The Brand New Duke of York - Joe "JJ" Jackson

Published: 25 June, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 213, June, 2012

The city of York loves a good invasion. It’s used to it: over the centuries, the northern stronghold has been ripped apart by Romans, vandalised by Vikings, and smashed to bits by Scots. Nowadays the main threat comes from marauding hen parties, but there’s been another occupying force gathering in number in the shape of tattoo studios.

For a small(-ish) city, York has at least seven studios within arrow-range of the city walls. The latest number to join the ranks – Joe ‘JJ’ Jackson’s Awake Arise – is a little different though. It’s well out of the centre for one, and for another, you’d glance at it without realising it’s a studio; maybe an indie record store, perhaps? It’s a loud name with a low profile, and that’s how JJ likes it.

“It took me weeks to grit my teeth and get the tattoo sign put up,” he says, explaining why he chose this location instead of a more central spot. “I didn’t want it to be one of those price checking places, where people come in and ask ‘how much will you do this for, because this other place will do it for this much?’; I never wanted that.” JJ’s philosophy is that walk-in trade can become distracting and might lead artists to follow the money rather than their art. “I think you do get greedy when loads of people are coming in. I just want to do artwork that I think will look good on people.”

Ancient History

Awake Arise is definitely no flash-bashing conveyor belt.

Light and airy, the indie record store vibe continues when you walk into what feels like the middle of a White Stripes showhome – a white/ black/ red colour scheme, oversized frames on grainy prints, splendidly kooky comic book paraphernalia, and enough lollies to see anyone through an entire backpiece.

It’s a relaxed, upmarket place, and if the décor is accidental (“I’ve always liked black and red as a colour scheme, I don’t know why”), the atmosphere isn’t. “I wanted it to be an open plan studio because I like that feel, all those old school studios have that feel and that’s really cool.” A partition shields the chairs from prying eyes on the street, but otherwise it’s a roomy set-up without the spooky claustrophobia that can go hand-in-hand with being invited to step into the boxy tattooing space of some shops. And the sofa is comfy, too.

So how did we get here? JJ picked up a tattoo machine seven years ago and was initially self-taught, but his progress was erratic and also interrupted by more formal education. “I went to Northumbria University – I got good art grades at school and I wasn’t sure that tattooing was really for me,” he explains, “so I thought, ‘why not go?’”

One degree later, and with a little help from Newcastle’s legendarily cosy music circuit, he found himself a studio chair. He’d done a little tattooing during his studies and also got to know Kerry-Anne, now heading up Tyneside stalwart, Cock-a-Snook – “we’re into the same music and art, and we’d see each other at punk shows” – who set him up at her former shop. “I worked there for two years getting my basics right, going back and starting again pretty much,” he recalls of the busy street shop that turned over a lot of small walk-in pieces.

His art progressed and ultimately led him to a spot at John Anderton’s Nemesis studio after a chat with the artist at a convention. Three days into working there he got a call from his mum telling him a shop was up for rent in York – his home city. “I said I couldn’t do it, I’d just started with John!”

His mentor saw things differently, though. “John was great. He said ‘I’d rather you pursue what you actually want to do rather than sit here living in regret.’” And the rest, as they say…

Going Pro

The studio is very much the product of JJ pursuing what he wanted to do, which seems to be a running theme of his career so far. “When I was in the [Tyneside] studio, I was still very self-taught – the art I was aiming for wasn’t the same as the art of some of the other guys there,” he recalls. “I felt I wanted to go further than just making money and tattooing small trinket tattoos on people that they’d come back and get covered up a week later.”

Instead, tattooing was an extension of everything he’d been working on at art college and university; another medium to play with and develop. “I was into ideas and learning concepts. I wanted to get better at my art and make a style for myself, a visual tag that people would recognise as mine.

“I think college helped my tattooing. There was lots of experimenting and creating stuff that pleased you. I specialised in typography and did a lot of letterpress stuff, which basically no one does now.”

Letterpress – the original form of printing, involving pressing inked metal or wooden blocks into paper – is surely not a million miles away from the philosophy of tattooing I suggest. It’s a very physical kind of art, involving impact on the canvas, whether that’s paper or skin. JJ agrees that it’s all about making an impression, in every sense. “We had a section in typography where you had to create a letter form that said something without actually saying it, and with tattooing you need to make that kind of impression too; you don’t have to understand it, you just need to look at it and appreciate what it is. And if more people start thinking like that, then more tattoos can be art for art’s sake.”

Works in Progress

We’re sat in the reception area of the studio (complete with a row of Skin Deep issues, which he assures, isn’t for sucking up purposes), presided over by right-hand-man, Jack, who handles all appointments and keeps the studio in order. He serves a further function, though – reminding the boss where his art began, and how it has developed.

“A lot of my early stuff is on Jack,” says JJ as Jack looks on cheerily. “When I see early bits I did on him I cringe, but I know now that I  can sort it out to a decent level; but it’s easier tattooing a friend than anyone else. If I’d started in  a studio, I doubt I’d still be tattooing now!”

The wealth of information available on the internet now is a blessing and a curse, he suggests, thinking about his early days. It’s good for learning about health and safety when tattooing, but can give people false confidence. “I’d hate to promote tattooing at home, but with so much information out there, it must be hard for people not to think ‘oh, I can do this’. But the main issue is that you’ve got to be artistically capable; if you can’t do it on paper, you can’t do it on skin. You need to start with the art before you even start tattooing.”

So does it help or hinder his confidence to have a walking portfolio of his tattooing career sat at the front desk? Both laugh. “The newer more accomplished pieces are further towards the extremities and more visible,” says JJ. “The old stuff wasn’t put in that well, so it’s easy to cover up! You’re getting ripped today, aren’t you?” he shoots at Jack. “I am, I am,” comes the philosophical reply.

Awaking the Art

At present JJ is the main artist in residence at Awake Arise (with occasional realism and horror duties performed by Gareth ‘Big G’ Unwin when he’s not at Talisman Tattoo – another York newbie); what kind of work can people expect?

“I’m heavily influenced by American new school. Originally it was all dice, flaming 8-balls and graffiti-ish New York stuff,” he says, “but now I look at a lot of Crayola’s work and try and grab pieces from other places too. I’m doing lots of animals doing stupid stuff, but I’ve also been doing a bit of organic, biomech stuff. It’s a graphic, bold, colourful style.”

That would certainly suit the bold graphical décor of the studio, but colour can mean many things according to JJ. “I think when people say they want colourful pieces, they actually mean a nice contrast between the colours. You look at Tanane Whitfield’s work and he actually uses a lot of muted earth tones, but it looks immensely colourful because of the way he’s used them.”

You won’t get chased out for requesting black and grey, of course, but whatever you’re after don’t always expect to see colour references, as JJ doesn’t use them. “I do a prelim sketch, single line with a few accents, then colour while I’m doing it. I think you get a better feel for the colour that way, I treat it like an oil painting and go with it.” Isn’t that a bit hair raising? “It sounds bad, but if it works, it works, and if not, you can adjust it. But touch wood it’s working well so far!” You only need to look at the pics to agree with that one.

Top of the Hill

Looking around the studio, it seems that everything is working well so far, not just the tattooing. Tattooing friends is certainly a bonus, says JJ, and there are perks to all clients. “I do like my space, but without going all Miami Ink I also like tattooing people and hearing their ideas and different stories. And it’s good to work with different people with different concepts of tattooing to get new results.”

Even the homework’s good, he adds. “When I’m painting outside of work I know I’m still helping my job. Maybe that’s kind of sad, but it’s good to know my art is progressing. I’ve got a memory like a sponge for art, I’ll forget to put the washing on but I’ll remember tiny elements from computer games or whatever. I do a lot of drawing without reference.”

All in all, this is one York invader who’s here to stay. “It’s a great job to have, I have very little stress. You can’t complain coming in at 11 in the morning, tattooing for the
day and going home to draw! It’s a blessing.”

Waking up

Three steps to getting your tattoo from Awake Arise:

1. Get in touch. “The best thing is to come down for a consultation although most of the time we can sort stuff over the internet,” says JJ. “Jack’s great for that.” (“Woo!” says Jack.)

2. Talk it over. “The majority of people call or email. I won’t turn something down if I don’t like it although I might suggest different things.”

3. Decide on an idea. “People give me ideas and I suggest stuff. It’s rare I get people who are definite with what they want but if they like my style as well as old school, I’ll do a more traditional style rather than big fat outlines. I do get a lot of that because traditional is popular at the moment!”

That First Tattoo

“The first ever piece I did was on myself, and to be honest, looking at it now it’s not actually that bad; it’s a dagger I took out of a magazine. My first tattoo on a person… I went to a fashion show and one of my friends came up and said ‘I hear you’ve got a tattoo machine, do you want to tattoo me?’

“So we went and did this tattoo of two symmetrical armbands and I put on the stencil with greaseproof paper and a biro or something stupid like that. On the third wipe, the stencil came off completely so I got a big black marker and just drew around his arm; and the worst part was he was allergic to something in the cling film that we wrapped it in, so he had a bad reaction to that. But I’ve seen it recently and it’s fine. It’s not the best tattoo but it’s not the worst…

“Actually, it probably is the worst!”

Awake Arise
269 Melrosegate
YO10 3SN

01904 431911


Text: Russ Thorne; Photography: JJ


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