'INK' offers a unique look into the world of tattooing. I'm really keen to delve into unfamiliar waters with this project and offer a unique perspective on tattoo shops and artists. The project will be based in Leeds and Peterborough tattoo shops.
Finding my shops.
Once I had established my concept, I was keen to find shops willing to participate in the project.
I was really keen to photograph 'Red Tattoo and Piercing', a shop located in the Leeds Corn Exchange. I had been there before and I liked how bright and open the shop felt. However, when I called they said they would be too busy over the next few months.
It was a slight step back and it concerned me that other shops may have the same problem with the run up to Christmas.
I set aside one day to go around Leeds and speak to multiple shops. I wrote a list and marked them off as I went. I felt going in and personally speaking to people was the most effective way of discussing the project as you were able to get an answer straight away, as opposed to emailing and not getting a reply.
By the end of the day, I had 2 shops who were keen to get involved: Mustapic & Jameson and Ultimate Skin.
Organising the project with the shops.
After agreeing to take part, the 2 shops were keen to talk to me about project. I went in and discussed what I was hoping to achieve and discussed if they wanted anything specific.
Mustapic and Jameson were hoping to get images they could use on their website and Ultimate Skin needed images for an advert they were going to run with Tony and Guy.
I discussed what times would be good to come and do the shoots. Mustapic & Jameson were only a small shop and were quite busy, they said they could only do the morning of the 1st of December. Whereas Ultimate Skin were keen to have me in for a full 4 days.
The shops recommended that I pick up a copy of 'Skin Deep', a popular tattoo magazine, in order to construct my themes and project ideas. It was really useful to read though and see the kind of things people in the industry discussed, however I found the pictures in the magazine to be quite generic as both tattoo photography and fashion photography.
I decided to look into photographers who were well known for tattoo photography. After some research I found Lionel Deluy, a photographer well known for his images of Kat Von D (a famed tattoo artist in the US). I liked his images because they were taken differently to other tattoo photographs I had seen. It was less about the tattoos and more about the aesthetics and context the tattoos gave.
I found the same with Patricia Steur, a lesser known photographer but highly commended for her work on traditional Maori tattoos.
Through this research I decided to book out 2 different lenses for the project, a 15-30 mm, a 50mm and a 100mm, I felt this range would allow me to take my project in several directions on the day of the shoot as I was unsure what to expect.
Before going into each shoot I made sure I had consent forms for clients to sign. This was particularly important for the project as I wanted to have security knowing I would be able to use the images on websites and as part of my portfolio. If I were to exhibit my project in a gallery, the last thing I would want is for the participants to disallow their use.
On top of safe-guarding my project, the consent forms maintained a professional appearance for the project and allowed participants to ask questions.
I have always found tattoos an interesting subject matter. Having had one myself, it seems you only realize how permanent they are once you have one on your body.
I've found the issue of permanence arises quite often in the study of photography, in her book 'On Photography' Susan Sontag stated that "All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt".
My project suggests the tattoo industry has similar attributes. As a tattoo artist may take the role of the photographer and the tattoos act in the same way photographs do. They frame meaning, sentimental value and memories.
To trust a tattoo artist with your skin may be similar to trusting a photographer to capture you in a way you believe is truthful. In today's society where photography is used more frequently, and more casually, the same can be said for tattoos. More and more people are choosing to get inked, and it may be argued that many tattoos are more of an aesthetic feature than a sentimental one. Similar arguments may be made in the field of digital photography.
I arrived at the tattoo shop for 9am. The owner of the shop was running a bit late, although it did delay the shoot, this gave me time to set up my kit and adjust my settings according to the light. It was quite a rainy day so the studio lighting was flatter than I had anticipated. I resolved this issue by using an orange filter over the lights and adjusted the ISO setting.
I was a bit apprehensive about asking the first client if I could photograph him as the tattoo area was quite cramped and I was concerned about getting in the way. However, he was really keen for me to take pictures and was happy to chat to me while getting it done too. It was a really great tattoo for me to start off with as the client had two full sleeves and was just getting one of them finished off. This meant there was a lot less preparation in terms of design and he was happy for me to move around and get closer if I needed to.
The studio had 3 artists working that day and each one had one client. All the tattoos done were completely different: a sleeve, a portrait and a basic design. The studio space upstairs was far larger and it allowed me to move around a lot easier, there was also a large electric heater emitting an orange glow which meant I didn't have to use too many lights.
I concluded my shoot with an apprentice tattoo artist. I found him really interesting to talk to as he had only been tattooing for 13 months. He was able to offer me an insight into getting started in the tattoo industry and how he had gotten into tattooing.
I left the shop at around 3pm.
I reviewed my images, sent off the images of each client to their respective emails. I found a lot of the images I had taken look a bit commercial. I decided that I needed to incorporate more artistic shots in my upcoming shoots.
Days 2 - 3:
I arrived at Ultimate Skin Tattoo at 10:30pm on Wednesday 2nd of December. I had a health and safety briefing with one of the shop managers- Katie. She took me round the shop and explained how the shop ran and areas I couldn't go due to equipment being sterilized.
I was given an area downstairs to set up my equipment and store my things. The day was quite busy, the first client was one of a group of 5 friends all coming in to get a 'Normal' tattoo. Tattoos seem to have taken the place of friendship jewelry and I found it interesting to see how everyone getting the tattoo asked for something slightly different.
I also photographed a girl getting the tardis tattooed on her thigh, it was a large design and she hadn't eaten breakfast. While I was photographing her she complained of feeling unwell. The artist stopped tattooing and immediately after doing so, the client fainted. It left me in an awkward position as I felt bad for photographing her if she wasn't feeling well. I moved my equipment and let her have some space. After an hour or so I came back and asked if she was still ok with me taking pictures, she said she was and I carried on photographing her.
The following day was very quiet. There was only one or two clients booked in and although that allowed me to get some really nice close-up shots of a sleeve being done, it was limiting in what I could take. I was able to talk more in-depth with the people who worked there. I noticed the similarities between tattoo work and photography in the sense that there was a lot of waiting and patience involved at times.
On the Friday the manager of the shop came in and discussed an advert they were planning on running with Tony & Guy. They needed 15 or so images for the advert and asked if I would be ok taking them. They were looking to have mostly images of tattoos and photos of the shop, very different from the photos I had been taking. As the shop was relatively quiet again I was able to do a lot of them that day. I took photos of some of the artists favourite tattoos, which turned out to be really interesting. I was able to talk to the artists about their tastes in art and they were keen to show me me the tattoos on various areas of their bodies.
Saturday was my the last day in the shop. I came in at around lunch time just as a client had come in to speak to one of the artists. He had a huge dragon tattoo on his back and asked if I could photograph it for him. It was a pretty impressive piece and once lit it looked great on the camera. I spent most of the day taking photos of finished tattoos for the shops advert. It was nice to be able to do something for them as a thank you for letting me be there.
Before going home for Christmas I arranged to photograph a tattoo shop in Peterborough to pick up any extra shots I may need. I had agreed with the manager to come in at 12pm on the 16th of December, however when I arrived they told me they were not ready and asked me to come in on the 23rd instead. It was slightly irritating as I had taken time out to go and it meant it would require an additional day to visit the shop. However, I agreed and went back on the 23rd instead.
The shop was quite small and very busy. With Peterborough being a much smaller city than Leeds, there is a lot less competition for tattoo shops, and Lost Time seems to be the most popular. The day went smoothly and I spent 3 hours photographing around the shop and speaking to clients. I felt my setting up and picture taking had sped up massively since my first day of shooting as I knew exactly what I wanted and knew what to look for.
After assessing the images I already had, I was hoping to get a macro image of ink bottles lined up as I felt it would complete a linear sequence of photos. However, it was difficult as the lighting in the shop was quite poor and I had to use a lot of additional lighting. I decided to spent some time taking images of one more session. The artists use of a spot light made the session aesthetically different from the others I had photographed.
Contacting Clients and Artists.
I knew it was really important to get images back to people as soon as possible to maintain a professional demeanour. I edited the images into several folders for each shop, including folders for each client's session.
It was nice to hear back from clients who said they liked their pictures. However it was problematic with the shops because they would often forget to download images so the download link would expire. That meant I needed to send them through several times. It was a bit disheartening not hearing back from one of the shops once I had sent the images over. However, I feel this came from offering free photography in order to gain access over making sure they were fully engaged with the project.
Overall, I feel the images I took were representative of each individual shops and although the project had its ups and downs I feel it went quite smoothly considering how many people I had worked with over the course of the project.
Sorting through images.
The most challenging part about the project has been organising my images. The amount of time I spent in the shops meant I had hundreds and hundreds of images to look through, a lot of them quite similar.I remembered Robert Frank's project 'The Americans' and how studied how he dealt with having so many. I started with a process of elimination- deleting bad photos or ones I simply didn't like. I then went through them again and highlighted the ones I liked. I printed my favourite images and tried to organise them into series I thought would work well. Scrolling through images on the computer was difficult because there was just so many of them!
Following this, I made the mistake of trying to make a series out of my favourite images as opposed to ones that told a story. The result lead me to have a set of 5 nice images, nothing more.
I decided to create a series focusing on just one session instead of trying to do too many things at once. I felt it would work better as a narrative piece. I assembled 5 series from 5 sessions and decided which one I felt best reflected my themes.
I decided to go with my series 5 images as I liked the way they were lit and thought they worked well as a collection. They represent the tattooing practice well and offer an excellent example of the permanence of tattoos.
This session stood out to me because it was the session where my themes and ideas about tattooing were backed up by the artist. The artist, Shaun Hubbard, studied photography at college and trained as a graphic designer before moving to tattooing. I found it interesting that he enjoyed creative work while being directed by his clients. He discussed how similar the practices were and how transitioning between them came fairly naturally. It felt right to use his session because of how closely he emulated my themes.
As much as I liked the original images, I felt they were a little bit too dark. To edit them I made the adjustment I felt were needed for each image. Afterwards I placed them all together and made specific changes to add the continuity of the series. Some were more saturated than others due to some being shot with the 100mm lens close to the skin, and other being shot with the 15-30mm lens from further away.
During editing I found that the image of the needle being dipped into ink didn't seem to match the other images. The purple of the background wasn't in any of the other images and it seemed as though it was part of a different session. I swapped this image for the images of the ink pots and cropped the original image slightly to improve the composition.
I took several rounds of editing before I felt the images looked well together. The difficultly was in the light being to specifically placed in each image, the use of macro images was challenging as well as they were hard to match with the portrait and high angle images.
Image One- The Ink,
This image represents the many ways in which tattooing can be considered an artistic practice. Ink can be used in a variety of ways in art, as a painter uses paint and the photographer uses a camera; the tattoo artist uses ink. I chose this image as I liked the precision of it. The untouched ink balances precariously on the edge of the pot, having little significance in this form- similar to an empty roll of film.
Image Two- The Artist,
The use of light in this image is key in its depiction of the artistic process. The darkness surrounding the edges of the image offers a sense of focus and space the artist needs to work. Unlike the other images in the series, this image is taken as a portrait in order to highlight the importance of the artist in the tattoo culture.
Image Three- The Craft,
This images offers an incredibly raw depiction of the tattoo process as the ink is transformed into imagery. The splatters of blood just right of the center depict the pain and permanence of the process.
Image Four- The Art,
This image exemplifies trends within the tattoo industry, contrasting the old Chinese characters with the newer geometric design. It is not immediately apparent what this image depicts, the hand-poked designs are extremely detailed an take hours to complete, the use of the 100mm lens worked well in defining the accuracy of the design.
Image Five- The Canvas,
To have a tattoo requires a certain degree of surrender, this image is effective in its portrayal of trust between the client and the artist. Trusting an artist with your skin is an important part of the process, you must trust that they will execute your vision successfully, and it's a vulnerable position to take.
Reflecting on the project, I believe the images I have chosen are effective in their portrayal of the tattoo industry. They highlight the craft and rawness of tattooing and allude to the intrigue surrounding the practice. Going into the shoots with an open mind allowed me to change and adapt my photography to the environment.
If I were to improve on my project I would have spent more time building a professional image for the project in order to gain more of an artistic license over the images I took. I would have made a website and had a more in-depth discussion about the project with the shops to establish what I wanted to accomplish. At times the project was frustrating and I felt as though I was being taken advantage of and messed around, however, I feel this added to the experience of working in a creative field.
I really enjoyed my time in the shops and the project boosted my confidence as a photographer and allowed me to improve on my professional skills. I am pleased with the series and the additional photographs I have taken and plan on composing a project magazine including interviews with the tattoo artists I photographed. I feel more confident with digital photography and would be keen to continue my work in documentary style photography.