Dragon Ink

Published: 03 March, 2010 - Featured in Skin deep 135, July, 2006

I first came across Chris Govier’s work whilst covering the first Dragon Inkfest in Swansea a couple of years ago. His portraiture work stood out from the crowd and his attention to detail is second to none. At the time Chris was working for another tattoo studio based in Swansea, but has since moved to Alun Gregory’s Dragon Ink Studio, so this seemed the perfect opportunity to go and see Alun, Emma and Chris to see what has been happening over the last two years and to have a nose around the Dragon Ink studio…

Dragon Ink is situated smack in the centre of Swansea, on the top two floors in an extremely bright and airy studio. The whole front of the studio is glass, allowing masses of natural light to stream in, making the studio feel much bigger than it is. As you climb the stairs to Dragon Ink, the familiar smell of disinfectant floods your nostrils and the welcoming sound of Alun’s booming laughter hits you as you asend. At the top of the stairs you are greeted by a huge room, walls covered in superb looking flash and a grinning receptionist by the name of Scott. Alun comes bounding out from a door in the partition that separates the artists from the waiting room. He always has a smile on his face and his enthusiasm is infectious.Dragon Ink have been in this delightful location for about two and a half years now and prior to this Alun had studios based in Spain and Aberdare before settling in Swansea. Being a Lad from Bridgend, Alun is proud of his Welsh roots but has travelled extensively, picking up his tattooing knowledge from wherever he goes. 

In the early days he used to hang out at Ian from Reading and many other studios, gleaning as much information as he could. Alun recons that you can still see Ian’s influence in some of the tattoos he does today.He says his interest in tattooing was kindled in his childhood by spending many an hour talking to a heavily tattooed chap who lived just down the road from him. ‘The old guy was in the merchant Navy and was covered in Old School horses and angels on his chest and arms. I think talking to him must have stuck in my brain subconsciously.’ Alun has an engineering background and started doing a BA course in art but at the same time had a very young family so had to make the choice between starving and feeding his family, so he decided to take the plunge and open his first studio.

Alun’s influences in tattooing come from a wide range of subjects but mostly other tattooists ‘I went to Dunstable many years ago and was instantly drawn to Ian of Reading’s work, this particular year he had five or six back-pieces in the show. The different styles that he used from black and grey to heavy colour, his styles made me realise that this was the way forward.’

‘I am currently getting into the Old School style after having a very talented artist called Andy Schmitt from Germany who worked with us here. His work is very bold, and I find it quite fun to do.’

‘The team here is like a big family; We’re in the process of painting the room upstairs for some of the other tattooists and the piercer and we try and change the whole look and colour scheme of the studio every six months or so to keep the place looking fresh.’

Alun and his team are also responsible for the Dragon Inkfest Tattoo Convention in Swansea. Last year the convention moved to a much bigger venue, The Bran-Gwyn Hall as the previous year they had to let people in to the venue a few at a time as the demand was huge. Alun says; ‘the convention brings in an awful lot of money for the local economy. Last year the bar took close to ten thousand pounds for the weekend alone!  The show this year was nearly treble the size compared last year and we have been asked to take over two more suites in the convention hall for ‘07. We also have a good line-up for next year’s convention, I fancy having a theme for the show, something like a Coney Island Circus theme, with all-day entertainment and no loud music. All I need to find now is a bearded lady!’

When not tattooing or organising tattoo conventions, Alun likes nothing more than taking his motorbike out for a blast around the Gower Peninsular. ‘Now Summer is here, I can go out after the shop closes. It’s total stress release, the greatest thing in the world.’

Most shops build up a cast of regular customers over the years and Alun and the gang are no different. ‘We have some customers that come in once a week regular as clockwork and get a couple of hours at a time. Then we also get folk walking in and when you tell them that a full sleeve will take a few sessions they just say, ‘oh, I thought I could get it all done today.’ I find it really difficult to let people walkout with half finished tattoos.’

The nice thing is that we now have a great base of regulars who are more than willing to help out at the show.’

When asked about the current trend of tattooists in this country, Alun had a few things to say about this; ‘the number of tattooists that are out there is getting to saturation point. When tattooing is not so popular I think the tattooists in the area will be squeezed to just 2 or 3 of the best. Because tattooing is so mainstream now people can just buy the equipment anywhere off the Internet and out of magazines. Nobody cares who is buying it, there is no face. Originally when I started tattooing I had to physically go up and see Mickey Sharpe before he would sell it to me and that’s the way it was. I think it was the right attitude, you had a physical connection. Now everybody is at it. If they have a bit of money in their pockets and can rent a shop and fit it out, away they go! The environmental services just don’t care about your tattooing skill level or even if you can set the machines up properly. As long as it’s clean and they can tick the box. There should be someway of you having a certain skill level in order to be licensed. It will also give people something to work towards. But at the end of the day what about the ones who are already doing it? I know of a shop that has opened recently, they are all full of good intentions but the technical ability is nowhere to be seen. The TPI came down once and we had a meeting, and we discussed things but there seems to have been nothing since then.

It’s a shame as we could have said to the environmental services we will give you a person who can set the standard and they could have done that for England, Wales and Scotland. That was a real opportunity missed.’

Alun is the first to admit that he couldn’t have got where he is today without help; ‘I couldn’t have achieved any of this without my wife, she has supported me through thick and thin. I would not have the shop I have without Emma. At the moment I have got a great bunch of guys who all work well. Thanks to all of them.

Chris started working with Alun just over a year ago after working in a local shop for close to six years. Chris has what I would call a unique approach to entering the world of tattooing. I’ll let the man himself explain…

‘I left school and went straight into a trade then at 16, I went to a local tattoo convention with a friend of mine and saw Tom Ptolomy working and I sat watching him for five hours. And took in everything that was going on at the rest of the convention. Basically that was all I knew about tattoos, as I didn’t have any and I didn’t have any background to tattooing at all. This was my first experience of tattoos as I had never been to a show or seen one done, that was really quite odd.

I first picked up a tattoo machine in 1995, after being a painter and decorator for 18 years and I needed to change what I was doing. Someone said that because I was an above average artist that I should think about having a go at tattooing. 

I wasn’t really that interested in tattoos until I was 35ish and I was just about to leave my other job when a friend of mine said ‘I have had a tattoo on my leg’ and showed it to me and he mentioned that I could do that. I said yeah, I probably could. And about 8 to 10 weeks later, I opened a shop and that’s was the first time I ever had anything to do with tattoos other than the one convention I had attended. As I say I don’t have any tattoos, at all so I have never been to a tattooist in that respect.

Most of it for me, and a lot of people will go against this, is that I feel my talent comes from the confidence in the artwork I can do. If you can draw with a pencil or pen, usually you can use a brush or an airbrush; you can do a lot of different things. It’s the confidence you show, isn’t it? You have got to bullshit your way to certain things but you’ve to give people one hundred percent when tattooing to make them relax and show them you have confidence in yourself. It has worked a treat so far. 

I had my own shop for 5 years, but packed that in and went to another local shop around here for 6 years. That was a bit of a downer because they have a different aspect to Dragon Ink. We are more interested in the artwork here, obviously the money is a by-product but with the other place it was the other way round. The money was first and what it looked like later on.’

It’s not very often that you meet a tattooist that doesn’t have any tattoos but Chris says that this hasn’t caused any sort of negativity towards him; ‘Yeah What I find is you mustn’t try to, how can I explain it without sounding sort of weird here? You have got to respect the art of tattooing and what we do here, as you are only as good as the last tattoo you do. Like the last one I did was a little Kanji symbol that came in. Which I did to the best of my ability and, you must keep your pride in the work that you do. It is so easy to just bang things out and a lot of shops are doing that and it is very noticeable. You have got to realise where you are from and that you are still learning and may never be as good as some people, but you can be as good as you can get on the day.’

Chris’s portraiture work is superb. It was seeing this that made me track the man down in the first place. I asked him if this was his favourite style and did he find them a challenge. 

‘No, not really. It’s one of those different things. You know, with certain ones you can make them look fairly realistic, photo like. I enjoy doing them because they are different when people show them off; they are not a normal looking tattoo. So it gives people that wow, that’s nice factor. I mean you have no room for error with them at all. It’s not like when you are putting a bit of tribal on, that allows for a bit of artistic license. That’s what people are paying for. But then all tattoos should be like that. You should excert the same amount of effort on each one, regardless of the design.

I’m heavily influenced by people in general. Salvador Dali was the main thing when I was in school; he was so different and such a character. He did things differently and he was very particular when he did his paintings as well. As far as tattooists go, obviously there is Bob Tyrrell and Tom Renshaw, they do some very fine soft work, which is my cup of tea. I like big bold stuff just as much. The only thing I find around this area is that people don’t tend to go for the bigger stuff at the moment. That is slowly changed over the last year or so, more so with this shop being here. They have seen the sort of stuff they can have, big bold colour. It can be affordable when they plan it to a certain degree, but Swansea, South Wales is a little bit of the country, when compared to London, they are not so experimental here. When people come in here, compared with the other shop I was in, we do a lot more sleeve work here. They plan it a lot more, folk do a lot of work on the Internet, and they come in with lots of pictures, which is great for us. We then know where we are going with the design and it’s just down to us to draw the thing then. It can take a while obviously because as you know it’s a sort of planning stuff, we don’t always like to just draw stuff on skin unless the customer knows us really well and knows the type of thing we can do. Then we can get away with murder!’

I found it quite strange that Chris just took the bull by the horns and opened a studio with no experience. Surely there must be folk that have helped you along the way? Would you like to thank any of them?‘No not really (laughs). As I have said everybody does it their own way and I started my original business on my own, I didn’t know a lot about it but I just fumbled through. I will probably get slagged off for that, a lot of people do. But I am still working.

At the time I didn’t have anything to set a level to, I just did it as if I was drawing and I did it like that really. The science of setting up machines came with time and a bit of messing about. I had time on my hands to see how to take them apart and bits and bobs. I was making needles and stuff like that. When you’re on your own and you have got to learn pretty quickly. It wouldn’t work for everybody but it worked for me.


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