The Modern Face of Traditional Art - Rachel Jamie McCarthy

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

Rachel Jamie McCarthy is a young woman with a fresh talent, the latest in an impressive line up of talented tattoo ladies originating from Modern Body Art in Birmingham. She makes traditional tattoos with a feminine flair…

"I’ve always been quite creative. I have my mum to thank for that. I wasn’t an academic child so she encouraged me to express myself on paper. My earliest memories are of drawing and painting. Going to university to do a degree in Fine Art Painting was just an excuse to paint all day, drink most nights and put off finding a ‘real job’ for as long as possible. 

“I’d always wanted a tattoo but could never decide on what.  A lot of my friends were showing off lovely tattoos at the time and I was dying to get one too. Dawnii very kindly offered to do my first tattoo for my 19th birthday, just after she had finished her apprenticeship at Modern Body Art. 

“That first tattoo was really for my dad; it’s a little heart in a shamrock, with a cobweb, to do with my heritage and how much I love my family. Now I can see that I was a bit of a cheesy idea and I wish I hadn’t got it right in the middle at the top of my back.

Still, I don’t regret the tattoo, just my naivety in its placement. 

“That was when I knew I wanted to learn to tattoo, I was about halfway through my degree. So from then on, my artwork completely changed. I went from stylised portraits in oils to stupid tattoo inspired cartoons. I tried very hard to draw traditional tattoos but I was nowhere near neat enough. At art school I was always taught to be loose and expressive with my painting, not precise and restrictive, the way it has to be for neat tattooing.

“I had to slow myself right down and practically learn to draw all over again. 

“People seem to think you learn a lot about drawing and painting at art school but really you just learn how to cope with life a bit better and that no one owes you anything! Going to art school definitely broadened my mind, but it didn’t really teach me anything about how to make art. Still, I stuck it out and finished my degree, collected a few more tattoos and then started looking for an apprenticeship.

“At 22, I got my chance. It was a year after I finished my degree and up until then I had been working in bars and badgering every tattooist I met, trying to get into it, most of them tried to fob me off but a few were helpful. I met Sean and Gav on a night out and a couple of days later I went to 72 Tattoo to show them my drawings and started apprenticing with them a few weeks after that. 

“By the time I started tattooing I was confident in my drawing and was mature enough to understand the great responsibility I had been given, I suppose that’s what I really got from art school. Now I’m tattooing full time I try not to pigeonhole myself when it comes to the style of the tattoos I make, I suppose they are kind of traditional... but a lot girlier than most traditional tattoos. Everything I draw seems to turn out cute, whether I like it or not!

“In turn, I also collect tattoos in the style that I aim to create, so far I’ve been tattooed by Valerie Vargas, Nick Baldwin, Dawnii, Jori, Steve Burlton, Daniel Morris, Sam Ricketts, James Kiley, Danny Rossiter, Gre Hale, and Tom Divine. Not to mention Sean, Gav and Dan at 72 Tattoo.

“It was punk rock that pushed me towards tattoos; I grew up listening to Bikini Kill, Sick Of It All, Rancid, Black Flag and NOFX.  To express myself in a middle class village I cultivated colourful rebellion hair that changed every week and a mouth full of piercings. Now I put all that energy into my tattooing and I’m more likely to listen to bands like Sonic Youth, The Pixies, and the Cure. I must be mellowing out with age!

“I get lots of inspiration from other tattooists; my favorites have to be Valerie, Steve Byrne, Xam, Sarah Schor, Chad Koeplinger, Claudia DeSabe, Uncle Allan, and Lu’s Lips.

“I’m very privileged to be tattooing from Modern Body Art, some great female tattooers have worked there, Jo, Dawnii and Becca are all hard working talented women whom I admire very much. To have the opportunity to be part of that is incredible.

“I love conventions, I have only worked two so far but I intend to work a lot more. It’s a great way to make new friends and get tattooed by people I admire. It’s also a nice way to work alongside my very talented (and very modest) boyfriend, Nick Baldwin. Nick and I actually met doing a tattoo swap. We really liked each others work and met up to do some fun tattoos, Nick tattooed a deep sea diving helmet on me and I did a peacock mantis shrimp on him... we hit it off straight away.

“Then I stole all his best machines and broke all his pens!

“It would be difficult to be with someone that didn’t understand how much of my life this takes up. We are both obsessed with tattoos and share everything (except pens!) and we have just worked our first convention together, Tattoo Freeze, and will be doing a few others this year, too. It’s really fun getting to tattoo alongside him, we’re both progressing in our work and it feels like all the hard work is finally starting to pay off.

“Right from the start of my tattoo career I’ve had a ton of support of my family and friends, they let me practice on them and helped me get where I am now. My Dad’s first tattoo was a half sleeve I designed and Sean tattooed and his second tattoo was my first oriental style half-sleeve, which I did way before I was ready.

“I’m still thrilled when my friends want me to tattoo them. It’s nice when they let me run with an idea and trust me to do something we can both be proud of.

“I’d like to thank my friends, family and my fantastic customers for letting me draw on them! While I’ve got this opportunity I would like to say a big thank you to my family as without their help and support I don’t think I would have made it through my degree and apprenticeship. I would also like to say a massive thank you to Sean Lyons and Gavin Rourke who took me on as their apprentice, they gave me a chance when nobody else would, I owe them big time!

“And finally, I would like to thank Matt Hunt and everybody who I’ve worked with at Modern Body Art. We all get on really well and creatively feed off of each other... I’m really happy to be a part of the team.”

Modern Body Art

183-185 Corporation Street, 
City Centre,
B4 6RG

Rachel McCarthy can be contacted via facebook or by calling Modern Body Art on 0121 236 0753


Text: Paula Hardy Kangelos; Photography: Rachel McCarthy