ships & desert islands from when he was in the Navy. The other kids thought he looked like shit but I was fascinated by these classic images and the stories behind them. From about the age of fourteen I was into punk rock and hardcore, this obviously played a part in influencing me, as nearly every band I saw at least one of the dudes had his neck tattooed or a massive sleeve. I mean, as a kid I looked up to Rancid and Mike Ness [of Social Distortion] and they are covered in ink!
From previous conversations:
I know you didn’t rush out at eighteen and just get covered straight away. Is there anything about tattooing that you wish you had known before you got your first piece?
[Chuckles] Kind of, I took my time and ended up being tattooed by a myriad of people from all over the world. Tattooing is a great art so don’t rush into getting stuff done to be part of something. I have a horrible huge piece of tribal on my arm because it was a phase in the ‘90s, and I didn’t stop and think, ‘Do I want this on me in five years’ time?’ I don’t regret it exactly, ‘cos it is what it is and it’s part of my history and where I came from. But the outer upper arm is a potentially great frame for a tattoo and I wasted mine on something black and spiky!!
I know girls who look at their traditional western tats and they’re like, “Yeah they’re great but they’re gonna look shit in a wedding dress”. You see kids now with kneckles (that’s neck & knuckles) and hardly anything else! It drives me fucking crazy that some kid can walk into a shop at 19 and get his neck tattooed. Traditionally people got those parts tattooed last for a reason: (a) they wanted to make an antisocial statement, or (b) they had no other space on their fucking body! So when people come up to me in the street and ask where I got something done and then say they wanna get a tattoo on their neck I tell them not to be so stupid, he’s probably just seen it on Miami Ink & he needs to get some other tattoos first and work out if it’s for them before they permanently adorn their neck with the name of some chick they’re probably gonna break up with in a month...they don’t call these tattoos ‘job stoppers’ for nothing! It makes me question what is motivating the tattooist to do such a piece on virgin clients.
I learnt my lesson with the oversized piece of tribal on my left arm. Since then I’ve been more careful with my choice of artists, Matt Differ (Jolie Rouge) did my three quarter sleeves and the koi on my right shoulder was taken care of by John H (@Eclipse). He also did the swallow on one side of my neck, the prayer hands on my left leg & the pirate ghost ship on my right (which is still unfinished 5 years on!). From then on it gets kind of confusing. After a couple of years I was sure that I wanted to get full sleeves, so Jeff Ortega (Evil from the Needle) finished my left arm with a Spitfire plane and the gap on my right was filled with a beautiful sugar skull and heart design in traditional Mexican style by Juan Puente (Spotlight Tattoo, LA).
The girls on my hands (which Skin Deep readers may recognize from the front cover of Al’s book ‘No Commercial Value’) were done by Saira Hunjan (The Family Business) and are named ‘Cherry” and ‘Marcia” after the girls in ‘The Outsiders’. I was so happy with the results that Saira is also doing my backpiece. I need to thank her for being patient with me too; we started on it over two years ago and because I’ve had fights come up so often I’ve blown her out on a few appointments and we still haven’t gotten to finish it off. Sorry Saira!
My chest piece was done by my good friend Mike Ski at his apartment in New Jersey, although he is usually found on the road with his band The AKA’s. I was lucky enough to have the Holy Mother on my neck as well as the script around my collar done by Thomas Hooper. Behind my ears are a Shamrock and a horseshoe; these were done by Chuck D from Daredevil. The heart at the top of my neck, with the Gaelic for ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ adorning it, is credit to the amazing Jason Kundell
I’ve had a few awesome dudes have a go on my legs. Grez did the pin-up girl on my thigh, Scott Sylvia the Mr Lucky Staffie, Theo Mindell the cobra handshake, Adam Craft the little bird, and Simon Erl the boxing gloves. Finally my friend Peggy Punch did the Octopussy tentacle for a birthday present. Now that he is back in the UK, Simon has drawn up three more pieces and is gonna finish my legs off after this year’s fight season is over.
How did you family take to your collecting tattoos?
It took me a year and a half of wearing long sleeves before I ‘came out’ to my parents!! I had started on my chest, and had the tribal on one arm & a three quarter sleeve on the other. I’m blessed to be real close with my family, so one day I sat them down and said “Look, I hope you can get past the preconception of sailors and criminals, I have tattoos, and I’m gonna get some more”. Then I took my shirt off. My ma went real quiet. She just doesn’t like them. My dad was cool about it. Since then they’ve grown used to them and accept that I’m the same son I always was, I’m just a bit more colourful! My late Grandmother saw my first neck tattoo when her vision was going, so she looked at it quite hard and about 20 minutes later she just said, “I don’t like that mess”.
Speaking of assumptions, what are the biggest misperceptions people have about you?
A lot of people are surprised at how friendly I am. I’m not a big fan of ‘people’ but I’m always courteous and respectful to anyone individually. Saying that, I will happily take the piss out of someone I’ve never met so people often misconceive my incredibly sarcastic humour and just think I’m a prick. I’m fine with that. I have experienced a range of responses when walking down the street, from people avoiding eye contact or whatever to the typical (adopt rudeboy accent) “Nice tattoos bruv!”. Generally they’re pretty positive these days. Old people are the best ‘cos I have a very 1940s style but I’m covered in tattoos; I always hold doors, offer up seats or get their cases on stairs and they’re sometimes taken aback by that. Unfortunately, sometimes the biggest assumptions are made by other people sporting tattoos. The tattoo scene is like every other ‘scene’, and is rife with bitchy little children. I think the Internet is partially to blame; forums give gutless people an anonymous voice. I prefer not to get too involved in the intricacies of ‘scenes’, just my friends, and people as individuals. I’ll take being an outsider over shitty personal politics and social climbing.
Who then has influenced your style, or inspired you?
I’m a collector of vintage clothes, and although I don’t dress exclusively in old clothes, I do love the look of the ‘30s & ‘40s. Tom Waits knows how to make thrift store clothes look like gold dust. Also Louise Brooks the 1920s actress. She is timelessly beautiful, she iconised the black bob and it’s still the sexiest hairstyle ever. Victoria Beckham can fuck off though. You won’t be surprised to hear that 1940s R&B and doo wop top my list of music that I enjoy.
Has any of this inspired any of your tattoos, or influenced your choice in tattoos?
Well, my last tattoo was the Mr Lucky Staffordshire bull terrier. It’s homage to my beautiful & insane dog Roxy. As for future tattoos, I have some other ideas but I’m not printing ‘em ‘cos I don’t want no other cunt robbing the idea! Haha.
You’ve had some great artists work on you; do you have a favourite tattoo or experience getting a tattoo?
Ah man that’s hard. I think straight up the pin-up girl done by Grez , as it is a beautiful, timeless piece of tattoo art. Possibly the tiger on my ribs, as it is just so unique and wonderful, then again the boxing gloves by Simon represent a big part of ‘who I am’, and the script around my neck is from my favourite song in the world so it’s a bit of all of the above...
The story behind the bird on my lower leg isn’t run of the mill either. Adam Craft was commissioned by Saatchi & Saatchi to design a logo for his new book. To tie in with the launch of this book, they came up with a fairly simple, ‘shocking’ publicity stunt. They asked Adam to tattoo a bunch of people at the convention. As you can guess this wasn’t something the kind of people attending this convention saw everyday! To cut a long story short, me & Simon got flown out to Frankfurt to get tattooed by Adam at the book fare.
However, without a doubt the most memorable tattoo I’ve had was the one that I got in Thailand. The whole experience there was just so unique. I was out there training in 2008 year with Femi & Mikey from the gym, and our friend Moon told us about this temple nearby. So he calls his cousin who drives a taxi and we went out there for the day. You basically get some flowers and stuff and put it in a basket with a donation. There were about twenty Thais all there at the same time. The monk comes out and blesses the basket, which is full of everyone’s donations, then you just wait in line. These Thai guys in front of me were all getting bits and pieces done which were obviously ongoing works. Even the preparation was memorable. The next two people in line would hold the skin of the person getting tatted ‘cos the monk needed both hands. So I held the skin for the guy in front of me, then it was my turn and I stepped up, fortunately Moon translated so everything went smoothly, I was sat on the floor in front of the monk, who slaps on a stencil, twists me round so he can reach my ribs properly, then the other two guys pull my skin tight, he taps my leg and off he goes!! It’s a totally different feeling to getting tattooed by someone using a machine. It hurt like fuck but loads of Thai people were waiting around to watch the ‘colourful farang’ (white person) get tattooed on a really painful part of the body so I didn’t have a choice other than to hold still, not flinch or complain. The monk worked like lightening though and it was done in something like only half an hour. Afterwards Moon took us to this beautiful outdoor restaurant and we had one of the best meals of my life.
Earlier you drew some parallels between the mental discipline required and the way you approach both being tattooed and preparing for a ring fight. Can you elaborate on where there is the cross over?
The thing about boxing is that it’s very unique come competition time... You train with your stable mates and everyone goes through the same highs and lows, if a couple of us are fighting on the same bill then we’re both burning about 4500 calories a day and putting 1500 back in to make weight, you work on a game plan with your trainers... But come the fight, you’re in that ring on your own and it’s a lonely place! There’s no relying on your teammates or palming the blame if the fight went bad. I like to approach a fight as relaxed as possible. I have a good rapport with my corner and I find being relaxed and focused will reflect in my performance. I think it’s similar with getting tatted; I’ve had sessions when I’ve been in the wrong frame of mind, it’s hurt like hell from the first second the needle’s gone in and the next 2 hours are hell! Then there are times when you know what’s coming, you’re relaxed, got some sugar in your veins and it breezes by. It’s a funny thing the mind... You can win (and lose) battles up there before they’ve even happened. It works just the same in life. In both situations preparation is important, but the bigger battle isn’t with the pain, as you know it’s coming, but how you deal with it.