Nick Whybrow - Self Sacrifice: Appeasing the Gods

Published: 25 July, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 201, July, 2011

The first time I met Nick Whybrow, he was in the middle of his winter hair growth. Sporting a mop of unruly hair and a beard/moustache combo that would make ZZ Top proud, I was relieved to find that Nick was less intimidating than his appearances first led me to believe...

Coming up for eight years on the tattoo scene, Nick has certainly paid his dues. Nick is a champion of the old school style but rather than letting it remain stagnant, he is throwing his own ideas and influences into the mix, producing a fresh and exciting new look to this timeless school of tattooing.

“I primarily like to do old school but with more of a kind of realistic twist to it. Maybe take some realistic reference and redraw it in that kind of traditional style. I respect the fact that a lot of people who like old school want to do it exactly as the old timers used to, which is fine, that is really cool. It’s just not how I like to work. Say for example when I do a woman’s face, I take a photograph of a woman’s face rather an old piece of flash and redraw that. I use the photograph as the reference to draw.

“I like to be able to do most things; I like to be an all-rounder. I personally think that it gets to a point when some people specialise too much; especially with old school because it has enjoyed a bit of a boom in the last few years. There are tattooists, who have started in this boom and that is pretty much all they can do. The thing is that, this boom, soon it is going to die off a little and when this happens, there are just going to be the people who are really great who survive it. If you are an all-rounder, when the industry changes and evolves, as it will, you won’t be left behind. I think it is important to carry on evolving.”

And just like that, we are straight into one of the biggest debates about the current state of the tattoo world – has it become a monster of its own making? One thing about Nick is that he doesn’t beat around the bush. He is a straight-talker and this, mixed with his love of the world he has chosen to work in, pushes him to continuously question himself, as well as the industry.

“The trouble with the tattoo world is that it is becoming mainstream in an unrealistic way. I think that it is great that there is more featuring of tattooing in the media but it gives people the wrong idea of what tattooing is all about. It’s that kind of thing when you get a guy walk in the studio and he just expects that he can come in off the street with a design, that he’s drawn up, and that you’re going to do it right there and then. These people don’t realise we take it home and redraw it in our own time because we like to get reference and we like to figure out how is the best way to do it. The problem with the same process on the TV is that that person has already planned to come in and they know exactly what is going to happen. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about what tattooing is all about.”

“There seems to be a lot of people who want to get into the industry and who think it is a lot easier than it actually is. When I was an apprentice, I had to work really really hard; cleaning toilets, cleaning the shop, doing all the shit work and it was because I respected that guy and the fact that he knew more than I did. And that he was going to teach me. And eventually he did, you just have to show that you really want it. Another issue that seems to be growing, is people who come into the studio, who want to start learning to tattoo and go, ‘I can draw’. Then you look at their drawings and it’s more like, ‘No you can’t!’ Sometimes I feel like it is becoming a bit like that X Factor thing where people go on the show thinking they're brilliant because their Mum has told them they are an amazing singer and they’ll go on the show and be told, ‘Look you’re rubbish! Go away and do something else’. Then they’ll stand there and say, ‘No! I am going to be the best in the world because my Mum said so’. And it is getting to that point in tattooing.”

While Nick is on a roll, I ask him about the other big debate in tattooing, scratchers. Are they all talentless money seekers or is there a pool of them, who really do want to learn and better themselves?

“I am kind of in two minds about home tattooists (aka scratchers) because I personally know some brilliant tattooists who have learnt from home and have taught themselves. But that was years ago and it was hard to get hold of equipment and they did it because they love tattooing and had dreams of opening a shop not doing it at home forever because they can’t get in a shop. It seems there are a lot of people who can’t get apprenticeships because they are not good enough and then will go, ‘Right I’m going to tattoo from home’ and that’s what is killing tattooing because all those people who are doing it from home, don’t have the overheads of shops etc. I don’t own the shop (Self Sacrifice) so I don’t have those overheads, BUT I do have to pay to work in the shop. So these guys can charge £20/hour and people who don’t really care will go to them and then you have good tattooists not doing very well.

“Tattooing is that kind of thing where if you want a good tattoo, you got to pay good money for it. People don’t see it in the same way as paying £200 for a pair of trainers or £500 for a coat which is amazing because you are going to have it forever. And that is another by-product of tattooing being in the media because it becomes such a mass market thing, people expect to be just like any other mass market product. They expect it to be like going to a supermarket where you can price check one against the other. And it’s not like that because in tattooing, one tattooist is never going to be the same as another. So the important thing to do is find someone whose work you like and go to them.”

All of these points Nick has raised, are all relevant and he is not the only one out there who sees it or to some extent suffers from it. I have heard it from many different sources. But what are we to do about it? Do we tighten up tattooing laws and procedures, make it stricter to become a tattooist and then continuously regulate the industry or do we let ‘nature’ sort it out itself?

“It is a hard thing to sort out because I don’t want a tattoo police and I really am beginning to think it can get to be at that point soon. One of the reasons I think is because there are some people in the industry who already seem to think that they have a control over it. The thing is, it can all go one of two ways; we can get really lax and no one really cares and it ruins everyone’s world and then you could also go the other way where it is really strictly policed and it is all a bit Big Brother. I personally want to put the work I like on people and get that to as many people as I can, so that if some one sees it and likes my work, they come to me. But it is difficult sometimes.”

Issues aside, does Nick see a light at the end of the tunnel?

“Yeah! I’m really pleased with some new comers making it in the industry. For example, I have friends who have only been tattooing for a year and a half and have so much heart and so much love for the industry that they soak up information like a sponge. They also have that respect for tattooing. But, like everything else in life, there are always the ones who will ruin it. And it is sad because there seems so many more people who just don’t have the respect for it, compared to the ones who do.

“There is a guy who I tattoo who also tattoos himself. I think he has been tattooing for about a year now and I think he has just finished his apprenticeship. He came in the other day and we were talking and what he has come to realise, as he said to me, is the person he works for, he doesn’t consider to be that good. This guy has learnt a lot more about tattooing from actually doing it. So now what he is doing, is trying to go around and get as much information off of tattooists he likes and to also try to work for them to get more information off of them. All this work to keep on learning. And I think that is really good because it shows a want to progress and a good attitude. People who really want to tattoo and who love their craft are really critical of their work. Everything I do I am really critical of. There will not be one tattoo that I will look at and go, ‘I’m finished’. You know, I’ll look at it at the time, when it is done, and go, ‘That’s the best that I can do!’ and a week later I will look at it and go, ‘You know what, I want to change this and do that and maybe try something a little different’.

“And that’s the way that you progress. That’s how you get better. It’s not that the tattoo is bad or that you have done it wrong, it’s that you strive to learn from it and you strive to do better. If you ever get to the point where you think your work is brilliant and you don’t need to do anything – then you should stop because you’re not progressing. You are not going any further. Though I am pleased with all the work I have done and all the work in my portfolio and at the time it was the best that I could do, now I have learnt more because I have progressed, I see where I can get better.

“Hopefully, the people who love tattooing, and are doing it for the right reasons, will be the ones who survive when the bubble bursts because it is due a kind of decrease in numbers. There will be people who are tattooing and are barely making money to survive, but they are the people who love it and hopefully they will come out on top and hopefully the people who are just in it because they want to be a rock star will lose interest and go find something else to do.”

And you only have to look at Nick’s portfolio to see what he is trying to say. Every new tattoo that he produces is clean, fresh and striking. He is continuously striving to better himself and the world he works in. And when that wave, that is looming around the corner, breaks – I personally think that Nick is going to be one of those artists, riding it out into the sunset.


The practice of sacrifice is seen in the oldest records. The archaeological record contains human and animal corpses with sacrificial marks long before any written records of the practice. Sacrifices are a common theme in most religions, though the frequency of animal, and especially human, sacrifices are rarely performed today.

Literally anything of some value may be a sacrifice in some religion's practices. Commonly, the most valuable sacrifices have been that of lives, animal or human but then again, they didn't have local council's watching your back and it was easier to get away with.


The spiritual goal of many traditions involves the dissolving of the self or ego, allowing self-knowledge of one's own true nature to become experienced and enacted in the world. This is variously known as enlightenment, nirvana, presence, and the "here and now". The same enlightenment can also be achieved on your average Saturday night just down the road from where you live.

Self Sacrifice

193 Wardour Street
United Kingdom
020 77343407


Text: Trent Aitken-Smith; Photography: Jake Granger/Nick Whybrow


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