Hoist the Jolly Roger

Published: 21 March, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 192, November, 2010

If you know anything at all about pirates you know one thing ; the words ‘Jolie Rouge’ alone are enough to strike fear into the hearts of everyone from street urchins through to seasoned sailors and the top naval brass. So when Skin Deep offered me shore-leave in North London, telling me to settle my anchor at the Jolie Rouge tattoo studio, I prayed that they abided by the pirate code and that saying ‘parlay’ would be enough to get me an audience with the ship’s captain.

Sure enough as soon as I reached land the figurehead Lucy Wilson, greeted me, and took me straight to the ship’s captain, Matt Difa. All tall tales begin with some history, and this meeting is no exception.

“I’d been tattooing at the same shop for quite some time and felt I wanted to try running my own shop and being my own boss. I had a good group of tattooist friends who were happy to sail under my flag and we just went for it! As you can guess, we are big pirate fans and the name has a nice ring to it. Jolie Rouge is thought to be the inspiration for the term ‘jolly roger’ [describing the pirate flag], where the blood soaked flag was raised to act as a warning to others that no quarter was going to be given; so you’d better be prepared to fight as you are fucked otherwise!

The connotations in relation to tattooing are clear and all my French speaking tattooist friends are jealous that they didn’t think of the name first”.

The shop itself comprises tattooist Matt Difa (taking the self-described role of ‘tired old captain’)  with Sabe as quartermaster,  Lucy as the figurehead (though receptionist and booking person might be better terms) and a hearty crew of tattooists including Charissa Gregson, Javi Bermudez, Raquel CT, Lord Montana Blue and Claudia de Sabe. Unlike pirates of old, their purpose isn’t to pillage and find gold, instead they, “just want to ink good tattoos and have a good time doing it".

Matt grew up in London and opened the shop just over 5 years ago, and has taken his time to make sure it is what he wants, “It’s my first shop and we’ve ended up with an amazing little troop that are fun and easy to work with”.

The artists themselves cover a broad spectrum of tattoo ‘specialisations’, Matt being amused that he has somehow ended up being known for tattooing traditionally ‘geeky’ subject matter which has resulted in him producing some stunning Star Wars themed sleeves.

Charissa (Gregson) first came to the studio as a client, getting her ribs done by Matt, “I had admired his work for ages and was just looking round the studio thinking how much I wanted to work in a studio like this one and how it would be a good place to further my knowledge. Since that moment I was trying to get a foot in the door, I’ve now been here for over 2 years”. Having learnt from home and worked reception to learn more about cross-contamination and the ‘backroom stuff’ she apprenticed under Dan Gold at (the now defunct) Kings Cross Tattooing studio.

She also finds it very easy to describe what she feels is the main draw of the studio, “Jolie Rouge is an amazing studio. Like I said, I was a customer first and I don’t think I have been tattooed anywhere that was more hospitable. There is a really nice atmosphere and cool stuff on the walls to look at; A bit of distraction can be a welcome thing when you are in the chair! From an artists point of view, I work with lovely people who are all really good artists in their own right. Its been really nice watching  everyone’s work develop over the last couple years. I like the fact the artists here are really open about sharing their knowledge and ideas. It creates a really good working environment where you can bounce ideas off each other and help each other out.

Equally, I reckon it motivates us to do better, you know how it is, if someone does something cool with a piece everyone else is like, “now we better raise the bar too.”

She says she isn’t keen to specialize in one single style and is happiest when she gets a client who has a good idea of what they want, is into her input and lets her design the piece in a way that flows for her. “I enjoy black and grey but am having a lot of fun with my colour work. People are doing amazing things at the moment, all the hyper colour portrait dudes, it opens your eyes to some of what is possible to achieve. This medium has a lot left to give! I love tattoos”.

Raquel CT is just as enthusiastic about the work, she started tattooing in Barcelona over 9 years ago, eventually worked alongside Matt in Covent Garden (London, UK) and when he made her an offer to sail on the Jolie Rouge, she signed up straight away. Her current tattoos of choice are new school, traditional, American old school and comic stylings. “For me its really special because there are amazing tattooists working here so you always learn something with them and they learn something from you. We never stop. And I really like that. Also, we have a really good relationships between all of us, I feel like I am at home here. They also say its bad luck to have women on the ship and now we have four women on board, yet we haven’t run aground yet”.

The ship seems to be on a winning streak with the female crew, Claudia De Sabe has recently been focussing on traditional Japanese tattoos, and is currently working on some large back-pieces and full-body suits that she hopes to see grow over the next year. She also is known for her neo-traditional work, “or that’s what they like to call it nowadays, it is basically classic tattoos with a bit of a personal twist.. in my case towards Victoria vignettes”.

Lord Montana Blue joined the crew before the Rouge even set sail, “I officially started tattooing two years ago, I apprenticed under Matt after he saved me form some massively irresponsible self-tattooing on my own….. It really wasn’t a good idea and I learnt my lesson the hard way, with the scars to prove it!”.

Lord Montana hails from South London, with is family roots in Ghana he claims to have been at Jolie Rouge when it was a hole in the ground. “I love working here I have never been in a shop with such a good atmosphere. I love the fact that I have five amazing artists to learn from and I fully appreciate the time they take to help me out. I know a lot of other people who are just starting out like myself and I know it can be hard finding your feet, so it is awesome to have these highly creative people around you to help navigate through the fog”. Currently he sees his style as developing with a leaning towards graphic design elements, “I like to keep an open mind when I’m drawing for tattoos and for myself so I have space to find new ways to approach new projects. Plus, I am only starting out in this so I think it would be a mistake to try to force a style when there’s still so much to learn”.

The final member of this cut-throat band of pirates is Javi Bermudez, who began his career of piracy in 1997 in Barcelona, who was swept away by the seas and washed up in the port of London. Having sailed with Matt under a different banner he was more than happy to join Matt and the crew on a new adventure aboard the Jolie Rouge.

He runs a tight ship and knows who is the boss, “Jolie Rouge is a pirate ship in the middle of London and what makes it so special is that we all love tattoos and the point of views we have about them make us all get on well together. I do custom work so the customer’s request is always a command, but being a pirate gives us the liberty to chose if we are the right person for the job.”, he says with a wink, “Otherwise, my influences go between Japanese, comic, traditional Americana and new school mostly”.


Jolie Rouge

254 Caledonian Road,


N1 1DU

02076 095111


Text & Photography: Al Overdrive