Jeff Ortega - Evil from the Needle

Tattoo [node-title]
Published: 11 November, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 186, June, 2010

Jeff Ortega is the owner of Evil From The Needle, a characterful little studio situated slap bang in the middle of the melee of Camden Town. The shop is one among many in the alternative capital of London, but not all the shops in the area can boast the consistent quality of work that comes out of Evil. 


Jeff started tattooing at Rising Dragon in New York in 1994, taking over Evil from former owner Bugs a decade later. He takes his inspiration from everything from graffiti to Renaissance paintings. These days Jeff is weary of the convention circuit, but can be found working on both sides of the Atlantic, dividing his time between the London shop and Brooklyn Tattoo in NYC, working alongside Willie Paredes and Adam Suerte. He is famed for his striking colour work but prides himself on his ability to take on a variety of different styles, producing original custom work every time. It’s no style; it’s just Jeff style.  


How did you get into tattooing?

I had just quit my job and I offered to help the guy that was tattooing me up to that point set up a new studio. I offered to help him set up the shop because I wasn’t expecting to end up tattooing. Long story short we opened up the shop, he was short of a receptionist and asked if I wanted to help him out ‘til they found someone, and basically by the time the shop had really taken off I was in the middle of it, and I was apprenticing without really knowing I was apprenticing. Until a few months later they just got so overwhelmingly busy that they needed to find someone new, and because I was there and he knew that I could draw and I was into the whole tattoo thing and I was friends with everyone in the shop it was just natural for him to ask me, so I ended up learning how to tattoo. 


Who was a formative influence early on in your career?

I mean, there was a lot of influences but it wasn’t as wide and varied as it is now. You had your big names in tattooing, guys like Filip Leu and Guy Aitchison, the real heavy hitters. I was impressed by them and the tattoo work that they were doing but they weren’t necessarily influential and what I wanted to end up doing, or why I wanted to end up doing it. Darren Rosa at Rising Dragon in New York, and Myke, these guys who I started with, they were all illustrators or comic book artists before they started tattooing, and they were more of an influence on me than all these other bigger names because I saw them apply their own artwork to their tattoos, so when someone came in for a custom piece it was an original custom piece; it wasn’t something that was fabricated from other existing material. And that’s what I knew I wanted to end up doing, I wanted to be able to sit down and draw whatever a customer asked me for, really draw it, like come up with it and put it together myself as opposed to put it together from outside reference. 


What kind of non-tattoo art are you interested in? 

I would say urban/modern art. But as a kid what initially made me sit down and start drawing and really get into art was graffiti. And it’s similar, well the art form itself obviously isn’t but the level of originality in the graffiti scene compared to the level of copycats, it’s very similar to the whole tattoo thing. Art-wise it could stem from Renaissance classical stuff all the way to graffiti. 


How does the business side of tattooing compare to the creative side?

It’s difficult for some people. I’ve heard myself from really talented tattooists who are more than able creatively and who have enough of a following and are good enough and have enough experience to open shops but just don’t want them. They either know themselves that they’re not business owner material or they just want to focus on the artistic side. I say to people I’ve either been blessed or cursed with the ability to balance them out and do them both. 


What advice would you give to artists who are trying to break into the industry?

If they know that they’re limited artistically yet they really have a love and a passion for tattooing… you can’t tell someone to be original if they’re not original. If they can’t come up with the goods themselves, if they can’t produce original artwork but they do really love and believe in what they’re getting into and at least copy properly, then that’s a good start. What I’m saying by copy properly is not to identically copy, but to use what’s out there and find a way to make it your own. I’ve stressed that point before that if you’re not adding something to the industry you’re taking something away. And I stand by that. I think that if you can’t bring something new, or at least push yourself to try to do that, then you’re just taking from it and you’re taking from a lot of people that have really attempted to bring something new to the industry and give something of themselves artistically. 


How would you describe your style?

I don’t know, I think I’ve been doing this long enough now to realise that it’s no style; it’s just Jeff style. In terms of what styles I’m able to tattoo I’d like to say everything. And that was one of my goals as well when I was starting out was to just be the kind of tattoo artist that wouldn’t have to say no to anything. What I sit down and draw is what comes out of me and I try to stay true enough to any original style it came from. But I’m not doing it by the book. If there are rules to be followed, then I’m not following them. I don’t want to do anything incorrectly either but that’s why I don’t do traditional Japanese tattooing, because to me it’s about making something look good and feel right with the body, and look right as an image. If somebody wants a really technically correct tattoo then they need to go to someone who does traditional Japanese tattooing, or whatever. 


What has been the most memorable tattoo project that you’ve worked on?

It would have to be the Ganesh project on Marcus. I was quite nervous going into it because we did the headfirst and as we were doing the head he came up with the idea for doing the rest of the body and I thought it would work quite well with the whole mouth in the armpit thing. We had a few consultations and I drew it on him first and I was really, really nervous about it when we started it.


You just didn’t think it was going to work well?

I thought it was ‘gonna work, I didn’t know it was ‘gonna work, and it worked out really well. It’s a really impressive tattoo and it’s really different, I think, in the way that it was laid out and the way that it does work, it does have that sort of 3D element or that realistic living feel to it, so when he moves his arm around the trunk moves and the whole mouth thing. Up to this point, although I’ve done a lot of original stuff, I think that’s the one that stands out the most. 


Have you got any more work planned for yourself?

Yeah, I’m in the process of collecting tattoo machines, which is not happening as quickly as I’d like it to happen, but yeah I’m just trying to fill up my entire left leg with tattoo machines done by different people, so everybody could do their own original version of a tattoo machine. It’s the equivalent of putting stickers on a suitcase as you travel the world, you have this one little stamp by this person that you either know or you really admire that you might not have a close relationship with but at least they tattooed you. 


Are there any parts of the body you won’t tattoo?

I won’t get terribly private, no. We just got a call here a couple of weeks ago from some porn star who wanted writing around her asshole and we all refused to do it. It’s got nothing to do with whether you’re male or female, it’s got nothing to do with sexuality, it’s just, I could find better ways to spend my time. And to tattoo as well because usually when you get into some nooks and crannies it’s just difficult. It’s difficult to tattoo, period, but, you know, when you’re working on certain parts of the body it’s just stuff that I’d rather not have to deal with. 


What’s the best thing about doing what you do?

From a selfish point of view, it epitomises whenever you hear someone say ‘it’s great to do something you love for a living’, because it’s not only what you’re actively, physically, technically doing, which is very challenging and very fulfilling, and a lot of fun, and very creative; it’s just something that naturally causes you to want to keep moving forward and want to progress and get better. There is also something extremely fulfilling when you think about the responsibility involved in what you’re doing to people, and how you’re changing someone physically for the rest of their life. And you put a lot of smiles on a lot of people’s faces. There’s nothing bad I could say about the work itself or the lifestyle that comes along with it. 


What about the clients then? Tell me what makes a nightmare client.

That’s something else that I haven’t really had to experience very often, especially since I’ve been here because I think people know what scale of work I do, or that they’re prepared to come in and just hand over their idea as opposed to being really nitpicky about things. That’s all the freedom that we want, for someone to come in and tell us what they want and let us take it from there because we know what’s going to work best. I think the nightmare clients are the ones that come to you for something yet they don’t let you give them what they’re asking for. 


You started tattooing in 1994 and you’ve been between the US and the UK in that time. How have you seen the industry change and what are the differences between the industry in the UK and US?

It’s changed equally from both ends just in terms of social awareness and social acceptance and popularity. I’d say, even though when I started in 1994 the guys who were experienced then thought that was it, that it wasn’t going to get any bigger than it was then. Especially now with the TV shows and everything, there’s just more and more people getting tattooed and getting real coverage. What I do tend to notice a lot from the American scene is that I see a lot more of that thing that does it for me, more individual, original artists coming into the scene. In Europe I see a lot more of the styles. I see how popular the traditional Japanese is and the old school Sailor Jerry stuff is, and that is probably about 80% of the work that I see being done in Europe and the UK. It’s done by some very able and talented tattooists but it’s just very repetitive. All the American guys that come to Europe for the conventions have a wider variety. Maybe that’s just what I’m aware of in terms of the scene in the States but that’s what I make it a point to be aware of, are the original artists that are putting in their time and effort and ability into doing something new and different and fresh.


Are you tattooing anywhere other than the shop this year? 

This year I’m sitting out the convention circuit. The shop won’t necessarily; we’ll probably get booths at some of the conventions if the guys want to go. I’ve just become a bit disinterested in conventions, not because they’re not fun but just because I’ve got a whole lot going on here and I think my time is better spent here taking care of my regular customers. The past few years I’ve done a lot of conventions, which means a lot of time away, and I just feel like staying at home for a while.



232 Camden High Street

London NW1 8QS




TEXT: Hannah Smith PHOTOGRAPHY: Dave Williams


Skin Deep 186 1 June 2010 186