This post is long overdue… I have always been fascinated by tattoos and the industry that surrounds it. Tamar Thorn from The Body Architects Tattoo Studio is a dear friend and is one of my personal favourite tattoo artists. She is responsible for my modified Viveros piece on my upper arm and is one of the best portrait tattoo artists in South Africa. She took some time to chat to us about fashion, being a female tattoo artist and business woman as well as some of her favourite pieces!
Q: Before becoming a tattoo artist, you were an amazing fashion designer… What made you leave the fashion industry?
A: I think I got into the fashion industry for the wrong reasons and if I look back I was never very happy doing all that stuff. Of course there were inspiring aspects to it. I loved designing prints and artworks and doing storyboards, but as the import side of things grew, the artistic element of the work died significantly. Also it became more and more a job of getting a garment designed by someone else (overseas designers mostly), tracing the pattern, finding the fabric and trims and putting it into store, which killed the idea of ‘design’ for me. I started really craving some kind of creative outlet and spent more time painting at home.
Q: So many young girls want to get into the fashion industry, it always seems so glamorous- as someone who made it out alive, what are the things they do not tell/teach you at fashion college?
A: I think my answer above covers this! Haha! Although I do need to point out I never went to college. I went to a big fashion company straight from school and worked my way up from making tea for the designers. I suppose they don’t tell you that unless you have your own label and your own space to sell, you won’t make a name for yourself. If you are designing for a company you won’t get any recognition. It can end up being quite soul destroying. Also you have no idea the amount of time and effort and phonecalls and emails and arguments and wheeling and dealing and driving around and hair pulling and crying it can take for a button. Not even kidding.
Q: How did you get into tattooing, and how did the decision to open your own studio come about?
A: That is a loooong story, but for now lets just say I got tattooed by someone who saw potential, and he gave me my first machine. Cut to a couple years later I was about to leave the country to find somewhere to work and I was approached to open a shop here. After a good few of the most stressful, terrifying months of my life we had a little shop.
Q: How long have you been tattooing for? What kind of training did you receive?
A: I apprenticed with Morag at Skinscape Tattoo in Seapoint for just under a year, part-time as I had to keep my day job. I loved the shop and learning and the entire process, but I think because I was a bit older and had already established myself in another industry I had a bit of a sense of entitlement, which wasn’t apparent to me at the time, but which was pointed out to me when I was unceremoniously sacked! I think the biggest lesson I learned was that this industry doesn’t give you anything unless you work your ass off for it and if you don’t you’ll never get any respect.
Q: What is the first tattoo you ever got, and the first paying tattoo you ever did?
A: I wish I had photos, but unfortunately I am terrible with that kind of thing and thanks to around 4 computers crashing between then and now that stuff is all lost in the ether, but I do know my first tattoo was done by Derek Baker at Metal Machine when I was 16 (20 years ago!). It was lasered and covered and the coverup is going to be covered soon too! I blame my Gemini spirit for my need to constantly change everything. My first paid tattoo was a scorpion off a flash sheet, but the client was happy so I was happy.
Q: Were there any controversies surrounding you opening your own shop? How did you deal with it?
A: There were some legal issues we had to deal with, that caused me countless sleepless nights and really made me aware of how horrible people can be, but thankfully after a year we were rid of it all and could just have fun.
Q: Do you feel that it is a typically male dominant industry? How has that affected you? Was it hard entering the tattoo industry as a woman?
Honestly I don’t. I know a lot of the public opinion is that tattoo artists are these burly biker dudes who tattoo in smoky parlours and listen to metal. I haven’t seen that side of it much and when I did it was 20 years back. I think these days it’s a more art driven industry. If you’re good, you’re good and if you have boobs even better.
Q: If you could change anything In the tattoo industry, what would it be?
A: There isn’t much I would change. I have created my own version of the industry in my shop. We have fun, laugh, challenge each other, treat all our customers with respect, work at our own pace, don’t listen to drama or create it. I suppose the gossipy, bitchy side is the most unpleasant for me, but that happens everywhere.
Q: What are your thoughts on the “tattoo trend” currently doing the rounds? Do you think it began in the fashion industry? Do you think it will die down?
A: I’m not sure it has a huge amount to do with fashion I think it’s more to do with exposure, TV shows, literature etc. The fashion side of it was a by-product. The shows created a massive hype and made tattoos very desirable. (It also made tattooing a more accepted profession hence more young artists taking it up.) The hype around tattooing and the exposure has caused some problems of course. Tattoo kits being sold online, kids tattooing out of their kitchens, “tattoo parties”, but if you focus on that alone it’ll drive you crazy. I like to focus on the positive so I see that it’s just made tattooers more competitive and driven, which has taken the craft to the next level which is great! Healthy competition only means there are more artists out there working harder, trying new, faster techniques and trying to be better than the next guy. Lets face it there are enough people tattooing these days to make any artist think,”Hmmmmm.. maybe I should try harder or I may be left behind?”. So maybe the ‘trend’ will subside, but it’s changed tattooing forever, in a good way I think.
Q: Why won’t most tattoo artists tattoo hands, fingers, feet and faces? Would you?
A: These areas are known as “life-ruiners” in the trade.. It’s an affectionate term but I suppose it holds some truth. Young folks who haven’t decided what they want to be doing career-wise and who don’t have a lot of work on them shouldn’t get these places tattooed and any artist worth their salt will send them away or advise on wiser placement. I’ll tattoo these places, but only on my existing customers I know well, who have a lot of work, or other artists.
Q: Many people don’t understand all the work that goes into being a great artist – not only do you have to have talent, but you have to have the right needle size or quantity for the right piece, the best brand of ink, and more. Where did you learn most of what you know and what is the best advice you have recieved?
A: I learned most of this stuff just figuring it out on my own. My mentor taught me a few things right in the beginning but there is so much more to it than that. There are at least 5 or 6 different shading techniques I can use in a single piece, all give a totally different look. Lining isn’t just about picking up a machine and drawing with it like a pencil. It’s really, really, REALLY hard work to get a line nice and clean and solid. That stuff no one can teach you, it’s all about practice and discipline. The best advice I ever got was from Nick Chaboya in 2009. I was going on about wanting to be as good at portraits as Bob Tyrrell one day and being a bit naïve and he stopped me, looked straight into my eyes and just told me, “There’s already a Bob Tyrrell and he’s the best at being him. What are you gonna bring to the party that’s unique? If you’re gonna do portraits you gotta do something unique”.”
Q: What is the hardest part about being a female tattoo artist and running your own studio?
A: I suppose it’s just an ego issue with this one. Not everyone likes having a boss, even fewer enjoy having a female boss, so my biggest issue has been people who refuse to accept me in that role and respect what I am trying to do. I struggle a lot with boundaries too I suppose because I’d prefer to be everyone’s friend, but as a boss you have to crack the whip every now and again and it really sucks.
Q: You are known as one of the best portrait tattoo artists in the country, what is the most difficult aspect of that?
A: Getting a decent reference picture. Most people who want a portrait will come in with a low resolution iPhone photo of their loved one or pet and that’s all you get to work with, which isn’t ideal and doesn’t make for a happy experience for me or a good tattoo for them. High res, good contrast photos taken semi-professionally are so great and when those come in it’s like Christmas.
Q: What is your favourite style of tattooing?
A: I’m really enjoying what I could only classify as my own style of Neo-Traditional. Everyone has a different style and I suppose my style is high detail. I’m also really loving playing around with different colour combinations. I’ll always enjoy portraits though, that’s like a holiday for me!
Q: What are some of your favourite tattoos you have done for clients and why?
A: Oh gosh there are so so many. It would be hard to pick a few but I’ll try! I did a sleeve on Bianca a couple years ago that I still love. I was at a point with tattooing at that point where everything was exciting and I was drawing a lot and I felt I was at the top of my game. This was a game changing tattoo for me.
The portraits of Billy Holiday and Morrissey I did on my friend Richard years back is still my favorite portrait set and they still look great!
The pinup I did on Kara is also one of my favourites. I absolutely love the colours in this one. I saw it again recently and it’s settled in so well.
Another favourite is a tattoo I completed a couple weeks ago. Ayla just let me go a little crazy with this one and use some unusual colours which makes me happy.
This girl on Greg was just too much fun. It is an illustration reference from an artist called @sarsar. I really enjoy this style.
Pia’s tattoo of her Pekingese Maiko is also very special. All the tattoos I’ve done of peoples pets are super special. I have a soft place in my heart for animals.
Baden got a mini portrait of Bill Murray that I wish I had as a tattoo! Super fun and Bill Murray is by far my favourite actor.
Gaby’s portrait of Frida Kahlo is still one of my all time favourite pieces.
Q: If you could tattoo anyone with any design, what would it be?
A: Oh God, that’s a tough one! That changes daily. Sometimes I’d love to do a portrait of Marilyn, some days I wanna do a stick figure sausage dog with wings. There’s no “dream” tattoo for me right now. I just enjoy whatever comes in the door.
Q: You have some amazing tattoos, which one is your favourite and who did it?
A: I absolutely love my piece by Emily Rose Murray. That was the best day! I also love my piece by Wendy Pham so it’s a toss up. They both have great memories attached to them and are just too exquisite! One of my favourites is a tiny piece my friend Tyler Murphy ( Sins Of Style) did for me. It just says WWTD, on my hand so I can always see it.
Q: What has been your worst tattooing experience?
A: There have been many, horrible clients, horrible artists, but I suppose the worst for me was the convention a couple years back. I was tired, my power at the station allocated to me was cutting out and weak and I had to stop tattooing half way through a pinup. I was humiliated and utterly shattered by that experience. Cameras pointed at me while I was in the midst of the most stressful tattoo. The following year I tried again. Got myself all amped up and was super positive. Set up my station and just as I was about to relax into the weekend I found out my little dog had drowned in the swimming pool at my sister’s house where I’d left her for the weekend. I still can’t go back to the City Hall without choking up. I’m guessing everyone in the industry here heard me screaming. That was the worst day ever for me and I couldn’t do the convention there this past year because of it. That day broke me and set me back really far with my work.
Q: What has been your favourite tattooing experience?
A: Tattooing in Australia was awesome, especially meeting everyone over there. What a bunch of sweethearts! I got tattooed by and made friends with two of the most talented women in the industry and worked at a wonderful shop in Melbourne called Green Lotus. I really wish one day I could go back and do that all over again.
Of course there are special moments I’ve had with customers. Tattooing portraits, especially of their dogs and really feeling the happiness is gave them to have that tattoo, but those are too numerous to mention even though I keep all of those experiences in a special place in my brain files.
Q: Do you ever feel that you are treated differently because of your tattoos?
A: Of course. It would be completely unrealistic to believe we live in a world where you aren’t judged on appearance. I sometimes catch myself judging people. We all do it. The trick is to not let it upset you and not take it personally. In my experience, people who say negative things to other people actually feel that way about themselves deep down, or are just plain jealous. As far as being treated differently, sure. I had a new neighbour move in and despite how nice and considerate I tried to be, he still saw me as an evil, soul eating Satanist. Can’t win em all!
Q: You are such a sweet, kind-hearted spirit – do you ever feel that there is an expectation to be more hardcore because of your profession?
A: There is, and I have been told by friends I have in the industry that I need to harden up and be a “bad bitch” but that’s just not me. My sensitivity hasn’t done me any favours in the past and guys certainly don’t enjoy watching girls cry but I can’t be something I’m not. I’ve definitely developed a thicker skin and don’t let things get to me like they used to, but that’s due to some life experiences I’ve had the past couple of years, not tattooing. I think you will attract customers who are more like you anyway. If you’re a hard ass you’ll get hard ass, tough guy clients. It works the other way too. I’m not really interested in what anyone thinks of me anymore. If someone thinks I’m a dick it doesn’t change who I am, does it? So I’m just going to carry on being a dork. Pretending to be something you aren’t sounds like a ton of hard work to me.
Q: What is the waiting list like at your shop?
I am booked up around 2 months in advance, Mikey does shortlist and walk-ins and the other guys (Chris and Stefan) are around a month.