Real Art Tattoo - A Recipe for Success

Published: 16 August, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 183, March, 2010

Over the years and with the insurgence of tattoo studios in virtually every town, some owners have worked hard to get the feel and mix of artists right within their studios. Some have succeeded; some have failed with spectacular results.  Real Art Tattoos in Leicester must have the perfect recipe book. Here you have three artists all working in harmony and melding as one unit; striving to produce mouth-watering tattoos and art for all.

On the one hand you have the effervescing Rat, producing good, solid work of all styles and he is, I’m sure he won’t mind me saying, the old timer of the crew, always ready to un-selfishly impart his vast tattooing knowledge to the others to help further their careers.

Then there is business partner and relative new boy on the block, Matt ‘Oddboy’ Barratt, a mere slip of a lad who has exploded onto the UK tattoo scene over the last couple of years with his almost photographic tattoo renditions of portraits and any other realistic subject put before him.

Sitting towards the back, almost in awe of these two talented tattooists is Jay, a very quietly spoken chap who has seen the opportunity that has been given him by Rat and Matt and grasped it with both hands. Jay is not without talent either and his work is a clean as it comes with traditional styles tattoos his forte.

Keeping this boiling pot of talent well stirred and not spoiling is the delightful Jess, the front of house person. If ever there was a face to welcome a nervous client, it’s Jess. She will put even the most nervous customer at ease with her incredible smile and affable nature making a trip to Real Art and real pleasure.

Combine all these ingredients together and Real Art Tattoos have created a wonderful and complex dish of tattooing talent.

Welcome to Real Art Tattoos...


Can you give us a bit of an insight to Rats world of tattooing?

I think I was 8 years old when I was first introduced to a friend of the family, an uncle type person, who had arms full of merchant navy tattoos. Looking back now, they were kind of nasty blue blobs. But at 8 years old, they were like the coolest thing I’d ever seen. That started the ball rolling. It wasn’t too long before I was the school tattooist with Indian ink. Me and my mate, Wayne tattooed all our friends until their mums wouldn’t let them come round anymore. And at 17, I was lucky enough to meet someone who’d just taken over a shop at Swindon, which at that time was the only shop in Swindon, and I ended up working the desk.

Did you do an apprenticeship?

I did a year working for Mark, which was a very old-school apprenticeship. Cleaning floors, making needles. And then just as I started feeling like I was getting somewhere, Mark pretty much said, “you’ve kind of outlived your usefulness now. So ta-ra then. Go and tattoo somewhere. Away from me.”

So where did you go next?

I’d been living in London before I went to Swindon and learned to tattoo. So, the only place I knew really was London. I went back there, and ended up getting the money together to go down to a tattoo-covered bloke working in Oxford, with a thousand pounds in my grubby little mitts, he filled up a big cardboard box with equipment for me and I went back to London and started there. I went back to London and realised that the year I’d spent learning, I hadn’t learned any of the really essential things. Like actually how to do a tattoo!

So what was your first experience of tattooing in a studio?

I did three years working from my house, I actually went and registered, had a home studio, with a completely separate room, sink, sterilisers, everything that was needed; then I got the health authority in, they registered me from home.  I’ve always been into the who’s who and the history of English tattooing. You know the Danny Skuse’s, the Ronnie Ackers and others. I knew about those people. I have enormous respect for those guys that broke all that ground for us. These guys made all those mistakes for us!

I ended up meeting an older chap called Fred, who had retired, and he said, as soon as he met me, he said ‘hmm. Perhaps I could squeeze another year or two out, actually. You’ve got me all excited again.’ And me and Fred ended up opening a shop in West Wales. We opened in 1989. He said, all my studios have been called ‘Skin Tapestry.’ I dunno what you think about that. And I said, as far as I’m concerned, one name’s much as good as another. So we’ll go with that. And I worked there for about 18 months before Fred decided that, he remembered why he retired, which is he doesn’t like people much!

You’re very passionate about the history, where it’s all come from and so on...

I think you need to be. I think all the old historical stuff will get lost. Unless a few silly…anally retentive people like me, take all that trivial information and pass it on. It’s a fascinating subject.

It’s amazing how long you can be in the industry and still learn something…

Oh yeah, I’ve always said this. Mickey Sharpe said to me many years ago, listen to everything everybody tells you in tattooing. When you’ve been home and you’ve digested it, you can sift out the bullshit you don’t want to listen to. You can try things and go ‘that doesn’t work for me’, or, ‘that’s the greatest thing anyone’s ever taught me. It doesn’t matter if they’ve only been tattooing five minutes, I can always look at someone and go, hang on, what are they doing there? Yeah, I’m going to try that. The worst thing, I think, in the world, is the complacency that sets in with some people. I’m sure the biggest names, who keep progressing, are the ones who keep watching and keep listening, and keep thinking.

You’ve got to push it. I come in every day and treat it as if I’ve only just started doing
it. Working with Oddboy has certainly upped my game.

How long have you actually been here then?

It’s been two and a half years since we opened. In the 25 years that I’ve tattooed, this is what I’ve been aiming for. We haven’t made it an appointment only studio, but because we’ve become so busy, it has become appointment only. Pretty much for me and Oddboy anyway. And Jay’s rapidly pulling up behind us. We also pride ourselves, in the service aspect of tattooing, in the same way, it’s important to be sociable with people. As you see, we run an open shop.

Would you describe yourself as having a distinct style?

I just like doing nice tattoos. So I’m quite happy to take most things on. We make a bit of a stand about not doing tribal, but then, you can walk in just about anywhere and get tribal. Now, nothing against these tribal tattooists whatsoever, they can be fantastic tattooists, but a black zigzag drawn by a bloke in Holland, is completely different from Tribal.

Again with the trad stuff that’s going on now, I think a lot of it that I see, although, technically, quite well tattooed, a lot of it, isn’t drawn as well as it should be. For me, there’s your Steve Burn’s and your Uncle Allan’s, Tiny Miss Becca; people like that, and then, there’s another load of people, who don’t quite understand the delicacies of their work, that sets it apart, for me. I have enormous respect for those guys that simplicity, actually, isn’t as simple as it first appears.  

I know you’ve been quite an outspoken critic of certain government bodies trying to get involved in the industry. Can you tell us a bit about that fight?

Yeah, it’s quite strange at the minute because on some forums, there are people who, I dunno, perhaps they weren’t tattooing when all that happened, perhaps it passed them by, who are now talking about CQC coming in, and they’re talking about it like it’s a good idea. I’m kind of going, hang on a minute, where were you? Where were you when the HABIA thing happened? Because what you’re talking about is exactly what they were trying to do. It’s just under a different name.

Tattooing has muddled along pretty nicely for the last hundred years, and yeah, alright, we haven’t always got it right, and there are things that could be cleaned up, but really. I think the bylaws that are in place would be perfectly adequate, if the environmental health office and the police, when it comes to tattooing underage and things, actually policed it properly.

The nice thing over the last few years is it seems that they’re (the environmental health guys) more there to help you to get it right. What they used to do was come in and the slightest little thing, like a bit of dust on the shelf, and that’s it. You’re shut down. Whereas now, they do seem a little bit more laid back about it in their approach. And prepared to talk about what’s going on. The problem is that some people jump on that tattooing bandwagon, if they’ve got enough money to open a shop and all the rest of it, then, they’re opening shops that really shouldn’t be there.

It’s only a matter of time before someone’s seriously injured.

If someone is seriously injured, or dies, worst case scenario that would then have bad repercussions for the entire industry…

Legally, the environmental health, or the police, can walk in here, any time they want, and inspect us, and question us. If I was working illegally from my house, there’s nothing they can do. These things are overlooked. Because there isn’t the money, the manpower…When something does go wrong, there’s going to be an over-reaction from the authorities, and it’s the legitimate studios that are going to get it in the neck. It’ll be driven underground and then you’ll have even more scratchers setting up.

Who would you like to thank for helping you out over the years?

A big thanks to Marc for giving me a foot in the door way back when. To old Fred Young for getting the first studio together with me and teaching me the old ways. Lionel Titchener and PJ Sayce for sorting my first set-up, Carla Thompson( RIP I never forget)for paying for it. Oddboy and Jay for being part of the best tattoo crew around. Oddboy an Milosch for all the realism tips. Mr.Nu for my hand work and spiritual guidance. Jess for the many, many teas and her hard graft in the studio and Caz, my amazing wife and soul mate without whom I’d be knackered! Plus all the loyal clients and friends who’ve kept me busy all these years!


What got you into tattooing?

Well, I was around alternative culture throughout art college etc…originally, I got into body piercing way before tattooing. When I was doing my art degree, I apprenticed with a body piercer at the weekends. Then I kind of went full time as a body piercer, and I did that on and off for probably ten years, in between other full time jobs and stuff. I ended up out in the US, running a piercing studio in Ohio. I did that for a couple of years and then I came back over here. I was actually working for a sign company when someone came in saying they were opening a tattoo studio nearby, and they wanted the signs doing. They wondered why I knew so much about ball closure rings and I said, well, I’ve been a body piercer for ten years. They offered me a job, so I went and worked for them, as a piercer, and they were the first people who said, yeah, we’ll teach you how to tattoo. It kind of went from there, really, I got all my kit together, started doing a few tattoos.

Did you form a friendship, in a way?

Erm. Kind of, it was short lived. Things didn’t go too well though, and I kind of ended up with a basic knowledge of how to tattoo, and I just developed from there, until it came to the point where I met Rat. We got on like a house on fire, and had similar aims in terms of what we wanted to do with a studio, so we opened this place together, and that was my first full time tattooing my own studio! That was just over two and a half years ago. So I’ve been tattooing full time for two and a half years…a mere baby!

What got you interested in tattoos in the first place? Did your family have any tattoos?

No…my dad’s a Methodist minister; my mum’s a strict Christian. So tattooing wasn’t really a conversational topic around the Sunday dinner table! But I got my first tattoo, sort of, when I was (whispers) seventeen (laughs). I think my interest in art quickly pushed me forward to wanting to get more.

So how did it go down with your folks?

Really badly! Mum actually always said that she’d throw me out if I ever had a tattoo. I was late home one night, and I’d already got my first tattoo, on my left shoulder. I’d dislocated my right shoulder out skateboarding, and she quizzed me about it because I was late home. She was pretty pissed off. She wanted to compare it to the other shoulder to see how much it was swollen, and I was trying to negotiate my way round this little tribal piece, and she went, ‘you’ve got a tattoo, haven’t you?’ So I went, ‘yeah’. I was a…severe disappointment, shall we say...for a little while...about ten years…(laughs). They’re my best friends now, but at the time it wasn’t great.

So they accept what you’re doing now? They’re quite happy?

Yeah, considering how little they liked tattooing, I’m quite proud of the way they’ve accepted it, they’re quietly supportive of me. They’re really into the art side of things, they like seeing me painting and drawing, and exhibiting work and stuff. And my mum went through my portfolio before Tattoo Freeze, and she actually went, ‘oh wow, that’s beautiful,’ I was like, that’s awesome!

Do you think that once you started tattooing, it brought more out in your art, made you more driven?

Well, yeah, I mean…I left university and put down my pencils and my paints and didn’t touch them for years, between then and starting to tattoo I probably produced three or four pierces of artwork that I could even say, yeah, that was pretty good. But when I started tattooing, obviously becoming a custom tattoo artist was important to me. I got back into drawing because I wanted to do individual pieces, and that led to painting, and pastels, and it’s given me more of a look to art than I’ve ever had before. I’m producing more work now than I ever have done previously.

It’s interesting that it seems college is just too artistically stifling for most people. Some people I know who are at university say they’d like to follow the tattoo art route, and they seem to be frowned upon straight away…

Absolutely. It’s not a fine art. It’s marking your skin indelibly. It’s very much a sort of orthodox religious view of tattooing to be honest, which is weird because the art community, you’d think, would be an open and embracing place, because it’s about expression. But as soon as it’s an expression on your skin, it’s a different story.

A university lecturer I spoke to once said; ‘it’s not art if it hasn’t got a frame around it’.  Alright then, I’ll tattoo a fucking frame round it! (Laughter all round)

You’re a relative newcomer to a) tattooing, and b) conventions as well. Do you enjoy working the shows?

Yeah, I do. I love it. I’ve always been a people person, I think that’s why I enjoy tattooing so much, as well. Because I like being around people, and I love art. It’s the perfect fusion, really. But, conventions, I don’t have a problem with hundreds of people milling around, while I’m working, you know, because it’s just me and my client. I think, in terms of, what it does to your tattooing, is you’re exposed to so many other high quality artists, the social side of it is so important, it’s not just networking, but really getting to know people in the industry. I’ve worked Derby, Tattoo Jam, Tattoo Freeze and I’ve loved every one of them!

Who would you like to cite as your main influences?

In tattooing, it changes all the time, but I think, pretty much the usual suspects. Jeff Gogue’s pretty much top of the list. Just because, personally, the way I work, his approach to tattooing as an art form, his actual ethos of the way he tattoos as a creative force, is, to me, absolutely phenomenal. You know, aiming to take the tattoo right into the realms of fine art, where it becomes a pure expression, and captures a moment between you and your client, that’s what real art is. And also, you know, people who are right at the top of their game, like Niko Hurtado, and the top realist guys, Cecil Porter, Mike DeVries, Bez, in the UK, is phenomenal.

Do you have a favourite style? Could you describe a style of your own yet?

Erm. I think, for me, my interest will always be in doing something realistic with tattoos. But not to the point where you lose all emotion from looking at a piece. I’ve been fairly concerned with making my work technically as close to perfect as I can, whereas, I think since I’ve started painting more, I’m more interested in getting it technically perfect to a degree, but also allowing for expression. This is where I want to get into the realms of art with my tattooing. Making it more of an expression, a representation, rather than a photocopy of something.

You said you use various mediums, pastels and oils, that sort of thing?

Yeah, I’m doing a lot of work with oils at the moment, but it’s really time consuming; I do love my chalk pastels, because I can put a piece together in a week. You know if I’ve got a few hours to spare here and there. It’s nice to get something finished, you know, in quick succession, as it were.

What is it about your chosen area within the industry that you enjoy the most?

I don’t know. I think the thing that makes me happiest is seeing someone leave with a piece that was way beyond his or her expectations. The most I get out of tattooing is finishing a tattoo and going, ‘Yeah, I’m happy with that’. And then going, ‘I never thought it would look that good.’ Which means I’m pushing other people’s expectations further, and I’m pushing myself harder, and I don’t want to feel like I’ve done a day without progressing in some way. That’s what I get the most out of, is getting to the end of a week and going, ‘yeah, I did that, and I did this, and I made them really happy,’ so yeah, I think that’s what does it for me most; is the satisfaction of moving forward constantly, and the satisfaction of other people, in the tattoos that I do for them.

Do you have any ambitions within the tattoo industry or otherwise? Where do you see yourself in five years time?

Just better. Just doing more, and doing it better. And, really, being more of an artist. I feel like I’m progressing technically at a good rate, to the point where I feel as though I can start exploring my creativity in my tattoos as much as I try to in my traditional art. Melding the two, really. Making them more of a whole rather than keeping them separate. Just building up the client base that trusts me enough to let me have a little bit, not free reign with their skin, but to trust my judgement on what I think is going to be a good expression, and to represent them well with the tattoo.

What changes have you noticed in the industry during the relatively short time you’ve been tattooing? Is there anything that concerns you?

Erm. The plethora of media coverage. It’s hard for me, because I’m new to the industry; I’ve kind of come into it as all this change has been happening. I’m almost part of the Miami Ink generation. Like, when I started tattooing, Kat Von D was my idol, and I can’t get away from that. But, you know, Kat Von D, on TV, pushed me to do really great portraits.

Who would you like to thank for helping you out so far?

Well, certainly Rat and Jay, and everyone at the studio, because it’s a tight unit, and we all need each other. Rat and myself wanted to achieve a studio where, from the moment you walk in, you enjoy the experience. It’s not just about leaving with a nice tattoo; it’s about enjoying getting tattooed. I know tattoos aren’t the most comfortable process, but being relaxed in a friendly atmosphere actually contributes heavily to how much it hurts.

My wife, Mitch obviously, because she’s been amazing, and my kids. And just, the general support around me. Jason Butcher has been cool; he’s tattooed basically my whole right arm for me, now. Right from when I was first tattooing in a studio, I kind of encroached on him very quickly, we became friends; he’s indirectly pushed me back into art, with the chalk pastels and that. Central Tattoo Supplies, and obviously Skin Deep.


How did you get started in the tattoo world?

I started as an apprentice at another shop. Found it quite hard to get in to, same as everyone does. I took my portfolio around to a load of shops, got told to go away a lot. (laughter) Eventually, a shop gave me a go, and it…didn’t really work while I was there. That’s where I met Rat. And when Rat decided he was going to leave and open another shop, I went with him. And we’ve both been here since it started really. It wasn’t too long after we opened that I started tattooing bits and pieces, as apprentices do. I started tattooing full time probably about
a year and a half ago now.

How are you finding it?

Yeah, good thanks. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. A few years ago, I never would have thought I would be tattooing because it is a very hard industry to get in to, and I’m not one of those people who wanted to sort of try and do it from home. I wasn’t really involved enough even to know the basics. I wanted to know exactly what I was doing from the start.

So Rat saw the potential in you and…

Yeah, he was a really good influence in pushing me forward and helping me out. And then we met Matt and he’s helped me as well, both in different ways, in different styles.

What’s your style?

Traditional work really…in the shop, because I’ve not been tattooing that long really, I do most things. I do quite a bit of script. But traditional work is the work that’s really…my sort of style. I know there’s a lot of people at the minute especially, doing traditional. But I do really enjoy doing that work. I’m not doing anything different really, but I’m just trying to make it clean and sharp and good. Eventually I’d love to just be able to do traditional and maybe bits of Japanese and stuff. But again, I don’t really know enough about Japanese to be doing massive pieces.

How did you first become aware of tattoos?

It’s quite a strange one. I don’t really know how I originally got into it. None of my family has ever had tattoos, even my Granddad who was in the army. It’s just a strange one I think. When I was younger I was into art and drawing and things and I started buying tattoo magazines when I was probably about 12, I think just to look at the drawings.

How did you find the progression from paper to machine?

It’s completely different. I think it’s more about the techniques; especially when you first start. Getting good lining and stuff like that is a lot harder than it looks when you’re watching, to be honest. Different things work for both Rat and Oddboy and I take what I can from either of them and see

what works for them.

Even though what they do are not styles I’d like to do myself really, I can appreciate their work and I can use parts of that in other things. It’s all tattooing at the end of the day.

Do you have any favourite artists?

Ever since I’ve been getting into traditional work, Uncle Allan’s the one artist that inspires me most of all. He does amazing work and I’ve been over and got tattooed by him a few times. He’s just a really nice guy and stuff, so it helps.

It’s nice to meet people in the industry that are big names who are really nice people. At the minute, I think, I’ve met quite a few people who are into the same style as me, who I’ve become friends with through that. I’ve started doing some painting with friends, from around the country, which is really nice.

Tattooing is not just about tattooing is it?

No, it’s a lifestyle. It’s not a job. I’m going to start doing conventions next year and I look forward to doing that. We did the first one as a shop last year (Derby), but I was just sort of helping out. Just because I wanted to see how it worked.

Which area of tattooing do you enjoy the most?

Meeting the people is always good. It’s a lot more fulfilling when you tattoo someone who is really nice, who you get on with really well. And to see someone who’s really happy with it afterwards, as well.

I never think you should stop being self-critical either. I think at the stage I’m at you’ve got to be extra vigilant rather than being complacent.

Have you seen a thing for people getting their hands done?

Yeah. I think ‘cos it’s fashionable. Obviously I’d never tattoo anyone in places like that who haven’t got a lot of work on them before. But I’ve been quite lucky to have a lot of customers who have heavy coverage. I’ve gone a couple of palms, things like that, which are a good experience too.

Thanks to?

I want to thank Rat and Matt for helping me become the tattooist I am today and giving me a chance. Mozza, Tiny Miss Becca and Steve Byrne for helping my progress along the way.


Interview: neil photography: Neil & Real art


Skin Deep 183 1 March 2010 183