The Lone Gunmen - Inspirations Tattoo Studio, Leeds

Published: 17 October, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 204, October, 2011

One of the things that I love most about visiting studios and meeting tattooists is hearing how they got into the world of tattooing. For some reason, I always approach the subject thinking I have heard it all before and then I meet a new artist and a whole new story comes out. And I wasn’t to be disappointed when I headed over to Morley, North Yorkshire, to catch up with Matt Hart, the owner of Inspirations Tattoo Studios.

Matt has been tattooing for ten years and has two successful studios under his belt, which doesn’t sound like stand-out stuff, until you consider his age that is. Matt, for all his success so far, has only just hit 30. Yup, that’s right; ten years experience, two studios with four amazingly talented artists working them and Matt is a relative youngster. So how does someone with not many academic qualifications and a short lived career in car insurance sales make all this magic happen? Well, bizarrely enough, it starts with Matt’s father, who was a piercer.

“I have been tattooing since I was about 18, as soon as I left school really. I wasn’t the most academic type and I didn’t really enjoy school. The only thing that I did enjoy was art. It was the only thing I excelled in, so I couldn’t wait to leave. When I finally left, all my friends had apprenticeships and were earning money and enjoying themselves. Luckily, one of my friends got me a job in an insurance company. Well I say luckily… at the time it felt quite lucky, but when I think back it wasn’t! So I was straight out of school selling car insurance and I didn’t really have many qualifications. My mother used to do markets and stuff selling fashion jewellery, watches and bits of body jewellery; I used to work at the markets when I was younger. Then she started working at a shop in Morley selling the same stuff while she was also doing ear piercing with a gun; this was while my Dad was a police officer. Then he was in quite a bad accident while working one day and ended up retiring quite early due to his injuries. My Mum had quite a few people coming in and asking for body piercings and initially she was going to go on a course to do it, but my Dad ended up doing it instead, as something to do now that he was retired from the force. So they had that piercing studio for a few years. He still does it, just around the corner from the studio.

“My Dad knew a tattoo artist and when I left the insurance company he introduced us. I was always into art and I knew it was something creative I wanted to do, but I wasn’t really sure what and I had never really thought of tattooing as a profession. You know, back then, it was something totally different to what it is now. It wasn’t as mainstream as it is now and most of the studios were back street studios. When I first set this shop up in 1999, there was probably only six studios in the whole of Leeds, whereas now there are hundreds!

“So I started doing this apprenticeship by learning to solder needles, putting needle groups together and working with machines. I also did a few tattoos. Then a shop came up in Morley and I ended up leaving there and coming here straight off the back of about four weeks of training. By the way, I don’t recommend anyone do this as I thought I could tattoo until I moved. It is such a long hard road when you are teaching yourself, especially as you pick up a lot of bad habits along the way which are then really hard to get rid of.”

So an unconventional start to say the least, but one that saw Matt learning the craft from the bottom up. A case of both teacher and student, but with this knowledge behind him, when it came to take on an apprentice or two, was their training going to move along the same path?

“The way I used to learn was to look in magazines at the artist’s work. I would dissect their work and try to bring their techniques into my work. I progressed and got technically better at tattooing. What I wanted to concentrate on first, was getting good at doing quality tattoos, and then I concentrated on the art side of things. Whereas all the apprentices I have had, they need to be skilled artists before I even train them now. I did it the other way round, which I wouldn’t recommend unless you want to spend years and years being crap.

“When Neil came along, he had done an art degree, so we bounced off of each other and while I was teaching him the technical side, he progressed me on the art side. Craig had worked with me as a Saturday lad for a few years and I was going to train him up first, but he had a young child, he was only young himself and he needed a job where he could earn some decent money straight away. So he ended up going away and working for a design company. So Neil was the first apprentice really. Neil had done an initial apprenticeship at another shop and it hadn’t turned out too well. He came in one day with his portfolio and I looked at it and thought, this guy’s got some talent.

“I had been on my own for six or seven years before Neil joined the gang. I had the odd little apprentice that didn’t work out, you know the rock ‘n’ roll type who was in it for the wrong reasons. Craig and Neil will tell you, they had to go through a hard apprenticeship. Craig was actually the last person I trained, but he has been with me the longest. I used to lock him in the back room and beat on him! And though I think it’s really important to do it like that (not the beating or the locking in cupboards – Ed), I wouldn’t change how I learnt, because I learnt a lot really quickly, under pressure and in at the deep end. And I learnt a lot that probably new apprentices don’t nowadays, like making needles and things like that, which they don’t really do anymore because you can get needles for dirt cheap. When I was starting out, actual pre-made needles were really expensive, so you made your own because they were cheaper to make. You used to come in early Monday morning and make all your needles for the rest of the week. And that’s an old skill that is going to disappear. I can tune machines pretty well now because when I used to have no one in, I would take my machines apart and put them back together just to see how they worked.”

Unable to sit back and relax once one studio was up and running successfully, Matt decided a new challenge was needed. A new apprentice or two? Not Matt, he was setting his sights on something bigger.

“It was just Neil and I on our own for a few years and I thought I needed a new challenge, something new to do really. A shop became available in Hyde Park; it was quite a busy shop in a student area and I thought it would be a good opportunity to expand a little bit. We set it up and initially Neil was going to work there on his own. At the time, Rich used to come in and get tattooed quite a lot while he was working at another studio in Bradford that wasn’t really going anywhere fast. He was pestering us for ages about an apprenticeship; he was a real nice guy and I knew we would all get on well together. He was also real modest and a hard worker, he just needed a bit of honing really and I knew it wouldn’t take long to iron out once we started working together. So we trained him up here at Morley while Neil was over at Hyde Park.

“All this time, I had my eye on Mitch. Craig knew the tattooist that Mitch was apprenticing for, Lee Hart. Because he was working under Lee, we never really took it further. Then it turned out he finishing university and moving up to Manchester to be with his girlfriend and he was looking for a studio up north, so I messaged him asking him if he fancied coming down and working for us. And that was about June 2011. My long term plans, when I have some money behind me, would be to buy one big shop and have us all working out of it.”

Two studios on the go, five artists turning out outstanding work and suddenly ten years have flown by. Times change and so do the people working in tattooing, and more importantly, customers have changed their views on tattooing.

“Only when the TV shows started did people become really aware that you could get what you want. Obviously there were magazines, but they were only really for the hard-core tattoo type people. The general public, they thought what you did was go to the studio, go through the books and pick a piece you liked. They weren’t really educated in custom and it was hard to change them. But now it is definitely a lot easier to talk them into getting a custom piece. And it still confuses people sometimes when they come in and there are no flash racks. We tell them, ‘look, everything is drawn up; you come in with an idea and we will draw something up and then you’ve got a unique piece designed for you’. Don’t get me wrong, we still do walk-ins if we have the time. If someone wants a smallish piece we can draw it up there and then. But most of our work is appointment.

“Also, we all specialise in different areas, we each have our own styles. Though saying that, we do cover all styles individually because to be honest it would get quite boring doing the same thing over and over every day. We can cater for everyone and if say, one of the guys doesn’t think he can do a piece justice, we’ll pass him over. And I think it has helped me being a flash artist because you become a bit of an all-rounder.

With doing different flash, you are doing different styles all the time. And you learn different techniques from different styles and you can put all of those in your custom work. Blend them all together and find something new.

“I started by doing flash, that’s how I learnt really. But from the start, I knew that I didn’t want to be copying other people’s work. I was enjoying it at the time and I was thinking, ‘yeah this is great’, but I quickly got to the point where I wanted to do my own stuff. I wanted to design stuff myself. Then when I had made that decision, it was hard to make the transition from going from flash to custom work, because I had done it for so long and all my customers that came through here were used to picking stuff out of a book. It was a bit alien to them to work on a piece together.

“Also, if you are working on a design there in front of the customer, they feel that they are a part of it, and helping to design a piece with you. It adds so much more to the experience. Customer service is key and that is one thing when I set this shop up that helped. When I first opened, I was quite young and I had just got into tattooing, I didn’t have much coverage myself and a lot of people felt quite intimidated going into tattoo studios back then. But the shop was clean and I don’t think I looked that intimidating; I used to get a lot of women coming in because of this back in the early days. We were just trying to change the stereotype of tattoo shops really. It’s funny cause sometimes people would walk in and go, ‘are you the tattooist? You don’t look old enough to be a tattooist!’”

And Matt still doesn’t look old enough to be a tattooist, but he has the years and the loyal customer support behind him to prove it. And more than anything, he has the belief that dedication, passion and determination will see you through. As they say, the good will out. And with young tattooists like Matt and the rest of the lads at Inspirations championing the tattoo world, the future looks very bright. The future looks inspired.

Neil Dranfield

I started tattooing full time about two and a half years ago after being in the industry five years. I had a pretty traditional apprenticeship that I was really not enjoying at all so I left there thinking tattooing maybe wasn’t for me. My girlfriend kept pushing me to pursue what I had already started until I found Matt at Inspirations. He helped me loads and finally took me on as his apprentice where I worked with him up until we opened the Hyde Park shop in February of last year. I thank him and my partner for where I am now, without them I wouldn’t be tattooing.

I now work full time from our Hyde Park shop in Leeds. I spend pretty much every day either drawing, or tattooing something pretty cool, which I feel very lucky and privileged to be doing. I sort of tattoo how I draw, so I can only hope people like what they see in my artwork. I take inspiration from lots of things I like such as antique/old looking things, comics and video games (I’m just a geek at heart!) I’m starting to take an interest in religious art and religious history so that’s influencing my work a bit at the moment too.

Big thanks to god, my parents, girlfriend, everyone at Inspirations, Tiny Miss Becca at Jayne Doe (thanks so much for the guest spots), Scott and Tom at Odd Fellows (Leeds) - oh and my amazing bulldog Evie with her saggy face.

Mitch Allenden

I’m the newest arrival at Inspirations. I started around three months ago and this was my first step into full time tattooing. Before working at this studio, I was an apprentice and worked part time within Lee Hart’s studio, Ink Perfection in Gainsborough. I worked there whilst doing a degree in illustration at Lincoln University, which I hated. I don’t have a lot to say so I thought I’d include a list of things I like. I enjoy long walks in the park, dressing like a unicorn and scaring foxes. I like wizards, badgers, sharks, wood grain, black metal, 80’s music, old shoes, new shoes, boxes, pencils, beards and whisky. Thanks to everyone who has let me tattoo them, except the people who couldn’t sit still.

Rich Wells

I started tattooing at Inspirations just under two years ago. I worked at a smaller studio beforehand for a short while, but I’d say my professional career started when I arrived at Inspirations. Tattooing is something I became interested in when I was a teenager, it went hand in hand with the music and art I was into at the time and it’s sort of consumed my life ever since. It’s great working alongside such talented artists at Inspirations; they are a great set of guys, down to earth and none of that pretentious shit. I think it brings you on so much more as a tattooist when you can work off of others around you and bounce ideas off one another. My preferred style is traditional, I love the simplicity and boldness to it and the history it holds with it. But working in a street shop I deal with a lot of walk-ins too so I try not to pigeon hole myself too much. I’m still new to the game but I’m grateful for everything that tattooing has given me so far. Special thanks to my mates who are sporting my not so cracking first attempts. I’ll share the millions I make from tattooing with them, just waiting for Jeremy Kyle to run its course then were gonna hit the big screen.

Craig Wilson

After leaving school I never really knew what I wanted to do, apart from being a Ghostbuster but apparently that isn’t a real career choice! I started my tattoo apprenticeship with Matt when I was eighteen. I walked into the shop to get a tattoo off him and had my ‘tramp stamp’. Whilst he had me bent over a chair for two hours we suddenly became very close and I told him I’d just finished my course at Leeds College in Art & Design. After a lot of chatting and moaning (from the pain of the tattoo of course) he asked me if I would be interested in working Saturdays in the shop, and of course, I snapped his hand off – not literally. As you can see from my work I’m heavily into new school but from working alongside such great artists I get a lot of advice and influence from so many different styles, which I try and adapt into my own work. I’d like to say thank you to all the other tattoo artists that have given me advice and tips and have taken time out to put up with my annoying questions.

If you have managed to get to the bottom of this without falling asleep thank you for reading.

Inspirations Tattoo Studio

First Floor Offices
Ackroyd Street
LS27 8PZ
0113 2525111


Inspirations Tattoo Studio

7a The Corner
Hyde Park
0113 2741166


Text: Trent Aitken-Smith; Photography: Karl Wilson