Part 1/2: Grace Neutral is one of the UK's leading tattoo artists, specialising in handpoke tattoos from her London-based studio, Femme Fatale. In the first of this double part interview we peel back the layers to find out more about the human behind the ink. Meet Grace Neutral as you’ve never seen her before.
Tattoo artist Grace Neutral is an icon in the tattoo world – from her purple tattooed eyeballs to the mandalas she handpokes into people’s skin, everyone knows who she is. So we were excited to be invited to spend time hanging out with her in east London.
It was a rainy morning but we were welcomed into Femme Fatale, like a hug from an old friend. Grace has such a gorgeous energy, and as we sat down to have a deep and meaningful chat we felt like we were at home.
Our conversation travelled from what made her fall in love with tattooing and where she is on her own tattoo journey to the dogs that have become her family and how she feels about being a heavily modified woman in this world.
What was your first memory of tattoos and what made you fall in love with them?
When I was really young, living in Plymouth, I used to go to this pub called the Phoenix that put on punk and alternative music nights. Back in the day, you could be under 18 and just go anywhere.
There were loads of punks and heavily tattooed people, like I'd never seen before. Then it just went from there. They were some of the earliest memories of actually interacting and seeing tattoos firsthand.
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Can you share a little of your tattoo journey and how you’ve modified your own body?
I've always thought of body modification and tattooing as a really good way for me to express myself, do something therapeutic, help me go through something, help me work through something, help me break through to the next kind of evolution of who I want to be.
It’s super important to me, and always has been. It’s a major tool in my expression. Our body is our temple, but it's also here to be enjoyed in whatever way we want. You know, it's our body. It's our life. And this has just been a way for me to express myself comfortably throughout my adult years.
When we first met, I think about 10 years ago, you’d just had your eyeballs tattooed purple. How do you feel about them now? And what do you remember about the process?
My eyeball tattoo experience was the most intense, and probably the hardest procedure I've ever had to go through. It was so long ago now, so it's hard to remember exactly how it was.
"If I woke up tomorrow and I didn't have my eyes tattooed, it wouldn't be something I'd be rushing out to do again"
But I do remember it being super, super traumatic. Nothing was going to prepare me for actually being in the hot seat. I say this all the time, I would not be able to do it now. I don't think I’d mentally be able to get through the procedure now. I was more daring when I was young, more carefree. It’s a natural thing, to get more cautious with age.
If I woke up tomorrow, and I didn't have my eyes tattooed anymore, it wouldn't be something I'd be rushing out the door to do again. Not because I don't love the way it looks – I'm obsessed with my eyes and I'm so glad I did it – but it was a really scary experience. Yeah, I would not recommend it.
At what point in your own journey are you at now? Do you think it ever ends?
I don’t think there's like an end destination. It's all about the journey and I don't think it will ever stop. I'll always have the desire to transform my body – in whatever way that may be. But I definitely go through periods where I'm not in the mood to get tattooed or there's things I want to do, but I'm just not in the right frame of mind.
I might not get tattooed for a year, six months, maybe longer. Then when I get that calling to get something done, or I feel like I'm in the mood to go through the tattoo experience, then I'll do it and I'll probably knock out a few.
We’re heading into the season of tatcalling, does the way you look attract attention and is that something that bothers you?
It’s totally a thing. Just being a woman in the world. In the UK, we're all so repressed by the winter, so when summer comes, everyone kind of loses their mind a bit.
And as a woman, you're always gonna get attention walking down the street. You could literally be wearing a tracksuit and the type of person who's gonna catcall or, like you said, tatcall, they're gonna do it regardless.
But being a woman and being heavily tattooed, if I just put a pair of shorts and a vest on in the summer, people definitely react a lot differently. My legs are so heavily tattooed at this point, that a lot of people think that they're leggings. I'm like, no, these are my legs.
"There’s this stereotype as a modified woman that you’re some kind of outlandish nymph"
Being a woman and being tattooed, it almost gives the type of person who’s going to catcall anyway feel like they’ve got even more of a right to say something off key to you. There’s this stereotype as a heavily modified woman that you’re some kind of outlandish nymph who's up for having sex with anyone at any time. It’s a big misconception. It’s frustrating. But also, because I've been so tattooed for so long, I’m used to it.
Tattoos play into it, but all women know what it's like in the summer on a hot day, you want to put on a pair of cycling shorts and a vest or a summer dress – you want to wear it because it's going to be more comfortable, and I have the right to wear whatever I want – but if I wear this I'm probably gonna get some unwanted attention. But I think that that's just being a woman.
We love being here in the studio with your dogs, do you consider your pets to be your family?
I could talk about my animals all day. I have two dogs. And this is Reggie [looks down at the chihuahua on her knee], he's a little foster friend. I look after him sometimes, but he's basically part of the family. Then there’s Meg, she’s four, she’s my second baby beans. She’s the light of my life. And my first-born is Mildred. They have been coming to the studio with me since they were puppies, they were like eight weeks old when I got them.
They've just always been here, they've just been part of a part of the furniture and they love the customers. They love them so much. And the customers love them. They bring such a sweet, calming energy.
Some people are nervous coming to tattoo studios, like you never know what the vibe is going to be like, and I think being greeted by the puppies as soon as you walk in brings a lot of ease to people and makes them feel at home.
And it’s a distraction if you're worried about the pain or you're feeling nervous. Mildred is a really good emotional support dog. She loves to lay on the customers and give them cuddles before they get tattooed.
How do you relax at the end of the day?
Being in nature is really important. It's hard to find the balance of that when living in London. Going on dog walks every day, that’s my peace. I usually walk to work or walk back from work. So that's a nice way to decompress. But I like having chill time with my mates. We do a lot of stuff here at Femme. We'll have drinks after work or just chit chat.
The Stories & Ink Artist Series celebrates the talent of both accomplished and emerging tattoo artists
Is there anything about you that people might be surprised by?
Over the years, there’s been so many preconceptions that people have of me – it’s always kind of funny to hear the whispers of the industry. But I'm a massive hermit. I wouldn't say I'm an introvert, I would say I’m an ambivert – I learned this recently, which is an introverted extrovert.
I can be really out there, I can be this chatting and vivacious version of myself. But I spend a lot of time on my own with my animals. I'm happier being around dogs and cats.
I used to be a big party animal – really crazy and out all the time doing wild things – but now it's the calmer side of life that I really enjoy. And the stillness and the peacefulness. I think a lot of people would look at me and not think that.
Read Part 2...
In the second part of our interview, Grace opens up about her journey from tattoo apprentice to studio owner, including what it's like to be a female tattooist in a male-dominated industry.