Billy the Bastard

Published: 01 February, 2009 - Featured in Skin Deep 168, January, 2009

You would think with a moniker like Billy sports, and to see the intense, “don’t fuck with me” gaze emitting from photo imagery, that he is one dude not to cross. You would be mistaken in that preconceived notion, as Billy ‘The Bastard’ Hay is easily one of the most personable, gentle-natured tattoo artists I have encountered.

With a grin as vibrant as his tattooing palette, a marvellous nature when you are the one on the painful side of his needle, coupled with a strong, natural talent both on skin and canvas, he is an emerging talent very much on the list of “One To Watch”. I met up with Billy both at Yankee Tattoo and again at his new place of work, Custom Inc. in Glasgow, to delve deeper into his inspirations and views on how he is quickly getting from there to here.

What inspired you to start tattooing?

I was working in Virgin Megastore when I first took an interest in tattooing but I never really started to look for an apprenticeship until I had quit Virgin, then started working in a call centre. That was the worst job I ever had, and it really got me down. I knew I needed to do something different, something creative. I looked into a lot of things and I have always been into tattoos and I was just starting to get some big work done myself, and I was friends with a couple of tattooists, I was starting to get really into it and I thought, this is something I could see myself doing for the rest of my life. I looked for an apprenticeship in Glasgow and Edinburgh as I knew there was nothing available locally. To be fair I didn’t have much of a portfolio; it was all silly wee sketches I had done while I was supposed to be talking to people about their gas and electricity - I wouldn’t have given me a job based on that! Any time an advert came up in the back of Skin Deep, I would phone it straight away, but I was always too late. At that point I left the call centre and started working in PC World. That was terrible as well - they were asking me to cover up my tattoos with plasters and all sorts of nonsense! My first job at a studio was in Perth where I worked on reception for about a year, then in June 2007 I started tattooing, but pretty quickly I realised that it wasn’t the studio for me. After there I moved to Yankee Tattoo in Dundee in November of 2007. I had some good times there, I got on with everyone at the studio really well and after no time at all I had built up a great clientele. Then in August of 2008 I got an opportunity to work at Custom Inc. in Glasgow. Custom has always been a studio that I have admired so I jumped at the chance. I was doing pretty much all custom work at the previous two studios I was at anyway, but a studio with no flash on the walls is great; a big reference library and everyone’s creativity, just perfect! So I started there at the beginning of October 2008 and here I am!

At what age did you get your first tattoo?

My first tattoo was on my 15th Birthday! I went through to Kirkcaldy and got an armband of multi-coloured elephants!

(Laughing) So you wouldn’t recommend people to do that now, to get a tattoo so young (highly illegal though it may be)?   Nah, not at all. You’d struggle to get tattooed now at fifteen, although there are still a couple of places that don’t really care. I remember I put a shirt on to make myself look older. I would say wait until you’re old enough. It gives you plenty of time to do some research and think about what you really want. You hear a lot of under-agers saying, “Oh well, I’ll just get it done on holiday.” Then they come back to you with their Mum, asking if you can fix it! And it’s like, “No, you’re still underage!”

When you did first pick up that machine and needle, did it come easy to you?

No, the first tattoo I did was on the sole of my girlfriend’s foot, which is a hard area at the best of times. I couldn’t understand why the ink wasn’t going in! After that, the first couple of tattoos I did on my friends were a bit shaky, but I’ve since then cleaned them up. Once I started tattooing fairly regularly, I would say I took to it pretty quickly.

You mentioned ‘doing it yourself’, you were self taught rather than apprenticed?

I’m predominantly self-taught. Well, I started on my own and realised it wasn’t ideal to be tattooing in my house. I was only tattooing a couple of friends, but still, I was very fortunate to know people that were willing to help me out; I had tattooed a few friends after working reception for a while. I started doing a tattoo every couple of months or so, which wasn’t ideal, as I felt like by the time I got to my next tattoo, I was back to the start again. I did have a lot of support though, Jason Corbett (now of Edinburgh’s Red Hot and Blue) and Gary in Perth (Inkredible Kreations) and also Badger from Cusick Tattoos in Belfast whom I met whilst he was doing a guest spot at Trev’s in Perth. I was across in Belfast in the summer doing a guest spot at Cusick Tattoos and I was down at The Halloween Tattoo Bash in Devon working alongside him. So I still get the chance to pick his brains, but at least now I can bring a bit to the table too. Same with Jason, I can pick up the phone anytime if I’ve got any questions and I know he’d be there to help me out.

Do you think that, despite your duality in learning the art, a traditional apprenticeship is the way to go?

Yes. Obviously you’ll learn the hygiene aspect, which is one of the most important parts of tattooing and it seems it gets missed by a lot of people. And of course you’ll get taught the application of tattooing; as long as you get an apprenticeship with someone who knows what they’re doing, you’re gonna get taught some proper techniques. There are a lot of chancers out there as well though! But at the end of the day, getting into a studio is a foot in the right direction.    Do you think, ultimately, it’s the easier road to take? I would say so. I was quite lucky that I’d done it my way and it worked out well. There are a lot of really bad home tattooists kicking about and it’s not ideal at all…it’s not really what the industry is about. Many people starting out from home are not willing to learn and draw. They just want to get straight in there. I would definitely say go for an apprenticeship. Go everywhere you can, sit and draw as much as you can, get a portfolio put together and go chat to some studios. You never know, that studio that you walk past every day, too nervous to go in and ask, might be looking for someone like you, so go for it!

What do you find the atmosphere and ambience like in your studio?

Oh, it’s awesome! It’s probably one the best atmospheres I have ever experienced inside any studio. Everyone is great, we get on so well and the studio’s nice and chilled out, and it’s brilliant working along side Mark [Foot in Mouth] and Max. They’re both awesome artists and really creative people, I can learn a lot from them. Emma the apprentice is so good on reception; she has everything running smoothly for us all. It’s a great studio - I love working here.

You worked your first convention at Liverpool this past summer - how did you find it?

Excellent! I really enjoyed it. I was pretty nervous beforehand, but when I started tattooing, I was fine. I’ve been going to conventions for about four years, just as a punter. To actually work my first one was excellent. It landed right on my 1st anniversary of tattooing so it was an extra special weekend for me, a nice step forward. I got to do a couple of pieces I really enjoyed too, and got a lot of good feedback. After the piece I’d done on the Saturday, I had quite a few other artists come round to my booth and compliment it, which was a great boost. I actually just got a shout from Tony from Design for Life the other day, and I’m going to be doing a Tattoo Duel at next year’s show with Chris Hatton, one of last year’s winners, so keep your eyes peeled!

Did you pick up any tips or tricks from watching other artists?

Yeah definitely, you get to see how others tattoo. There’s a huge range of different techniques. I try to watch as many people tattoo as I can, you can pick up so much. I think everyone should pay attention to other artists at the conventions. If you never watch anyone else, you’ll never progress!

When travelling to conventions or studios, do you find any that are more friendly or welcoming?

I like to pop into any every studio I come across and just see what’s happening. I always try and get a wee chat with whoever’s there, and pretty much all the time they’re really friendly. You’ll occasionally come across someone who’s up their own arse, but most people are cool. I was recently in Japan and got to visit a few studios whilst there, that was class! I popped into Ink Rat in Tokyo and sat and chatted with Hata, What a nice guy he is! I also got to visit a few other studios across Japan and everyone was super nice.

Have you had any formal art training?

No. It’s just something I’ve always been in to. I’ve always been into drawing since I was a wee boy. It’s funny but at secondary school I never even took art. I was in a band so I was more interested in music at that point.

How did you get back into it, and how did that translate in to then doing it for a living?

A few years after secondary school I went to college for a bit and studied Audio Engineering and it was round about that time that I started to draw a bit more. I wasn’t doing any serious drawing, just a few sketches and a bit of graffiti. A couple of years after that I knew I wanted to have a job where I was allowed to be creative every day, so I would say it translated really well into my tattooing. From the start, the stuff I was drawing crossed over pretty well into tattooing.

Do you think having a background or training is beneficial nowadays?

I would say a lot of the time, yeah. A lot of the artists around now have a background in formal art training. A lot of their work is phenomenal, like Kamil down in London, I love the way he makes use of space. Nick Baxter’s work, for me, is a different class altogether. It’s definitely not a necessity though; some people just have natural artistic ability. Look at the amount of amazing artists out there with no art education whatsoever

What would you say are your main influences?

Tattooists - Guys like Jime Litwalk and Tony Ciavarro. I love their work, so smooth and clean. I’m loving Daveee from Kult Tattoo in Poland’s work at the moment. Guy Aitchison just blows me away every time I look at a piece of his work. Cleen Rock One and Sneker One in the States, Jee Sayalero from Human Fly Tattoo in Madrid. It seems like, every time I’m having a look around MySpace, I come across another new artist that I’ve never heard of and get totally amazed by some of them. Closer to home guys like Steve Vinall, Myth, Bez, Matt Difa, and of course Mark and Max who I work alongside.

What about visual artists? Whom do you admire…

Daim, a graffiti artist from Germany - he does this really amazing 3D work. He does a lot of it on a huge scale. He’s a great inspiration to me. Tasso, another German graffiti artist, he does stunning photo realistic pieces. Fafi and Miss Van from France, I love their characters. Krime, another graff writer, this time from Dundee, awesome artist and really cool guy. Rogue One in Glasgow does some stunning work. And of course Seen, one of the original NY writers; as well as painting, he does some really cool vinyl toys amongst other projects.

Do you have a favourite style?

I really enjoy doing new skool and graffiti work. But when I started at Yankee Tattoo I started doing quite a bit of black & grey and I’m really enjoying doing that at the moment too. I did my first portrait a few months back and had great fun doing that. Because I’ve only been tattooing for such a short time, you never know what route my work will go down, but for the moment I would definitely say that my favourite style is big, bold, colourful work.

How do you go about designing a custom piece?

Usually the customer comes to me with an idea and I’ll get as much information as possible from them about it, find out the area of the body, and see how much space I have to work in. I’ll usually get a piece of tracing paper and mark the area that I’ve got to work with; any muscle lines, the flow of the area, stuff like that. Then I’ll set that down and sketch out on that. If it’s not something I’m 100% on, I’ll usually look at some reference. I think that’s important. You can’t draw everything off the top of your head. Well, some people might be able to, but I can’t!

How often do you get free reign with a client?

Quite often people will just come to me with an idea and say, “Do whatever you think will look best with it” and that’s perfect! I like to have an idea to run with, but a lot of the time they come in quite close-minded, but once you start showing them previous work you’ve done and sit down and talk to them and show them some sketches, they start to get a better idea of what’s available and they allow themselves to open up to more ideas. A lot of people don’t realise what’s available from tattooing. They see the shit walking about on the street and think it’s good…most of them are just uneducated on tattoos.

Do you have a line on what you would not tattoo or whom?

Yeah, I don’t do football badges and I would never copy another tattoo. I wouldn’t do anything racist or anything like that and also I wouldn’t tattoo anyone’s hands or neck unless they are a tattoo artist or are in a job where it doesn’t matter, or if I knew them personally and knew that this was something that they could deal with. Also if I feel that if I can’t do something justice, I would rather not do it.

What do you do when you’re not tattooing?

I play drums, guitar and turntables, although I’ve not had much time for that recently. I like to just hang out with my girlfriend and my friends and go to the pub and get some banter. I love travelling, I’ve been lucky enough to get away to Australia, Thailand and Japan these past couple of years. I plan to do a lot more travelling; I want to see the whole world!

What’s your favourite part of being an artist?

Just really getting to do art everyday and getting to travel and meet so many cool people. Oh, and not having to cover up my tattoos and dress a certain way! That’s always a good thing.

Have you seen any changes in the industry in your time that concern you?

I’ve not really been in the industry long enough to comment on that. It seems there are a lot more home tattooists now, but that’s more from what I’ve been hearing rather than what I’ve experienced.


Do you have any plans in the coming year for guest spots, conventions, etc? 

Yeah, I’ll be guesting back over at Cusick Tattoos in Belfast next year and I’ve spoken to Chris about doing a spot at Physical Graffiti in Cardiff. I’ll be doing that one around about the time of one the conventions down that way. I’ve spoke to a couple of other people about doing guest spots, but nothing else definite as yet. The only convention confirmed so far is the Liverpool show, as I mentioned earlier. I’d definitely go back down to the Devon Halloween Bash; I had a great time there and met a lot of really nice people. I hope to do a few more next year too. I’m also going to be doing a t-shirt for Syndicate Clothing, so I’m really looking forward to that coming around.

Is there anyone you’d like to thank for helping you?

Yes, Jason, always a great help. Badger over in Belfast, Alex at Skin Deep, my crew at Custom Inc. my girlfriend Nicki has been awesome. My mum, The Deekster [R.I.P.], Matzo, Big D and all the boys from The Big L and everyone who I’ve tattooed and everyone who’s believed in me, right from the start. Thank you very much!



Interview by Katriona Godward ( Photography by Katriona Godward and Billy Hay


Skin Deep 168 1 January 2009 168