(Dot) Matrix Revolutions - Tamara Lee at Black Garden Tattoo

Published: 07 December, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 219, December, 2012

I first heard about Tamara Lee when I interviewed Grace Neutral earlier on this year. Since hearing about her I’ve followed her intricate black and grey dot-work tattoos for a while…

A few weeks back, I was really impressed to hear she’d booked in a tattoo with the great Thomas Hooper for January of next year when she’ll be travelling over to New York to have her neck “brutalised” by him. “I’d been speaking to him via email for like a year. We decided to have a consultation at the London show, and I spent about two days walking past his booth waiting for him to be free so we could have my consultation. Eventually we did. So my Mum and I are off to New York soon. I can’t wait.

“I work in London at Black Garden Tattoo. It’s an awesome shop; we’re like a family. Most of us have known each other for years. I’ve been working with three of the guys there for nearly six years now; I’ve been tattooing there for two-and-a-half – I used to be their receptionist at Self Sacrifice. They’ve pretty much taught me everything I know. I never had an official apprenticeship. Cesar one day said ‘If you want to learn to tattoo, you’re going to tattoo now’. I nearly had a heart attack! The first thing I ever did was some solid black on one of my friend’s arms and it was one of the scariest things ever. I think that was probably the best way to start; just put me right in there. I’d already worked in that environment for a while, so that helped.

“I do a completely different style to everyone I work with. When they look at my drawings they’re like, ‘I don’t understand! These are crazy!’ There’s a real mix. I do the dot-work. Rodrigo does all the Japanese. Tutti does traditional, but he’s starting to do a bit more Japanese now after a recent trip to Japan. And Cesar and Crispy both do neo-traditional. Alejo, who is new, does traditional, but he puts this crazy ’80s twist on everything he does. It’s crazy; I love it!

“Covent Garden is a cool part of London to be in too. I’m originally from West Wycombe, which is right next to High Wycombe. I basically grew up on the edge of a village in Buckinghamshire. I moved to London when I was 16 to go to college where I studied art and design. I ended up leaving at 17; I never finished. I started working in the tattoo shop when I was 18. At that point I only had one tattoo; a star on my neck which has already been covered up twice! I started working there by accident really, starting off flyering for them, then I became a receptionist there.

“I’d never seen dot-work. Then we had a friend of a guest artist, a Japanese guy called Kenji Alucky, who came into the shop and tattooed Cesar’s hand. I absolutely loved it, and from then on, it was all I drew. I wouldn’t want to do any other style. It’s definitely my thing. I would like to get into some really heavy black-work, but not that many people ask for it. I mean, it’s quite a popular thing these days, but I guess Black Garden doesn’t attract that kind
of clientele.

“I went to a very general arts college. So I did sculpturing, painting, life drawing, Cubism lessons, jewellery making. But it wasn’t for me. I was never much of a stay-in-education kind of girl. If I hadn’t dropped out, I’d never have got the job in the tattoo shop though, so I don’t regret dropping out one single bit.
“The majority of my own tattoos have been done by people that I work with or guest artists. The only tattoo I’ve been having done recently that wasn’t done by someone I know is my back piece. That’s being done by Gerhard Weisbeck. Then I got my knees done by Xed. He did some matching geometric patterns on both knees. I’ve had my palms done recently… that’s the most painful part of the body. I was swearing out loud after one minute; it literally felt like it
was killing me.

“I’m not particularly keen on hand-poking. It just doesn’t come naturally to me. Tattooing to me is now definitely my career; I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. London is a cool and busy place to work in, the only problem is that there are a lot of shops.

“I move around a bit. I tattooed in Germany this year (I guested at Black Tide with Gordon Claus), and I tattoo in my friend’s shop in Kent (Wild Cherry) from time to time. It’s weird working in different countries, because the customers are so different. They usually ask for different things; when I was in Germany lots of people wanted Borneo roses – one of the weeks I was there I did three Borneo roses, and in London I’ve never been asked to do one. It’s also good because I’m at that stage when I’m just taking appointments in London; I don’t really do (and have never really done) walk-ins.

“Being the only person that does dot-work in the shop has its advantages and disadvantages, one of its advantages being that I’m the go-to person for dot-work. But I also don’t have anyone that I can throw ideas around with. They try and help, but unfortunately they don’t understand the whole geometry thing. They think I’m mental just trying to do it in the first place! But I love getting graph paper, a compass, a ruler, and just experimenting to see where it takes me. I’m obsessed with patterns!

“I’m beginning to get a lot of bigger pieces. I started my first back piece about a month ago. I have another one to do in a month, but generally people want smaller dot-work pieces. It’s starting to change though, which is good. As far as sacred geometry, for me it’s not so much a spiritual thing, it is more of an aesthetic attraction. The guys at work are always calling me a bit of a hippy, but I don’t think I am.”

I was curious to know how one goes about designing a large tattoo. “Usually I would take a picture of the person’s back, and trace their outlines, so you have their actual shape, and then draw to that. At that point I will have gone through with the customer what they’re looking for, whether they want patterns or solid black, until we’re both absolutely sure what they’re going to have done. I pretty much stick with black and grey. The only time I get nervous tattooing is the occasional time when someone asks me if they can have colour. Colour makes me nervous!

“Most of the people that inspire me are tattooists. I don’t have much time to go to art galleries, as much as I’d love to. Xed is one of the most inspirational people around; I love Gerhard’s work (the guy who did my back); Nazarino from Argentina is another great artist; of course, Thomas Hooper is a great inspiration too, that goes without saying; and everyone I work with, they’ve given me great support.

“I remember when I was a kid going with my mum to a tattoo shop. She has tribal on her arm, and I’ve tattooed her myself. That was scary! I like tattooing my family, but I hate it at the same time. It’s the most nerve-wracking thing ever. I’m lucky because I come from a quite liberal family. We’re all generally tattooed, except once you get to my grand-parents. But even so, I was still nervous to show them when I got my very first tattoo.

“I’d really like to thank all the guys I work with. They’re my inspiration. Without them, I’d be nowhere.”

Black Garden Tattoo

183 Drury lane
Wc2b 5qf
02074 300144


Text: Tom Abbott; Photography: Tamara