Reality Bites - Ben Hamill

Published: 22 August, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 202, August, 2011

When I think of realistic tattoos, I like to think of the artists who specialise in this style as the grand masters of tattooing. Like a modern day Leonardo or Rembrandt. It is a style that makes you think, ‘shit, this artist could have painted the Mona Lisa’. One such artist, who evokes this kind of response, is Ben Hamill. His work is something you expect to see hanging in a gallery, not on someone’s skin.

“At school I used to draw fake tattoos on all my mates with fine-liners and felt-tips. They used to show them to their parents just to check what their reactions would be if they got real ones. I remember one of my teachers telling me that I would never get anywhere in life if I kept drawing on everything!

“I tried art college, although I think I may have done it for the wrong reasons. I had no intention of bettering myself, it was just an excuse for me to doss around a bit longer. I think I would have paid a bit more attention in class if they had picked some better life models.

“I got my first tattoo when I was just 13 years old; it was a fighting Irish leprechaun that has been long since covered... don't even ask! I originally wanted to get some work by Ian of Reading, but armed with my older brothers driving license I wasn't prepared for Ian to catch me out being underage by asking me my star sign – clever fucker!

A little older and much more wise, Ben now admits to himself, there’s a reason why there is an 18 age limit on getting a tattoo. “Most people don’t really know what they want, or that a tattoo is for life, when they’re 18, let alone when they’re 13.

“I kind of fell into tattooing when I moved to sunny Bournemouth when I was 19. It seems like so long ago now. I was living in a run down bedsit in the centre of town which didn't even have its own toilet. I was getting sick to death of the string of mundane jobs that I sucked at so I decided to try my luck selling flash sheets to local tattoo studios, and within a week I had been offered two apprentice positions.

“I started my apprenticeship at a studio called Skintone. Mainly cleaning, drawing up flash sheets, making needles and cups of tea. It was two years before I was even allowed to pick up a tattoo machine. The first ever tattoo I did was a small Japanese symbol on my own leg, I barely stopped shaking long enough to finish it. Skintone was where I met my wife Claire, she took over my apprenticeship and it was love at first sight.

“When I wasn't tattooing at the studio, I was sat on the computer messing around with Photoshop and Illustrator and started to enjoy digital art more than tattooing, so I decided to pursue the graphic design route and got a few different jobs in design. I even did a stint at the surf brand Animal, but, just when I got comfortable working for them, they made a load of job cuts and it was last in/first out so I found myself back on my arse again.

“Due to being in the right place at the right time it wasn't long before I got the opportunity to take over a studio in Poole which gave me a rebirth of passion for tattooing which has grown ever since. I was inspired by some amazing tattoo artists who where doing the kind of art that I always wanted to be able to do; artists like Boris, Nikko, Robert Hanandez and Jeff Gogue. So I began to find out how they were doing these masterpieces on skin. I slowly, bit by bit, began to re-teach myself how to tattoo.

“That’s how Ink Studios was born.  It was tough at first. The studio needed to be refreshed in more ways than one and I decided that I only wanted to do custom tattoos or work that I would enjoy doing and I stopped doing the 'bread and butter' tattoos of tribal, stars and football badges. After I managed to Jedi mind-fuck a few people into letting me do what ever I wanted on them, they showed their friends and then their friends and so on. Now I just try to make each design better than the last. My Dad told me once, 'you are only ever as good as your last design', and I live by that!

“Since I have owned Ink, I have surrounded myself with people with a real strong passion for tattooing and passed my knowledge down to my new family, my wife Claire Hamill and my brothers from other mothers, Jak Connolly and Neil Bennett. Now they are keeping me on my toes, pushing me and each other to do better.”

On which note, I ask Ben what it is like working the same studio as his wife; does the close proximity have a positive influence on their work or is their closeness, a hindrance?

“It’s great to finally be working with Claire again. When I left tattooing for graphic design, Claire also left her apprenticeship to get a full-time steady income. It has only been a couple of years since we started working in the same studio again. Claire has only been tattooing now for two years, but she is already a fantastic tattooist, with her own distinct style. Her work is inspired from more traditional art like mehndi and tibetan imagery, with influences from tattoo artists such as Xed Le Head, Patrick Huettlinger and Buena Vista. 

“Some people say it’s a recipe for disaster, working with your partner, but to be honest we don't really see each other that much as we work in different rooms. Sometimes I don't even see the tattoos Claire has done until she shows me on the camera at the end of the day. I think we are definitely each other’s biggest critics but it’s good to have someone around that is going to be 100% honest with you. If Claire thinks one of my design ideas is shit, she’ll tell me it’s shit and vice versa!

“I think there is always a little competition between artists, but our styles are so different there isn't really anything to compare. If I have a piece that needs some dot work in it, then I will get her to do it as I know she can do it better than I can. I love doing joint pieces as I think you really get the best out of each artist when they are both working on the same piece. The only problem is when I spend hours and hours on a tattoo and Claire does a bit of dot work in the background, you can guarantee that when the photos come out, they are all of her doing it and she loves it!”

Who said a little healthy competition between husband and wife doesn’t make all the difference? It seems that Mr Hamill is a very determined man when he sets his mind on something and it certainly shows in his drive and passion for his work, but, even with a successful studio and a steadily growing following, Ben is not content to sit around and let things just happen.

“Even though I have been tattooing for about ten years now, I only feel like I have been really tattooing for two of them. It’s taken a long time for me to develop my style and I'm still not sure I'm there yet. I have been influenced by so many different artists from the likes of Da Vinci and Rossetti to modern fantasy artists like Louis Royo and Boris Vallejo – plus Japanese manga artists like Masamune Shirow. I have recently started to paint in oils and I have only completed a handful of paintings so far but I'm hooked already and can't wait to do more.

“I also feel that I am now ready to work the convention circuit and grow outside of the studio. I have just done Bournemouth Tattoo Convention, where I got the chance to have an 'Ink Off' with Kamil, who deservedly won, but I was privileged to be picked to go against him in the first place and my piece went on to win Best of Day, so that was cool. I'm looking forward to Tattoo Jam as it’s the first convention I have worked outside of Bournemouth and I’ll be working alongside some of the artists who inspired me.”

Modestly, Ben also ‘forgets’ to mention, that all the merchandise from 2010’s Bournemouth Tattoo Convention was based on his artwork, a small but at the same time, massive nod to his talent. Personally, I think this is just the tip of the iceberg for Ben. His work is powerful, clean and is loaded with passion. Add to that the drive, that got him from a bedsit in Bournemouth to his own studio in under ten years, and you have a great artist in the making… or as Ben puts it, “I learn something new every day tattooing and I think I always will. Looking back, I think without realising it I was always destined to be a tattoo artist. Every path I took and every decision I made led to where I am now.”

Masamune Shirow

Masanori Ota (Masamune Shirow is a pen name based on a famous swordsmith, Masamune) is best known for the manga, Ghost in the Shell, which has been turned into two theatrical anime movies, two anime TV series, an anime TV movie, and several video games. Shirow is also known for creating erotic art. Though Shirow is now a world-famous illustrator, for a time, he was more popular outside of Japan than inside. He was chosen as an early author to bring to the West because of many stylistic similarities between his work and traditional American comics. Born in the Hyōgo Prefecture capital city of Kobe, Shirow studied oil painting at Osaka University of Arts. While in college, he developed an interest in manga, which led him to create his own complete work, Black Magic, which was published in the manga fanzine Atlas. His work caught the eye of Seishinsha President Harumichi Aoki, who offered to publish him. The result was Appleseed, a full volume of densely-plotted drama taking place in an ambiguous future. The story was a sensation, and won the 1986 Seiun Award for Best Manga. After a professional reprint of Black Magic and a second volume of Appleseed, he released Dominion in 1986. Two more volumes of Appleseed followed before he began work on Ghost in the Shell. Ghost in the Shell is a famous anime in the West based on his work, hence his popularity. Many people mistake him for the creator of the original anime movie, but he had no major role in its production. Mamoru Oshii directed both movies, which were adaptations of several chapters of the original manga put to film. However, he did play a role in the development of the TV anime series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.

Luis Royo

Luis Royo is a Spanish artist, known for his sensual, dark paintings, apocalyptic imagery, his fantasy worlds and mechanical life forms. Royo has produced paintings for both his own books and exhibitions and other media; such as video games, music CD and novel covers and tarot cards. Royo started out his career studying Technical Drawing for construction but he soon discovered that geometric forms did not satisfy him fully. Later, he began to study painting, decoration and interior design and during this time, he also combined his work with paint. The discovery of adult comics with the work of artists such as Enki Bilal and Moebius, inspired him to start drawing comics for different fanzines and comics exhibiting at the Angoulême Comic Fair in 1980. American magazines like National Lampoon and Heavy Metal often resort to Royo for their cover illustrations, as well as European magazines Cimoc, Comic Art, Ere Comprime, Total Metal and others. Since 1990, his work has been collected in books and some are collector's products today. In 2002, Luis Royo revealed some of his technical secrets in Conceptions, a book describing the creative process and presents a collection of artist's sketches and pencil drawings that allows us to enjoy his studies, the design of numerous illustrations and numerous alternatives Royo considers before making the final work.


Text: Trent Aitken-Smith; Photography: Ben Hamill