Paul Saunders Voodoo Tattoo

Published: 13 January, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 138, October, 2006

When tattoo enthusiasts talk about the ‘Old Timers’ - not a phrase I like to use really but how do you describe someone who has been tattooing for close to forty years? -  A name that comes up regularly is Saz Saunders. Saz has been a big name in the tattooing industry for a very long time and the tons of silverware he has won bears testament to his skill and quality as a tattooist. Following closely in Saz’s footsteps is Paul, his son. Paul has had the good fortune to be born into a highly respected tattooing family and has carved his a name for himself as a very talented tattooist in his own right. 

Paul isn’t the sort of bloke to ride on the coat tails of his dad and has forged his own way in the tattooing community, picking up some trophies of his own along the way.

Saz was profiled in Skin Deep about ten years ago and we thought it was time that Paul had his own say about growing up and tattooing with his dad… 

Give us a bit of history about how you got into tattooing. I assume it was through your dad?
Yes it was through my dad basically. It is just something that I have grown up with. Ever since I was little, with my dad being a tattooist, you know, it was the only way to go I suppose. I have never known anything different. I didn’t start as a tattooist until I was 20 but I had always worked on and off in the shops, even as a kid at school.

What, like helping out after school type thing?
Yeah. Cleaning up and putting transfers on, shaving arms and that sort of thing. It was always something that I wanted to do really.

Did you find it strange at school having your dad as a tattooist?
Yes very, very strange. It was quite negative sometimes. My dad has been tattooing 40 years, so from starting out about 40 years ago it was kind of frowned upon if you like because it was virtually unheard of then and then it went to full circle because he is now quite a famous tattooist. It just went a complete turn about and watching the change over the years has been weird.

I take it you had your apprenticeship with your dad?
Yeah. Between us we have 3 shops now so we have quite a few tattooists working with us. I started tattooing along with Nick Sherratt, one of the other lads who work for us. We both did our apprenticeships at the same time. That was in the old Cadishead shop, we used to do it all there. 

So your dad put you through an apprenticeship the same way that he put everyone else through?
Yeah. Pretty much. People don’t realise when it’s a family business. Like myself and I have friends whose fathers are tattooists like the Rigley’s and the Bonds, people like that, you’ve got big boots to fill and it’s a lot harder than people think. So you have got to think, my dad’s in the lime light type thing and people are waiting to see my work. So it is a lot harder because people don’t think that much about you when you are just starting up on your own but when you are a family member working in a renowned studio it is a lot harder.

You have someone else’s reputation to live up to?
Exactly. Obviously he has done 25 years on his own and has never had any complaints and has built up a good name for himself. So I really do have to keep the standard going.

So he set the level quite high for you then?
He did. Basically he never pushed us into it or anything like that. He has always been honest with us and when your artwork got up to a certain standard he would let you know and then allow you to try other things. There was never any conflict there either; he would say if you feel ready to do that and your artwork was up to standard for such a piece, he would let you have a go. So he was pretty cool really. There was also never a shortage of people to practice on either. I have been tattooing for 16 years now and there were always people to do revamps etc.

Do you see it different coming from a tattooing background?
Yeah, we sort of see it from a different light. Tattooing is different when you have grown up with it. The magic is still there but it is brand new concept to other people, this big tattoo industry. It has become massive as an industry over the last 10 years or so but when you have grown up with it and you are just a kid and you are hanging out in your dad’s shop and you have seen tattooing and all that, it is not quite so different. It is just normal to me and I don’t understand what all the fuss is about, but obviously the magic is still there but just a bit different.

So you did your apprenticeship at the Cadishead shop then?
I did the apprenticeship there mainly but at the same time we used to do half a week at each shop. So I was doing the assistant’s job at Warrington and the apprenticeship at Cadishead over in Greater Manchester. 

When did you open up here?
We have only been here just coming up to a year and a half now. After I had finished my apprenticeship, I ran the Warrington shop and my dad stayed in Cadishead. I worked in Warrington for about 10 years and then because as you now the industry has got that much bigger over the last few years that we needed to expand again. So I have just moved into the town centre here.

Do you find the town centre better?
For me yes because obviously I have got my own shop. When you are working for somebody else they always let the workers do the mundane work, which is understandable really. I mean I do that now; I let the other lad do all the work that I don’t really want to do. It is sort of part of the package really and we all have to start somewhere. Carl is doing really well but you have to start at the bottom basically. 

I have known Carl for 10 years now and have been tattooing him for the same amount of time. He has always been asking me, for years, about the fact that he wants to be a tattooist. I was always trying to put him off, you know as tattooists do. You are creating your own competition otherwise aren’t you? He was adamant and he stuck with it. He went and got himself set up. He got himself a little shop but I think he was struggling a bit, you know what I mean? Added to which he didn’t have the guidance either, which we are really lucky to have. But anyway, he was that adamant and willing to learn that I took him on and he is coming on well.

So his enthusiasm paid off in the end then?
Yeah and along with him came Jason. Jason was working with Carl atthe time so I was looking for a new assistant as well and Jason just slotted straight in.

So there are just the three of you here then?
At the moment yes and it is enough for now. We have been looking at expanding in the future and have been looking for a bigger shop. I think I am probably like every other tattooist and have a list as long as my arm of people who want to be apprentices. I don’t know if they think it is just a fashion thing at the moment. It is not; it is a living and a way of life

Did you find the actual process of tattooing difficult to start with?
To be totally honest no. Other people have all said how scared they were doing their first tattoo. But if I were to put my hand on my heart and be totally honest, I would have to say no. I was very, very confident. I suppose that may come, again, from growing up with tattooing. I have watched it all my life and when I picked that machine up I knew exactly what I was doing and I was away. I was all right really.

It’s definitely in the genes then?
Oh god yeah. Passed down through the family I suppose. I am a long way from being as good as him. I am a realist and I do know the score. Yeah I like to think that I won’t concentrate on just one particular style of tattooing. I like to be an all rounder. We are a high street shop here so you have really got to be able to do everything. That is exactly like my dad. He has perfected every kind of style and that is where I would like to go really.

Who did your first tattoo on you?
My dad. My dad does all my tattoos. It’s not that I refuse to be tattooed by anyone else, but the standard of the work that he puts on at the moment is so good that I don’t need to go anywhere else. I would be tattooed by other people but it would probably be abroad at conventions, or something like that. There are other artists I would like some work off of eventually.

So who are you favourite artists?
There are the obvious people like Fillip Lue, Robert Hernandez, Tin Tin, Ed Hardy and the like. I have always liked the oriental style of work and the traditions that come with it. So I have always admired Fillip Lue’s work. I also love the scale that he works in, the bigger scale and stuff like that. But again having grown up with my dad and seen his work. He is the kind of person who can do anything that you put in front of him. I mean he is absolutely brilliant.

You were saying that you now do mainly custom stuff.
Over the last 12 months I have done mainly custom stuff myself. I did have my own customers at the other shop and I did custom pieces then but more so now as I have got my own shop and I get first refusal on everything that comes in. I am basically doing everything as custom work now, which is brilliant for me. Over the last 12 months the work that I have been putting out, in the magazines and stuff like that has been good advertising as well. Your work is always your best advert.

Do you do customer consultations?
We always do. Depending on what they want, obviously, they come in and we will try to design stuff for them. They come in with a vague idea and we will get it onto paper for them. The problem we have at the moment is, like many other tattooists, it is really hard to put 2 hours aside to concentrate on a drawing when you are booked up for months in advance. You know, you end up not getting any time to yourself at all. I try to get some drawings done when the kids have gone to bed at home, otherwise I’ll get no family time at all. 

So when are you open.
6 days a week, Sundays off, a day off with the kids and the wife. Well kind of a day off because I have drawings to do and such.

Last time I saw you was at the Skin Tech convention this year when you won a trophy. What was that for?
It was for the best tribal section. We do a few conventions, over the last year we have been trying to build this shop up, so we have limited it to one this year. We usually go to Skin Tech. They are friends of ours who run it as well, so we show them support by working there and they have been good to us. We have been to quite a few and mooch about. We went to Amsterdam last year and we are off to London later in the year. We are sussing that out and might try to work that next year. Plus with the bike shows, I work a couple of bike shows each year as well, so it is a busy schedule really. I am finding it harder and harder to do that sort of thing really, the busier we are getting. You end up shooting yourself in the foot really. You build up the business and then you just get less and less time to yourself. You can’t please all of the people all of the time and at the end of the day you have to draw a line somewhere. Obviously with our family tattooing really is all we know but even so you do have to put aside time for the family. When we get together as a family everybody just tutts and moans because my dad and me just talk tattoos all the time!

We worked Amsterdam in 1997. My dad and me did that and it is the only one we have done abroad. To be honest with you it is an absolute nightmare, lugging all your gear over there. It is the best way of getting known abroad really. We are lucky because we are all sort of bouncing off my dad’s name really. So we are quite well known anyway really.

So what do you like doing the most, although I know you say you like doing everything?
I like doing the Japanese stuff. That is probably my favourite, if I had to narrow it down. I am switching more to doing the new school stuff and I hate doing tribal. Ask the apprentice if you want tribal but I don’t mind the Polynesian stuff. 

Like the piece you won an award for at Skin Tech.
Yeah, it was right across his shoulders.

Do you find it difficult working conventions, with the noise and punters?
No. Actually I really like working conventions. I like the atmosphere and we know a lot of tattoo artists as well. So we get to see lots of people we haven’t seen for ages and have a party and a real good laugh. I really enjoy them. It has never really bothered me really with all the crowds and the cameras. I know some people struggle with that but you’ve just got to have faith in what you are doing I suppose. You know you can do it so there is nothing to worry about.

Did you go to Art College or anything like that? 
No all my art training came from my dad. He sort of set out a course for Nick and myself. As a couple of years went by, we worked our way through this course and progressed our artwork as much as we could. It is difficult with the college side of things. It is a good step on the ladder for someone who is trying to get into the business but from our point of view, knowing exactly what you need to be a tattooist you know exactly what is required of you rather than all the stuff you don’t really need as well. It was a lot quicker doing it our way. All we give people is exactly what they need. Don’t get me wrong you can go to college and university and all that you learn, all the art shading and shadow work is brilliant and it will show through in your work over the years. But the way I did it personally was completing my old man’s course, which has got me where I am now basically. The college courses aren’t specific for tattoos; they are like an all round art study. Everything we did was just to become a tattooist.

Do you think there are too many tattooists?
No, not really I suppose. I think the business has come on a lot and there are a lot of tattooists but I quite like the idea of it being quite a competitive business. When my dad started there was only like 12 professional tattooists in Britain. Now there are more than that just around Warrington. It pushes you to stay on top.

I take it people are approaching you all the time about apprenticeships?We are getting approached all the time, letters and e-mails. People come in.

Do they bring decent portfolios in?
No, not really. We had a couple of people who came in and were promising. But 9 times out of ten they like the idea of being a tattooist. They think it is fashionable but they will never make it and you can tell straight away. They don’t realise all that is involved, all the mucking about and learning. I think apprenticeships are the way to go and then never have them tattooing straight away. Let them get a feel for the shop and get to know them first really, you are going to be working along side them for a long time you don’t want to end up enemies.

Do you get influences from anywhere other than your dad?
Well I see other tattooists work and I admire it. But my dad is my main influence.

So you still do walk ins?
Yeah we get a lot of walk in trade and we try to get them booked in. But a lots of the time they want the tattoo then and there. If you can’t accommodate them they just waltz in and waltz out again We are in a town centre environment so we get a lot of window shoppers  and straight off the cuff they are can we have it done now. And if you can’t fit them in they just go. So maybe they are not the clients you are looking for anyway.

Any advice for anyone who wants to be a tattooist.
Put a good portfolio together and approach a good tattooist. If you are trying to get into this game and you are not getting anywhere a lot of the time if you have got a lot of potential someone will take you. A lot of the time people have not got a lot of potential and they are struggling to get into it. It is hard for me to say really though because it has never been a business that I have had to try to get into I have always been in it. Definitely learn everything you can off of everyone. Be a sponge.

Is there anything you wouldn’t tattoo on people?
We will not tattoo anything political or anything offensive. I like to think that we put artwork on people. Basically anything that is less than nice or crude we would not bother with. Even writing, writing can be hard work if it is done nicely. A lot of people are going for the neck now and the hands, which are coming back round as well. I have tattooed on the neck but not above half a dozen times and then it is on people who are already really heavily covered and they are obviously already into their 30’s. They know where they are going in life. I will steer clear of doing the side of the neck, say on a young lad who is not really tattooed. I don’t really like doing hands, I am never embarrassed about tattoos but I do think there is the right environment. There are times when you want to be able to cover them up. It will be because of other people’s naivety really, I suppose.

So what do you do when you are not tattooing?
I only have one day off a week, when I don’t tattoo. So I have 3 kids so I spend time with my children and my wife. We try to get a day out somewhere together. I am just doing my old VW camper van up; we are going away in that this weekend. Just basically trying to spend some time with the family. It is difficult and I have an understanding wife. That is one thing you need in this game because it is a full time job and you definitely need a bit of strength at home supporting you. My wife is a star, she always supports me in everything and if ever I am going away or abroad there is no problem. My eldest lad he wants to be a tattooist. He is already tattooing mad, the next generation in the making. He’s got a machine with a biro in the end and often draws designs on me.

Are you a fast tattooist?
Yeah and my dad says too fast. I think the sort of business we are used to is like a conveyer belt and you just get quick. But I have slowed down in the past 12 months. The custom work, you just can’t bang it out, you have to take your time over it. Obviously it has got to be right, it is not the same as just banging a bulldog on, or something like that. There is a lot of work in some of the custom stuff.

What do you see as the 3 major changes in the last 5 to10 years in the tattooing industry?
Obviously you’ve got all these TV shows and it’s been rammed down the public’s throat. I don’t know, nearly everyone who comes in the shop asks us if we have seen Miami Ink and just everyone wants to be a tattooist. I kind of think it has been counter productive, in that they are making it popular but also they are kind of killing it, because it is too much all the time. It was such a secretive business years ago but now it seems that everyone is doing it, everyone has got a machine. They are selling them on bloody e-bay, it is ridiculous. But this has improved the industry a lot. With it being in the public eye so much the standard of the work is amazing now it is really difficult to compete. Everywhere you look there is a brilliant tattooist, in every city really. That is good for the industry and I do like to look at other people’s work, I love to stroll round the conventions and look at other people work. You always pick stuff up from other folk; I have picked stuff up from people who have only been tattooing for 12 months, just by watching them. You watch and think I will try that little method. Obviously they have been taught to do it that way. It is a lot easier now to pick up tips and techniques where as years ago nobody would tell you anything. They wouldn’t even keep the labels on their inkbottles; they wouldn’t want you to know what inks they used or anything. 

If you are good you will survive. But it is a shame when the customer goes to someone who is not good just to save that tenner. The one thing we have stopped doing in this shop is that we have stopped doing repair jobs on other people’s work because we are getting a lot of people, at least 2 or 3 a day walking in and wanting other people’s work sorting out. So we are knocking that on the head because we are spending most of our time fixing other tattooists work and that is not the kind of way that I want to go really.

Have you got any body you would like to thank for helping you out?
Well obviously my dad, he has helped me out a lot. Of course the support from my wife. Years ago when I was a kid, all my dads’ mates were tattooists and they used to come to our house. It was just always the way I was going to go. I always used to watch them having a crack and going off to conventions. They used to go off to Deal and places like that, me and my sister would be waiting at home to hear all the stories of stuff that had happened and all that.  It has just been so magical for us over the years.

I bet your old man has some tales to tell?
Yeah. He’d be off to see Phil Bond to get tattooed by him or Pete Caldwell, in Liverpool, they all used to come up to our house and I have known them for years. People like Phil Bond and the Rigleys and many others fathers were friends of my dads and their sons have now become tattooists as well, so we are in the same little group really. I don’t know a massive amount of tattooists personally now; it is harder because there are so many of them. In my dads era everyone knew everyone else, you would always be at somebody’s house or they would be at yours swapping bits and stuff. It was really good. It was so frowned upon years ago that you had to stick together and between them all they made it work. It is partly why it is where it is today. If they didn’t do it years and years ago it would never have gone anywhere.

I suppose they must have had a harder time of it.
That’s it really. It was still frowned upon years ago. When my old man opened his shop in the 70’s, it was virtually unheard of to have a tattoo shop. He is still working as hard as ever, well 5 days a week now, he has dropped a day. He’s been getting earache off my mum I think!

Are looking for a bigger shop in the near future?
Yeah. We have outgrown here really and we are looking for a bigger place. I would like to have a couple of working artists that would allow me to concentrate on my own customers. I have got a load of customers who I have my hours booked with during the week and I am finding it really hard to fit other people in. I would like to get something up and running with that. Basically concentrate on the tattooing. We do piercings but it has never been my thing really, I am not interested in it really – strictly tattooing.