LBB catches up with the tattoo artist behind Brothers and Sisters' Inky Project
The inky world of tattoos has collided with advertising life in a prickly project from London agency Brothers And Sisters. The agency’s ‘20% scheme’ allows lucky ‘siblings’ to pursue personal projects, and designer Helen Robertson undertook a rather unusual mission; she wanted to commission a tattoo inspired by Battersea Power Station. Tattoo artists were invited to submit designs for the tattoo, and the chosen design was by The Family Business’s Steve Vinall.
To celebrate the successful inking of a beautiful tat – and to mark Brothers and Sisters imminent move to a new home in London’s Clerkenwell – Steve was invited to the agency to show off is art. Live. Shortly before he got stuck into inking a rather lovely seahorse design onto his girlfriend’s leg, LBB got the chance to speak to Vinall about Battersea, the creativity of tattoos and how the scene is changing.
LBB> Why did you decide to get involved with the Battersea Tattoo Project? Are you a South Londoner yourself?
SV> Helen contacted me and said that she liked what I did and told me what she was up to and asked me to get involved. I’m not from South London, I’m not even from London. But it’s such an iconic building. I’m familiar with the imagery, it’s really strong. Obviously it’s in the Pink Floyd video and things like that, so when Helen asked me to do it, I was really excited, I thought it would be really cool.
LBB> The seahorse that you’re about to tattoo is very organic, whereas Battersea Power Station is very linear and structured. Do you have a preference when it comes to what sort of design you like to ink?
SV> That’s what I like about the design that got picked in the end. It’s very structured but had that nice contrast. The roses are really soft and really round. I like very strong contrast in my work.
LBB> When you are designing a tattoo, wher do you get your inspiration from?
Inspiration can be a really broad thing. It can be other tattooers, listening to music – even TV and movies. I come across thousands of inspirations daily, so it’s really difficult for me to say. A lot of the stuff that I end up being asked to do, girls faces with roses on the side are pretty popular at the moment, so I try to lend my own style to it and find new ways to do it. It’s a challenge in itself.
I like to collect antiques and a lot of my stuff has a Victoriana feel to it – but that’s become a massive trend right now. I’m not saying I invented that trend of course, but I was just inspired by the objects around me. I do like moments in history though, it’s really cool to grab hold of them and mark them in time. They’re already recorded in history books or whatever, but it’s really nice to use something current, like a tattoo, to look back to the past.
LBB> Do you consider what you do an art?
SV> I honestly do, as pretentious as it sounds, I do consider myself an artist. I don’t want to do ‘a picture’. There’s a lot of symbolism in what I do. If someone comes to me with a concept, rather than a bunch of images I can then talk to them about how to interpret the concept, that is an artform in itself.
LBB> But your canvas is essentially a human being – do you find that this responsibility restricts your creativity?
SV> Some people will come to me because they like my style and say ‘do whatever you want’, which is a ridiculous idea, because anything that I think is cool now, I’m going to look at next week and think ‘what, really?’. If I want to do an image that I’ve had kicking about in my head that I’ve drawn I might show it to them and see if we can do something based on that. Even then I’ll always try and get an idea of from them, even if it’s just a single word that I can work around, just to give it some kind of base, otherwise it’s just whatever…
LBB> So would you rather have someone come to you with a really detailed brief or would you rather it was one word or two words?
SV> If something’s too detailed I find it restrictive. People will be really specific about what they want, and sometimes what they want might not be possible. If someone comes in with a wad of paper for a consultation I’m instantly terrified. Maybe it’s me being close-minded and this stuff is fantastic, but usually it isn’t. If they’ve spent so long thinking about it, it’s going to be really hard for me to burst their bubble by throwing away 70 per cent of what they want because it just won’t work. At the same time if someone comes with two words, then that can be just as hard. If they say ‘I want an eagle on my chest’ you want to know if that’s a traditional eagle, a realistic eagle, a stylised eagle… A good idea of what you want but an open mind is ideal.
LBB> Why do you think people get tattoos?
SV> I think there are a thousand different reasons. A lot of it is to do with finding a personality. If you’re not happy with yourself, you try to invent yourself. It’s a bit like a first year going to college. You make up stories and try to make out that you’re a lot cooler than you actually. I think people are trying to find a different way of showing themselves and who they want to be. Flat out, tattoos make you look cool. They really do. Obviously I had a head start because I’m very handsome [laughs]. To want to be a cool-looking person you might want a tattoo because you think people will respect, or even fear you a little bit, depending on what you get or where it’s positioned. It’s about presenting an image definitely.
LBB> It seems like it’s become so much more ‘the norm’ these days…
SV> It’s a lot more socially acceptable, thanks to TV and things on the internet. When I started into tattoos there wasn’t much internet coverage at all and magazines were really hard to come by, to get any idea of a tattoo. The first three I got were little tribal-y images because I thought that was just what you got because that was in the window. I had no idea about custom tattooing, about concepts and ideas. I just thought you either get a tribal one, a Celtic one or a traditional one. That was pretty much your limit.
When I first went into tattoo shops I was terrified because the people working there were scary and now shops like ours have a very strong sense of customer service. Customer service - in a tattoo shop? Can you imagine that fifteen years ago? Customer service back then would be ‘fuck off, weirdo’. If you stood your ground, they would respect you for it but people would try and be confrontational because that’s what they were like. It’s not a caricature; it’s genuinely what it was like. Now shops are run like proper businesses.
LBB> A lot of the popularity seems to have come from shows like the Miami Ink or London Ink. What are your thoughts on them?
SV> I was actually on London Ink [laughs]. Some people come into a shop and expect so much, based on what they’ve seen on the TV show, the editing. They come in and expect a back piece to be done in three hours or a sleeve in two. Are you fucking mental? It’s a half hour TV show, there’s going to be editing involved. They wouldn’t just show someone tattoo some outlines and then say ‘bye mate, see you in a month’. That would be a terrible show.
People expect to be able tell you about their dead dog, or how they’ve got over something and while it’s nice that people want to share, I don’t necessarily need to know. I’m not being negative but it’s a bit much for me. If you’re doing a big piece for someone you get to know them. A lot of my friends are former customers or other tattooers just because I’m a bit of a nerd and that’s the way it is.
At the same time people who wouldn’t normally get tattoos are getting tattoos, and that’s great. They’re getting these pieces and it’s becoming part of their lifestyle and it’s almost ritual in as much as you’ve got three or four sessions and keep coming back and it’s your thing. Saving the money, putting it aside, it all becomes a ritual. And you can whine and bitch about the TV shows as much as you like, but if you complain about it you’re just biting the hand that feeds you. These people are coming in because it’s accessible now.
LBB> Do you have any favourite tattoos?
SV> It’s tough to say. I’ve got some that I like least. It’s not just because of how they were done but because of who they were done by. I really like the more visible ones because I feel like I’m really enveloped in what I do. I’m part of this tattoo thing, I’m stuck in it – I couldn’t even get a job at Burger King if I wanted to. In the outside world I couldn’t get a proper job, so I’m very happy with my improper job.