My leg is screaming, and I am exhausted. I have just spent six hours under the buzzing machines of Rob Sutherland. His shop, Tattoo Living Image, rests quietly in Maritime Greenwich, just to the south east of London town. It was a bit of a trek for me from the beaches of California, but well worth every penny.
Rob takes great pride in his work, and his bizarre sense of humor will either scare the shit out of you or become wildly contagious after a couple hours in his shop. I went with the latter option. Organically inspired freehand designs are his current passion, and the kick-ass piece of art that now adorns my leg, which pulses madly with every jolt of the underground, is a vivid testament to this passion. “We don’t do crap,” he told me today, “no stars, no rainbows, no dolphins…no crap. That’s the standard here.”
I booked my appointment with Rob via email after seeing his portfolio online. He spends hours, days sometimes, drawing up custom designs for his clients using coloured pencils and watercolour. And he’s been playing with something new, something different - the same something that lured me here. The style is not easily described with words - a monochromatic sepia effect is the basis – but the designs themselves are organic, abstract, feminine, intricate, and bold. I have never seen anything like it, which says a lot in a tattoo industry that has become so saturated, and I was sold on it instantly.
So from across the pond I flew. Day one down, day two on the horizon, and I’m loving it. This particular style of tattoo that Rob is doing on my leg is the fifth of its kind and I believe he’s just at the start of something grand. The designs are based on nature, elements from the sea, Victorian ornamental and textile design, and are limited only by his imagination. The sepia colouring scheme came about through his observation of the brown glow present in a fresh black & grey tattoo. So he experimented tirelessly, mixing inks, until he came up with a way to mimic that effect, permanently. “I love working with the sepia inks because I love black & grey work, but this gives it a whole new dimension. I can also add little tiny details so the piece looks good from a distance, but it also looks really good up close”, he says. “This design process is entirely right brain activated. The piece has its own structure and flows by itself.”
A rocky path led Rob Sutherland to 148A Trafalgar Road in Greenwich, London, home of Tattoo Living Image. “Everything in my life was always leading me to tattooing…” he says with a laugh, “all the teachers that ever said drawing on the walls would never get me anywhere were all wrong.” So, naturally I suppose, a few years after his stint as a schoolhouse vandal, Rob’s interest turned to tattooing, and at the start that meant tattooing with whatever the hell he could get his hands on. “Sewing needles were first, then an engraving machine (which I wouldn’t recommend). Then an electric razor, which really hurt, but not as bad as the engraving machine…you could still walk after the electric razor.” Then he took a break from all of it for a while, and eventually, whilst studying technical illustration at Ravensbourne College, he started tattooing with his brother Peter and their newly acquired tattooing machine and power pack. “We tattooed each other continuously until we couldn’t walk. That’s why an apprenticeship is so important – you learn about depth, speed, and all that. I never did one, and in some respects I’m glad because learning on my own gave me my own style.”
The development of that style began when Rob finished art school and opened his first studio, just around the corner from his current shop, and met Jack Ringo. Rob did some sign work for Jack’s studio in exchange for some rotary machines, bought a bunch of flash from Mark Vivian, and was well on his way…
Around 1995 he started getting into some detailed work and portraits, and finally knew that his business and art was really going somewhere. Tasmanian Devils were thankfully a way of the past and Rob picked up a few awards at tattoo conventions, moved into his current shop, and has seen a consistent increase in discerning clientele. The website (www.tattoolivingimage.com) has been up since 2000, and along with word of mouth, is a main draw for the majority of their clients.
Rob is not alone at Tattoo Living Image. He’s got a couple other crazies to keep him company. Biko is the quiet one, calm and collected, and immensely talented in his own right. He’s been tattooing at the shop for two years now, and as Rob says, is absorbing everything and doing very well for himself. Both these guys were busy every time I was in the shop, and both typically book up one to three months in advance. And then there’s Amy…she’s nonstop with friendly conversation and the loud cackling counterpart to Rob’s incoherent mumblings. She’s Rob’s apprentice, she’s the smiling face when you walk through the door, and I’m convinced she’s one of the only women on the planet who can handle a steady dose of Rob Sutherland’s sense of humour. The other, naturally, would be his wife, Tracy. Rob looked me in the eyes at one point today and said, “Really, without my wife, none of it would have ever happened. She’s my toughest critic, she drives me absolutely mad, but has been extremely supportive throughout my whole career.”
So here I am, back for day two. Six more hours to go…and I’m in pain, as can be expected. As an experiment, I decide to conduct the second half of the interview while Rob worked on my leg. It seemed an appropriate choice at the time, I mean, a person may as well get really into their work, right? Vomit Remnants blares over the stereo, and Rob laughs. “My wife hates this. Says it doesn’t sound like normal Rock’n’Roll. Says I’m a delinquent… she’s right!” Somewhere around hour four (or ten, depending on how you look at it) my questions begin to come out in the form of “…ummmmm, ahhhh, sorry?” and I conclude that it’s time to put the notepad down for a bit.
Rob is straightforward with the potential clientele. He doesn’t shit them around. He gives them honest answers. Here, it’s all about the art. And here, they don’t want anything to do with a shit tattoo. “I think tattooists have a responsibility to say what’s good and what’s rubbish, instead of just taking the money and running with it. The tattoo industry is definitely moving forward right now. As long as we all keep striving, it’s just gonna grow and grow. ‘Cause just when you think you’ve got it figured out, you see some artist that blows you away and you think to yourself, ‘How the fuck did he do that!?”
I always like to ask where the inspiration comes from, who the key contributors are to a creative mind, and Rob’s list does not disappoint. The list begins with Jack Ringo, who Rob cheerfully remembers, “Never used to wear gloves, always had a fag hanging out of his mouth and all of a sudden he’d wipe away this pool of ink and blood and there was a panther underneath. It was fucking amazing.” Then Rusty Skuse (Les Skuse’s wife) who landed a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most tattooed woman, Mark Carville, Tom Ptolemy, Joshua Carlton, Mike DeVries, Mike Cole, Boris, and Tin-Tin.
“The true test of a tattoo is that it doesn’t look like a tattoo – it looks like art”, he says. And the importance of the art is incredibly prominent in Rob’s work. Caravaggio, a pioneer in the use of chiaroscuro, is his “all time favourite artist”, followed closely by Hieronymus Bosch and Picasso. And on a more personal level, he thanks Richard Trusswell Clark, his teacher at art college who taught him everything he knows about design and layering, and Robert Garwood, a college friend who “was the best artist I’ve ever met. Without him I would have never achieved what I did in college.”
The day is winding to a close at Tattoo Living Image. Amy chuckles and runs off to grab us all some tea, Biko saunters upstairs, pleased with the piece he’s just finished, and Rob (I’d like to say gently, though after twelve hours in back to back sessions, nothing feels gentle) cleans off my fresh tattoo and bandages me up for the trek home… the piece is amazing.
As we all stand outside enjoying some fresh air, we chat about what the future might hold for Rob Sutherland and his crew here at Tattoo Living Image. His vision? “I’d like to get a place by the coast, where a client can come down and stay for four or five days. The first day we can spend designing and discussing the tattoo, and the next three or four days can be spent doing a really nice piece.” Sounds incredible to me… where the hell do I sign up?