Jeff Gogue - A passion for ink and paint

Published: 01 December, 2007 - Featured in Skin Deep 155, January, 2008

Until recently Jeff was a relatively unknown name on the UK tattoo scene. His first visit to the first London Tattoo convention saw him walking away with a handful of trophies, which included coming second to the likes of Shige; no mean feat by any standards.


Jeff has since been a regular at the London shows and each visit has seen him go home with a heavier suitcase than he came with due to his awards. 2007 was no exception as Jeff won best tattoo done on the Saturday with a superb dragon wrapping around a chap’s forearm. After the show Jeff spent a week painting, tattooing and just chilling out at Thou Art in Sheffield where we managed to catch up with this very busy and extremely talented man.

Whom did you see, tattoo-wise, that made you realise it was an art form? Is there anybody that sticks in your mind where you thought ‘Wow, look at that work’?

Honestly, I would say I tattooed for two years and I kinda was oblivious; I didn’t really look around. I knew about Deano Cook and Paul Booth, those kinds of names but the first time that it clicked, I was looking at Robert Hernandez’s portfolio. I remember looking though in awe, then I went through his book and I just walked straight back to my booth and sat down and the very next tattoo that I did was a portrait of a clown, and it ended up winning Best of Show.

Would you say that it just clicked because you were looking outside of what you’d been looking at before?

Yeah I was just trying to fit in, just trying to do the traditional. To me, a good tattoo equated to a bright tattoo; bright colours meant good tattoo.

And seeing that portfolio opened up the door to the fact there’s a lot more out there?

I remember looking before that show, looking online (but) I was just in my own world doing tattoos; trying to make things bright. I’d just grind down and try and make them bright. I’d never really seen anything with depth or dimension.

When you say bright, were you doing traditional tattoo subjects as bright as you possibly could?

Yeah just red and yellow, blue, green…

I notice with a lot of your work, you don’t really stick to lines as such; you use more blocks of colour.

I was definitely trying to do traditional tattoos; the clean lines and roses and banners and hearts and things like that, and trying to make them really bright. And then, I went from there and I started looking at people like Boris and Hernandez and guys that were doing more realistic stuff and I got way into the shading; everything was with the shading and everything was just washes…we call it staining. It only took about a year of doing that kind of stuff that I realised it didn’t have a lot of punch when it healed. It was real light; real subtle tones where you would just basically do a little bit of dark over light and it would stain it. I love the contrast of Seger’s work, really soft backgrounds and then the super-bold lines.

Do you still make your own needles and that sort of thing?

Yeah I make all my own shaders; they just work better, you know? I can make them for me; I can make them work better.

Are you quite a technical person when it comes to your machines?

I would say I’m just in the middle; I don’t want to ever be a machine builder. I love cutting my own springs and I’ve taken some seminars on them. I know when it’s running shitty and I know what to do to make it run better.

Do you think that having that solid grounding doing the traditional stuff has actually given you a good base on what you’re now tattooing?

For sure, the first five years I was just trying to do the traditional images and trying to make clean lines. I started looking at art nouveau and rock and roll posters instead of traditional tattoos; I started looking in-between the graphic look and I tried to incorporate that. I like real flat, blocked-in colour where it’s almost a silhouette and then I like dimension. I don’t like a traditional tattoo that has all kinds of dimension and poor shadows and highlights. I like that nice, flat, old school traditional tattoo or lots of dimension or art nouveau, with that real graphic line and screen-printed look; it looks really cool. I think that translates really well to tattoos.

When you started out, did you find the tattooing industry a bit of a closed shop in the States?

I pretty much got kicked out of some shops! For the first year I thought if you were nice they’d be nice back and they weren’t. I literally got kicked out and yelled at so for about a year so I just started getting tattooed and I would tell them I worked in construction or something and then I’d just act dumb and be like ‘Whoa, what are you doing there?’ or ‘Where did you get those inks?’ and just act dumb and tell them I was curious. I’d get more answers that way.


So whilst you were doing this, were you still doing art on canvases?

 I’d tried painting all through high school and I couldn’t do it, I could draw with a pencil, so it was all graphite. All pencil drawings and realism…all from photo references, so not really a creative process at all.

So you found your painting style after tattooing, normally it’s the other way round!

I could not paint; I just could not do it. And the tattooing; I think starting off on something so simple like an outline and then fill it in dark to light and slowly going from your primary colours on a heart and a rose with green and that, you know? By ’05 I was starting to duplicate Frank Frazetta paintings on skin
and I though it must be the same to paint, just with a bigger brush. I just got canvases and I literally set up my brushes just like a needle, like I’d have just a nice round pointy brush and then a short, flat brush and that was my magnum and my liner.   

It was really an epiphany for me. It was mind blowing, ‘cos I woke up and I thought ‘I can paint’. I did three acrylic and five oils, and those five oils got me into an art show in ’06. They asked for four pieces of wildlife and out of those eight I had done, only a couple of them were wildlife, those were easy ‘cos I had pictures. So I told them I would give them fifteen paintings to pick their four from, and I did like fifteen in a couple of weeks.   

Then I was like ‘what shall I paint?’ so I painted a couple of dragons and everyone loved those. I was out of ideas and I had a skull at my shop just for reference, and I did five paintings of this skull. Those skulls, I loved them and I started showing those and people loved them. I took them to a couple of tattoo shows and everyone loved them. So now I’ll do a lot of skulls just ‘cos they’re easy and I love the message of mortality. That just always translates through with the skull.

Is there a subject that you feel wouldn’t suit a tattoo?
There are different things that don’t translate well in a tattoo, and that’s always my answer when someone gives me something that just doesn’t work.

Do you feel quite comfortable to say to somebody, ‘I’m not the artist to do this’?

Yeah, ‘cos there’s plenty of tattooists; there’s plenty of people who specialise in different things that I just kind of lean away from. If someone asks for a traditional tattoo I try to make it really traditional, you know? Like I won’t do a traditional, authentic Japanese tattoo; mine is more refined. I’ll let it influence my work but I just try to refine stuff. I’ve just this year started at least feeling the approval from the Japanese tattooists. This is like the first year that the Japanese artists have even acknowledged me; it’s such a huge compliment.

When somebody comes to you and actually says ‘I want you to reproduce something’, do you feel more pressure from that or when somebody comes to you and says ‘Here’s my leg; do something’?

Honestly, I did portraits for a couple of years, I kind of put those out there, really for just the same reason as you would enter a contest; to gain some credibility with the general public but if someone gives me the opportunity then I definitely veer towards creativity. So I love the creative thing where someone just goes ‘Here’s an arm’. That to me is the most pure form.

I was just about to ask who would be your ideal customer but I think you’ve just answered that! Do you like it if somebody comes along and says, ‘ I want something based on tigers’ and they point you in the general direction?

A year ago for that I would have gone online and found a picture of a tiger and then tried to duplicate a photo-realistic looking thing, but in the last year I’ve kind of had another epiphany in the sense of what the creative process is and that expression that comes out. It’s so much more fulfilling to do something expressive than to just duplicate something.

Do you still feel slightly honoured if somebody has actually sought you out because they know the quality of the work that you do?

Yeah for sure, and I’ll do my best job. I did a pin-up and a portrait here and I put my heart into it and I thought they came out great. There’s definitely a sense of accomplishment when you can look at your reference and look at your tattoo and just go ‘Wow’. That feels really good.

I was just looking at Claire’s dog you did on her leg…

It’s a different satisfaction than having someone get your arm, take a sharpie and just draw and then create something; it’s a different sense. I think it goes a little unappreciated and I faced this when I was 13 years old and I was drawing pictures; I would draw and make up something and people would be like ‘meh’, but I would take a picture of an eagle in and they had reference they could see the detail and they were like ‘Oh, that’s real art’. And that engrained into me when I was young, that real art, ‘real’ meant realistic and refined and I was never taught the creative process… I was never taught to put emotion or that contrast of textures and just all that kind of stuff; I was only taught duplication and rendering, and so I spent what feels like 30 years in rendering mode. I’m expressive in anything from the way I dress to the way I cook to my relationship with my wife. Now I’ve learned to incorporate expression and creativity into all that.

So is there anybody you would like to thank for helping you out?

Well there’s so many now; I mean everyone I meet, they are worthy of that gratitude…I don’t know, that’s hard. Everyone, everyone that I meet and everyone I’ve become friends with have been really good, you know? I could give you a huge list of names.

They know who they are.

Yeah… I always think there’s two guys right off the bat. There’s Kevin Cox; he’s tattooed most of my right arm and then Cory North who’s at a little custom shop in Grass Valley, California. They’re like my mentors and really gave me the principles in the beginning to stick to.

You’ve worked in the UK quite a bit; is there any really huge difference you see between European/UK customers and your American customers?

The biggest difference I see I would say is it’s better appreciated over here. I feel really appreciated and loved over here and at home I do too, but it’s almost like there’s so many shows over there; every single weekend there’s a show and competing shows and the public doesn’t appreciate it because they know that if they don’t get in this weekend, they’ll go to a show next weekend.    

I’m used to doing shows where there are a few big names, like Detroit usually has some big names but I don’t see people waiting in the rain out there…it seems better appreciated over here.


Interview: Neil Photography: Jeff Gogue, Neil


Skin Deep 155 1 January 2008 155