Several train stops out of the city center, you will find Painted Lady tattoo parlour in Northfield, Birmingham, where a host of the city’s finest tattoo artists reside including Dawnii Fontana, Nick Imms, Gary Stanley and our good friend Andrew John Smith. His traditional subject matter matched with bold colour palettes and modern shading techniques give him his unique style.
His work ranges from bespoke designs to tattooing trains on writers. 2016 has seen him guest at studios all across the UK and Europe and the summer will see him make the move to the big smoke where you will find him at Parliament Tattoo.
You’ve been working at Painted Lady for the past two years, how has that been?
It’s been awesome actually. I knew the guys here before I started, which was cool. It was a natural progression to move here rather than like feeling forced to be in a studio you didn’t really know or whatever, it just kind of felt like home already.
Has your style changed since being here and being around different artists?
Yes. I think my style has progressed a lot but not even just my style, like my technical ability and stuff. I kind of felt I didn’t really know what I was doing with tattooing before. But yes, I wasn’t 100% sure what I was doing. I could put on a tattoo but you know when you don’t know the science behind it or anything, you don’t really know what you’re doing.
It’s good having Dawnii [Painted Lady] here, people that have been tattooing for a while and they know the ins and outs of it.
Gary Stanley [Painted Lady] has been telling me, he’s been tattooing in Birmingham for like 25 years or something ridiculous. So people like that, where you can just ask a question and he actually knows a good answer. Whereas I’ve worked with people in the past that kind of just feel like they are making stuff up as they are going along. Somebody being able to tell you exactly why something is happening is obviously going to push you to progress so much quicker. Just being around other people where you like their work as well. The natural progression … it almost forces you to work harder.
Because you don’t want to get left behind?
You don’t want to be that guy that’s like the shit person at the shop. It’s always good to have better peers around you isn’t it?
So now you’ve been living in Brum for a while, what are your thoughts on Birmingham? What do you like about living here at the moment?
I think I was attracted to Birmingham for the graff scene. I would always come over here. The paint shop was here and they had like legal walls and shit, which they didn’t have in Coventry. The scene here was more progressed. Coventry is Coventry and I don’t want to sit here and slate Coventry, however it’s not the most productive in many of art scenes.
So how long have you been tattooing now then?
I’ve been tattooing just over five years I think. It’s been an interesting experience.
What got you in to it?
I didn’t ever really want to be a tattooist, it just naturally happened. It was off the back of just being in to art and doing different art forms and people knowing that I did that. So even years before I even got interested in being a tattooist, I did a lot of tattoo designs for mates and stuff because the shops in Coventry weren’t great. People wanted design work done by artists that weren’t necessarily tattooists.
How do you feel about that now? You wouldn’t really do a tattoo that someone else had drawn would you?
No, I think it’s changed quite a lot, even in the years I’ve been doing it. I think nowadays, people have the means of Instagram and stuff so it’s really easy to find out if you like something. Whereas even when I started it just wasn’t… well definitely when I started getting tattooed, back when I was like 18 or whatever, there was none of that. So people literally just went to whatever they heard was the best tattoo shop and you would pick something off the wall, or you’d try and make something on like Word on your mum’s computer or something and just take in like a bit of shit font and get that tattooed on you. But nobody had a specific artist to go to or anything.
It used to be all set pieces and shit, panthers and all that sort of stuff.
Yes, all that which weirdly is coming back now. They’re back in fashion now where people are just happy to go to an artist, see their work and get like whatever, which is quite cool I think. Obviously, they become like your easiest customers really because they’re interested in your art more than what they necessarily want. I think the Miami Ink sort of era when everybody just thought somebody has got to have died of cancer for me to get a tattoo; they just built some crazy back story around every tattoo… I think that’s slowly going now so people just get tattoos because they’re rad, rather than because they’ve got some well deep reason for it. You know when you’re in a pub and some bellend who has not got a single tattoo comes up and he says oh what does that tattoo mean? It is fashion as well you know. You wouldn’t walk up to a stranger in a pub… well you might do if you’re a knob… and just go why are you wearing that t-shirt? I think you’re more likely to keep your opinions to yourself but for some reason with tattooing, I don’t know why but people think it’s like their business that you’ve got a tattoo and I feel like it’s a bit of a weird concept that really. I can’t imagine ever just walking up to somebody and being like, why did you have your hair cut like that or whatever, so why is it okay to walk up to a stranger and be like what does your tattoo mean or why have you got a tattoo on your face, which I get all the time off dickheads.
How would you describe your style? Would you say it’s more like a neo-traditional or would you not go for that?
I think it lends itself more to just traditional. It’s rendered more like modern in the way I do a lot of colour blends and stuff. Whereas I think a lot of artists stick to like a three or four colour palette with a big black whip shade, whereas I tend to blend my colours more. But I still like the concept of… I like the composition of traditional.
What’s your favorite style to do? You did a lot of tattoos on graffiti artists of trains and shit like that.
I like stuff like that. I enjoy the fact that it’s on somebody that I can really relate to and have a bit of a chat with about common interests and stuff. That’s cool. I feel like it’s a bit like getting up still where you know, tattooing a load of graffiti words. It’s become now like they’ve all got a piece by me. All the writers in the UK… it’s like, I’ve got an Andrew John Smith tattoo and it’s cool. It’s nice to know that these people would still want my work, even though I’m not painting that much these days, they still have that kind of respect to come to me for tattoos.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve tattooed? I know it’s a hard one to think of on the spot.
Yes, it is. I haven’t done that many like real strange tattoos I don’t think. I think they’d be odd to regular people. I’ve done quite a few ACAB tattoos and FTP tattoos, but due to the terrible company I keep. But I get asked a lot by average guys, about these train tattoos that I do a lot of. They’re like, why do you tattoo so many trains? I guess to them it’s pretty odd having like an East Midland or a Midland train tattooed on your leg but to writers and that it makes perfect sense. So I quite like that. I guess some people would consider that kind of weird, having your favourite train tattooed on you. I swear people think I’m like a trainspotter and I tattoo loads of trainspotters. But that’s more on that vibe than peculiar stuff.
So we skimmed across it earlier, the internet and Instagram and how it’s affected the tattoo industry. Do you feel it’s a good thing or a bad thing?
Yes, a good thing definitely. I owe loads to Instagram I reckon. I remember when I hadn’t been tattooing that long and a lad I worked with, he said about this new thing called Instagram, and I was just like a proper technophobe, like no idea what you’re talking about. I had like a bad boy Nokia that just texts and you have to pay a load of money for a picture message, or download it on a website or some shit. And when I first got it, I didn’t think it was going to be that big a deal. I just started sticking a few tattoos on it, more lifestyle stuff, look at my dinner all that crap. Then over the years, it’s just gone mental like. Now I reckon I get 90% of my work off Instagram and Tumblr and shit like that.
I think before, you’d only really know about other tattoo artists through magazines.
Going and buying a tattoo magazine was the only way you would ever go and find out about who was tattooing in other cities or stuff, or you’d have a mate who had been tattooed in another city or whatever. But yes, Instagram made it so like… the amount of amazing artists that are out there. I think it’s progressed the art form as well because people have that natural competition that they’re seeing stuff other people are doing and thinking fuck, I need to up my game.
So tell us about your move to London?
I have been lucky enough to do some guest spots in London and kind of felt that it was somewhere I wanted to make a move to eventually and even when I started in Birmingham, I kind of always had it in mind that Birmingham would be a stepping stone to go eventually to London and then hopefully eventually to other places.
Any fucking words of wisdom? Any people that you want to big up for helping you along the way?
Yes, massive shout out to Dawnii Fantana who I have the honour of working next to every day at Painted Lady in Birmingham for the last few years who has helped me no end. Going from having a boss that wasn’t necessarily that influential to having a boss who couldn’t go more out of her way to help has literally completely changed my career. Then just all the lads, you know who you are. The people who have just been there for me in shit times and also just being inspiring. Being around other creative people is so helpful. You know, I love my old friends that I went to school with so much, so big up them, but like being around other artists has pushed me much harder to do the work that I do. My mother for always helping me out when shit was bad. And of course Keely; following my heart to London ’n’ all that.