Zombie dolls plastered with peeling St George's flag facepaint. Spinning geometric patterns. Books dedicated to images of Death in Mexican art on shelves dotted with skulls, next to flash drawings of Jessica Rabbit milking a giant phallus. Brightly coloured scarves and jewellery, hearts and hands, pretty flowers... a glance around the interior of Divine Canvas is like a glimpse into an eclectic, rather cluttered mind...
Which is probably what you'd expect from a studio created by Xed Le head, a man who describes himself as being “found under a rock four decades ago with my cock in one hand and a tattoo machine in the other,” and Mad Alan, an artist specialising in S&M inkwork deemed “too hardcore for a magazine such as Skin Deep to publish” by the artists themselves. (Don't worry, you can find it online hiding amongst the names of those philandering footballers – the internet is a marvellous thing.) When the two met it was an encounter between kindred spirits, and soon enough “the fruit of this unholy union was a strange little tattoo studio,” as Xed puts it.
Strange it may be, but there's no arguing with the beauty of the work produced there or the recruitment philosophy that drove Xed to bring in new blood that included éRic the Viking and Boff Konkerz among others. Unassuming on the outside, the Caledonian Road studio is home to a diverse crowd of artists who take pride in creating a friendly environment alongside some striking art. There's canny cross promotion to be had too: the studio sells Manaka Accessories' earrings, head wraps, bangles, necklaces and bags for those not in the market for a new tattoo.
However, if it's ink you're after, you've got plenty of choice. The Divine Canvas lineup is led by the mysterious Mr Lehead, who could be pinned down just long enough to make a few cryptic statements before evaporating on holiday without anyone else in the studio knowing his whereabouts. According to the man himself “I don't know where I came from, I only know that tattooing was all I was interested in, it has always been that way and it will always be that way.” This could sound a bit self-mythologising but it's fair to say he's earned the right to some mystique, especially when you consider his work or talk to the other artists about their boss' influence on their lives and careers.
Take Boff Konkerz, for example. Moving to London in 2003, Boff ended up sharing a house with Xed and receiving his first piece of handwork from him, and hasn't looked back since. “I got a few pointers and tattooed myself, friends saw it and wanted in on the action and I started tattooing from my bedroom in exchange for food and booze. Very punk rock: this is a needle, this is some ink, now do a tattoo!”
Studio manager éRic the Viking also includes the Xed in his origin story. After a career that went from a coffee bar to working as a freelance painter and illustrator (via starting his own computer animation company, naturally), he was inducted into the tattoo world by his friend Tota – of Happy Sailor studio – and Xed around ten years ago. “I started getting some work done and I never thought at the time that I would also be tattooing one day. A little bit over three years ago Tota decided it was high time for me to learn, so she and Xed helped me get some equipment. I tattooed myself, then a few friends and that was that. The transition into tattooing was purely a technical matter and was fairly straightforward as I'd spent years watching the process.”
For Damien Voodoo on the other hand, becoming a tattooist was anything but straightforward. For a start, at the beginning of the story he was a she. “I was born a female in Tehran, Iran, many years ago,” he explains. “I studied art while the Iran/Iraq war was going on. During the day I would go to school and in the night we would evacuate the city and sleep in the desert while the planes would bomb the city, then we would come back in the morning hoping our homes were still there... my obsession with drawing beautiful happy things started then.” Ultimately he fled Iran with his mother and finally came to rest in London, “and that's when I finally transitioned from female to male and decided to dedicate my life to tattooing.” Perhaps his earliest influence was his grandmother, who sported a line and a few dots inked on her face. “I used to ask her what it was, and she would tell me 'it's magic'.”
A little look at the studio and the artists' portfolios will tell you that while there may not be a Divine Canvas 'house style' there are certainly a few unifying themes running through the inkwork and atmosphere produced there – and magic could well be one of them. “I believe tattoos are secrets of the spirit revealed on our skin,” says Damien. “This is magic, and magic always expands beyond our imagination.” As a result he never plans a tattoo beforehand, as “you can't plan magic. It has to just happen.”
Xed himself has thoughts along the same lines (or dots. Sorry.) “I would say that my work is an attempt to bring a piece of your soul to your skin and add a piece of mine to it,” he says. “I work in a limited field that won't appeal to many people, but I'm happy that it does appeal to some...”
Of course, like the best creative partnerships there are contrasting points of view within the team about the 'Divine' part of Divine Canvas, but Xed is pretty clear: “I love the private late night sessions, lights down low, serious deep music and even deeper tattooing. That's when it gets super mystical, with the right client who is open to that kind of thing.”
éRic sees it slightly differently: “It's hard to explain but I enjoy the non-attachment from the creative process of tattooing,” he says. “Tattooing for me is like an accurate science where there are some strict rules to stick to and room to play within. It can have a profound effect on people, like helping some accept their own bodies or be more self-confident; but I try not to attach too much mystique to the practice.”
As for the 'practice' of tattooing, although there's some noticeable cross-pollination of ideas and styles throughout their work (the use of dots and shading, for example), each of the artists has their own unique approach to sitting down with someone to get the job done.
For Damien it's all about creating work that enhances the shape of his clients, working in dots “wrapped around them as if they are wearing it like clothes.” Before getting started he'll light candles, burn incense and thank the ancestors and tattoo gods, “then I spend as much time as it may take drawing on my client before starting the tattoo. One of the many things I've learned from my very special friend Xed is that you do NOT rush a tattoo.”
Boff is flexible in how he approaches working with a client, but always produces tattoos using his signature handwork style (i.e. without a machine, instead poking in the designs with a needle lashed to a stick). “Sometimes it's good when clients have a really solid idea that's gonna look good and you just whack on a stencil and kick it old school,” he explains, “but I also like it when they have a rough idea and I have some freedom to come up with a design.” Like Damien, he draws straight onto skin when creating more abstract pieces, “to work with the contours
of the body.”
éRic prefers to create a tattoo by removing himself from the equation entirely. “I see myself as a facilitator,” he says, “I'm here to put my artistic skills at my clients' disposal in order to get them the best possible tattoo. I'm not here to prove anything to anyone or to express myself. I have my own creative endeavours on the side to do that, like making sculptures, painting or playing instruments.” For that reason he doesn't claim to have a specific style, “and I'm not sure I would be happy being tied to one either. I enjoy the diversity of the work, whether it's doing calligraphy, realistic portraits, Japanese art, or some dot work. It keeps me on my toes and keeps the job interesting.”
Variety seems to be one of the key parts of the Divine Canvas experience. The artists say days can be “hectic” and “unbelievably eventful”, can include the usual studio banter, or can throw up moments of simultaneous concentration when the place will go quiet. But as Boff puts it, “it's good to have that contrast in a studio.” Variety of ideas is important too: while there's general agreement that they'll put their opinions out there if they think a design won't work – “no tattooing can occur until both myself and the client are completely happy with where its going,” says Xed – when it comes to what makes a great tattoo all the artists focus on different elements of the job.
“A great tattoo is one done without any concern for time, money or competition,” is Damien's philosophical response. éRic thinks about the technical aspects: “It's mainly a combination of technique, artistic vision, and good placement on the body, as well as proper evaluation of the client's skin,” he says. “Artists tend to get annoyed when clients want a complex design the size of a post stamp. Bigger tattoos tend to age better, but are also more dynamic in the way they move with the body.”
Xed's take leans more towards the spiritual. “A great tattoo looks like it should be there – when you can see that the ink really tells you something about that person, even if you can't tell what it is. I don't like it when the work looks put there with no soul,” he says, “I see so much pretty tattooing out there that is just plain empty.”
'Soul' is a tricky one, but it's also on Boff's mind. “It's a difficult thing to put your finger on. I'm a fan of lots of different genres of music and it's the same with tattoos. Sometimes it can be a Japanese piece, an old school piece, whatever... it just needs to have that je ne sais quoi.
“It doesn't have to be well done to be a great tattoo,” he adds, “and just because it has clean lines, solid shading and looks like what it's meant to be, that doesn't make it a great tattoo. Often distorted guitars sound better than clean.”
And are there any discordant notes in the business at large? “I really dislike the egomania rife in this industry,” says Xed, “artists treating clients like a piece of meat and fleecing them for as many dollars as possible. Who do these people think they are? We're just tattoomakers, nothing else.”
Just as artists should be humble, so should clients, says éRic, “If I have any pet hates it's people who think that because they've got tattoos they're somehow better or cooler than people who don't.” It's no coincidence that the door sign bears the words 'No attitudes' – which could be both a warning to cocky customers, but also a promise about the people you'll find inside.
So what is Divine Canvas? A spiritual site bringing souls to the surface of the skin? The den of an S&M inking maniac? Or simply a high-quality establishment putting out some amazing dotwork and abstract geometrical art? Perhaps the success of this “strange little studio” is down to the fact that it combines all of those things, and like all the greats is at it's best when “everything's on a roll, you're doing a good job on the right person, the studio's rocking and everyone's riding the same wave,” as Boff says.
The artists' artists
Who do the team at Divine Canvas rate?
Xed: Jondix and Vincent Hocquet. I love many others but those two are really pushing the boat out.
Boff: I like the work coming out of Buena Vista Tattoo Club, plus Yann Black, Duncan X, Curly, Thomas Hooper...and that Xed bloke.
éRic: Recently a client asked me to do a piece inspired by one of Genko's tattoos and I got to discover his work, which is pretty incredible; but I never seem to remember names. To me the work created is far more important than who did it!
Iestyn is Divine Canvas' resident piercer and body modification expert. He got his first piercings in New Zealand while working as a hairdresser, and began piercing professionally once he arrived in London in 2002. He also performs scarification.
“For me body modification was a natural progression from piercing. I decided to head out in a new direction and explore other ways to change the body, and to help other people reach the body modification goals they had. I taught myself scarification, firstly offering it to my piercing customers. I then progressed to trying other things, such as putting beads into the skin of the shaft of the penis.
“I believe more and more people are developing an interest in more extreme forms of modification because tattooing is much more widely accepted than it used to be. There will always be a minority of people in society who want to push the envelope, to go to the edge.
“Of course, if you stick your head up and dare to do something different you might get shot down. The key is to not pay too much attention to your critics and follow your heart. If there were more tattoo magazines (like Skin Deep) prepared to feature modification and scarification in a mature way, then maybe a few of the misconceptions and the animosity would disappear.
“Scarification is very old. It has been used in Sub-Saharan Africa, Papua New Guinea and Australia for many different reasons. As a form of tribal identification, to beautify the body, as signs for fertility and health, as a right of passage... some of my clients may be harking back to this in an attempt to connect to our collective past. As for my work, I do a lot of geometric or eastern inspired illustrative work. I often perform ink rubbings (rubbing ink (usually red) into the fresh scar to make it darker), create dot shaded scars using a dermal punch, insert implants (sub-dermal and trans-dermal), and do genital work and tongue splitting.
“My main influences are Xed Lehead and Lucas Zpira. Xed has influenced me in the way he approaches his work and the experience he gives people. On another level I appreciate the way he views the body as the interface between the physical and the spiritual. Xed is a pioneer of geometric tattooing and dotshading and I would not be working in the way I do were it not for him. Lucas changed scarification and people's perception of it: he changed it from a few basic lines into a genuine art form and his attitude towards subculture is very inspiring for me. The journey is as important as the destination. The journey is the destination. Love and Light to all!”
Divine Canvas179 Caledonian road
London N10 SL