Birds On A Wire - Gilded Cage

Published: 14 August, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 215, August, 2012

Sometimes, the underground throws up a name that gets consistently bandied around as someone that’s seriously going places. It makes sense to make sure that these rumours are true, because nobody wants to go on record touting a flash in the pan. In the case of James Robinson, I should have trusted my instincts…

Then, a few months ago, James let the cat out of the bag. He was leaving Nine Tattoo and opening a place of his own where he and Hannah Keuls would work alongside each other creating something ‘really special’. Anyone who had seen his art before this point knew it was going to be exactly that, and he didn’t disappoint. In fact, once the new name was announced, The Gilded Cage, it was all over bar the shouting.

“Everything was amicable when I made the decision to leave Nine Tattoo to open my own studio. I had to jump through so many hoops and red tape once I began though; there were petitions against me to get planning permission to open the space as a studio… those months were definitely not easy, extremely stressful, butI would go through it all again because I got what I set out to achieve. I’d never opened a studio before so it was a big learning curve for me. However, I was really focused and we finally opened on June 2.

“There was a lot of preparation, I became one of ‘those people’ who make lists all the time in order to get things done, alongside still working full-time, then painting and decorating in any other free time. This usually meant me working through the night as well. I hadn’t booked any time off work as I was booked up in advance, so I couldn’t move months worth of clients. There were a lot of sleepless nights!

“Hannah came to the studio shortly after. We have been good friends for a long time and it’s great that I get to work with her. I have also just taken on Paco, a Spanish art graduate as an apprentice, who has great potential. Every day I smile and I’m so glad that I finally got the shop open and have a great team so work alongside.”

Which is a good time to introduce Hannah to the conversation – she has many words of wisdom that look like they’ll keep James’s feet on the ground: “I became bosom buddies with James after he'd been warned to ‘be nice to the lesbian’ knowing what the gays can be like!”

While everybody knows a studio can be thrown together out of MDF in less than a day if that’s a road you want to go down, it was obvious from the invitations to the opening night alone that this wasn’t go to be one those affairs. I wonder if the concept for The Gilded Cage came to James as a fully formed idea in a split second of inspiration. Apparently not…

“You know, I thought the concept would be the easiest thing, but it turns out it was the hardest. It was one of the last things I thought about, as I had three ideas. I set out for it to be a private studio so my ideas were firstly, to work under my own name, James Robinson Tattoos, but from asking lost of tattooists, I know many of them said it would put people off working for me, as they would want to promote themselves under a shop name and not an individual person.

“My second idea was the location name, and as I’m on Saint James street… Saint James Tattoos. But an acquaintance emailed me saying he had worked in retail for 30 years and said ‘you should never put a pun in the shop name as it cheapens it. Think Mary Queen of Shops, not Toys R us!’ It made me laugh so hard, but I did know what he meant. With those on the sidelines, I was on to the next idea – Gilded Cage Tattoo Studio. I’m well known for tattooing birds so it had a good link to what I do. I also wanted to create an exciting, inviting, homely, but classy studio with good customer care skills. I wanted it to feel like more of a boutique than a tattoo studio. It’s great that people come in to look around and appreciate the art and things for sale, regardless of whether they want a tattoo.

“It’s a very camp shop; over-the-top artwork in frames, a piano made into a desk, and glitter and Swarovski crystals everywhere! We also sell taxidermy by Eaton Nott who sell exclusively in the shop, alongside Sacred Stitches who make my designs into clothing and cushions.”

Just how camp is perhaps better expressed by Hannah though: “Gilded Cage would work as a tattoo studio anywhere, but it belongs in the heart of Kemp Town in Brighton; it suits all the nutters and gays that mince around town. We are definitely nuts and gay so you hit the nail on the head when you suggest we are products of our environment. Visitors are often accidentally greeted by a song and dance as we come into reception. At least once a day, James will announce, ‘oh my god Hannah, I’ve got it!’ and will be performing a new bum wiggle along to Cheryl Cole or whatever trash is being played.”

Importantly, Gilded Cage is not clinical like an ink show studio, and it's certainly not put together out of a box either – it has a style all of its own – it’s like they moved into a bizarre movie set left over from the ’50s and given it a lick of paint…

“It’s so funny you should say that, as I just had to move house into the flat above the shop, so most of everything I own is at the studio. The shop persona is me, so it’s great you thing its got good taste!

“The shop was previously a sweet shop and needed so much work. There were caved in ceilings, no electrics or plumbing; it all had to be done as well as the decorating. My partner and friends all got involved with fabric swatches and mood boards though, so it was a lot of fun!

“My Gran passed away last year and her belongings were to be sold. This really upset me so I took all the furniture for the shop, which is probably why it’s reminiscent of an old movie set. My granddad was a carpenter by trade. Everything in the shop was made by him; I think it’s great that I can keep it in the family.

I know they would love the shop if they could see it.

“I had a stuffed peacock flown over from America. His name is Gorgeous George and he proudly sits in the shop window looking out at people. I have many real human skulls, bones, grandmother clocks, old vintage china sets dotted around the place. There is also a lot of artwork done by myself, Hannah, and Paco, which relates to everything that goes on tattoo-wise in the studio; our art complements each other, so it’s great to have it all alongside each other in the shop.”

With Brighton being renowned as one of the major hotspots in the UK for tattooing, I wonder if that’s because… well let’s face it, many view it as some kind of San Francisco spin-off – it’s creative, it’s vibrant, tolerant of being ‘who you are’ more than any other town in the country. Would Gilded Cage even work as a concept in any other place?

“I never wanted to be a part of a clique in the tattoo scene. Instead I wanted to be part of a community in my own life and that’s what Brighton is to me. Everybody in Kemp Town says hello to each other in the morning and being in the heart of the gay village means the studio has a great atmosphere.

“There are a lot of new shops popping up in Brighton, but I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Competition is healthy and more people are doing their research when it comes to getting a tattoo, so are finding an artist with the specific style they want. People are also becoming more aware that you get what you pay for when it comes to tattooing.”

“We both started as artists, studying illustration at uni and then falling in love with tattooing, but it was always that way round,” Hannah rounds off. If you’re thinking this is a travesty for the art, you’re way off mark. It works that way round for Buena Vista out in Germany too. When you see the end results, there’s no arguing with the statement.

As the coffee flows, it becomes increasingly obvious that these guys actually operate as a team – as opposed to a bunch of people who just happen to work together. More than that, it looks like they’ve been here forever. Is that how it feels? That’s got to be a good thing for client’s right?

“Definitely! I went to uni with Anna from Sacred Stitches who prints T-shirts for the shop; taxidermist and fashion designer, Jess Eaton, is a great friend and we have known each other for many years; our shop manager, Fi, worked together in a bar many years ago; and Hannah I and I are very similar. We all love having a laugh but she works so hard it keeps me on my toes to keep doing new artwork and exhibition material. We all bounce off each other and we hang out in the shop as if it were our home, so yes, we are very much all a big family.

“I have a loyal client list, and it’s great that I can book up for a long time in advance to know I have secured work coming in – especially being self-employed.

The only downside is that I have to close my diary on occasions and only do larger pieces. Many of my clients travel specifically to me, which is so humbling. This month alone I had a guy from Jersey, Dubai, a couple from Ibiza, and even someone from Australia, which is great. I don’t like working off the cuff, I like to plan out and research a design, but saying that, I am doing Tattoo Jam which we are all looking forward to. I will be doing smaller pieces there and ones I can finish on the day, so come say hi!”

The same ethics come from Hannah too – they broke the mould when they had finished with these two, believe me. “My waiting list is reassuring, but not off-putting. As it grows I gradually define the genres of work I take on; I’d rather recommend walk-in work to the real walk-in tattooists, in fact any work that seems better suited to other people we always advise accordingly.

“Me and James constantly have a massive back log of ideas, drawings, projects and paintings we want to get on with, it’s just finding the time in a busy schedule! Hopefully the exhibitions we plan to do every three months or so and the conventions will keep us tied to the drawing board and sticking to the deadlines! I find putting down the ideas in my head on paper just as exciting as on skin and I think it's really important as a tattooist to actually have that burning desire to constantly create and have a continuous stream of interest in visual ideas and stimulus. We bounce off each other actually, it’s perfect; I’ll do a flash sheet, James will do a T-shirt, he’ll do a painting and I’ll be like, damn it! And do some biro sketches…”

With time running short on us, the one over-riding feeling I get from James and Hannah is that these guys cannot be contained here. There appears to be the kind of ethos the dictates that art must be out in the world living and breathing for itself, rather than gathering dust on the walls. Is that a fair assumption? One thing I would love to see in this country is a place like Scared Gallery out in NYC pop up. Could you ever see yourselves working on a much bigger canvas within the art?

“Yes! It’s a big thing we all believe in here. We are doing regular exhibitions in which we are involved with the Underground Open House Movement, also with the charity gallery show for World Aids Day. I am involved in a book collaboration with another tattoo artist’s book… I get great pleasure in creating art pieces so I want other people to enjoy them too. I hope people like what they see on paper as well as skin.”

“I get involved with friends and local exhibitions whenever the opportunity arises,” adds Hannah. “I think it's great to see other people’s work and for them to see what you’re interested in too. You can catch a glimpse of something really special in someone’s painting or drawing that you might miss in their tattooing, the prospect of discovering something new and different is exciting.”

Gorgeous George

He might be a peacock now, but George Wagner is best known to the rest of us as an American wrestler going by the name Gorgeous George (natch). In the United States, during the golden age of professional wrestling in the 1940s-1950s, Gorgeous George gained mainstream popularity and became one of the biggest stars of this period, getting media attention for his outrageous character, which was described as ‘flamboyant’ and ‘charismatic’.

Muhammad Ali and James Brown acknowledged that their own approach to flamboyant self-promotion was influenced by George. A 19-year-old Ali met a 46-year-old George at a Las Vegas radio station. During George’s radio interview, the wrestler's promo caught the attention of the future heavyweight champion. If George lost to Classy Freddie Blassie, George exclaimed, “I’ll crawl across the ring and cut my hair off! But that’s not gonna happen because I’m the greatest wrestler in the world!” Ali, who later echoed that very promo when taunting opponent Sonny Liston, recalled, “I saw 15,000 people comin’ to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. I said, ‘This is a gooood idea!’” In the locker room afterward, the seasoned wrestler gave the future legend some invaluable advice: “A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous.”

Bob Dylan said meeting George changed his life. In Dylan’s book The Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan recounts a story of meeting Gorgeous George in person, writing, ‘He winked and seemed to mouth the phrase, “You’re making it come alive”. I never forgot it. It was all the recognition and encouragement I would need for years.’

James on Influences

My influences come from everywhere when I am doing a new project; I usually source designs from my own photography. I just went to Bruges and Paris and spent day after day drawing and photographing statues and spending a great deal of time in cathedrals and galleries.

I enjoy working from reference so a lot of my designs are drawn from stills of my friends. I then design them into a theme such as zombies, mermaids and vampire girls. I love doing things from nature and if a client asks for a specific thing like a flower, I like to source it and draw from that.

Hannah on Influences

My Dad was my first inspiration. From a young age I was aware of his paintings and drawings, it was something I always did and was interested in growing up. He always let me watch scary films really young like The Exorcist and The Shining, so that’s always at the back of my mind. My work tends to be influenced by the weird, the funny, sexy or rank. Sinister stuff, dead stuff, porn, horror films. I get excited just talking about it, there’s so much I need to do!



Text: Sion Smith; Photography: Various