Through the Looking Glass - Red Hot & Blue Tattoo

Published: 15 November, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 205, November, 2011

Nestled on a quaint Edinburgh street, with its light blue façade, windows displaying flash-inspired posters and a carnival cutout of a foxy pin-up out front, Red Hot + Blue Tattoo may just be the most inviting shop you’ll ever set foot in.

Falling down the rabbit hole on a recent trip to Scotland, I was greeted by shop owner, Paul Slifer, fellow tattoo artists, Ian McAlister and Jason Corbett, and front man, Big Stu.
It might be something in the water, but the energy and approach to art and life found inside Red Hot + Blue Tattoo is infectious. Forget Wonderland, this is the happiest place on earth.

Or perhaps it all stems from a deeply rooted passion for tattooing, bred at a young age, which all the artists share.

“I bought an issue of Ed Hardy’s Tattootime at a record and comic shop in Boston I used to go to all the time,” recalls Slifer. “This was 1984 and in Massachusetts where tattooing was illegal, so you didn’t see too many tattoos then, but that book blew my tiny mind.”

Constantly trying to weasel his way around age laws, Slifer failed – his first professional tattoo came courtesy of Newport, Rhode Island’s Ramblin’ Ray at the age of 18 – but his personal venture into tattooing could not be slowed by any means.

“I started dabbling with sewing needles, drafting compasses, basically anything sharp, and a bottle of Indian ink and away I went,” says Slifer. “I put some small tattoos on myself and friends from school. I was 15 years old, just a nipper.”

Working in a number of American shops from ’94 to ’97, Slifer then decided to venture overseas. “I chose Scotland because I had friends here already and had heard great things about Edinburgh,” he says.

Following stints in Pete’s Tattoo Studio and Ace Tattoo Studio, and ten years of “time served”, Slifer opened up his own shop in 2005. Enter Red Hot + Blue Tattoo.
With artists who are humbly talented and genuinely surprised at the positive feedback and success they’ve achieved, it’s the kind of place you want to sit down and get your body covered from head to toe.

Paul Slifer

Leaving Boston to study at the Rhode Island School of Design, Slifer occasionally tattooed from his apartment, but it wasn’t until graduation left him without a foolproof career plan that he considered tattooing as a profession.

“It’s tough to make a steady income with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, so it seemed logical to give tattooing full-time a shot,” says Slifer. “I also had my family’s full support about the decision to tattoo right from the start. All my first tattoos were done at our family home and my mother took me along to get some of my first tattoos!”

With an uncanny eye for design and master use of color, Slifer says keeping things simple is high up on his list. “I’m pretty set in my ways… I use one machine for both lining and shading and only use two needle set-ups,” explains Slifer. “I also use about ten colors and get some other shades from those ten by mixing them together. I tend to usually freehand my designs and am grateful to have a trusting clientele who’s up for that.”

Paul Slifer on why ‘Red Hot + Blue…’

I’m very much into music and it’s an old term musicians used to use to describe their sets. A red-hot set of fast, rockin’ numbers and a blue set for the slow, sad ones. Johnny Cash’s first album was called Johnny Cash and His Hot and Blue Guitar.

Ian McAlister

Finding himself jobless following the close of Urban BMS on Christmas Eve 2005, McAlister’s joining Red Hot + Blue Tattoo is slightly tinted with some holiday magic.

“I put a note through the door on Christmas Day on the way to Christmas dinner at my folks’. Low and behold, Paul was either desperate enough or dumb enough to offer me a spot,” jokes McAlister.  

Perpetually drawn to tattoos “because they look cool as fuck”, McAlister got his start thanks to a very trusting and very eager circle of friends.  

“It wasn’t like today where you can choose to go to a tattoo shop for work experience,” he says. “I was just really curious as to how it would feel to put on a tattoo and my mates encouraged me, drooling with the prospect of free tattoos. Unfortunately for them, they were free and very bad, sorry guys!”

With the help of Martin Lennox of Think Ink, McAlister found himself with tattoo gear in hand, ready to learn. “I took two weeks off work and took my new tattoo gear, without a clue how to use it, up to a caravan in the middle of nowhere to learn how to tattoo. I tattooed myself for nine or so hours and it was not fun.”

Getting in touch with Dave Crossley led to a job “working the front desk and doing all the other stuff they don’t show on the telly – toilets, scrubs, phone and kicking idiots out – with the understanding that it was not an apprenticeship, but anything I could pick up watching or learn by asking would make me a lot less crap. And if I got ‘less crap enough’, I might get to tattoo in the shop.”

Today, McAlister is often classified as an Art Brut artist, but the man himself admits, “I love the Art Brut style, but I wasn’t actually aware of this movement when I started to explore what is now my so-called style.”

A fan of da Vinci, the Italian polymath’s sketches became a source of inspiration for McAlister. “The energy within these rough drafts I find incredible. I also love the fact that the construction lines that are visible almost give you an insight into the artist’s thoughts at the moment he created these pieces – almost like layering moments in the time span of a piece of art on top of each other and then fusing them together.”

First experimenting on canvas, then moving on to tattooing, mastering the style took discipline. “To make something look like a crazy sketch and still be readable as a tattoo takes a huge amount of structure and planning,” says McAlister. “I think more so than when I’m doing a traditional piece. It’s a fine line between organized chaos and just a plain shit muddy mess.”

But no matter how far McAlister’s talent has brought him, he is quick to fondly point out that it wouldn’t have been possible without his family. “I’m a huge mummy’s boy and my mum has always been there to support me through life and my tattoo career is no different. She even got me to practice tattooing her when I was still an apprentice and her faith in me has always blown me away.”

The Guys on Alternate Careers...

Slifer: I’d probably want to be a lobsterman, but I’d probably still do the odd tattoo from a car battery set-up in a yurt!  

Corbett: Either a product and furniture designer or a chef. I am a keen cook and am at my happiest creating delicious food and forcing it on my friends.

McAlister: I studied architecture and qualified from Strathclyde University in ’94, but while at university and after I worked as a postman for ten years… I think if I didn’t do tattooing as a job I’d still be drilling mates at night.

Jason Corbett

Like Slifer, Corbett got the tattoo itch early on, not having to look much farther than his father.  

“My dad had a crappy tattoo and I thought it was great, but he was always used as ‘the example’ by my mum. ‘Don’t get a tattoo as you’ll regret it like your father’, she used to say. It didn’t work. Sorry mum.”

While getting a sleeve done by Alex Binnie, Corbett made the decision to pursue tattooing and received guidance from Lesta of Temple Tatu (now Nine), Adam ‘Starfish’ Dutton of Tradition 180, Morag Sangster of Tribe and Gary Wiedenhoff of Inkredible Kreations, who were all life-changing pieces in Corbett’s tattoo puzzle.

With an ability to create incredible pieces across a gamut of styles, Corbett’s artistic growth seems continuous.

“We all have and do impart artistic and technical discoveries and obsessions to one another at the studio, which creates a fertile ground,” says Corbett.

Defining the shop, he laughs, “a 15-storey multi-headed gargantuan spitting fire at the gods while listening to Jamaican ska!”

Asked if there are tattoo requests that simply make him think ‘Shit, really?’ Corbett admits there are indeed. “I am astounded by people having the desire to have the same tattoo as everyone else or someone else. Beckham’s angel, Katie fucking Price’s bows, stars on the wrist – you get the picture…”

Jason Corbett on the greatest advice...

“Don’t go to university, stay and tattoo with me”, from Adam Dutton, which I promptly ignored and regretted.

Coming to the end of my visit, there was one final question on my mind: If you were to be tattooed right now with a design representing yourself, what would you get?  

McAlister’s choice turns out to be a blindfolded skull with the words ‘Hemorrhaging Emotion’ while Corbett opts for “a monkey in hat and specs with a banner saying ‘Fuelled by tea and hate’.”  

Slifer’s vision also features a monkey, but this time “with a beard, wearing a fez, with three flags behind him, one with a peace symbol, the other an anarchy symbol and the last an equality symbol. Then it might have an inspirational quote from Thomas Jefferson, David Hume, Robert Burns or Jiddu Krishnamurti to round it off.”

With dapper monkey tattoos on my mind, I regrettably had to return to the world on the other side of the door. But not without McAlister’s fitting analogy of the shop’s dynamic: “Just like any dysfunctional family, Paul, Jason, Stu and myself have stuck together despite our better judgment.”

Red Hot & Blue Tattoo Studio

1A Brougham Place

T: 0131 477 7753


Text & Photography: Barbara Pavone