Shakey Pete - La Familia Tattoo Studio

Published: 30 August, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 184, April, 2010

Listening to the thundering sounds of ocean waves crashing towards the beach as a long haired figure effortlessly rides that perfect wave, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching the opening scenes of “Point Break”. But listen more closely and recognise that ever satisfying buzz of a tattoo machine, and you’ll soon realise its not Bodhi or Johnny Utah, it’s in fact Shakey Pete!

Shakey Pete is without question a unique tattooist. Half Portuguese and an Australian national, he currently calls Newquay home where he has brought his laid back approach to both tattoos and life along with him for the ride. Happiest tattooing a plethora of colourful outlandish tattoos and catching the world’s waves, the last six years of his life have been divided between just that. Completely down to earth and mad as a box of frogs, you are sure to never meet another man like the surfer tattooist Shakey Pete!   

So…you’re not a UK national?

No, I was born in Australia

How long have you been out here then?

Er…since I was ten or eleven I think…I’m half Portuguese so I spent a lot of time in Portugal as well. I’ve got grandparents out there.

What got you interested in tattoos and when were you first aware of them?

Aah (laughing) long story. It wasn’t until I was at university, a couple of my friends had a few tattoos on them, but they were pretty nasty tattoos. Really tribally things. So me, wanting to jump onto the bandwagon also got some squiggly tribally things done on me. It wasn’t until after university, a few years after working on building sites and stuff, I just had a couple of piercings, and through piercing, that’s how I got into tattooing.

You worked at Madame Butterfly in Hastings, were you there for long?

About two and a half, nearly three years.

What was your inspiration to start tattooing?

Desperation! (Laughing) Something to do really. I sort of thought to myself that if I don’t get into tattooing I would have been working on building sites for the rest of my life. It was pretty much like “that’s it, I’ve got to get into tattooing and I’ve got to get really good.”

Are you from an art background?

Yeah, I’ve always done it. Its like my grandparents in Portugal, they’ve always done art and are kind of semi-famous artists really. But I’ve always drawn since I was a kid, all the way through school I just doodled on the back of maths books and stuff. And all the way through university as well, just painting and drawing and…I never really stopped.

Was Madame Butterfly’s the first studio
you worked in?

Er, that was…the sixth! I went through six studios in three years because I just wanted to get into a studio. The first one was in Bognor and that was the guy who taught me how to pierce. There were some bad things that happened in that studio, so I had to leave!

Then I went back to Australia and worked in two studios there. Then I came back and worked in one in Brighton, which wasn’t good. Then one in Peterborough. So, yeah. Lots of studios. But it’s just getting your foot through the door. It was just…I mean, I wasn’t that good at tattooing, I’d worked on a few friends, and myself, and that was it. It’s like…you start at the bottom, the studios that aren’t good, where you just want to make money! So yeah. Just get your head in, knock out some work, and get started.

How did you find the process of tattooing to start with? Did you find it easy to pick up?

To be honest, I was a bit arrogant, I thought I was really good in the beginning and everyone was patting me on the back going “aw yeah, you’re really good!” and looking back on it I was…pretty shocking.

So you Believed in the hype, sort of thing?

Pretty much! I was doing really basic work but I thought I was amazing. I wasn’t. Yeah. At the moment I’m just drawing everything, everything’s custom and it’s kind of like…just progress and do something new. That’s what’s getting hard at the moment, trying not to duplicate yourself.

Like, you look at your old tattoos and try and progress. That’s the hard bit. Not looking at anyone else’s cos you’ll just end up copying them! I don’t buy any tattoo magazines anymore, I hardly look at the Internet, I just post my own work on there. Its just head down and do my own thing.

That’s quite an impressive way of doing it really, because you do see a lot of people…not necessarily copy, but replicate the same style…I suppose if you’re not looking at it, you’re not influenced by it…

That’s it!

So what’s your style?

Oh, I don’t know!

Pete’s style?

Yeah, pretty much. Like neo…non realistic…traditional…ish…kind of! I just like to do things with humour at the moment. There are so many tattooists out there just all serious and…there’s just no fun in it. I like to make my tattoos a bit of fun to look at. Have almost a little story about them. Like all the little birds, or something, just looking at each other and stuff…just kind of put some humour in there.

So did you have a proper standard apprenticeship or did you get taught bits as you went along?

Entirely self-taught! (Laughing) Which is the worst way! I spent like, six months in my basement learning how to build needles, then going to tattooists and asking them what they thought, and then just getting told off and going back, then doing some drawing, eventually, like, tattooing myself and everything, showing them, getting thrown out again, tattooing a few friends, which was a pretty long way of doing it. It probably takes twice as long going down the self-taught route than if someone showed you what you were doing. I did make a lot of mistakes.

How long have you been tattooing now?

Since February 2004. I moved to Newquay in April 2009.

Was that for the surfing?

A Pretty much! Yeah, I mean. While I was at Madame Butterfly’s I was pretty miserable the last year I was there, just because I used to come back here every two or three weeks. I used to get so tired with the six-hour drive, stay for a day, tattoo a few friends, drive back the next day and work a solid week. So one day I said, that’s it, I’m just going to move to Newquay, then one day that did happen!

I can see why you moved here, it’s pretty much on the main coast...

Yeah, pretty much. I kind of moved here. And I opened up a surf shop/tattoo shop on the other side of town. But I opened it with surfers who were really slack at paying bills! (Laughing) and slack in general…and I was out back and if no-one was covering the front desk, they’d just close the entire shop and I’d be like, “well, I need it open so I can carry on tattooing!” That didn’t really work and we only lasted, like, four months, then I just kind of moved in here. This is like a proper shop; the other one was just a half arsed, kind of surf shop that didn’t last long. No one could be bothered; they just wanted to smoke and surf!

You were saying earlier about the tattooing being a bit seasonal here?

Yeah, July, August, you can’t move out there for the people. But, as soon as the end of September hits, it’s like…(sound of tumbleweed in the wind...) it kind of picks up, probably like May. Or June. I mean, every now and again you get a week of sun…a lot of people round here come down visiting anyway, so I’ve just been tattooing a lot of friends on and off, so I’m always kind of ticking over.

Are you planning on staying here for a while?

I’m going to New Zealand soon, and then I’m in Australia, working at Holdfast tattoos in Perth for two months. Cos I worked there last year, and they kind of offered me a job, and I was like “I’m opening a shop in Newquay! Where do I go?” My girlfriend’s there and everything. That all went wrong so it’s like, Oh. Maybe I shouldn’t stay around; but I don’t like the cold here. It’s horrible. Australia’s got some of the most amazing waves. The owner of the studio surfs, and no one else in that shop surfs, so as soon as I get there it’s like (getting progressively higher pitched) “yeah lets go surfing. Yeah!” So yeah. It’s pretty rare.

Is there anyone who particularly inspires you tattoo-wise?

Yeah, it’s more tattoo-wise now; I don’t really follow the art scene that much, what with tattooing full time… so that’s it really. I love a lot of the crazy Japanese tattooists like Sabado and a few of the others. Yeah, it’s staying a bit more traditional like some of the others from Cat Claw in Japan. The tattoos they put out they’re just weird as, it’s like “what the hell?” It’s more those kind of guys who make me open my eyes a bit more, it’s like you can go completely freaky on these weird things. It’s so solid; the line work’s amazing. The whole drawing’s spot on. So smooth, the shading as well its like “How do you do that?” I actually had a thigh piece done by Sabado at Tattoo Jam in Doncaster last year…

Have you tattooed at any conventions?

I worked at Brighton the year before last. It’s really the only convention I’ve ever worked at. I did the first and second one. I did get offered quite a few of the other ones, because I could work London and so on. I just go to conventions to look at other good tattooists and buy supplies. I don’t really mingle that much with other tattooists. I’m not a very sociable person anyway…

Have you had any formal art training?

Not really. Even though I went to Art College up North, they did try and show me stuff but I was a bit of an idiot and wanted to do it my way. I always got bad marks as well. I just scraped through GCSE art. So even at university I didn’t get better marks, I kind of ignored every brief they gave me really.

What is it about tattooing that inspires you? What do you enjoy?

It kind of almost puts you into a trance, It’s like when I was doing my paintings and stuff, you kind of get in the zone if you do it for a couple of hours. It’s the same with tattooing, even though you can be doing it for hours on end, once you’re into it you kind of just get really focused, you don’t think about the time or anything. That’s what I like about it. I can’t make a living painting; I tried that. So now I make a living out of tattooing silly things on people.

How do you go about giving a humorous edge to your tattoos?

The customer usually comes in with normal ideas, I then draw my own style, and its kind of fifty-fifty, if the customer suddenly freaks out and goes, “what the hell is that?” or “That’s amazing! I would have never thought of that!” I’m tattooing a lot of friends at the moment and they kind of know my creative style, so I get to push the boundaries a little bit more. Regular customers just give me a normal brief and I just kind of draw something I’d like on myself, and put it on them, really.

Who has tattooed you?

Sabado. Chad Koeplinger; that was brutal! Rebecca (Madame Butterfly) did my belly, my legs, Nick Baxter did my sleeve…it’s a massive vagina on my arm.

Nick’s work is incredible. Did you pick up any tips from him working on you?

Yeah, I went out there four times when he was back in Connecticut, once when he moved to Austin. It’s kind of a year and a bit old now. Out of everyone I’ve been tattooed by, his was the most eye-opening experience. Cos before, it was just like work from dark to light, you need to do it as a tattoo, heavy outline first, then you fill it in. Then you go up there, Nick draws it all on and everything, and sets out all his inks like you would do with a painting. There’s no outline at first, just big fields of block colours to plan it all out, and it’s so much more like a painting than a tattoo. You can put black lines over fresh, light colours. It was just stuff like that; it was such an eye opener. I can just do this any way I want. When I draw a tattoo and colour it in on paper, it’s not how I would do it on skin. I’m slowly getting more into the way I paint now and I’m doing it more loosely instead of a really strict way of say, these colours first and these colours next…. I’ll just put solid ink in first and think about other colours later.

Are there many studios in Newquay?

There are about 5 now. I opened up in April, and then Ollie opened up. You can either have surf shops, pubs or get a tattoo in Newquay. The council are a bit…we got no help with our business at all. We got a bit of reduced business rate, but we asked them for help and they didn’t want to know. That’s the way they are in this town. If you’re not selling food or drink…they don’t want to know. That’s what they want to make this town famous for, which is a shame.

Do you find time to paint?

Not really. All I do is tattoo! Even when I worked at the other studios, it was just tattooing all the time. If I got a free day, it was just catching up on drawing. That’s what was getting me down; I wasn’t having any fun. I wasn’t surfing. It’s much more relaxed here; I can come and go as I please. The more time you’ve got to draw something, the more relaxed you are, like you’re not stressing that you’ve got to draw that for tomorrow.

Do you have any plans for the studio?

I’ll be here, for a while. As long as I get to tattoo and surf every day, that’s all I want to do at the moment, so we’ll just see how it goes at the moment. This town is a bit of a nightmare in the summer, but right now its really nice and I’ve got a lot of friends here. It’s a really nice close-knit town. Almost like living in the seventies, those weird little surf towns you used to read about in America. It takes you twenty minutes to walk down the road because you bump into so many people and you have to say hi.

So, has the horrible TV rock star tattooist culture hit down here?

Especially last summer. Every day I spent tattooing stars. It’s horrible. This Cheryl Cole hand tattoo thing’s catching up quickly. People come in “I want one of those?” We don’t do hands unless you’re completely covered. Unless you’re a popstar. Are you a pop star? No.

Do you draw the line at hands and necks?

Unless they’re really covered and you can tell people will just go “if I can’t have it there, there’s nowhere else to have it.’ If there’s no other tattoos and they want one on their hand first time round its like….wait there. Think about this. Its just people following other people. The sheep mentality. You try and educate people, and a lot of times it’s like talking to a brick wall. You might find someone else who’ll do it, but we won’t. It’s on there for life!

Do you think there are too many studios in the UK at the moment?

At some point, it is going to get a bit quieter with tattooing; it’s not going to be as popular. Everyone keeps saying that it keeps getting more popular, but one day, it will die down. Hopefully a lot of these studios won’t survive, but, who knows, there are sixteen year olds who want to get tattooed and these studios do it. What can you do? The parents come in and say what about parental consent? But its like no, it’s the law, it’s eighteen, but you can tell that some other studio will say yes to that. It’s like fighting a losing battle. You don’t really see that in Australia cos you can’t just open up a studio. A lot of the studios over there, and there aren’t that many, are controlled, and the quality is getting a lot better than…in England…so for that reason it is kind of cool.

Do you like the crossover between the surf and tattoo culture?

There is a bit of a link between surf culture and tattoo culture. There is like a nice little family, there’s also this thing where everyone copies board designs and stuff, the boards that I ride are very different to what everyone rides. They’re based on the seventies design, and I kind of paint my own ones. It takes a long time. It took me a month solid to paint my last board.

What do you use to paint?

Poster pens. It’s quicker than painting because its like paint in a felt tip. It’s good to get nice smooth fades, and you’re working on a really soft kind of blank. Stuff like the attitudes from the sixties and seventies when it really started off, they were classed as bums, with no hope. They started getting together and making competitions and now it’s a multi-million pound industry, that’s kind of like tattooing. In the sixties and seventies tattooing was still considered criminal, but now everyman and their dog has a tattoo.

It’s not as much of a subculture anymore...

Yeah, its rubbish. But the art’s amazing, some of the stuff that’s coming out now. If you just look at magazines from two or three years back, the work’s ok. But if you look at one now it’s like amazing!


Interview: Neil & Faye Photography: Neil & Pete