‘My parents weren’t impressed at first, but now I do my mum’: meet the world’s best tattoo artists

Grace Neutral London

Insta has revolutionized tattooing. There was an old white man biker mentality when I started out – they were the gatekeepers. There was sexism, racism and an old boys’ club. Apprenticeships in the shops were the only way to make a living and build a career. Now, we can even advertise ourselves. That’s what I do to my 500,000 Instagram followers.

However, tattooing is a tradition that I believe in. There used to be a mystical magic about it, which doesn’t exist any more. The secrecy brought about tight-knit communities within the industry. It’s almost like a family. The Internet allows us to do our own thing and go it alone. I believe that cultivating this community is important. Because being a woman in tattooing – I was only 18 when I started out – was pretty tough.

I’d always been fascinated by body modification, whether with ink or piercings. Through my teens, I was tattooed. Mum had books in her art studio on body modification – I’d flick through and see these images and was enamoured by the beauty of it all. I was raised in Plymouth and quit school before GCSEs. I was a dork at art college and never really found my calling. My 15-year-old friend asked me to make a booking for her a tattoo appointment. I popped into the shop to do it, and got one for myself as well – a heart on my leg. The addictive rush of endorphins and euphoria I felt afterward was overwhelming.

Back then, I didn’t think much about artistry or creativity. Only later – when I started to tattoo others – did I think more about my body as a canvas. That’s part of the evolution of the art. Old tattoos can be redesigned to look new. They are now on their third layer.

I was just 18 years old and was strolling around Soho in company of a friend. I saw a flyer advertising a tattoo shop. I walked in – with no experience – and asked for a job. I was offered a piercing apprenticeship. I borrowed the needles from their studio and printed out stencils. I was hooked.

It’s always been hand-poke I’ve enjoyed most – machines and I have never really bonded. I use a piece of wood to hold the needle and hand-draw each dot. I’m known for symmetry and geometric work, mandalas and patterns using shading.

Tattooing is on the rise. The industry is huge and it’s more accepted by society. Tattooists have become celebrities. Put simply, tattoos got cool. People get tattooed for many different reasons: to heal or to rebel; for confidence, love or grief – but it’s always an expression of control. Of your body, of how you see yourself and how you’re seen, in a world where it’s hard to control anything.

I have a studio where I work three or four days a week, and we’ve got room for nine artists. We don’t have a shopfront – we rely on the internet, and word of mouth, for business. I give examples to people who come to me. They then allow me to get to work on their bodies. I can draw and design what I want. That’s how to get the best out of me as an artist.

Doy, Seoul (South Korea).

Doy in his studio
‘In the US, they treat me like an internationally respected artist, in Korea, I am made out to be a criminal’: Doy. Photograph by Jeongmee Yoon/The Observer

I’ve been tattooing in Seoul for 17 years, but the situation for artists like me here is complicated. The state has strict restrictions on tattooing, so those who practice it can be subject to heavy fines and even jail time.

In countries like Japan and Korea, tattoos have historically been linked to organised crime. Authorities used to tattoo criminals in both countries to make it clear that they were guilty. These tattoos were hidden by criminals who used larger and more bolder tattoos. These results were vivid and large.

Therefore, the government sought to eliminate tattoo culture in order to reduce violence. In 1992, Korean courts declared that tattooing was a medical procedure. To legally tattoo you need to be a registered medical practitioner with a license. It’s an entirely unnecessary law. In the past, it wasn’t uncommon to have resections on tattooing across the globe, but in the last 20 years that’s changed. Japan has also scrapped the equivalent law in 2020. Now it’s only Korea left lagging behind. It’s why for the past three years I’ve been working to build a tattooists’ labour union. We now number 750 and are fighting for legal tattooing in South Korea. But there has been a cultural shift. It might be illegal, but it’s incredibly common. One in four Koreans is covered with some kind of tattoo. These tattoos can be seen on celebrities, politicians, and sports stars. One-third of all tattoos are done by women. [£600m] The country was forced underground by the collapse of industry. For me, it’s the battle of a lifetime. I was born in Korea and graduated from university with a degree in visual design. I worked for a while in UX design – but the job wasn’t paying enough, so I looked for other work. 17 years ago, I discovered tattooing.

Two roses on a woman’s back
‘Everyone sensible in Korea knows tattooing needn’t be criminalised’: a unique design by Doy. Photograph by Doy

Our style of tattooing is revered and copied around the world – we are pioneers. We use needles to create fine art on the skin’s canvas, with a focus on texture, shading and fine lines. The Korean style has been studied extensively and is widely accepted. When I’m in the US tattooing celebrities such as Lily Collins and Brad Pitt, they treat me like an internationally respected artist; on InstagramMy professional account has nearly 450,000 followers. Once I land in Korea and go through customs, it is clear that I have been convicted. The government seizes almost all of my ink, needles, and machines. Many tattoo studios are thus kept secret and hidden from the public.

2021 was the year I was found guilty of being a tattooist and was fined. I could still be sent to jail. My case is a test for all sentenced persons: 25 lawyers are working on my appeal. Right now, our chances don’t look good – most of our constitutional court judges have already made clear they’re against us. Still, everyone sensible in Korea knows tattooing needn’t be criminalised. At the moment, there are at least six proposed laws that would legalize tattooing. It’s just that 12 years since the first was tabled, nothing has been voted through.

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Cake, Brooklyn (New York)

Cake in her studio, with pink lighting, wearing a baseball cap and a white T-shirt with ‘sisterhood’ on it, showing her tattooed forearms
‘As I’ve grown older, my appreciation has grown; people choosing to give me a piece of their body, that’s a real responsibility’: Cake. Photograph by Ali Smith/The Observer

I didn’t receive any training, there wasn’t mentoring or apprenticeship. I watched some videos on YouTube and ordered books. I learned as I went along. I’ve still had no formal training to this day. I’ve got a few tattooist friends, but I’ve never really felt I’ve fitted into the tattooing community.

Samantha Robles is my real name. I use Cake as my pseudonym since high school. Supposedly it’s because I’m very sweet. My teenage years were difficult. I didn’t go to school and wasn’t studious. I was a complete dropout from college right away. When I was 18, I had begun getting tattoos. I’d always drawn and for a few years messed around giving tattoos to friends in our bedrooms.

I was curious to see how it worked and went to a shop to find out more. They all were white men and shot me down. I struggled to find the confidence to ask again, so didn’t bother. Instead, I stayed focused on creating DIY designs and then figuring it all out myself. Then I met my wife seven years ago – unlike me, she’s a goal-oriented, driven person. I was forced to take myself seriously by her. Step by step, I started to get to work. People travel all over the globe to get tattooed by my company.

A closeup of Cake’s tattooed hands and wrists
Hand out: ‘For a few years I messed around giving tattoos to friends.’ Photograph by Ali Smith/The Observer

The culture is changing and that’s important. I used to hear of people being attacked or subjected to violence and abuse by tattooists. And when I was coming up, we had black tattoo shops in the hood, and fancy white tattoo shops in the city – it was incredibly segregated. Thankfully, there’s a new direction now.

I’m still working out how tattooing translates into supporting my community, which for me is important. My art helped to raise funds for community fridges. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, I made a sheet with specific tattoos that I offered to customers. All profits went to the relief effort. But as my work gets more popular, I’m having to grapple with how success fits.

A closeup of Cake’s tattooed neck
Under the skin: ‘I’m testing out free flash tattoo days for people on lower incomes.’ Photograph by Ali Smith/The Observer

To grow your artist-in-demand business, you need to raise your prices. I could make more of a product if I were producing it. However, I am limited in time. Right now, my books are closed – it’s just too busy. I’m from the hood and don’t want to cut out the people from my community from accessing what I’m doing. I’m testing out free flash tattoo days for people on lower incomes; exploring how I might train others in this form of art. It makes me feel guilty to think of tattooing as a transaction.

It’s funny. Tattooing scares us in some ways. It is a permanent tattoo that I find overwhelming at times. As I’ve gotten older, my appreciation of what giving a tattoo to someone means has grown. They’re choosing to give me a piece of their body – that’s a real responsibility.

Rebecca Vincent, London

Rebecca Vincent in her studio, surrounded by floral tattoo artwork
‘I started to draw when my baby was sleeping’: Rebecca Vincent. Photograph by Suki Dhanda/The Observer

My average customer, a 38-year old woman, gets her first or second tattoo. They’re often at transformative moments in their lives: refinding themselves after early motherhood; hitting a big milestone birthday; navigating through a divorce. It’s all sorts: judges, vicars, teachers, doctors and nurses, and accountants. These are usually women who didn’t know tattoos were possible for them. Now they’re a little older, they’re taking control of their bodies – it’s an expression of freedom and autonomy. They’re celebrating their flesh and bones when some in society would have us think we’re over the hill. For me, it’s a pleasure to be part of their process of discovery and reclamation. That’s what tattooing offered me.

I’m from South Yorkshire originally. Before having my baby, I was a hospitality worker. My first tattoo was at the age of 20. It was exciting and gave me new ways of exploring my body. For me – much like many of my clients today – tattoos helped me gain body-confidence, and boosted my self-esteem. I started to get more. I was obsessed with everything: the history and the art. Each moment is a treasured memory that I have no regrets about. It was around then I got the word “DINOSAUR” inked across my knuckles…

It was a great experience, but it made me nervous. There were these presumptions – stereotypes – about what it meant and what they made me. It even comes up in therapy: what do you think this tattoo “thing” is all about? It’s presumed to be a problem, especially for women. My parents weren’t impressed at first, although I tattoo my mum now. They believed it was only criminals and sailors, as is the age-old misperception. While I saw things differently than they did, I had no idea that I could become a tattooist.

Rebecca Vincent at her studio in a container in Hackney, London, drawing a design on a client who already has tattoos by Rebecca on her body
Flower power: ‘I’ve always loved fossils and flora, shapes that will be a permanent presence here long after we’re all gone.’ Photograph by Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Then I had a child. I couldn’t go back to working in a pub – the hours just didn’t work with being a new parent. A friend suggested that we try tattoos. I was reluctant. I didn’t see a way in. And I’d neglected my own artistry for a decade, ever since failing art at college. But after that conversation, I couldn’t shake the idea. When the baby was asleep, I began to draw again. These images were all taken from nature and began to flow from my hands. Soon, I was drawing every day. I was completely unprepared when a studio opened up right across the street. They offered me a job and I accepted. I’ve been at it ever since.

I’m still a nature-based tattooist, my focus is on botanicals. I’ve always loved fossils and flora, shapes that will be a permanent presence here long after we’re all gone and have screwed up this planet. Placing these images on people’s bodies is a reminder of our own transience. It provides some perspective.

Many of my clients make disparaging remarks about their bodies when I see them. They’re concerned bits are wobbly, that their skin has changed. I don’t allow that chat in my studio. Shut up, I say, you’re beautiful. I hope they bring that with them when leaving. It’s a massive privilege for me to mark someone’s skin with my art, potentially for the rest of their life. Once they leave the studio, I no longer have ownership over the artwork I’ve created. It’s theirs to do with as they please. The canvas belongs to them – I don’t know where it goes. That’s something magical.

When I moved to my first time. London 10 years ago, I’d often get funny looks from other parents in the playground. Being a heavily tattooed mum wasn’t free of judgment. Now? Well, I’ve tattooed most of them.

Brody Polinsky, Berlin

Tattoo Artist Brody Polinsky in his studio in Berlin with some of his artworks and a globe on the table
‘When my clients leave the studio, their bodies will remember they had a safe experience’: Brody Polinsky. Photograph: Katrin Streicher/The Observer

I have learned to recognize three types of tattoo-getters over the years: those who simply walk into street shops for a laugh, the majority. Then there are those who seek tattooing as embodiment and celebration, who don’t fear pain. There are also those who are addicted to tattooing and often have more complex relationships with their bodies. These people transform their appearances in order to have some control, and then engage with the pain as a way of healing. Though I’m not a therapist, I, too, have much personal experience of healing from trauma, gender abuse and queerness.

My studio is private, safe, and secure. It also has a place where I can practice meditation and recovery. I tattoo only one person per day, but usually three times a weeks, so there’s always time for last-minute appointments. My process is slower. I receive an idea of where they want to place them, their pronouns, and astrology before they arrive. They arrive at 1pm, and we usually complete our work by 7pm.

The studio is quiet and peaceful. I keep the noise down. Each pattern that I draw is unique, and will never be repeated, because it’s all about how we get along in person. This is my commitment: I will only ever create one pattern for each person. We often find new patterns in the moment. Then I draw the patterns directly onto the body. This is a challenge for me to make sure they feel and look balanced.

My first 12 years were spent in small Alberta towns. I was taught to fear people with tattoos and other differences. When my family moved to the next city in 1992 I was already addicted to music, skateboarding and other addictions. I had to hide my queerness, gender, and sexuality.

At the tender age of 15, my drawings were being tattooed upon me and my friends. To fit in and feel like I was cis, I became obsessed with changing my appearance. I was allowed to be at the tattoo shop of a friend who I used to sell to, and somehow I didn’t overstay my welcome. I was allowed to soak it all in like a sponge.

In 2002 I got sober, came out and fled to Vancouver. By 2004, I had almost finished getting my entire body altered. Although I was offered an apprenticeship, my restlessness kept moving me: Toronto, Montreal and LA. New York Toronto again. 2013 was my first year in Berlin. I still travel the world tattooing at an insane pace. I burned out five years ago.

Before I came out in 2017 as a transgender person, my body was screaming at and I wasn’t able to hear it. I was saved by this colourful, dysphoric suit of armour. I am aware of the impact tattoos have on the lives and health of others. As I add affirming tattoos from close friends, the empty spaces between are still desired.

The body’s physical language supersedes our verbal communication – when sharing a tattoo ritual, these boundaries can be subtle. I have learned to tattoo properly, and I am proud to have survived the years that I didn’t. My hope is that my clients will be able to remember the safe experience they had when they leave my studio.

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