Why do we get tattooed? There was a time when having a tattoo was a sign of rebellion, a rite of passage as it were, these days, however, tattoos are popular with everyone – from young upstarts in a band to suburban housewives. When did getting a tattoo become so popular? Ibiza is home to Inkadelic and its owner Neil Ahern, Essentialibiza spent a couple of days with Neil in his shop in Ibiza Town to find out why and when the art became socially acceptable…
Neil Ahern is a tattoo artist with 20 years under his belt in his Inkadelic shop in the Plaza Mercado Viejo in the heart of Ibiza town. Set in the corner on the square, the smell of the fruit and vegetables from the market fill the air and numerous cool cafes are dotted around. The entrance leads to a stair with skulls on each side of the railing and the shop emblem painted on the wall facing you, before we’ve even climbed the stairs we get the feeling that this is a proper tattoo parlour. Not the holiday assembly line that can be found in most resorts around the world but a steeped-in-history, dyed-in-the wool tattoo shop, righteous and proper, where quality work has been performed on informed clients for over two decades.
We had heard of Neil before meeting him and we knew he wouldn’t tattoo someone he didn’t like so, no pressure as we enter the shop. The walls are covered in numerous memories – from images of traditional tattoos to souvenirs of travels from all over the world, a beautiful, hand made tattoo chair holds pride of place in the centre of the main room, if this chair could talk I bet it would have some stories! Neil welcomes us to the shop and after a chat decides that not only will he tattoo me but he has studied me during the chat and has an idea for an addition to the tattoo i want that represents my personality. Awesome, I’m thinking, is it some fire or lightening? Some flowers adds Neil! What? Flowers? Needless to say our photographer Nic found the comment a great source of amusement. Over the course of five sessions, two this summer and the rest when I am back on the island before next summer, Neil will tattoo a Japanese dragon onto my arm and tell us some of the many stories he has lived over the years. Keep your eyes peeled to Essentialibiza to see how the tattoo progresses and to get an insight into the complicated mind and huge talent of Neil Ahern…
Tattoo is a much more socially acceptable art form these days but this wasn’t the case twenty years ago, what made you choose it as a profession?
People were getting tattooed because it felt right to them, they didn’t need that mass acceptance by the media and in turn the general public. People that were in tattooing back then were in it because they really wanted to be in it. The same as DJs twenty years ago were a lot different than they are now because the guy twenty years ago was already in it, they were collecting music anyhow, at some point they found out that they could make some money out of it then great, whereas now it’s the other way around, they know they can make money and that’s why they get into it. Everything is bought off the internet and everyone has the same shit, no one has really got their own style and it’s like that in tattooing.
What got you into tattooing?
What got me into tattooing is that when I was young I used to cut patterns into my skin, I loved that stuff, I used to do a repeat pattern, I was very young, about eight. I used to do that one (points to a tattoo on the side of his wrist). It wasn’t deep but it was enough that you could see it then it would scab and you’d pick the scab off and it would look slightly better. I was fascinated by it.
What brought that on, was it a form of self-expression?
It was to do with having an unhappy childhood for sure, an unhappy family situation and a lack of acceptance from them, it was something connected to that but this is okay, I have no problems with that. We would get tattooed because the body seemed right with it and it seemed wrong without it. It was like a world where everyone was family, you knew everyone and you knew what everyone’s intentions were. There was a big progression of styles coming out at that time, a lot of expression and there was what they call a tattoo renaissance about twenty-five years ago. It was a far different game back then, a different feeling at conventions, a much smaller world and it consisted of more people who were in it for what it was and what it gave rather than being cool or being able to make money. An escape, not knowing what to do when you came out of art school, okay, now you become a tattooist and that’s great, it pushes the art and that expands but certain things get lost in that commercialisation, mass expansion. Like with everything, there is very little acknowledgement of history, whether we are talking about music or whether we are talking about tattooing.
Does that mean there is no such thing as a good new tattooist?
For sure there is, there is shit loads of them, there’s been an explosion of them. There are a lot of people that can copy other people’s style very well, there are some people who manage to produce something new and stimulating as well but I think there’s a lot getting lost in how the body changes with tattooing. You can slap any old shit on two people without distinctions between them, of course there’s a distinction between two people and their bodies.
Whose responsibility is it to make sure the tattoo is right?
It’s partly ours and it’s partly the clients. If a girl comes into the shop for example and says I want to do loads of anchors and guns all over my arms, now that’s going to fit some women and some women can carry that when they’re 40 but some can’t. And I think that’s what’s getting lost, the understanding of what tattooing does to the body. Everything isn’t for everyone and a lot of tattooing is about reading the person. Reading what the feeling of that piece should be for that client. They will always be individual but they’ve got to be right for that client. And sometimes the client doesn’t know what they want and they just pull things out of the air and sometimes you have to save people from themselves.
Do good tattooists make good psychologists?
We have to listen to enough shit! I’ve carried a lot of secrets and stories and sometimes it’s very difficult. You’re with somebody sometimes for six hours and people tend to relax and they open up and tell you things and it can be hard, that listening and concentrating thing for 10 or 12 hours a day, sometimes it’s difficult.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to become a tattooist?
I was in Germany working in a restaurant during that recession in the late ‘80s. I was in Manchester and got a job in Munich and found my way to this tattoo shop run by this English guy, I had no money and wanted to get tattooed so I did some work on the floor cleaning up the old foil and the old glue and he tattooed me. I used to hang out after work, then I went on and worked in a perfume lab and I was still hanging out in the shop. There was a London tattoo convention in Reading, Dunstable actually, and the guy was going and invited me down. I went down to London on the bus and walked into this convention and it blew my mind and at that point I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I had an inkling before but this is what showed me that I could do it.
Had you always been artistic?
I always knew what looked good and what didn’t. Art is also about knowing what is good and what is not and then being able to translate that. Anyone can draw; it’s only about opening your eyes. That’s a quote by the way, from ‘Drawing On The Right Hand Side Of The Brain’. There’s a whole way of learning how to draw by using that and that’s what I use. I was good in art at school; I was never pushed because my brother was the artist so I was never encouraged to do that. I didn’t know at the time but I was told that I knew what a good line was and I think that is one of the most important things in any form of design – movement and line.
How have you developed as a tattoo artists over the past 20 years?
I’m still learning. And you have to learn quickly now because there are a lot of very good tattooists out there. My composition got a lot stronger, my understanding of what looks good on the body got better. My confidence in executing increased a lot because when you first have an arm given to you, you want to do a good job. It’s easy to do some shit but when you understand what looks good because of you’re peers and the work that they’ve done, you want to try and get near to that level, which is a long way away. I was told by one of my teachers that it took him 12 to 15 years before he felt comfortable and he’s a world-class tattooist. It’s a lot of skin having that arm in front of you; it’s a lot of skin when you unravel it. So yeah, my confidence grew a lot in that time, my strength of composition, my understanding of line, everything progressed and the process became easier as a result of that understanding but it’s always a struggle. I was also told that when you think you’re doing good you better stop. I don’t think you’re ever satisfied, I got that from my dad, he was a cabinetmaker and you’re never satisfied. Once you think it’s okay then your standards start slipping.
Has technology changed in the 20 years?
Not really, it’s just available more easy. A good tattoo machine hasn’t changed in 120 years, there are a lot more people making high quality hand made machines. The materials that I use I haven’t really changed for 20 years, I use old-school pigment because I have seen some of that shit work for 20 years. That’s the thing with tattooing, you don’t know if what you’re doing is right for at least 10 years. You’ve got to see the tattoo after 10 years to know if you’re doing it right because it settles different, the way you put it in on the skin, how it stays in the skin, how compressed and packed the colour is, tattoo’s change a lot and then you have the added change with the skin alteration. We used to have to think, do you know how to make needles, now hardly anybody knows how to make needles because you can buy them ready made now but it was a craft to make the needle, to make the grouping, to make sure that everything was level and straight back in the day. I’d say that is probably the biggest change in our business is pre-made tattoo needles. In the end I’m more than happy for them because it would take so long to make a lot of needles but that’s one of the things that made it charming and romantic and although progression is good or inevitable, I like those charming old things, they added character to the thing.
How have the docudramas such as Miami Ink impacted your profession?
One of the biggest changes is the amount of children who want to come and walk around a tattoo shop; we’re talking 4 years old! It’s not an environment for children to be walking around but the parents think it’s okay and sometimes it feels like a school outing! Would you let your kid run around a dentist? No? Then why are you doing it here? That was the biggest change with that entire Miami Ink thing. The popularisation of it isn’t from that though, that came from people like Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Rage Against The Machine and Guns And Roses, when those albums came out, ‘Bloodshed’, ‘Sugar Sex Magic’ that was when I noticed a real explosion and it peters out and comes back up again. Some idiot celebrity gets something and everybody goes crazy again. Of course it helps and it doesn’t help. With those damn programmes you go in and sit down and you walk out with a full rib piece. You can’t do that, it’s too damn painful. That’s the problem, now people ask, what do you mean you have to have four sessions? That’s misinterpretation of our business and I say that’s the biggest negative thing about those shows.
Has this popularisation of tattooing diluted the art?
Back in the tattoo renaissance that we talked about back in the late 80’s it was cooler to be with a tattoo artist than it was a guitarist. There was an antisocial, rude, morbid association with tattooing, now it’s much more diluted thing like everything else, everything is there to be raped, pillaged, copied and used up until there’s something else more popular and that’s ok, that’s the process of everything. I was also told by my teacher, it’s easy to do a tattoo for five years, even easier to do it for one or two but it’s hard to do something for 20/ 25 or 30 years, then you really have cut your bones. There are a lot of good people out there tattooing and living off the hype, even here in Ibiza living life, trundling along there are still kids coming up. It’s the real deal here, Inkadelic has real heritage and I think you feel that walking in, you feel that it’s got some righteousness about it, me, I’m a grumpy mother sometimes and sometimes I’m a super nice guy, it’s just both sides of the character but I’m not a manicurist, I’m a tattooist.
Where’s the furthest you’ve travelled to get a tattoo?
Just to get tattooed? Probably Mexico. I wanted to tattoo myself on top of a pyramid and as they don’t exist in Europe I had to go to Mexico! Do some blood letting up there. My real guru, teacher, Felix – he’s dead now – he knew this was one of my things I wanted to do and he said whatever you do, make sure you do that because not enough people have dreams in this world. I don’t want it all to sound my little pony but it was something I really wanted to do so I went for it. I’ve done a hell of a lot of travelling to get tattooed but Mexico is the furthest.
How would you describe yourself?
Slightly unusual with some obsessive behaviour, which is fine, it doesn’t hurt anyone. I’ve slowed down a bit now.
Do you ever use any of the traditional tools?
No I don’t do any of that although I have done some by hand, obviously when I tattooed myself on top of the pyramid I had to, there aren’t many multi sockets up there. I do it in another way, not by tapping – which is where the word tattoo came from originally with the tap tap tapping. I love these charming things, I love to make black ink from pig fat and soot from the fire then sharpen a bit of bone and dig it in. My dog tattooed me you know because for me this is the real thing of tattooing. Why do a portrait of her, I want to have a moment with her and she tattooed me and for me it’s that raw, primal reason for tattooing. Spider Web, who was a famous tattooist back in the day up in New York said, “A little says a lot.” It took me a bit of time to understand that but there’s a lot of truth in that. Two girls come in and they want to do a friendship tattoo, what should you do. I think the best thing you can do is I give you machine and you do a little line on her with it and you do a little line on her with it, this is the best thing you can ever do. You’ve then got a real friendship tattoo. If you want something original and you want something special then stick your neck out. That’s the primal reason for getting a tattoo, to mark something, to show something, but that’s just me, maybe I’m talking shit because I have too many hours sitting down tattooing and I’ve made up a whole philosophy about all this crap when all we do is little pictures on people?
How did your dog manage to tattoo you?
We had a little miniature machine made for her and strapped it to her leg, scratched her back and she tattooed me. You can actually see a heart in what she did. She’s the world’s only tattooing dog!