The House of Five Magics - Rich Smith of Five Magics Tattoo

Published: 31 May, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 199, May, 2011

Rich Smith’s studio, Five Magics Tattoo, is tucked away down a little three-hundred-year old courtyard, in the heart of Sheffield city centre. Walking inside, you can’t help but feel you are in the domain of a soothsayer from a time past - stuffed animals and upside down crosses, share space with framed old school flash by Rich, Timmy Tatts and El Bara.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t like walking into some coffin kids underground lair; the studio is light, airy and very welcoming. Settling down in his little two-seater leather sofa, we get on to discussing the studio and how he came about choosing this location.

“Before I opened up on my own, I worked for a couple of years with Lee Pound and Dave Watt at a place called One Shot Charlies, outside Birmingham. Lee and Dave co-owned the studio. Dave moved on and I was tired of travelling everyday and people were travelling from Sheffield to get work done, so I decided to open up my own studio, closer to home. So that’s how Five Magics came about and that was about two years ago. I went to school just outside Sheffield, in a little village and I opened up there first. I got really busy and I live in the city centre, so after a year I moved here to bigger premises - I was actually waiting for ages for this one to come up. I have been in this studio about a year now and even though the studio is off the street, which I love, I do still get walk-ins!”

“They tried to give me the shop across the courtyard but it was too big and at the time I didn’t want to take someone else on. I work on my own at the moment, I kind of like being on my own - for now. I might move over sometime though.”

Rich has been tattooing for roughly four and a half years now and his journey into the world of tattooing is a strange one alright:

“It all started out with my getting tattooed by this tattooed biker, in a little room under his stairs in his house that had a bike in bits on his living room floor. At that time, I didn’t know of any other tattoo studios around, it was just a place all my mates went to. No one else in my family had tattoos so it wasn’t something that had crossed my mind before. I had never really seen tattoos to that degree, you know when some one is absolutely covered. It fascinated me. 

“I pretty much did rubbish at school because all I did was sit there drawing on everything instead of doing what I should have been doing, so the fact that someone could make a living out of art, was amazing to me. I didn’t think it was realistically possible. When I got tattooed by him, it opened up the world to me.”

“I managed to get some tattoo machines off of some irresponsible tattooist who didn’t mind selling them cheap and sacrificed my legs and those of friends to learn. It was all trial and error, I didn’t even know how to put a needle in. I didn’t do an apprenticeship, I did it all on my own and I’m really proud of that. I also worked at a shop up the road, that has now closed down, on reception and I learnt a lot about sterilisation. I watched everything I could and progressively got better and better until I had a little portfolio together. 

“And that’s when I went travelling.”

Portfolio under the arm and a “can do” attitude, Rich found himself travelling through Asia, soaking up everything he could about a tattoo culture that is as far removed from ours as you could possibly get.

“I was tattooing with some Thai guys and I learnt quite a lot during that time. One of my best friends is Thai so I learnt to speak a bit of the language. They have their own style which I picked up a little of but it is a really difficult style to master. It’s kind of like a intricate black and grey involving demi-gods and demons. Most of the shops nowadays use machines but some tattoo by hand though unfortunately, a lot of it is used as a gimmick for the tourists. I really want to do some more work out there again but I think, next year, I’ll be going to Hong Kong instead. My Mum lives out there now and I don‘t get to see her that often. It will be a good way to get some visiting in and learn some new tattoo techniques!”

“The other thing you have to be wary of, is Health & Safety. Out there is a bit all over the place. It depends on the shop really, as they don‘t have people running around checking things. I’ve seen some places that are horrendous, shops using bin bags which they fill with stuff you should be getting properly disposed of or loads of needles in jars of liquid just on the side - but thankfully, the place I worked at was really good - probably the best shop in Chiang Mai, which is a little city in the north of Thailand. They did everything properly. Put it this way, not only wouldn’t I have worked there if it wasn’t clean, I wouldn’t have got tattooed there myself either. It’s on my knee - I’ll show you but I’m going to have to drop my trousers, are you ready? I got this tattoo done in Thailand and the back spring broke on the machine before they had finished it. That one took about ten hours. I thought I was going to die! I sat through the night drinking beer and pushing through it. I mean we would stop every now and then for Pad Tai and a walk around but it was one sitting.”

All the Pad Tai and beer in the world wouldn’t get me to do a ten hour sitting, still, six months later and with a new appreciation for Health & Safety, Rich headed back to England and back at the beginning of the story, working with Dave Watt in Stourbridge.

“I learnt a lot from Dave, constantly hanging over his shoulder. We have become good friends now and he comes over to Five Magics every now and then for some guest spots. He is a really good tattooist, does a lot of the Japanese type stuff. He works out of a studio called Blue Lotus with Christian Banks. With this studio, I’ve been really lucky, within a few weeks I was booked up. The thing about Sheffield, is that it’s a student city so you get a lot of fresh people every year coming in but I do have repeat customers also stopping by.”

So now the studio is up and running at full speed and Rich has established himself in the tattoo community in his own right, we move onto his style preferred style of tattooing.

“I love the old school style, just reworked, kind of neo-traditional. It blows my mind, artists like Steve Byrne and Chad Koeplinger. Sometimes it can be a bit gimmicky, all the ‘cool kids’ wanting it, but I just love doing it. I have so much fun with it and the fact that you can finish a piece in a couple of hours is a big thing with me. I’m an impatient person and I like to see the customer walking away with a finished piece. I love doing Japanese as well but just the thought of someone coming back month after month and some realism blows my mind, sometimes you don’t know where it comes from! Like Niko Hurtado, the guy who works with Kat von D - wow. I just love the look of traditional tattoos, the whole ‘Bold Will Hold’ philosophy. The funny thing is, I intrinsically draw like that so it was a perfectly natural step to make. I love it when I have just finished a tattoo and it looks so bold. So solid - like a sticker!”

“I use workhorse iron liners, mainly because I love that sound and you get big powerful lines, but you can’t beat a rotary for shading. I have a few one -off machines which are my pride and joy. I love them. There is such an art to making a good machine, it is a craft just like tattooing. I like to work really quick, I don’t have the patience to work long. Don’t get me wrong,  I’ll never rush it, I just naturally work fast.”

And then comes the revelation that Rich, being a self-confessed Trekkie, would like to do some Star Trek flash but using the old school style. “I really would like to do some Star Trek tattoos but nobody wants them. I might do a flash set, that could be a future project. I have always thought about it, mixing something modern with something so traditional and old school. But I’m not sure I would have many people interested in having it.” 

You just never know Rich, these days, anything seems to go these days...

Back to earth and we start discussing the working day and how Rich keeps his designs fresh and original, while still working within the old school style of tattoos.

“I tend to not over book myself, I’ll only have a couple of people through the day. Then I’ll draw while they are here and they can be like, ‘Yeah, that’s cool’. I think it is the best way to do it. That’s the good thing about traditional, say with Japanese - there is a correct way to do it, where as with traditional you can just lay it all out and do most anything and I like customers to have a say. People used to think that shops that did old school were flash shops but that’s not always the case anymore. Talking about old flash shops, I still like going around those kind of places. If ever I’m in a town and I see one, I always pop in, look what’s on the walls. I just like being in them, there is something about them - and I still get nervous, like I did when I was younger!”

At Tattoo Freeze, earlier this year, Rich walked away with the ‘Best Small Colour’ award on the Saturday. “Me and Dave had been going on about doing one for awhile and I was supposed to do the Jam last year but I messed up my hand and I had to give it a miss, so Freeze was my first convention. But saying that, I had made friends with Brandon Bond and he ended up sleeping on my sofa for the entire weekend of Jam. So I was still part of the party! I know him because a friend of mine went and got a full sleeve off of him in four days and so he just came and stayed with us. He is absolutely off his head, it was the maddest week of my life. Every day that I woke up I was thinking, ‘what’s going to happen next?’ We had a really great time though and there were loads of positive parts as I got to chat to him a lot about different things. I learnt a lot while he was over. This year I think I am going to work at Tattoo Jam, it might be safer for me!

“Joking aside though, I think that most tattooists are a little crazy. I think it is because you live how you want because of the kind of environment you are in. You have no-one to conform too. Saying that though, I am probably the most mundane tattoo artist that there is! I don’t really go out and drink, I work, come home, watch Star Trek and go to bed. I used to go out a lot in my twenties but now I just want to work hard and make something of myself.”

“If I didn’t come in to work, or I was late, I’d feel guilty because at the end of the day I’m doing this for myself! When you’re doing something you love and have always wanted to do, there really is no excuse. If I worked in an office, I would be doing this on the sly! I love getting up in the morning, coming to work all day and drawing.”

Five Magics

Aberdeen Court,
Division Street,



Text: Trent Aitken-Smith; Photography: Rich Smith