Listen to this article
At 15, Saira Hunjan took her mother along to meet the person with whom she would do work experience in the school holidays. “You know there’s going to be a lot of swearing,” he warned the mother and daughter. So began Ms Hunjan’s career as a tattoo artist. The 32-year-old’s introduction to the industry was at Barry Louvaine’s tattoo parlour in south London. The late Louvaine, the adoptive son of a circus performer, tattooed celebrities including actors Mickey Rourke and Drew Barrymore.
As a teenager Ms Hunjan was fascinated by the traditions of body adornment, particularly Indian decorative art, fabric patterns and temples. She was “forever drawing”, first on paper then on herself before moving on to the arms and legs of willing friends. After buying a tattoo magazine she knew what she wanted to do. Her parents, Indians born in Uganda and Kenya, did not try to steer her on to a more sensible path – her father, who worked in electronic repairs, used to do oil paintings and portraits in biro in his spare time. After entering her interests into a computer programme at the school career service she was offered a variety of stints at conventional offices. “I thought ‘I don’t want to do any of these’.” So she sought out Louvaine.
It wasn’t until she was 17 that she had her first tattoo. Today most of her body is covered, she says, apart from a “few bits on [her] sides”. She has stopped working on her body though rarely feels self-conscious if anyone is staring at her: “I don’t even think about it. I guess the older I get I don’t mind.”
While studying for a fine arts degree at Camberwell College of Art she was also apprenticed to a studio in Surrey. This involved “cleaning, making tea, earning my keep and proving that I really wanted to do this. Then alongside I learnt to tattoo.” First, practising on bananas and grapefruit, before moving on to friends and colleagues at the tattoo parlour. “Some of these people are so heavily tattooed that they’re up for you having a go.” Over time she learnt how different skin reacts to pressure, how not to overwork the skin.
The work can be emotionally intense for both tattooist and client. Tattoos can mark the start of a new life after a break-up or a memorial to a dead friend or relative. She recalls one significant job: tattooing a goddess with peacock feathers across the chest of a client who had had a double mastectomy. “My job can have a powerful impact on an individual and help in the healing process.”
Today she has a two-year waiting list and can command “at least” £100 an hour. She has painted swallows on supermodel Kate Moss and elaborate tattoos on bankers who don’t want the designs to be below the shirt cuffs or above the collar.
But, having moved to Wales from London “to get out of all the craziness and connect with nature”, she has branched into other areas. Collaborating with leather goods maker Ettinger, she has produced wallets and purses as well as working on swimwear, tents and prints. In doing so she has joined a small but growing number of tattoo artists who are extending their creative skills beyond body adornment to luxury goods.
Mo Coppoletta, who owns The Family Business tattoo parlour in Clerkenwell, has worked with Liberty, the department store known for its paisley prints, on a series of fabrics, as well as designs for the Parisian fanmaker Duvelleroy and Romain Jerome, the watchmaker.
“Very few tattoo artists have the vision to expand the brand,” he says. He has recently doubled the amount of space in his parlour.
Tattoo artists should look beyond body art if they want a long-term future, says James Sandercock, editor of Total Tattoo. “There has been a massive explosion in tattooing in the last ten years. People’s attitudes have changed – the generation have grown up with it on TV, websites and blogs. From a small niche area it has grown massively to become part of a youth movement. So many people are tattooed that there are generations coming through that see it as normal. It is no longer taboo and the next generation may opt out of tattooing because it is so mainstream.”
Ms Hunjan – who used to work at The Family Business – is horrified by the ease with which people can set themselves up as tattoo artists. “Everything is available on the internet; it is quite scary . . . People won’t learn about hygiene.” In the past five years she says there has been an explosion of people entering the industry.
A Pew Research poll from 2010 found nearly four in 10 American “Millennials” (those in their teens and 20s) had a tattoo (and for most who do, one is not enough: about half of those with tattoos have two to five and 18 per cent have six or more). It also found that 32 per cent of people aged 30 to 45 had a tattoo.
In part this is due to reality television shows such as Miami Ink, which started in 2005 and led to the spin-offs London Ink, NY Ink and LA Ink. They helped normalise tattoos as well as launch some of its artists as stars. Kat Von D, one of the original show’s tattoo artists, became a celebrity, dating Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Six and TV star Jesse James, and capitalised on her fame by producing several merchandising spin-offs including T-shirts and hoodies as well as a cosmetics line.
Sion Smith, editor of Skin Deep, a British tattoo magazine, agrees that the market – which has proven resilient to the recession – is saturated. However, he believes the elite will always be in demand as well as less-skilled tattooists catering to legions of people who “want their husband’s name on their arm”. It is the mid-range studios on the high street that have grown in reaction to tattooing’s fads and fashions that are most vulnerable.
At the top end, the market is now international. “It’s not about walking into your nearest studio,” says Ms Hunjan. “It’s about [selecting an artist] and getting on a train or flying to a different country because this is who you want to work on you.” A number of her clients have flown in from New York and across Europe. “It’s going to be on you for the rest of your life . . . It’s like getting a custom suit made.”
For Mr Coppoletta, moving into other areas is not just about increasing his career longevity, it is about sustaining job satisfaction. “You can’t be creative and inspired all the time. When you do any job you experience – like in relationships – love and passions. It’s a rollercoaster. There’s times when you are inspired and others when you can’t find the motivation. It’s easy to fall into apathy but it’s up to you to keep yourself going.”
Letter in response to this report: