Behind the Mask - Mil Martinez

Published: 22 June, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 200, June, 2011

Old School has been experiencing something of a revival lately, and despite recent commercialisation there are a wide range of artists who respect traditional tattoo designs for what they have always been, simple, clean and iconic images that evoke a feeling of nostalgia.

When I was first introduced to Mil Martinez’ work, it wasn’t by seeing it on a customer’s skin or a flash sheet on the wall, but as a t-shirt design for his girlfriend Araceli’s clothing company Old Skull Forever... I wasn’t even aware that Mil was the man behind the artwork until I met him at a London Lowbrow & Kustom Ko-Op event. After some research, it became clear that Mil is a true traditionalist, taking cues from some of the artists who first brought tattooing to the country, while still maintaining his own distinct style.

Working from London’s famous Diamond Jacks Tattoo Parlour, it’s not just his skills that stand out, but his in-depth knowledge of the art’s history, which is particularly impressive given that he’s only been working in the industry for five years. There was nothing left to do but make my way to bustling Soho and chat to Mil about everything from Mexican wrestling and playing in a punk band to his biggest passion, tattooing:

“I was always into tattooing since I was a kid, I don’t really know why, I was just taken aback by the boldness of a lot of things. When I was about seven years old, I was on a bus and I met a homeless guy and he had a teardrop tattooed on his face. I pried myself away from my mum and ran over to the guy and was very obsessed with it. I just started turning to my mum from then and saying “Yeah I want that, I want a teardrop on my face” and obviously my mum was like “yeah, maybe wait a little bit…”

Growing up in Brixton and Streatham, South London, Mil was exposed to a wide range of old school work, and given his enthusiasm for the style his past certainly seems to have made an impression. However, while many look to the States for inspiration, Mil prefers to look a little closer to home.

“There’s a huge history of it from America, but there’s also a big history of British people who did it in the last 50 to 80 years. The original owner of Diamond Jacks, Dennis Cockell, kind of learnt from Ed Hardy over in the States and then came back over to England and tattooed over here, so I got a lot of inspiration through that.

“There were loads of other artists from Britain who I’ve started to find out a lot about over the past two or three years. There were the Vallar Brothers who brought over traditional tattooing in the 1900s, and there were guys like Mick Fiz and Jimmy Gould too. These were guys who had picked it up from America, but what you find is that the British style of old school developed into being very traditional but we used a couple more colours and things were a tiny bit different.”

While many see strict traditional work as somewhat limited, especially given the set number of images and colours used, Mil sees this as a challenge to overcome, while maintaining a traditional aesthetic and mindset.

“I’ve done three tigers in the past month and I’ve got to somehow make those three tigers look different while still making them look old school. You can’t get precious about tattooing, there are two sides to it, there are tattoo artists and tattooers. I class myself as a tattooer, I’m not a tattoo artist, I’m not an art student, I don’t have an art degree, I like old school imagery and I got into tattooing because of that. That’s what made me learn to draw and made me learn to do it.”

Mil’s appreciation for tattooing’s roots extend beyond his work. As with just about every artist in the industry, Mil has his own opinions about the effect of the art’s recent move into the mainstream.

“I’m happy that tattooing has moved into all classes, but at the end of the day the thing people have to remember is that tattooing was a working class thing. It was for people who didn’t have a lot of money, it was for people in the navy, people in the army, people who were Average Joe’s. I think that’s what people are destroying a little bit in tattooing, I don’t think there should be so much thought put into it.

“I’m really into people like Milton Zeis, Al Schiefley, Doc Forbes, Bert Grimm, Jack Dracula. There are so many people that I couldn’t possibly begin with who had influenced me the most. I’d say over the past six months to a year I’ve been looking at a lot of stuff by Percy Waters, he started tattooing in the early 20th century, and his work just has such a timeless feel.

I think the greatest thing about tattooing now, especially if you’re in this industry and you’ve been here a few years and you’re into old school, is that it’s so easy to find everything. With the internet and Facebook you can find books and information, find artists, trade art work, and get great inspiration. All of that was just so much harder to do in the past, but now rather than trawling through book shops you can just check a website, it’s a great tool.”

With such a keen eye for detail and a comprehensive knowledge of the trade, it comes as no surprise that Mil has built up an extensive collection of work himself. As with the sailors of the past, Mil sees his work as more of a scrapbook, gathering pieces on his travels, from fellow artists both at home and abroad.

“My first few tattoos weren’t too significant for me, it was just getting tattooed, I was just so excited to have them that I would have let anyone do it really. I’d say it wasn’t until I actually got into tattooing that I started to source out who I’d get tattooed by. Even now I’ll meet someone and if I like them and I like something they’ve done then I’ll get them to do something on me.”

“My boss, Darryl Gates did quite a bit of my stuff, I’ve had a really nice piece by Xam from The Family Business recently, I also got tattooed by Dennis Cockell who was the original owner of this shop, I got an old school piece from him not long ago. I’ve had work by Davide at Plastic Surgery in Italy and a guy called Aaron Hill from Canada as well, he does really nice lettering and skulls. I see it like collecting, I want to fill myself up and have memories of it all.”

With a strong work ethic, and a need for a creative outlet, Mil started tattooing just over five years ago. Initially working as an apprentice for former Diamond Jacks and current Skunx artist, Nick Reid, Mil soon became a permanent artist in the shop.

“It wasn’t the easiest apprenticeship because he was extremely busy and my boss wasn’t in the position to have an apprentice yet, he just didn’t feel comfortable. The first three years I was just kind of getting by, but over the last two years I started meeting other artists, getting tattooed by other people and starting to pick up more. The last two years have been when I’ve really learnt to tattoo.”

Despite his relatively short amount of time in the industry, as with any trade that’s so focused on the customer, Mil has already found that the best clients are those that hand over creative control and let him do what he does best.

“If someone comes in and says they want an old school clipper ship with a mermaid under it I’m happy, I don’t want to have to fight with customers to tell them that their idea won’t work. My ideal customer is just someone who likes my work and says they trust me.”

As is the case with many traditional tattooists, Mil explains that while he mainly looks to the artists of the past, there are still some current artists who catch
his eye.

“There are a few current artists who’ve influenced me in the past couple of years, mainly Krooked Ken, Jerry Swallows and Big Josh. They really influenced me a lot to source out all of the information on the things I like. I found a load of tattoo work they’ve done and I thought ‘I really need to find where these guys are getting all of this from’. I would love to be at their level in the next five to ten years, that would be a dream of mine.”

As I previously explained, my introduction to Mil’s work was not through his tattooing, but through his graphic design for Old Skull Forever, the brainchild of his girlfriend, Araceli.

“She’s a very, very creative fashion designer, and that business is just taking off for her now, she’s getting a lot of offers from other artists now and it’s been good for me because it’s helped me slowly get my tattooing out there. Hopefully she’s got some new designs coming out over the next few months, and she’s getting some offers from some really good artists too, so hopefully she’ll not forget about me!”

While Mil’s exposure to tattoos from an early age had a huge impact on his life, another one of his passions also stemmed from his childhood, and while many kids grow up dreaming of being a footballer, he had a taste for the more dramatic side of things thanks to an introduction to Pro Wrestling.

“One of my first memories was watching a rerun of Weekly World of Sport on ITV and watching a guy called Johnny Saint wrestling. As I got a little bit older and I found out about the WWF I got really into Hulk Hogan, The British Bulldog, Bret Hart, all of those guys. I just really loved wrestling and haven’t got out of it, I’ve always loved it.”

For most people that would be the end of it, particularly as Mil considered himself to be too small to take part. When he was introduced to the acrobatic world of Mexican Wrestling his eyes were opened to the possibility that he could pursue his passion.

“I went to a wrestling show by the group that train me now, Lucha Britannia, and got chatting with one of the pros, Greg Burridge, one of the most famous British Wrestlers in the past ten years, and he just took me under his wing. I started tattooing him and he started teaching me to wrestle once a month or so.”

Thanks to a resurgence of interest in wrestling, particularly in the UK, Lucha Britannia was able to open the London School of Lucha Libre at the Resistance Gallery in London’s Bethnal Green. This provided Mil, and other aspiring wrestlers, the chance to train more frequently, with classes running twice every week.

Despite the recent explosion of cage fighting, it’s the theatric and spectacular elements of pro wrestling that appeal to Mil, an appeal that even extends beyond the sport and into an appreciation for the bygone days when Saturday nights were spent in front of the TV.

“It’s meant to be over-elaborate, it’s meant to be over the top, it’s meant to be theatrical and entertaining. It’s not cage fighting, it’s pro wrestling, people go ‘Oh, that fake stuff’ but you wouldn’t look at ballet and say that. The thing with wrestling is that as much as it isn’t real, it’s all about that moment that moment where the audience lose their disbelief. If you stop halfway through a move and panic, then people are going to lose that and realise it’s fake. I might not look like the kind of guy that likes things like X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, but I love them! I think that’s exactly what TV needs, that Saturday afternoon TV, and I feel like wrestling could be a part of that again.”

Despite these aspirations, Mil’s main goal is to train as much as possible before performing in front of spectators, to suspend that feeling of disbelief, fortunately the school’s trainers, Greg Burridge and Gary Vanderhorne are more than happy to make sure their students are prepared for competition.

“They’re very meticulous and very critical, but they push us to be the best that we can. I’d say hopefully by the end of this summer I’ll be starting to work some matches, I reckon I’ll be having my arse handed to me for about a year, but it’s what I want to do so I’ll just have to take it!”

As with any creative industry it’s all too easy to lose sight of your roots, but Mil’s down to earth attitude and appreciation for learning his trade make him a true student of the art, and an excellent tattooist for it. Despite his young age and relative infancy as an artist, it’s clear that Mil will achieve anything that he sets his mind to.

“The most important thing about tattooing is you have to be a student, there’s so much to learn and so much to pick up. If you want to do traditional work it’s never ending. I have huge respected for tattooists who really just live for what they do and they just live for tattooing, but it doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you’ve got a passion for the industry and you’re not just trying to get into it because you see it as a cash cow.”

Stephan & Bert Vallar

Stephen and Robert Vallar had both learned the art of tattooing from their father. They had worked under their father for approx ten years before his death in 1949 and had become masters at the art. Stephen, the oldest brother, did not relish a career as a tattooist and left the family business around 1953, leaving Robert (Bert) as the sole proprietor. In 1965 Bert closed the shop and became a picture framer. He had become increasingly disillusioned with tattooing by this time. Glasgow was a rough place to be in the 1950s/60s and anyone who has operated their own tattoo shop will tell you that it's not the easiest of jobs to be in at times.

Lucha Libre

Sigh. It’s no secret that the ed totally adores wrestling – lucha being his favourite style. Lucha libre (free wrestling) is a term used in Mexico, and other Spanish-speaking countries, for a form of professional wrestling that has developed within those countries.

Mexican wrestling is characterized by colorful masks, rapid sequences of holds and maneuvers, as well as "high-flying" maneuvers, some of which have been adopted in the United States. The wearing of masks has developed special significance, and matches are sometimes contested in which the loser must permanently remove his mask, which is a wager with a high degree of weight attached. Tag team wrestling is especially prevalent in lucha libre, particularly matches with three-member teams, called trios. A rule unique to lucha libre applies during tag team matches, which is when the legal wrestler of a team touches the floor outside the ring, a teammate may enter the ring to take his place as the legal competitor. As the legal wrestler can step to the floor willingly, there is essentially no need for an actual tag to a teammate to bring him into a match. This often allows for much more frenetic action to take place in the ring than would otherwise be possible under standard tag rules.

Jack Dracula

Jack Dracula was born Jack Baker. He was also known as Jack Martin and Barcelona Jack. Dracula was first tattooed by Brooklyn Blackie at Coney Island probably in the 1940s, in that first year he got 30 or so tattoos. As the years rolled on he got many more tattoos, including having his face tattooed with an eagle on his forehead, cheeks and chin and a mask-like design around his eyes. He is said to have a total of 405 tattoos, including a battle royal back piece.


Diamond Jacks

5 Walker's Court
City of London, 

020 7437 0605


Text: Rob Barker; Photography: Mil Martinez