The Tattoo Taboo
Ben Hansen of Sixtysix Tattoo in Deal talks about the increasing transparency OF the skin illustration industry //
In the UK, you know something is popular when it has been made into a reality show.
Channel Four’s sister station E4 is leading the way, first with Tattoo Fixers and now the Tattoo Artist of the Year televised competition, which has taken skin illustration to the forefront of the public’s consciousness.
But, much like reality shows, there are some really good tattooists out there and some really sh*t ones.
Deal tattooist Ben Hansen is one of those falling into the first category, developing his skills from a young age to become a sought after artist with an international clientele.
“I want to get to a point that people know that when they come to me they will get a good tattoo regardless of style, it’s going to be done well and that it will suit them,” says Hansen, himself clearly a tattoo enthusiast.
“I think it is a great time for tattooing. Customers are more educated now and people are clearer on what is a good tattoo and what is a bad tattoo.
“The industry is a lot more open these days, with Instagram and social media. Artists are a lot more comfortable with sharing their work, when perhaps they didn’t used to be. Most people want to help each other in the industry and I’ve got friends all over the world now because of it.”
But it wasn’t always that way. There used to be a far more shut off and almost secretive approach to tattoo ‘parlours’ – even that venue description has changed, now it is just called a shop or a studio – with tinted windows and intriguing characters stepping in and out.
“Even when I started six years ago, it was all pretty closed off,” he says. “It was hard to get an apprenticeship, because no one wanted to show you their skills. You really had to commit to a shop for a long time before you could get an in.”
Okay, this all sounds a bit Sons of Anarchy, with the Masons and pinky swears thrown in, but these guys take it really seriously. That’s quite reassuring really, when you are about to have something permanently etched onto your body.
“It is quite strict to get into,” he says. “If you just turn up somewhere and ask for a job, they will tell you to f*ck off.
“I did that, and the same thing happened to me. And really, why should they just teach some random person their career?”
As a skater kid, Hansen hung out at the Victoria Park in Deal meeting like-minded alternative sports compatriots, a number of whom were tattoo artists.
“I got into it around 15 and had my first tattoo around then,” he recalls. “I managed to convince this tattooist from down the skate park to trade a pair of skates for a tattoo. I thought he would probably tell me to do one, but he was up for it.
“I ended up going round to his place around 3am, because his girlfriend worked nights and it was the only time I could get down there. I got this bit of graffiti on my forearm.
“My mum went mental. She was a single parent with three kids, and she was dealing with my brother and my sister at the time. I remember shouting up the stairs ‘can I have a tattoo?’ and she was obviously busy and just said ‘yes’, not realising what she had said yes to! It didn’t go down well.”
Hansen, whose home turf is Sixtysix Tattoo in Deal, became “obsessed” with designing tattoos for himself.
“I was always drawing,” he says. “I never thought of it as a career or as a work thing,
I just did it.
“I also hung out at the shop in Deal, Tribal Nations, and they were great guys.
“I used to get tattooed there a lot and would just hang round and clear up for them. When I turned 19 I started to realise I needed a career, and decided to go for it.”
With no college to learn the art in, Hansen touted around for an apprenticeship and eventually began training at Evolution Skin Studios in Canterbury.
“My advice would be to find a shop that you like, and think is good, and have tattoos done there. Show you are interested and meet the people,” he says.
But it is far from glamourous, to begin with.
“When you find an apprenticeship, you start at the bottom. It is the least rock star thing ever,” says Hansen.
“You are a cleaner and a watcher, cleaning and watching.
“And then you start drawing, drawing everything. You will be given magazines to copy stuff out of. Your tutor will give you all sorts of styles to see if you can draw them all. They want to see if you are determined enough to stick at it and learn all the styles.”
THE FIRST TATTOOS
“The first one was on a tattooist friend – Heather Moore (of Evolution Skin Studios),” says Hansen. “I had been watching her for a long time and how she did tattoos. It was quite early on in her career, too, so she helped me learn some essential bits at the start.
“It was scary. But you know that you can draw. So it’s just applying it to a different medium.
“It’s very hard at the start. There are all sorts of things you have to learn, how much pressure to apply to the skin, how much of the needle to use.”
And, it’s not like you can make mistakes, is it Ben!?
“There was a good two years where I wasn’t really sleeping, with worry about the next tattoo. And that’s good in a way, because if it doesn’t break you, it shows just how much you want it.”
Learning under Evolution’s Gary Griffin, Hansen developed his own style, but that is not to say that his learning will ever finish.
“It wasn’t until I started working with Gary that I realised that I needed to learn all the other styles like Japanese, Script, Black and Grey, before the style I liked the most could really progress,” he says.
“Without learning those you can’t be the best. You need to be good at all of it because you don’t know who’s coming through the door and what they will want.
“There will always be people who do stencils out of a book, and shops that don’t really have an interest in pushing the artistic side. They are more just tracing off a photo to get the money.
“But when someone comes through the door with a tattoo that you know just won’t work, I believe you have to advise, and have alternative options to make it work better. You’ve got to know when to say ‘no’ sometimes. They might leave, but they might respect it because you are turning down the money.”
While based at Sixtysix, Hansen now plies his trade up and down the country, appearing at conventions and taking guest spots in various shops.
But with his shop-mates, Ped Simmons and Kieran Williams, the Sixtysix crew are making waves in the tattoo world.
“We are now building this thing that is going in a really good direction,” he says. And people want to be a part of it.
“We want to offer a fully customised experience of tattooing.
We work to the customer’s brief, but bring something unique to it, too.
“We get customers from all over Kent. We get some walk-in trade but the shop is a bit hidden away too. We like that, because we wanted to build something that people were prepared to go out and find, that they knew was good.
“We’ve had people from America, and I have people from Europe that want to come over and get tattooed.
“There are some great tattooists and shops in Kent doing great work, but I feel like in the town we are in, Deal, we are offering a customer experience that no one else has done before.”
Hansen is another to feel the cultural direction that the county is taking and wants to be on board with the new wave of talent making a mark in Kent.
“I think in the last couple of years, Kent has progressed in a really nice direction with the type of individual shops, vinyl stores and things that are opening, and we want to be part of that as well.
“In the past I had wanted to travel around a bit and get out and work outside Kent, but now, with the good things happening, I’ve wanted to stay here. You feel part of something that’s growing.”
And kids, if you are reading this, and thinking about getting a tattoo, Ben has few pieces of advice for you.
“Collect as many images as you can of the sort of thing you like. But don’t be strict on it. Ask the tattooist for their opinion and advice and be open to creating something else along the same line.
“Find a shop or artist you like. Use Instagram to see their styles. And, if you are not sure about a tattoo, don’t do it!”