Part 2/2: In the second part of our interview, tattoo artist Grace Neutral opens up about her journey from walking into a tattoo shop and being given a piercing apprenticeship to becoming the tattooist and studio owner she is today. Get ready for some hard truths.
If you missed part 1 of our interview with Grace Neutral, you can catch up here.
When did you know you wanted to be a tattoo artist? And what was your journey to becoming one?
I didn't know I wanted to be a tattoo artist. I knew I wanted to be tattooed at a young age – I was 15 when I started getting tattoos and piercings and I got really into that alternative lifestyle.
It wasn't until I moved to London and I walked into a tattoo studio and asked for an apprenticeship. They offered me a piercing apprenticeship and I focused on that for a few years. I loved it, but I knew that I needed more of a creative outlet.
I was always drawing in the studio, so it was a natural progression to want to be a tattooer – just from being around it so much while I was a body piercer.
Introducing the new Stories & Ink Grace Neutral tattoo care kit
But that was 14 years ago. It was a time when I was told I was just a stupid girl, you know, "you're a body piercer, you can't be a tattooer."
There was a lot of gatekeeping and borderline gaslighting things that would happen in the industry. Not just to me, this was a common thing. It's wild. It was one of those things where I wanted an apprenticeship, but I couldn't find one.
I also wanted to do hand poking, so I sought out the lessons of hand-poke artists. And just took it from there really. And I took a bit of shit for making that transition but whatever.
Do you think that gatekeeping in the industry has changed?
There’s so much more information out there now – you can't gatekeep tattooing because of the internet, which is great. Everyone should be able to have access to learning how to tattoo – regardless of who you are or who you know in the industry.
Because that's a lot of it, the industry was very gatekept. It was a who you know kind of environment where you could only get into certain spaces if you knew certain people.
"Everyone should have access to learning how to tattoo – regardless of who you are or know."
Being a woman as well – it was even worse for the women who are my elders, women who've been tattooing for 20 years. They know even better that there was this expectation to be more sexualised in the work environment.
You are more likely to be coerced into things that you may not necessarily want to do or encouraged to drink or take drugs in the work environment, things like that.
"There was a me too movement over lockdown - a lot of things came to the surface."
And it still happens. Because it hasn't been talked about enough. Me, as a woman, I've been talking about this stuff for years, because it's been my experience in tattooing. And it's a common experience with other women I've known in the industry.
It used to be hidden, it wasn't talked about. And when you did talk about it, it was like, oh, that's just how the industry is, pull your socks up and get on with it. People would say things like, if you want to be here, this is what you've got to endure. So I'm glad that’s changing because of conversations we're having.
"There was this breaking point in tattooing where it got so toxic."
There was a me too movement in tattooing over lockdown – a lot of things came to the surface. There was this breaking point in tattooing where it became so toxic. A lot of tattoo environments got so toxic that they became dangerous for a lot of people.
That's why there was this surge of rage. There was this outrage. Outrage of the people who’ve been enduring this for however many years: customers, artists and staff members who’ve been taken advantage of.
Is that one of the reasons you wanted to open your own shop, Femme Fatale?
That's exactly why I wanted to have my own space. I've had positive experiences in tattoo studios, but I've also had loads of negative ones. I’ve had enough experiences to know how I’d want my studio to be. I wanted safety and comfort to be at the forefront of Femme Fatale. I wanted it to be a safe space for me, my fellow workers, and also the people that come and get tattooed here.
The Stories & Ink Artist Series celebrates the talent of both accomplished and emerging tattoo artists
The energy is important, I wanted to take the creepy, seedy side of tattooing off the table. I didn’t want a cool club or Mean Girls vibe, you know. I've walked into so many tattoo studios over the last 15 years and been met with this energy that you have to prove who you are to be accepted into a space. And I hate that. I want people to come here and feel like they're at home.
"I've walked into many studios and been met with this energy that you have to prove who you are. I hate that."
Tattoos are expensive, and they're also permanent, so you're always going to remember your experience from getting tattooed, so you want it to be a positive one. That's what I love about Femme, is people come back – we call them repeat offenders. People come here and they don't just get tattooed by one artist, they come here, they like the vibe and then they actually feel comfortable enough to explore what’s on offer.
What drew you to hand-poking over machines, how's the process different?
My mum had loads of books on tribal culture and body modification within tribal culture. As a young girl, I was so inspired, just looking at these bodies and how they adorn themselves in different ways.
And what they would do to get their body to what they want it to be and the reasons behind that – it was super fascinating. That sunk into my subconscious and had a lot to do with me wanting to seek out a piercing apprenticeship.
Handpoke is when you tattoo with just a needle, usually attached to some kind of stick or handle, and you don't have the machine or the power pack or anything like that. So everything you're doing is by hand.
And I definitely think that the things I was seeing - the kind of natural essence of the body modification practices I was seeing as a young person because of these books - really impacted me and the way that I wanted to tattoo.
How would you describe your style of tattooing?
I’m obsessed with pattern work, symmetry and geometry. That's always been something that has been in the forefront of my vision of tattooing. My goal over the years has been to take these organic patterns that I draw and make them bigger and better. And I love doing big work like back pieces, sleeves, leg pieces and things like that.
My main goal has always been to refine and grow everything bigger and better. But geometry, repetitive patterns, nature, patterns inspired by nature and psychedelics, and things like that definitely have played a big part in my tattoo style.
What’s next for you as an artist?
To knuckle down, I guess. I want everything to grow and be better and thrive even more year after year. And I feel like that's organically happening with my art and also with the studio.
I had this idea at the beginning, of what I wanted Femme Fatale to be like, and the basis is still there, but nothing is ever what it seems. I thought that I was going to create this solid tattoo family – and I have, but it's not necessarily what I thought it was going to be like.
I've been working in tattoo shops since I was 18, and I do hold some old school values – it’s important to roll with the evolution of tattooing, because that's really important – but I thought that I’d find my forever tattoo family. And it's not what it seems.
The landscape of tattooers now is quite transient. I thought, for a while, I was doing something wrong, but I've realised that that's just not really how it works anymore.
People move around a lot more than I guess they would five or ten years ago. So that's been something as a boss and a shop owner that I've had to learn about because I really get emotionally invested in people.
Being a boss and a tattoo artist is very different. Being a tattoo artist is easy. You're a nomad, you’re a pirate, you can go wherever you want, and you have the freedom to do so.
But now I'm the captain of a ship. I have to worry about all these other people, which is a job in itself. And it's been an extremely fulfilling and rewarding job. And I wouldn't change it for the world but yeah, it's intense. It's a mad one.
About the Stories & Ink Artist Series
The Stories & Ink Artist Series celebrates the talent of accomplished and emerging tattooists across the world. Working side-by-side with some of the most exciting and talented artists in the industry, our Care Kits combine award-winning aftercare products and exclusive artwork in one stunning set.
Stories & Ink Artist Series #005 - Grace Neutral