Rob Ratcliffe

Published: 27 November, 2009 - Featured in Skin Deep 143, March, 2007

Facts and figures:  Studied b-Tec graphic design for a couple of years, finished in ‘89 did a bit of technical illustration, in the days before everything was done on computers. I then started tattooing in 1991 for Johnny sparks at the age of 19. So far I have worked in seven different countries on three different continents, but I might have forgotten some. I really can’t remember how many shows I’ve worked at but its more than a few, or the awards I’ve won. I think I’ve lost a few trophies here and there too.


I have had my tattoos published in many magazines including Loaded, Nuts, Front cover of Front magazine, Skin Deep, Total Tattoo, Scandinavian tattoo, Live to Ride, 100% Biker, Back Street Heroes, Mixmag, and God knows what else! The shop soundtrack at the moment is Sham 69, The Damned, Lost Prophets, Rancid, Rose Tattoo, Ac-Dc, and Cypress Hill. Last gig I went to: - less Than Jake & Dropkick Murphys at the Apollo in Manchester.   

Now then, where to begin? Mr Technical? I’ m not so sure about that, I’ve just got a curious mind, and I like to know how stuff works. If ‘ya built it, ‘ya can fix it when the wheels all fall off!   

This is the fourth time I’ve been asked about doing an interview, and I’ve always been a bit reluctant to commit anything to print, partly because I don’t want to be misrepresented, and partly because I don’t really crave the limelight that much. I’ve got a few high profile clients, and I tattoo quite a few dancers and models, but this has all come about by word of mouth, people seeing my work and tracking me down.  After getting to know Lyle Tuttle, I think it’s time to try a little self-promotion and see where it goes…   

First off, I’m not giving away any secrets of the dark arts of tattooing, the Internet and eBay have already done that, along with a hell of a lot of misinformation and bullshit. Talking about machines to a magazine is a big taboo, so I’m probably ‘gonna get a load of stick for this, which is a bit sad when you can go buy a full setup off the internet. I’m not saying that my way is right, it’s just the way I do it. I’m not a supplier of equipment, I won’t sell to just anyone, and I only make very small runs of machines.   

The first machine I ever bought was a modified Fretwell star magnum frame, with old Davis coils and bits n bobs from half a dozen other irons in a bag. I was shown an assembled machine, and told to go and build it myself. That was my introduction to machine building. It took me years to get that sucker to run right! Those bits would fetch a small fortune on eBay today.

Johnny Sparks in Rochdale gave me my opportunity to start tattooing, (nice one man) he mentored me for the next ten years, that was when an apprenticeship actually meant something, and a good friend of Johnny’s, Joe Lee (He used to tattoo around Blackburn and Morecambe, when he wasn’t working in Europe. Fucking cool guy, sadly missed) encouraged me in the mechanical side of things. We sat up arguing the pros and cons of various frame styles and materials into the wee hours on many occasions, and he did quite a lot of experimenting on his own, but he was always very forthcoming with information, which back then was practically unheard of. Machine builders seem to be more open about sharing ideas than getting the edge. Those guys were constantly stripping and rebuilding their machines, always trying different coil and setup combinations.

Joe used to tell folk that tattooing is the oldest profession in the world, not prostitution, until I pointed out that most tattooists are whores anyway! That tickled his ribs, and there’s more truth in that today than many would admit.
Still, it’s an honest days work. Yup, I learned a lot of lessons from those two characters, and not all about tattoos. Happy daze, happy ‘fuckin daze…   

If someone approaches me at a show who is obviously into it for its own sake then I’m much more likely to chat with them than someone who comes across as trying to pick my brain for ‘the secrets’. Those folk are usually bread heads, out to scalp everyone.   

I had this one bloke going on at me, he’d been scratching (un-licensed tattooing) about for a month or two, expecting to make big bucks right from the off, saying how he needed to work faster, scared he’d loose customers. I told him that he needed to stop worrying about speed, and concentrate on getting the job done right. If you make good tattoos, customers will come back year round. This guy wasn’t interested in quality, just money. I later found out he’d ripped off the shop owner where he was working, and was just a bad ‘un. No class. This kind of thing is why tattooists are reluctant to take on apprentices.

In the photos there’s a modified Jonsey/Picaro frame that Johnny gave me, and a pretty old Spaulding supreme frame that Joe let me have that he had altered. I’ve done some work on them myself, and still use them every day. If a machine’s been in daily use for thirty or forty years in one incarnation or another, been tinkered with by two or three generations of tattooists, it’s going to have a character unique to that machine, so when you get your hands on one of those old warhorses don’t stick it in a cabinet and admire it, use the damn thing, it probably knows more about tattoos than you do!   

When I designed my machines I took the classic frame patterns into account, but also looked at the alterations that had been made to those old machines, and tried to avoid some of the design faults inherent to them. The most obvious one I suppose is the mechanical tube vice I put on my irons, it won’t wear out or crack, it grips any size of tube firmly, (America still uses the imperial system, while Europe is metric) it wont crush tubes (even slotted out supermags, and the plastic tubes) and it also forms the yolk between the coils. Another idea I put into the ‘left hookers’ was to put as much of the frame weight forward to improve the balance, and drill the frames for the job in hand, not make them so adjustable they become unreliable. Keep ‘em simple, then there’s less to go wrong. Last year I got my hands on an old Paul Rogers blank casting, a copy of a1929 Percy Waters frame, so before I did any work on it, I got seven machine frames cast from it in a particular type of iron, ‘cos most cast iron is shite to build frames from, and I’ve been working on those recently. Ugly as fuck, but smooth runners and you cant beat some of those old designs. My own frames I work up from raw castings, make everything on them except the screws and washers. That’s the difference, I’m not just assembling farmed out components, and the cores are machined to fit each particular frame. Its labour intensive, I even made the pattern for the foundry myself, but you have total control over the quality, the end result is worth the effort. These days I hardly get time to build any machines up, so I pretty much stick to one style that allows quite a lot of versatility in its building. Anyone that’s got a couple of my machines will know what I’m talking about. Personally, I like to work with a soft and slow machine, but that tends to make the job take longer, so that doesn’t suit everyone. You cant bang traditional bulldogs and names on all day like that, so I make my machines up to suit.   

There are no magical machines that will do the job for you, but some are far better than others. As long as you’ve got a good solid machine, that runs consistently, and wont drop to bits when you abuse it, the rest is down to the man, or woman that pushes it in. You need to have confidence in your equipment, know that it’ll do what its expected of it every time.   

Tattoo wise, I think the time I started to get my act together was when I went over to Phil Butterworth’s’ first TT tattoo show on the Isle of Man in ‘98 where I got to meet other tattooists from up and down the country, and that exposed me to techniques and setups that really set me off on new ideas. The contacts I made there led to me working a lot of shows in Europe. Phil’s now up in Norway, and I’ve worked at the show he puts on in Tromso a couple of times, which I would recommend any artist to go work there. It’s the most northern convention in the world, and attracts some fine international artists. Some of the best shows I’ve worked at were the smaller ones, where the artists get chance to have the crack, like the old Glengormley shows in Belfast, or the TT shows that Simon Williams and Phil put on. But a free bar probably wasn’t such a good idea!   

Thinking about the artists that have influenced me over the years? I love renaissance art, that classical style of sculpture, and at the other end of the scale the American artist Robert Williams is a favourite, hotrods and  spaceships, strippers and cartoony stuff in amongst it. Check his work out, cool as fuck.   

Vince Ray rings my bell too. I’ve just done a sleeve of graffiti inspired stuff on a regular customer, and doing research into that style has given me shit loads of new ideas.   

Okay, tattoo wise, the obvious answers are people like Filip Leu, whose probably one of the best tattooists in the world, amazing freehand work. Greg Irons was an early influence, in fact that set of flash he did with the sexy gangster molls and fine line dragons and skulls in the early eighties I think, influenced a whole generation of tattooists. Mr Cartoon turns some nice work out, though I don’t know where he gets the time to do all that other stuff. Jack Rudy’s work is awesome too, and some of the younger generation of tattooists coming from an art school background are putting some killer work on. Some of the Eastern European tattooists like Mantas are doing really original stuff. I also like Woody’s strong graphic style too. To me, the more important tattooists are the ones you meet along the way, the one’s that give you a nudge in the right direction or share a few tricks or put you onto some decent pigment or needles. People like Derek Higham, Lee Woods, Rob Doubtfire in Bradford, and Hallsy at Southside ink. Sometimes criticism from an artist you respect can give you the perspective to look at your work in a new light, you know, don’t take it as a personal insult if someone says something about a piece that could be better. Too many tattooists live in their own little worlds and get complacent, they get too wrapped up in their own egos and become lazy. There’s always room for improvement that’s why sometimes if someone seems sound, or if a mate vouches for them and they’re struggling with something, I might try and point them in the right direction. Pay back into the trade some of the advice and help I received, you know? Only if they seem genuine though.   

About five or six years ago I spent a few days up in Scotland with Hallsy and Dave Crossley, while I was there Hallsy took me up to meet Jimmy Jack (bit of a legend amongst machine heads), and I watched him put a machine together in his kitchen, hand-wound coils, handmade frame, the works. I think I learned more about building machines in that hour than I knew in the ten years previous. It was about then that I first met Lyle Tuttle, who tattooed in San Francisco from the sixties ‘til the late eighties for the first time at the Limerick show. I saw one of his seminars and realised you don’t need thousands of pounds of gear to build the machines, the first patent was in 1891 for the Samuel O’Reilly electric tattoo machine, and they’ve hardly changed at all since.   

All I’ve got is a shed, an old 1930’s Atlas lathe and an iffy pillar drill Snoopy gave me out of his garage. It’s all the tooling I need for the job. Lyle’s knowledge of tattooing, and the history of tattooing is amazing, and he’s put a lot of thought into his own machine designs. Since that meeting I started to build my own machines from scratch, not just re work others. In fact Lyle’s got a couple of my irons in his collection, a standard one, and a shorty ghost coil machine I did as an experiment. He really liked that one, and sent me one of his frames for my own collection. The last time I saw Lyle I’d brought him a bottle of tequila as a gift. As soon as I gave it to him in the hotel, he cracked the cap, and took a big swill straight from the bottle. He’s 75 and the old bugger can still put most other tattooists to bed!   

I seem to be known for grey shade work mostly, and I enjoy that style, I can work more freely and quickly without constantly flushing colour out of the tube, and I love using the bigger magnum needle set-ups, tricky at first, but once you master them, you can get some brilliant effects.    

When I’m doing black and grey I try to exaggerate the contrasts, give the piece more impact, ‘cos if you get it wrong it can look as flat as week old lager. I really enjoy doing that Chicano style pinup stuff that seems to be an up and coming trend at the moment. I recently did a massive pair of gloves on a young boxers back, and he knew exactly what he wanted, so he brought a pair of well used sparring gloves down to the shop, all creased up with collapsed padding, we hung them on the shop wall, and photographed them in a few different positions with lighting from different angles, and from there we got the picture he was after. It might seem like a lot of hassle, but sometimes you just get right into a job, its a shame I don’t have a photo of how it stands now, as I’ve put scrolling banners around the gloves to make a better composition, tied his kids names into the whole thing. From that piece I’m getting a lot of attention from the boxing community.   

Some regulars become friends, the more colourful characters, like Marcus, covered in intense colour work. The piece started off as cover-up on his sleeves, and has ended up well on the way to a body suit of biker related stuff, psychedelic skulls and custom bikes in purple flames. I think I’ve been working on him for about seven years now, good bloke, but we’re getting onto the more painful parts, so I have to push him to get longer sessions.   

Clive, the international man of mystery himself, before he started getting work off me, his tattoos were that bad, people used to ask him if he’d done them himself! There have been some serious hours of biomechanical graffiti gone into sorting that lot out. Hopefully I can drag his arse down to the Manchester convention and get him to show off the work. Wish he’d stay off the bloody sun beds though!   

L.B.’s another good bloke that’s been getting worked on for years, big wizard and dragon fantasy back piece, the first big colour magnum piece I ever did, I managed to get it in a few magazines at the time. L.B.’s a fabricator by trade, so when I need a bit of welding done, a bit of horse-trading goes on, if you know what I mean?   

I don’t really have any particular style that I do, the shop I’m in means I have to be pretty versatile, which keeps me on my toes. I seem to be doing a lot of big pieces on girls at the moment, full sleeves and back pieces, which looks great and has a lot more impact than prissy little things scattered about. Lots of small pieces on arms look cheap and as if the person wearing them is afraid to commit himself or herself. So I always try to persuade people to go as large as the body part will allow and keep an idea simple. If you look at traditional tattoos, they are always trying to get very basic ideas across, love, loyalty, strength, tribute and memorial tattoos, in a very stylised way that should flow and follow the natural shapes of the body. You should be able to tell what a tattoo is from the other side of the room, not have to ask what it is.
When I’m in the shop a fair bit of my work are full colour cover-ups, totally saturating the skin with pigment.   

I’m doing two full sleeves on a guy at the moment, re-working two of the most woeful Japanese style pieces I’ve ever seen. They were supposed to be Henning Jorgensen samurai warriors, beautiful designs, but my four year-old daughter Katie could have done a better job. The most annoying thing is this shit comes from a studio that’s been there for over ten years, they do cheep as fuck crap on folk, and quite obviously couldn’t care less what they put on people. When the work is as bad as that, scarred and damaged, with huge areas of cracked shit black background, it’s a long job to put it right. Those guys should fucking know better! By the time it’s finished it will have cost him three times as much as it would if he’d done his homework and gone to a decent tattooist in the first place. If ‘ya pay peanuts, ‘ya get monkeys!   

I wish people would open their eyes and look at the work some of these clowns are putting on. Okay, I‘m not the greatest tattooist in the world, and many tattooists have limited abilities, it doesn’t make them bad people, everyone starts out doing rough tattoos at first, but I wish the lazy cash grabbing butchers out there would start to take some pride in their work. There’s that many shit tattoos about now, the overall standard of work is getting worse. Tattoos are there for at least fifty years, and you’ve got to take it very seriously, because if you don’t, you’re fucking a lot of people over along the way.

Shows like Miami Ink are a good thing, because they educate people as to what they can get, even if it doesn’t really portray a realistic working tattoo studio.

I attended a convention in the States for the first time this year, and was blown away by the overall quality of the work being put on. I came home buzzing to try out new ideas and styles and I want to do more international shows. Prague, St Louis, Barcelona all look like good shows and worth a visit.  I’ve always worked the Manchester show, which has artists from all over the globe. It’s a good party too.   

I have been asked what is the basis for good tattooing skills? You just can’t substitute hard work and experience. I was fortunate enough to work in a busy walk in studio for over ten years, with an artist that had twenty years in the business before I started working for him. I’ve tattooed black Caribbean skin like teak that’s never seen the shade, to Icelandic skin so white and soft it was almost transparent. Obviously you need to tackle different skins accordingly. Preparation is a big part too. I don’t do finished drawings for projects, but I will do detailed line drawings and sketches usually on tracing paper, and work from reference as much as possible. Sometimes I’m still drawing at home at two in the morning. When you start to tattoo, you might as well sell your soul. It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle, and if you want to get anywhere, you’ve got to eat, drink, and breathe it. Most tattooists are divorced at least once, so it takes its toll.   

I get asked to take on apprentices all the time, but I don’t have the room in the premises I’m in now to take one on, and when you explain how long an apprenticeship should last, in any trade, they look at you as though you’ve got two heads. NVQ’s are not the same as time served. A lot of these kids will buy a kit off eBay, butcher their friends, scar the local school kids and by the time they’ve realised it’s not as easy as it looks, that its not instant cash and glory, they’ve left a trail of destruction all the way to the laser clinic!

If you want to get into tattooing, go to art school first, ‘cos if you can’t draw properly, you’ll never be any use in a studio. Learn in a studio from a well established good artist, not some fool that’s only been at it a couple of years, somewhere you’ve got access to sterile equipment and good advice.

Tattoo courses are at best a joke, at worst a cynical way to supplement a bad tattooists income by damaging the business and ripping off wannabees. You can’t learn the required skills in a year, let alone a week.    

Okay, apprenticeships are hard to come by, but if you’re going to spend a few years training someone up, you want to make sure they are the right person. Remember, anyone that works in a shop is a reflection on the owner, and the reality of tattooing is not for everyone. If different artists keep knocking you back, ask yourself why? Is my portfolio weak? Am I too young? Am I looking for an easy ride? Am I a scruffy, smelly bastard that’s ‘gonna stink the shop out? Am I a seventeen-year-old kid without a single tattoo and no bloody idea? Am I scared of hard work? It’s difficult on purpose, so only those serious about it will get in.   

The future? I’m looking to buy the premises I’m in so I can make some major alterations, a bigger treatment area so I can finally get a slave – sorry - apprentice, and make the shop more accessible to disabled customers. I’ve got a few regulars that are in wheelchairs, and the shop is all on the ground floor so it’s pretty easy to get around in, but I need to get a ramp instead of a step on the front door. I’d like to do more travelling again, but when there’s a shop to run and a young family, there are other priorities.   

I keep trying to finish off a set of flash, and some more tee shirt designs, but there just doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day.   

I’d like to say cheers to a few mates, guys that have helped me out over the years through the good times and not so good. Johnny, Rob, Andy, Simon, Mick, Bob, Snoops, Nev, Dave, Phil, Pert from Belfast and of course Billy, glamorous assistant and part time stuntman, proper mates, you all know who you are. Not to forget Liz, thanks for the love and support. Thanks to Naresh and the rest of the guys at the T.P.I, without whom we’d all be getting a world of shite. If you’re not in the union, join. Tattooing has been very good to me so far, I’ve met some really sound people through this business, but I’ve also met some absolute snakes, so to any newcomers, this is, and always has been a very cutthroat business, and if anything, it’s getting more that way. If the economy takes a dive, like it did twenty years ago, there will not be enough trade to support the number of studios open now, and then the fun and games will really start.

Dog eat dog.


Skin Deep 143 1 March 2007 143