Vagabond Tattoo

Paul Hill of Vagabond Tattoos, Hacknet, London

The art of tattooing has been practiced for centuries. In the not too distant past it was the insignia of criminal, sailors and bikers but in the last five years it has become accepted by the mainstream and the business has changed dramatically. We spoke to Paul Hill at his Vagabond studio in Hackney about the art, the lifestyle – and bikes.

Did you always want to be a tattoo artist?

Not at all. After school I took an apprenticeship as an airbrush artist. I intended doing cars and bikes but realised it’s a niche market that comes and goes so I ended up doing commercial work and lost the art aspect.

So how did you end up tattooing?

It’s tough for any artist to make money but you can make it by doing something well in a niche. But that wasn’t my motivating factor. I just wanted to create art. I was getting tattooed at the time and the guy doing the work said there wasn’t a lot different in skill sets to what I’d trained for.

How did you go about learning this artform?

The first step for me – and for many artists – was to learn on my legs. That’s how you can tell a tattoo artist – they usually have terrible art on their legs. It’s the starting point that you can reach easily to do your initial work. And the art improves as you work up the leg. I also did my stomach! You can practice on pigskin, or even fruit, but if you practice on your own body you get an understanding of how it heals. It’s real. Then you work on some close friends and finally when you are confident enough you can start taking paying customers.

Does it irk you when people come with their art drawn?

Not at all. I’m happy to work with someone else’s art. But the end goal for most people is for them to want your art. I have a flash book, which is entirely my drawings. Some people who have tattoos are collectors of art by a specific artist. Then there’s people who come in with vague ideas. We also get people who want a tattoo but are not sure what they want. Then we get the people with specific ideas with elements that have to be included in the finished piece.

How has the business changed since you’ve worked in it? 

Tattooing wasn’t as big six or seven years ago when I started. These last five years it’s really blossomed but it was already moving away from the ‘bikers, criminals and sailors’ cliche. The business is changing. The idea when we opened this studio was to make our shop front open. It’s on the high street and we wanted to be accessible. But there are still plenty of traditional tattoo studios and yes, there are the weird preconceptions. 

How many staff do you have here?

We have five artists and an apprentice. We’re all doing different, but similar work. You get inspired by others and pick bits out of their work but essentially we all have our own styles and it’s important to hold what is unique to you. For example I only work in black. 

Yet the tattoos on your body are in colour?

Yes, but your tastes evolve.

What inspires you?

I always like to try new ideas. I like vintage flash art, like Amund Dietzel or Sailor Jerry but with an added modern twist. Some of the work in our studio is a redraw of 1940s art and a lot of the imagery I’m into comes from bikes. Because I work just in black I look at old bike magazines with lots of black and white images.

Is being tattooed addictive?

I think tattoos become a bug for customers. Something like 70 percent or more of our customers are repeat visitors. But we also get people who got a tattoo in the 1990s and it takes seeing the studio for them to come back for a second piece. But then they are hooked. I think these days the clients are more in control. They know the expectations and they expect a certain level of service. It wasn’t always like that.

You’ve got your Triumph bobber outside. Are you a biker at heart?

When I moved to London eight years ago I realised that cars and the city don’t mix and got into bikes. My first road bike was a GSX1100 which I’ve still got. It’s semisensible but I’ve customised it.

But the Triumph is a full-on chopper?

Yes, then I went to the chopper style. The Jawa, which we have in the studio, was built by me with some help from my buddies. That led to a different group of people coming in here.

What’s the back story to your Triumph?

It’s a 1970 Bonneville. I’ve had it a year because I wanted a ready-to-ride chop for summer. I bought it already built but changed a lot of things to suit me but it still doesn’t feel like it’s mine. I’m planning to build my own bike – a Shovel perhaps, something that will eat motorway miles.