A Tale of Tattoos & Friendship - The Rain City Collective, Manchester

Published: 07 November, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 218, November, 2012

Once upon a time, not so long ago, in a dark and damp city where not much seems to grow, five friends got together, to drink beer and dream of a world where things were different, where they would work together, eat together and defeat dragons together, or at least draw dragons together…

Somehow, on that cold winter’s night, an idea was laid. Then when summer came, the egg hatched and out into the thin northern sunshine came a new baby. Rain City Tattoo Collective was born into the arms of four expectant dads, and one tiny auntie. This is their story.

Matt Cooley, Gre Hale, and Daniel Morris are convinced that Rain City came about due to a drunken night out. But there’s a lot more to it than that though. All three, along with their fourth partner, Danny Rossiter, wanted to give Manchester something that it strangely lacked – a big, creative, custom shop with multiple artists and regular guests, influenced by the UK studios where they received their own tattoos, studios such as Into You (London) and Magnum Opus (Brighton).

Where Rain City differs from other big tattoo shops is in its structure; instead of having a traditional boss and worker hierarchy, the studio they envisaged on that drunken night out functioned as a collective, with everything from costs to decisions equally divided in order to allow each tattooer more time and freedom to really concentrate on their art. Gre says, “here, because the costs are split four ways, we don’t have to go tattoo-tattoo-tattoo, walk in-walk in-walk in, we can do one or two tattoos a day, take our time and really do our best.” Danny talks about the benefits of working collectively similarly: “We’re artists. No artist wants to have a boss and be told what to do, it goes against everything we stand for. The studio I used to work for was run by people that don’t even tattoo, so for them, it wasn’t about about art, it was just about money. It’s different for us.”

For the good folk at Rain City, it’s all about the tattoos, and the love and respect they have for this most immediate of art forms is obvious. As Danny observes, “being a tattooist is pretty cool. Yes, some shit comes with it, but all the good bits override the bad bits. It’s rewarding in itself, and even after ten years of tattooing, I still find it exciting to do.”

And Gre is just as enthusiastic, “there is no other job around that’s got this sort of history. I mean, plumbers don’t go ‘Remember that sink that was fitted by that top plumber back in the day?’ I think tattooing is special because it’s a people thing, it’s not high brow like fine art, which also has a tradition and a history, it’s art, but it’s little people thing and I think that’s why I like it.” Daniel Morris takes it even further, “I live and breathe tattooing. I can’t think of any other job I could do that would make me feel like that; some days it doesn’t feel like work at all.”

“We get to hang out with really cool people all day,” offers Gre. “Rain City is like a big social club; we all go round and look at each other’s work and talk to all the customers, it’s great.” Matt Cooley loves the community feeling too, “I’ve got so many friends all over the world that I just never would have met if I’d been working in an office. People like Hexa, soon to guest at Rain City, and Harry Morgan. There’s a real sense of all being in it together. It probably seems quite cliquey from the outside, but it’s not really.” “I’ve also met a lot of people who are just really, really nice,” says Gre. “There are lot of people tattooing at the moment who are around the same age as us, doing a similar style of tattoos, and I find them really inspiring.” Cooley ends this train of thought, “I feel so stoked that my customers like what I do enough to enable me to make a living from it.” And that’s the overriding feeling you get hanging out at Rain City, everyone is stoked to be there, making art and talking tattoos, day in, day out.

Things aren’t always completely rosy though, bad days and mistakes are part of the creative life too. Cooley says, “the mistakes I’ve made are in relation to myself in retrospect; I opened a shop too early; I took on an apprentice too early, two in fact – Shaun Bailey (now of Cockasnook) and Jemma Jones, luckily they’ve both done amazingly well. I jumped into the deep end and realised quite quickly I couldn’t swim… yet.”

Gre’s thoughts are optimistic, “everyone is learning all the time. Some days you go home and think ‘Well that could definitely have gone better’, but as long as you take that new knowledge to your next tattoo, you’ll keep improving.” Daniel Morris is also upbeat, in his characteristically measured way, “making mistakes doesn’t traumatise me the way it did in the early days; I used to lose sleep analysing what I’d done that day. Now I see those tattoos and I’m surprised at how much better they are than what I’d believed back then. They don’t look too bad.”

Jemma Jones is Matt’s apprentice – she doesn’t quite consider herself a fully fledged tattooer just yet, even though her easily identifiable art says otherwise – she worries “I don’t really know what I’m doing, so maybe everything is a big mistake. I’ve gone home and cried before… maybe I’m a wuss. I love making my customers happy though.”

Danny Rossiter worked hard to support himself while apprenticing too, although he doesn’t think his story is an unusual one: “My beginning is boring. I was working in a fruit and veg shop in New Zealand, and it was great, I loved working there. Then the guy who was tattooing me asked if I wanted to learn myself, and yeah, damn right I did! I worked there everyday for a couple of years, not getting paid and having to keep up another job too. Then he got himself a drug habit so I went to work in a canoe factory for six months. After that I moved to the UK and started tattooing full-time straight away.”

Daniel Morris tells a similar story: “I didn’t look for an apprenticeship, I sort of fell into it. I was at art school doing a photography degree, I was coming to the end of it and didn’t know what the hell I was going to do with my life. Luckily, Simon Sloan, who was tattooing my sleeves offered me an apprenticeship.”

Jemma Jones also went to art school, studying almost every discipline, textiles, photography, graphic design, and fine art (along with Rachel McCarthy of Modern Body Art), before finally hunting for an apprenticeship after graduation. After a couple of false starts Matt took her on and she says things have been “really good” ever since; “I feel really lucky that I’m getting to learn. It’s all great, apart from the carpal tunnel thing I have. I’m hoping that it’s just that I have weak little hands and I can get stronger in time. Maybe I’ll have to cut off my hand and have a machine implanted at the end of my arm.” Gre started out in advertising as a creative, and it was Danny that suggested he get an apprenticeship based on his skill for illustration, which he did, at 72 Tattoo.

Matt is the only member of the collective that hasn’t had formal art training, and instead studied politics and philosophy, but “there aren’t many jobs advertised for philosophers, nor politicians. My friend offered me a job as a receptionist at his studio, and then, I don’t know how, but I gradually learned everything from the bottom up. It was an accidental apprenticeship!”

Talking about the early days reminds Daniel that he recently covered up one of his own early tattoos, “on my friend, Dave. He actually mentioned the original one in his speech at my wedding. It was awful, it should have been a checkered flag, but it looked more like the Windows 95 logo. It’s OK though, it’s got a big black skull over it now.”

Matt adds to Dan’s thought, “normally when you make tattoos, your art walks away from you, so it’s different when it’s a partner or a good friend. I did one of my first ever tattoos on one of my best friends, Bundie – we’re still friends now and, luckily, it’s not even his worst tattoo. I’ve tattooed quite a few of my close friends and some of them still look OK, some are terrible, but it’s all part of the learning curve. When I tattooed my wife, Hanna’s (studio manager at Blue Blood) right sleeve three or four years ago, it was quite early in our relationship. I didn’t know I was going to marry her, I was just concentrating on where my next meal was coming from, not thinking ahead. Now I don’t really like looking at my old work everyday so when she asked me to do her left sleeve, I suggested she ask Jemma instead. I think Hanna’s been tattooed by everyone at Rain City anyway.

Rain City Collective has a definite family feel, I wonder how their actual families feel about their tattoo familia? I know about Dan’s family of course, he's my husband, so I ask Cooley first. He smiles, “my son, Callum, is nearly six now and loves tattoos. He always says he wants to work with me at the studio when he’s older. Once, he saw Bailey drawing some flash and helped him out by drawing a few extra designs for him to tattoo; Callum’s work is flaming skull heavy and a little abstract! In the future I’ll support him in whatever he wants to do, the same way my parents supported me. I want him to pick his own path.”

Dan also wants to raise his children to be individuals, “I’ll be happy for my daughter and stepson to get tattooed, if that’s what they want to do. I’ll be pretty annoyed if they go to someone rubbish though. Ivy’s so little she probably thinks everyone is covered in pictures, most of the adults she knows are. Nate is 12 and talks about his future Marvel-related tattoos every time a new film comes out. Being a parent, makes me work harder, I already have a pretty dedicated work ethic, but having to keep someone in nappies is an extra motivator.”

We talk about the silly questions that the tattooed face from non-tattooed folk, especially the classic ‘But what are you going to do when you’re old?’

Again, Danny is his usual straight-talking self, “I don’t care what people think about me now while I’m young, I’m really not going go care when I’m old. Will people really go ‘look at that man over there, he’s old and he’s got tattoos’? I don’t give a f*!k. We’ll all be old and tattooed together…”

As usual it’s Gre that diffuses the Danny bomb, “I want to look like Gandalf…” while Dan is thoughtful, “when I’m old, I’d like to go back to art school and just draw for three years with a new appreciation for it, an appreciation based on the whole lifetime of experience behind me.” Matt ends with a statement they can all get behind… “life is pretty flimsy. I think if we even make it to old age we’re doing well. You don’t want to look back with regret. Live it!” Bright things are happening in Rain City, there will be rainbows.

Danny Rossiter

Danny Rossiter makes Japanese style tattoos that look so traditional, you’ll feel like you’ve seen them somewhere before. Thoroughly influenced by the classic imagery of Eastern painters, printmakers, and craftsman, Danny describes his work as “all copied” – a humble oversimplification of the respectful homage he pays to his predecessors whilst still managing to demonstrate a definitive stylistic flourish of his own.

A man born in Zimbabwe who apprenticed in New Zealand shouldn’t be able to make Japanese tattoos as good as this.

Years tattooing: 10

Tattooed by: Luca Ortis, Matt Black, Borneo Headhunters, Saz Saunders, Bara, Aaron Bell, Adam Craft and Paco Exel.

Inspired by: All at Rain City, and those that have tattooed Danny personally.

Contact: raincitymanchester@gmail.com

Matt Cooley

Matt Cooley’s tattoos are very traditional, simple and elegant, but served up with a sense of humour. A grouchy, sardonic wit that portrays Jesus as a tiny tattooed boxer, turns a love letter into an enthusiastic obscenity and swells the posterior of a Latino pin up to gargantuan proportions. Stripped back to big outlines, black shading and a muted, restrained, vintage colour palette, Matt is perhaps best described as ‘Five colours Cooley’, but he also enjoys bringing a western twist to Japanese style tattoos, geometric work, and has a growing interest in portraiture.

Years tattooing: 7

Inspired by: My peers and colleagues inspire me and show me new ways to tackle problems every day. I’m lucky to be able to count many great tattooers as friends, Harry Morgan and Tom Arnison, who I work beside at Blue Blood, Nick Mayes, Rachel and Nick Baldwin, the guys at Cockasnook, Jamie Greaves, Mitch and Rich in Leeds, Pedro Soos, Hexa, Simone Capex, Phil Kyle, Jonas Pederson. I also love the work of Matty D’Arienzo, Stevie Edge, Ben Rorke, Job De Quay and Josh Stephens.

Tattooed by: Danny Rossiter did one of my first, about 12 years ago. I might let him tattoo me again sometime, since he’s been practising. El Monga, Adrian Willard, Bob Corner, most of the friends mentioned earlier and probably a lot more that I can’t remember.

Contact: www.mattcooleytattoo.com

Gre Hale

Gre Hale makes traditional tattoos with a flat, bold, graphic style finish reminiscent of a tattoo from a 1940’s comic book. In fact, if Captain America wanted to have his vintage stars and stripes shield tattooed on his forearm, Gre would be the perfect choice to do it. Best of all, Steve Rogers’ iconic emblem would clearly benefit from the addition of at least two roses and a cyborg owl, potentially smoking a pipe, which is pretty much how Gre’s whacked-out western aesthetic works.

Years tattooing: 3

Inspired by: Graphic artists old and new.

Tattooed by: Chris Cleen, Jurgen Eckel, James Kiley, Luca Ortis, Oliver Peck, Jonas Pedersen, Rich Hadley.

Contact: raincitymanchester@gmail.com

Daniel Morris

Daniel Morris learnt to tattoo in an old school British street shop, tattooing whatever came in the door from kanji to Cherry Creek. He brought this open minded attitude to the big city, happily turning his hand to most traditional tattoo styles, from blackwork mandalas to Japanese peonies and Western hearts and swallows, visually dissecting each discipline to better understand what makes it work and using that knowledge to now create stripped back, black tattoos, devoid of colour yet full of texture, using different line weights and high contrasts. Dan's tattoos are the visual equivalent of making a 3 piece band sound like a 6 piece.

Years tattooing: 9

Inspired by: Traditional tattoos, artists that I've been tattooed by, my good friend Matthew Glover (Sineater Illustration) and all my other creative friends - they make me want to try harder.

Tattooed by: Thomas Hooper, Steve Byrne, Mo Coppoletta, Duncan X, Valerie Vargas, Jason Corbett, Rachel Baldwin, Jenny Shaw, everyone at Rain City and many more.

Contact: danmorristattoo@gmail.com

Jemma Jones

Years apprenticing: 1

Jemma Jones has eaten a large bunch of vintage illustration, partially digested it, and thrown it back up again, ready to stain the tattooed folk of Britain. She describes her work as “black” and “a bit stupid”. It’s certainly dark and rather odd; Jemma has created a whole world of strange she allows us to peep at through an imaginary keyhole – devils, insects, and naked Kewpie dolls drip with crocodile tears, or stick out lascivious tongues, somehow managing to be both silly and sinister at once. Jemma says she likes tattooing babies (designs, not infants).

Inspired by: A variety of ever-changing sources; music, art, literature (mainly poetry), and film. My friends and co-workers at Rain City are all hugely inspiring – I feel very lucky to be working alongside and learning from such talented people. Other tattooers I find inspiring are Robert Ryan, Tomas Garcia, Matty Crocker, Javier Rodriguez, Rich Hardy, Simon Erl, and Stuart Cripwell.

Tattooed by: Guy Le Tatooer, Mike Adams, Sway, Rachel Baldwin, Shaun Bailey, Kerry-Anne Richardson, Gre Hale, Philip Yarnell, Matthew Cooley, Simon Erl, Jonas Pedersen.

Contact: jemmajonestattoo@gmail.com

Rain City Tattoo Collective

Caxton Hall
88-92 Chapel Street
M3 5DW

0161 222 4043


Text: Paula Hardy-Kangelos; Photography: James Robinson


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