The Great & Secret Show - Rakhee Shah

Published: 15 October, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 217, October, 2012

It seems that everywhere you go right now, you’ll find a portrait tattoo of some description. The one that you’re still thinking of, long after the initial thrill has come and gone, will have come from the hands of Rakhee Shah. We caught up in the middle of the night and got to talking about art and what it takes to get on the map these days.

Let’s face some reality here. Portraits are either good or bad. That’s the end of the story. Unless you come out of the box and make it surreal, a portrait either looks like the person it’s meant to be, or it doesn’t. We see a lot of portraits here, and I would estimate that maybe 80 percent are OK; nothing to write home about, but nothing to be ashamed of either. 15 percent are taking a liberty by calling themselves a portrait. And of those that are left? Well, you’ll definitely find Rakhee Shah among them.

And if portraits were my sort of thing, Xotica would be the very door I was knocking on. When it comes to faces, they’re the one subject you really do want to research before you get started.

I decide that we should meet up at St Pancras train station. There are worse places you can choose, that’s for sure. It’s convenient, has good acoustics, and the coffee helps me focus; I figure at this time of night we could both use the jolt. We begin, inevitably, talking about the last time we saw each other at the Great British Tattoo Show…

“Pretty much every convention I’ve done in the last couple of years, I’ve done something for free – not everything obviously – because I’m more interested in getting myself out there and having people appreciate the work for the right reasons, than having to necessarily make a bit of money. It goes in circles. The quality of your work will always carry you further than having to make that extra buck, but for the first five or six years of your career, you will need to make that money. If you’re smart though, you can balance it out and get the best of both worlds.”

My reasoning behind putting that first is mostly to illustrate what kind of a person and artist we’re dealing with here. The art is everything. I’ve known Rakhee for a good couple of years now – an adventurous person might even say that we’re friends – but when she’s tattooing, she will ignore the hell out of me, not out of rudeness, but because I’ll still be around long after the client is gone. We both understand this. The client is everything, they are paying for your time and deserve to be treated as such.

“I think what separates a lot of tattoo artists is whether they want to get better. You have to constantly stoke the fire that you had at the beginning, the fire that makes you want to get better. Once you’ve got that fire under control, those moments come along more often as you get further into your career. And those are the moments that you actually do your job for. There’s a huge satisfaction that comes from having made your designs, your tattoo, the absolute best that you can.

“It’s just as important to say no to some things, though this can only really come later. When you’re starting out, you pretty much say yes to everything simply to get the quantity of work under your belt that you need, and then you have to accumulate the money you need to have the luxury of saying no to some people. And it is a luxury – not having to do something that you don’t want to do. It’s also a great responsibility to the art, to know that with some things, there are better people than you able to do them.

“You have to know yourself. But when you run your own business, there are always things to pay, and that little demon is always there making you question why you’re turning work away. But, and this is important, if you say yes to everything, you’ll spend your whole career doing what other people want and never get the chance to grow as an artist. Slowly, over the last couple of years, I’ve been able to do that more and more, and you know what? It’s been liberating. Saying no has enabled me to spend time getting better at what I do, and I think… I hope, it shows.”

Recent times have caused a lot of people to stand up and declare that many new tattooists on the scene want to be, or think of themselves as, rock stars – that there is a lifestyle to be had from being a world class artist. And there is. But that lifestyle is probably not what they think; it involves waiting for a plane, waiting for a cab, waiting for a client to show up, waiting to go back to your hotel room and pack – all that is left in between times is what you actually have to offer, which is your art, be that on skin or canvas. If you think somebody like Paul Booth has it easy, well those scenarios I gave right there are pretty much a typical day-to-day existence. It’s hard work. And Rakhee understands this more than most.

“I know what you mean – it’s the drive that keeps you going to achieve. One you think you’ve gotten to where you’re going, what happens then? For me, the simple basic pleasure of the art itself is enough of a satisfaction to carry on. I don’t think anybody can ever say they can’t get better, because everybody has their own little niches of interest to expand upon. I always think I can do better, no matter how hard I’ve worked on a piece. But one of the greatest pleasures in this world is when a client comes back years later and they’ve looked after the work and are still pleased with it. That’s the best feeling. On the other side of the coin, you can also have those moments when you think you really excelled yourself only to find that it’s not been looked after – those times can be a little disheartening, but I guess it comes with the territory.”

Rakhee, much like David Corden (who she has recently spent many hours with on the receiving end of the needle), is one of the artists out there who knows she is talented, but feels no need to broadcast the fact or even talk about it… ever. There’s far too much work to do to be spending your time waxing lyrical about this sort of thing. Fact of the matter is, the only thing worth talking about is just how much better you can get.

“I come to the shows because I feel like it’s a chance for me to show my work without getting out of my comfort zone – I can hide behind my machine if I want to, which is great, and to be honest, as soon as you’re in an environment where you’ve got amazing people around you, suddenly you step up your game. Quite automatically… as if it’s an instinct. For it to have that affect on me is amazing. I don’t know that it’s happening at the time, but afterwards, you can definitely tell. I think that everybody in the early stage of their career should do conventions. It’s the best way not only to improve yourself, to meet people, and maybe even make just one useful connection, but the opportunity to be around the people that make your career what it is, is priceless. I’d do them more often if I could.

“When I first started it was as though everybody else knew what they were doing and looked so confident – I felt like I was a fish out of water. But once you speak to a few people, you find that everybody else is in the same boat. And that’s a nice feeling, to know you’re not alone, because most of the time we work in total isolation. Without fail, every single show I have worked, I have gone away with future bookings. More so than ever, people are willing to travel now to get what they really want.

“Which reminds me – talking of conventions – at Tattoo Jam last year, I thought I would go and say hello to Nikko (Hurtado), but I lost it a little bit and fluffed my words. I had to walk away! It’s weird when you get those opportunities to say hello to people whose work you really respect.”

This opens up an avenue of discussion that’s an interesting one to drive down. At last year’s Tattoo Jam, Rakhee and myself stood together watching Nikko and Jeff Gogue painting. It was quite something to see the wheels turning inside heads for that one special moment.

“You know, what I appreciate about the way tattooing is moving on now, is that more and more of the artist side of people is coming through, as opposed to the ‘let’s do a stencil and stick it on’ aspect, which is oversimplifying it, but you know what I’m talking about. That is so exciting, and if people like Jeff and Nikko – who are amazing artists first and tattoo artists second – can keep carrying that torch… well, art has so much scope within itself that if it keeps pushing forward, that art can then be transformed into amazing tattoos. That’s what’s important for people to realise right now. Every industry has to evolve, and for it to evolve in this direction is what excites me and makes me want to keep pushing myself this hard.

“There will always be, in any business or industry, those who want things to stay the same and not move on, but you have to understand that you’re not infallible. Everything comes and goes, and you have to remember that at any one time, there are bigger elements out there than you. To dig your feet in the ground and refuse to move… well, things will change regardless of what you do, so nothing will ever get better for you if you decide to live like that.”

Coming back to the art, what are the future plans for one in such high demand art the moment?

“I’d like to say that I have a plan, but I don’t think I have enough organisational skills to truthfully say that! I know that I definitely need to focus on the types of tattoos that I’m doing – that’s my main goal at the moment; to weed out the things I don’t want to do and focus on the stuff that I do. The thing about tattooing is, regardless of where you are, you have to graft all the time. It’s like groundhog day. You have to put the hours in – over and over. At the end of the day, it’s easy to say that you’ve planned the next year out, but art doesn’t work like that. It will take you away on tangents you didn’t bank on.

“I think if you over-plan stuff, you can feel disappointed in yourself if you don’t achieve those things. I know myself and I know I would beat myself up over it if I didn’t do the things I said I would. So, not too much planning for me at all, just vague, loose ‘to-do’ lists. But so long as my work is getting better and I can reclaim some time for myself to paint or draw, then I get my kicks out of that. That’s good enough for me.”

I never fail to be surprised doing this job and no matter how much you think you know somebody – other things are inevitably happening behind the scenes that make you re-evaluate. In my head, Rakhee is a portrait artist who works in black and grey. Whenever I’ve watched her work, this is what she’s been doing. Cue raised eyebrows…

“Recently, I’ve taken on one of those tangents I was just talking about. I am loving doing colour work at the moment. Actually enjoying it, and in certain respects, I am happier with the results I’m getting with colour than I am by solely doing black and grey portraits. Especially when I’m doing my nature work, the colour has to be in there and I’m really enjoying it and starting to lean towards that heavily at the moment. This is going to be the next big step for me. I’m comfortable with black and grey – stepping up to work equally as confidently with colour is definitely the next thing on the, er… plan that I don’t have!

“But, I get immense amounts of pleasure doing faces. I love faces; animal, bird, or human, but it has to come from a love. You can’t suddenly decide to do faces after eight years and expect to be good at it. They’re not easy things to get right. You have to understand how anatomy works and how a living creature is ‘built from the ground up’. You simply have to love it.”

And that’s a good place to wrap it up. There is more – there’s always more, but for now, all you need to know is that Rakhee will only ever have your best interest at heart – simply because she could never let herself do anything else.


XOTICA Tattooing and Piercing

737 High Road
North Finchley
N12 0BP
0208 445 0022


Text: Sion Smith: Photography: Xotica