Electric Warrior - Sway

Published: 26 February, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 222, March, 2013

Leeds’ Sacred Electric has become something of a haven for traditional tattooing up North. Located right in the heart of the city, and just a stone’s throw away from the city’s commuter-heavy train station, the studio has become known for consistently putting out clean, iconic work, which until recently was entirely down to its owner, Sway.

Despite being a relative newborn, having first opened its doors back in December 2011, the studio has gone from strength to strength, and in recent months has turned from Sway’s personal studio, to a home for two more artists, Sam Layzell and Shaun Bailey, who recently made the move from Cock A Snook, in Sway’s hometown, Newcastle upon Tyne.

It was in the home of Brown Ale and stotties that Sway’s fascination with tattoos and tattooing began at a young age. “I started getting tattooed when I was 15, like a fool, and it wasn’t the brightest thing I ever did because it’s all covered up now. I just knew I wanted tattoos, I always used to draw them for friends and just constantly doodle.”

Like so many other aspiring tattooists, Sway spent years trying, and failing to get an apprenticeship, thanks in part to the small number of studios in the area at the time. Fortunately a chance encounter with a local studio owner provided the push that he needed to get in to the industry. “I was in Northside [Tattooz, Whitley Bay] getting tattooed off Jo [Hall, another former Northside resident] and Chris Wright, the owner of Viking Tattoo Studio in Jarrow was getting tattooed by Low and he mentioned that he needed an apprentice and he pointed him in my direction! It was one of those things that I’d tried and tried for ages, it was just always something that I wanted to do.”

After starting work at Viking Tattoo, Sway quickly learnt the nature of working day-to-day as a tattooist, with his apprenticeship taking a traditional, hard-line approach. “The first year of my apprenticeship I only did black, I wasn’t allowed to do colour, it was all tribal, stars, names, even on friends. I learnt from a real old school guy; it was a proper old school apprenticeship. The first six months was just spent taking a machine apart, putting it back together, making needles for the whole shop, and tracing every piece of flash in the whole shop – I earned my way with that dude.”

It wasn’t long before Sway moved on to another studio, taking on a seat at Northside Tattooz, where the studio’s owner, Low, provided him with some essential guidance. “Low had apprentices before and he had people that worked with him that could help you, but Chris at Viking had never had one before and he seemed a bit unsure. At Northside I had people looking over my shoulder, saying ‘Do this’ or ‘Try that’. That doesn’t really seem to happen too much anymore, I’ve got friends who are apprentices and they’re just left; they should have someone standing over their shoulder letting them know what they’re doing right or wrong, if you don’t know then you’re gonna end up screwing people up.”

The tendency for some apprenticeships to lean towards apathy is also something that can be seen in the attitudes of some customers, who, like Sway in his formative years, might not know what tattoos they want, just that they want them, and at the lowest cost possible.

“We’ve got a sign on the reception desk that says ‘Good work ain’t cheap and cheap work ain’t good’, and I’ve offended so many people by accident explaining this to them. If you got someone to come to your house to put a kitchen in, if someone said ‘Oh, I can do it for £50 mate’ then it’s going to be crap. That tattoo’s going to be on you for the rest of your life, so it might cost however much at the time but when you spread it out over the length of your life, you paid nothing for something that looks good.

“I did it because I was a kid, I was stupid. I think the 18 age limit’s a great thing, not just because of legal reasons, but because you don’t know what you want when you’re a kid. Everything I got when I was younger’s gone, it’s all been covered or blacked out, because you just don’t know what you want.”

During his development as an artist, Sway has been drawn towards iconic and traditional images, from both the west and the east.

“My main love’s Japanese, it’s just so bold, especially with all the black. When I do it, it looks like it’s finished if it’s all in black; if it happens to have colour in it at the end then that goes over the top of the black, it just stands out from a mile away. The thing with the Japanese is all of the stories, there’s piles and piles of it; it’s not just koi and dragons, it’s all of the ghost stories and the deities. When I was in Newcastle, pretty much all I did was Japanese, I only did traditional when I was at conventions, then when I was working with Diego [at MVL] it was that he did the Japanese, so I did all of the traditional.”

Although this love for Japanese work is apparent in his work, his traditional, western work also has a style all of its own, something that has developed out of both individuality and a strong aversion to repetition. “I’ve never done a rose the same twice, I’ll draw one and then think ‘I don’t like that anymore’ and do another one, it’s not the same thing over and over again. I don’t want anyone to ever look at anything and think ‘Oh he’s just traced that and put it on him’.”

The growth and increasing market for the tattoo industry has resulted in the internet becoming something of a goldmine, for fans and collectors, but also for those looking to cash in or claim expertise – something that Sway feels very strongly about.

“The internet infuriates me! I remember finding a blog once, run by this kid from Ireland, and he was saying ‘get tattooed by this person’, ‘they’re bad’, ‘they’re good’, just pointing fingers. And he was like 15, he didn’t draw, didn’t have tattoos, and he has something ridiculous like 20,000 followers who believed everything he said. There’s loads of information out there, but it’s largely just people’s opinions.

I don’t think it should come down to pushing people’s opinions; if it’s got clean lines and solid colour it’s a good tattoo, so long as it’s not copying someone. I think it was Steve Byrne that said that the best thing he’d ever had was working in a street shop because you’re forced to do straight lines, if you can do a star straight and you can do solid tribal black, you can do anything.”

Still, having opinions on what does or doesn’t make a ‘good’ piece of art is what drives many artists to create something new, to develop their skills and find what, for them, defines an ideal in their art form.

“It’s got to stand out from a distance. I did a backpiece on a kid and it was just one huge hanya. If you can see it from 100 metres away, while he’s stood on the beach with his top off, then I think it’s a good tattoo. It’s a matter of making it fit the body as well, with that hanya, because his shoulders were really wide and he had a narrow waist, I had to taper the whole thing to fit that. Japanese stuff, because you’ve got that grey background, it really makes that main coloured piece stand out from a mile away, just black and grey looks good, it’s just never something that I’ve been drawn to.

Joao Bosco, at The Family Business, his stuff’s amazing, there’s so much black and a tiny bit of grey and it just stands out a mile away. You need that strong contrast from dark black to light grey, otherwise it’s just going to disappear, you want it to stay looking right as soon as possible.”

This love for Japanese work, and for visual impact, has led Sway’s artwork in an interesting direction, with one of his favourite subjects being Shunga, a form of Japanese erotic art which found the height of it’s popularity in the Edo period.

“I want to get to a point where I only tattoo genitals on people. I hate it when people just say ‘Do what you like’. If people tell me to do what I want at conventions I’ll just start doing Shunga on them, if they ask what Shunga is I’ll just be like, ‘Yeah, it’s this traditional Japanese art!’. I could do that forever, it’s that schoolboy humour of drawing genitals on things, that just doesn’t stop being funny to me… I’ve got the mind of a child.

“Really though, I could do Japanese forever, the only thing is I can’t do the same thing all the time. I get so impatient with it, I’m my own worst enemy really. I hate most things I do, if I do something then I’ll take a picture of it and post it on the internet real quick; if I go home and look at it I’ll think ‘I should’ve done that like that, that’d be better this way’. If my customer’s happy with a piece then I’m happy, I can’t look back, because if I do I’ll just hate myself even more.”

This self-critical avoidance of revisiting past work is something of a driving factor for Sway, giving him a reason to move forwards, while also ensuring that those viewing his work, whether online or in printed portfolios, are seeing his work as it is in the here and now, rather than just displaying a place that his creativity once called a home.

“I try to keep everything updated, I’m terrible with portfolios, I can’t go through and pick and take things out to put other things in; I’ve got to wait until I’ve got enough just to fill one. I’m the same with the website, I’ll take everything off and then just put on a tonne of stuff that I’ve just done. It’s the same with applying for conventions when people want me to sell myself to them, I’m just terrible at blowing my own trumpet. As a tattooist there’s always something new to do, if I just stuck with doing the same process, I’d never get anywhere.”

It was at this stage that my conversation with Sway had to draw to a close, with the customers sitting anxiously in the waiting area becoming a more pressing priority, giving Sway the chance to put down more of his work on living canvasses, and the chance to stop living in the past by reliving his experiences.

Sacred Electric

2-3 Mill Hill
0113 242 5553


Text: Rob Barker; Photography: Sway