Meet the Artist - Tattoo artist Jack Watts
TATTOOS FOR YOUR ENEMIES
Sang Bleu Tattoo London/Los Angeles
How did you get into tattooing?
JW: I used to see this guy as kid where I grew up, just outside North London, who was in the Guinness Book of Records for being most pierced senior man. He had a lot of facial tattooing and all over his hands, and wore really crazy clothes – I loved it! My friends were scared of him but I found him really interesting. So that sparked my interest and I got my first tattoo when I was 18.
About a year later I got another and became friends with the studio owner. His wife managed it and one day she had to go and help the kids or something. So he asked me to run the desk, and it went really well. It was fun. Everything went from there really – starting for a couple of days a week and working more and more for about two-and a half years.
I was studying photography at the time and getting tattooed a lot more, falling in love with it, and drawing a lot. He helped me refine my drawings, but it was never really with the idea of me tattooing them. I just enjoyed doing it.
Then one day he suggested “shall we tattoo one of your drawings on your leg?” I said “yeah ok, cool” so we picked one and after we were like “that looks so good”. That’s when he started teaching me to tattoo – as I continued grafting at the shop, cleaning, running errands, looking after the front desk, talking to people, all the apprentice stuff.
Eventually – and I think partly because he wanted me to earn the chance – we came to realise it would be cool for me to tattoo. At that time, seven years ago, black stuff wasn’t really popular. Unlike now, not many people were doing it, so there were no points of reference, and it was quite difficult really.
You have quite a distinctive style, and designed for entertainment industry merchandising like BandMerch. How did that happen?
JW: Once I started getting a bit of a following on social media, people in bands were following me for tattoos, and then wanted that sort of image, or look, as part of their thing.
I didn’t do any design work, other than drawing for myself and making the Tattoos For Your Enemies zines. That’s where my trade name came from. I refined my style to what it is today but the name stuck.
That was the only way I drew, and it developed into tattooing from there. The band stuff and collaborations came after that.
Is it different drawing for collaborations than tattoos?
JW: Kind of. You can get away with a little bit more on a t-shirt or whatever; you can be a bit looser, closer. You draw a tattoo a bit differently, for sure. There are certain rules over what you can do with a drawing – not every drawing should be a tattoo. Actually it took me a while to figure that out.
What are your tattoo inspirations?
JW: Quite a lot, really. I look at a lot of antiques, like postcards, even old money boxes. But antique postcards are just so beautiful. They’re perfect because if you need the shape of, say a tiger, if you find an antique postcard with a really good shape on there, it’s something to work from.
A lot is drawn from my head, a lot an idea “oh, that could look cool”, and then I draw it. It’s quite wide, really. And then a lot is old tattoo flash, like really old designs that are then redrawn. That’s what a lot of tattooing is – old flash redrawn by somebody else! Someone sees it 30, 40, 50 years later and draws it their own way.
That’s how these designs progress, how you see a lot of the same imagery in tattooing. Why you see so many panthers, but different panthers. You see so many different types of the same thing, just slightly different. So, it’s a combination of that, antique reference, from my head – and then old tattoo flash.
Do you ever get bored of tattooing the same stuff a lot?
JW: Not really. I’m quite lucky, doing a mix of flash and custom stuff, so that keeps it quite interesting. Too much custom stuff would drive me mad, because it’s so much drawing, and you’re trying to constantly meet expectations of somebody’s idea. But then too much flash without custom stuff would probably be a bit boring. So it’s nice, I’ve got a really good balance.
Talk us through how the custom process works.
JW: Usually, people send me a rough idea and sometimes I have to advise them why that won’t really work – say, trying to pack too many elements into one design. A really busy design doesn’t look good, it’s too muddled. It has to be fairly simple to work.
I don’t do much face-to-face consultation, unless it’s for big, big, big tattoos. I can mostly figure it out via email. If they say I want a shark, I draw a shark, and it’s usually alright because they know roughly what it’s going to look like.
Via email, I’ll get them to send me some reference of things they’ve seen or things they like as a starting point.
On the day they see it I always leave time for customising, because they might prefer certain changes. Sometimes it’s tricky, sometimes their expectation is totally different, and not quite what they were imagining, so I redraw it.
The custom process can be quite complicated because you’re trying to create their idea – whereas for flash they’re picking something that already exists. So it’s harder, but I enjoy it. I like the challenge.
Do you ever say no to requests?
JW: Sometimes people don’t really know what they want. I’ve drawn something for people and they’re like, “Oh, that’s not really what I want”, and I’ve redrawn it a couple of times and it still hasn’t worked. So I send them away to think about it a little more or find some references as to what they’re talking about.
Then we go through it again and usually in the end it works out. Very rarely have I had to turn anyone down. Usually we come to some sort of agreement or arrangement that’s going to play out.
What interested you about collaborating with Flat Pluto, and working in cashmere?
JW: Apart from hand-painted jackets and trousers for friends, I’ve only ever done t-shirts for bands and stuff like that, so this high-end garment project is attractive for me. The juxtaposition of folky-imagery on a high-end piece is really interesting. And to see it differently, stitched rather than screen-printed, brings a totally different look.
I really like those Vietnam bomber jackets, embroidered with really cool imagery. A lot look slightly off because they’ve done it themselves. But they’re super cool and I’ve always liked the idea of doing those. Having it high-end stitched is similar, so that was definitely attractive.
Tell us a little about moving to Los Angeles, and working for Sang Bleu there.
JW: Maxime, who owns Sang Bleu Tattoo London where I’ve been working for a while, as well as Zurich, did a popup in L.A. a few years ago. I was just starting here, so never had the chance to do it. But it went really well, and he always wanted a shop there, so it was the natural next step for him to open a shop there.
Thankfully, Maxime invited me and a couple of others to go and work there. I love London, but also really want to live somewhere else and California appeals to me. It also so happened that when I met my fiancée she was also going to America, so it married up really nicely.
Your fiancée Rosie’s a tattoo artist as well?
JW: Yeah, she’s really good, from Yorkshire. She’s already working in L.A. so all of those things aligned nicely as to where I want to be. I’ll still come back to London. I’ve built my career in London, so it would be silly to disappear and never come back.
You do a lot of guest spots, what do you like about those?
JW: I like working with my friends, and only guest where I know people or friends from tattooing. Some people won’t come to London to get tattooed. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I totally get that. It’s expensive to travel here, it’s expensive to be here, it’s expensive to get tattooed here, everything.
But if I’m in their city for a couple of days, it’s on their doorstep. I did a trip with Rosie around the U.K. recently and it was really fun, guesting with a load of our friends. Driving around the country was like a road trip – and getting to tattoo along the way was great, I really enjoyed it.
I knew I was leaving so it was nice to do guest spots in all these places before I went to America and tried to make it.
Do you have a lot of clients in common with other artists?
JW: Sometimes. For example, people that other artists have tattooed, like Duncan X and Sean from Texas. There are crossovers because I do somewhere between traditional and contemporary, if you want to call it that. I sit somewhere in the middle, what I like to describe as folky traditional. So people covered in traditional or more minimal stuff come to me.
Thank you, Jack. We love your work!