The Existentialist - Claire Reid

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

Claire Reid is one of those artists who is not content to be just a tattooist. Throw into the mix an accomplished painter as well as organiser of the Rites of Passage Tattoo & Music Festival (Melbourne, Australia) and you start to get an idea of how driven Claire really is.

Remarkably, this drive and determination has been there from the beginning, something that can be seen by the list of renowned artists she has apprenticed and studied under.

Born in 1982, in Wirral in the northwest of England, Claire was surrounded by creativity from a young age. “My family is very creative, always active and constantly making things. My Dad is amazing with wood, my Mum and my sister with fabric and my grandfather is also a master carpenter and used to oil paint. I was supported in anything that I did but just wanted to draw and paint as a child. It’s something that I’ve always done and remember from an early age - painting plants and animals.”

“I spent most of my teenage years cooped up in my bedroom painting whilst my friends were out chasing boys – I hung with the smart crowd, not the in crowd. School was ok but I always had the need to get out of there and start doing what I was meant to be doing. I spent a lot of time day dreaming and just working and getting the grades because that’s what I was meant to be doing there. I wanted to leave school and study art but was advised to do a sociology degree as the statistics for art students getting a job were less than 20%! After finishing the degree, my main passions were art and the environment and I couldn’t find a job in either so when I left university, I opened a contemporary art gallery selling glass, ceramics and paintings in order to study on the side as an artist. I ran the shop for a while and managed to break even with it but I still wasn’t painting as much as I’d hoped and neither was I advancing in my art.”

“I think my interest in tattooing was ignited from the age of 16 when i used to hang out at Quiggins in Liverpool. Quiggins was a funky underground four-story building full of retro second hand moth eaten shops, with tattooing and piercing on the top floor. All the Goths used to hang out there. I was naturally drawn to the imagery used in tattooing from the first time i saw it.”

“I decided to close the gallery and a week later, I got a job that I loved – piercing in Luton market. I pierced for about eighteen months and this also reignited my love for tattooing that had somehow been forgotten from three years of university. In 2005, I nagged and nagged my boss to let me learn tattooing but she didn't think that my drawings were good enough and only gave in after another employee got sacked. She gave me six weeks to learn to tattoo and said she would make me go back to piercing if I couldn't do it in that time. I worked my ass off. Tattooing and practicing as much as I could under the guidance of another tattoo artist. He then emigrated and I was full time in the studio from there on.”

“I have been obsessed ever since. I love this lifestyle and all that goes with it. It’s pretty full on and most people outside of the industry don’t realise the hours involved when it comes to preparations, pre and post, tattoo. I love the permanence of art on skin that can live and grow with a person that constantly changes and adapts to the elements. I also love the technical side too. Putting ink under the skin really intrigues me.  I find it fascinating that each person has completely different skin and the application is different from person to person.”

“I had two tattoo apprenticeships but I consider the time I spent with Paolo Acuna (Divinity Tattoo in Phoenix, Arizona) to be the most influential. When I started my apprenticeship with Paolo, I had to start tattooing again from scratch. I stopped tattooing and began scrubbing tubes, making needles, answering the phone etc. This really helped me kick all the bad habits I’d picked up from my first eighteen months of tattooing. The best thing about working under Paolo was that he had very high expectations and pushed me extremely hard. I'm very grateful to have had the experience of studying with Paolo, not only because I was exposed to his technique as a tattoo artist but also his artistic vision as a fine artist and sculptor. I feel really lucky to have had that opportunity and believe that an apprenticeship was, for me, the best way to learn. It made an easy short cut to practicing tattooing as a fine art as opposed to before, where I didn't know what I was doing.”

In 2007, Claire was off again. This time she decided she needed to travel the globe to further enrich her tattoo skills:

“Since early 2007, I've been working and travelling all over the world and have been exposed to many different cultures and practices. It's been an amazing experience both artistically and also by being exposed to different ways of life.  I'm constantly enriched by the diverse imagery that changes from place to place. For any kind of art, I believe, travel and exposure to other cultures is essential to acquire a rich and varied source of inspiration. In December 2009, I travelled to Peru with a group of other tattoo artists. Originally it was for a convention but it was cancelled and instead, we ended up going on an incredible journey together up into the mountains at Machu Picchu. We all climbed Wyna Picchu, which took three hours, climbing tiny steep steps up the mountain. At the top, we all exchanged Inca tattoos using a nine volt battery on the summit. We were surrounded by dense jungle and could hear the crashing Amazon River below. The whole trip was a life changing experience, made even better by having a solid group of like-minded friends around.”

“I find that from all of the travel, my styles and technique are greatly affected. In hindsight, I've noticed that subconsciously I've picked up imagery from the various places that I've travelled, without being aware of it at the time. Culture is very important to me. I love to learn from people, especially those living indigenously. I feel that they know the truth of raw existence and know how important it is to live in harmony with the earth. Living off the land is pure freedom, it provides us with all and when respected and understood, I feel we can live in abundance. Living in this way allows us to be in direct communication with all that is and the mind cannot be any quieter and more whole than when it is balanced and centred in this way.”  

“I have found, through travel, an immense wholeness in knowing that the foundations of human nature is love. This fills me with the need to create and reminds me why I am an artist. From travel I’ve learnt to create for the simple love of it. It’s not about how good, how fast, how famous you are as in the present moment none of that matters. I find now if i focus on what the outcome of the piece will be, this detracts from the reasons I am doing the piece in the first place.”

“I was recently in New Zealand, in a town called Touranga. This was one of the most profound experiences of my life as I leant that taa moko are living breathing forms on the skin that represent your purpose and a multitude of other stories. To bring the tattoo to life, the Maori artist, has a ceremony before and after the tattoo introducing the four elements; air and water whilst tattooing and then upon completion, burning all of the disposable equipment and burying it in the earth. I love the essence and the depth of this tradition, as the quote says, ‘there is always more than meets the eye’. Even the wearer cannot fully explain the meaning behind the tattoo as these events unfold. Six months after a tattoo has been completed, people often notice that they received the tattoo at a pinnacle moment and then the tattoo can take on a symbology that reflects this. The poignancy that it emotes for me, would suggest the confirmation of one’s self; tattoos are quite often a window to our soul, so if we have adorned ourself with an assertion of who we are, the tattoo will bring this into the present moment of everyday that the person sees it.”

So with all these influences flying around Claire’s life and more importantly, her head, how does this affect her style?

“My style reflects my love for painting. I am mainly influence by Renaissance and Post-Impressionist styles and I would like to keep pursuing this angle in combining painting style and technique with tattooing. Light, light source and shadow are a huge influence on my work at the moment. I feel like there’s a whole new area opening up there and i need to learn a lot more about how to interpret the light source captured in paintings into tattooing. I want my tattoos to glow with light.”

“Van Gogh, Joe Sorren, Paul Gaugin, Rembrant, Rubens, Crayola. All of these artists inspire in me a desire to push the boundaries of painting and tattooing to a point where the painting and the tattooing are as one medium; the paint brush being an extension of the tattoo machine and the brush leading on from the machine.”

“I love anything quirky and out there. Outside the box, left of centre, bent… anything that challenges my technique and my imagination. I really love ink, though I once tried tattooing with lemon juice. When I draw, I try to pencil from my subconscious, I never consciously think about a plan, so the end result can sometimes come out a bit abstract. I love drawing in this way as it comes from within and the elements around me that I may or may not know are affecting me.”

“I, personally, don’t think it’s that important to have your own style, unless you are striving for that, but I do believe that people should avoid copying other peoples tattoos 100% as they belong to someone else. It’s fine to get inspiration but I don’t agree with stealing other people’s artwork. I try not to look too much at other artists work as I have noticed how sensitive the subconscious is. So to achieve an original style, I think it’s important to study art, painting, whatever floats your boat really; anything that’s going to give you true original expression.”

And true original expression, Claire has in abundance. In less than seven years, Claire has pooled a reservoir of inspiration and experience, ranging from Shawn Barber and Jeff Gogue seminars to hanging out with Maori artists. Claire knows how to live a life immersed in art and all of it weaves its way into her work. It is scary to even imagine where the next seven years could lead her if she continues on her present course. The only sure thing is, we will be better off in the tattoo world for it.

“As an existentialist, I maintain that the individual is solely responsible for giving his or her own life meaning and for living that life passionately and sincerely. Therefore my art is a reflection of my thoughts and processes, a keyhole looking through to the workings of my subconscious. I often don't acknowledge this until looking back years or months later upon artwork and realising that this is the case. In existence we all come up against obstacles and distractions such as despair, angst and absurdity as well as love, joy and happiness. I would like for my work to reflect the whole gamut of human existence and ultimately create work that invites people to consider for themselves the meaning of being alive.”

Rites of Passage Tattoo & Music Festival

“The idea to create the Rites of Passage Festival, was born from an inner desire to connect people with the deeper meanings behind getting tattooed. The art of tattooing is so multidimensional and complex that even we who practice the art forget about its intricacies. I feel that it is important to remember the ancient meaning behind getting a tattoo was all about going through a rite of passage.  In modern times, we seem to have lost touch with our indigenous roots; living in cities and other man made societies is widening the gap between us and nature. At a time when the earth is so out of balance, I feel personally, a responsibility to look at my daily life and contemplate how I can live in a simpler more harmonic way that also reflects how those would have lived in a time when ceremonies such as tattoos were a central event, marking distinct growth in one’s personal life. Although, on the surface, Rites of Passage is a great tattoo convention and cultural event, it had many deeper meanings. One hundred percent of the profits from all of the shows will be donated to Australian old growth forests. It had a strong Aboriginal emphasis to pay respect to the indigenous as well as the land. We have also started up an eco-friendly tattoo supply, so that tattooists can operate in a harmonic way using all bio-degradable disposable equipment.”

Technique & Road Kill

“I think my other artistic practices affect my tattooing the most. I really notice a lot of my painting technique creeping into my tattoo technique, the way I blend colours or work an area to get a certain effect is similar to how I would paint the same thing. I've also recently started using clay again and am going to try bronze sculpture in the next few weeks. I have been practicing taxidermy for the last nine months too. I love doing taxidermy as you get to be so close to such amazing animals. My friend is a vet and all of the animals I get are road kill that he was unable to save. So far I've had hawks, 7ft pythons, owls, water dragons and massive fruit bats. I'm working on an exhibition that will feature the animals I've worked on that will hopefully raise awareness about road kill and what we can do to prevent it. All of these animals are sacred and I find it so sad that we can kill an animal on the road and then leave it to get mutilated to the extent where it repulses everyone else who drives past. I hope that the exhibition will remind us what an honour it is to live alongside such magnificent animals.”


“I try to be influenced by the all of the arts and the way art reflects life and life reflects art. People like Paolo Acuna and Jeff Gogue have taught me all that I know and I like to base a lot of my technique on what they have taught me and continue to teach me. Ultimately, I want my style to come from within. I feel like I can achieve this by immersing myself in the study of all the visual arts, literature, history and philosophy. In doing this, I can develop my own style and begin to follow a path of self-development that dives into the depths of my own subconscious. I strive to paint and tattoo from the unknown, from untapped and unfamiliar ground. This place can only be found within and therefore by appreciating other tattoo artist’s styles, without being influenced by them we can expand infinitely into multiple dimensions without replicating that which has already been achieved. There is so much to paint and so much to tattoo, when this is the case we can all teach and feed off each other without ever becoming stagnant, with a strong sense of self belief and purpose we can create anything.”



Text: Trent Aitken-Smith; Photography: Claire Reid