Black British Tattoo Artists: An interview with Chanelle Jasmin, Sambeezus and Sammy Inks.

Photo credit: cover image is a tattoo by Sammy Inks

Yes, they exist! I went to tattoo studios Ink Lounge and Inkhouse London to find out a bit more about some Black Brit tattooists.

My first stop is Ink Lounge in Palmer’s Green, North London. I don’t have any tattoos myself so I don’t really know what to expect, but I definitely don’t expect to find that three out of the five artists present are women, and all women of colour. The studio is mainly decorated in blacks and greys – black wallpaper and what you might call gothic imagery on the walls – but it feels homey, warm and relaxing. Also, is it me or is the sound of the tattoo gun weirdly soothing? The tattooists and their clients all laugh and joke with each other, asking to see each others’ work and half watching an action movie on a TV perched on the counter. I interviewed Samantha Bent, better known as Sambeezus, and Chanelle Jasmin.

My second stop is Inkhouse London which is down south in Brixton, where I interview Sammy Inks. The studio is split into two floors – Sammy’s work area is upstairs. As I make my way up I’m greeted by Erykah Badu, singing to me from the speakers, a big grin from Sammy and an even bigger one from his client, even though she is getting a large floral design on her thigh that to me looks really painful. Sammy answers my questions while tattooing, in between Erykah Badu lyrics and sips of Supermalt.

When did you start tattooing and why?

Samantha Bent (SB): Four and a half years ago – it was offered to me. At the time everyone was heading to uni, but I didn’t want to go. I drew a tattoo design for my friend and went with him to get it done. The tattooist asked if I wanted to be an apprentice at his new studio – I’d never thought of it before at all. I asked my parents first haha, they were fine with it so I decided to give it a go for a year instead of uni.

Chanelle Jasmin (CJ): Four and a half years ago, same as Sam. I always loved art – wasn’t very good at school. I was okay grades wise but didn’t enjoy it and didn’t know what I wanted to do. Then I was getting a tattoo done and the tattooist was telling me about his job, how much money he makes, and I was like, now that’s an idea – and got an apprenticeship in a studio.

Sammy Inks (SI): 2011! Seven years ago now wow. When I started it was just for fun, I wasn’t really doing anything at the time. I always liked drawing – I studied art at college, then I went to Central St. Martin’s to do fashion for a year, but I left. I didn’t enjoy being told how to do my work, and it didn’t feel right. A friend of mine owned a tattoo studio at the time so I just took a chance and asked if I could do an apprenticeship.

I draw too– I make visual art. I prefer drawing – it’s not a chore, its less of a task, I’m not working on someone so I don’t have the pressure of having to make it good for anyone.

What’s your tattoo style?

SB: Black and grey realism – a little darker maybe than what some people like. My fave types of tattoos are animals. I like to do them on the forearms, thighs, calves because that’s where you get the smoothest skin that’s already stretched out for you. My least favourite are ribs and feet because they are so bony so you can’t do as much, and people don’t sit that still because it hurts!

CJ: Black and grey realism – portraits, faces – I like women’s faces. I like bringing things that don’t exist to life, like if someone wants a mermaid I’ll make it look as if she is real and not just a mythical creature. I like tattooing on flat surfaces – it’s important for realism so it’s not distorted.

SI: Still trying to work it out – I do a lot of black and grey realism but I like colour too, I don’t want to limit myself to one thing. I like doing portraits, animal faces, people’s faces.

Favourite piece of work?

SB: Ones that I like are ones I did for the first time, because you push yourself to do something you didn’t know you could. I did the Three Wise Monkeys (hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil) and it was the first time I’d ever done monkeys. I also recently did a gorilla’s face on my mate’s ribs that was nice.

CJ: Two women’s faces I did on a guy’s forearm. I messed around with them and made them look weird and horror style.

SI: No! That’s like asking someone to choose a favourite child. I always just say my next is my favourite. I don’t even remember all the tattoos I’ve done – I’ve had moments where someone has shown me a tattoo and I’m like oh shit – I did that?

Have you ever tattooed yourself?

SB: Yep – my first one was an acorn on my ankle, and one on my finger just to see how it feels – it really hurts, it’s so silly but you do it in the moment because you’re all hyped up, then two minutes in you’re like, for fuck’s sake, why did I do this.

SI: Yep, pretty much the whole left side of my body is my sketchpad. It hurts now, when I was younger it didn’t hurt as much, I guess back then I didn’t care. I wouldn’t do it again.

Favourite tattoo of your own?

SB: This one – I have a thing for cats haha. My mate Matt did it.

CJ: This one on my shin, done by a lady that works in Farringdon in a shop called The Family Business – she does pretty, dainty stuff like this – ornate tattoos. It took 8 hours.

SI: My grandma’s portrait that’s on my chest.

Do you know any other Black British tattoo artists?

CJ: Jezz Ink – he’s at a shop called Parlour Tattoo in Shoreditch.

SI: Dev Inkz, he’s at Ascendance Tattoo Studio in Hayes, West London, and Rob Daliftkid – he’s based in Sydenham, South London.

Who is your favourite tattooist?

SB: A Russian guy in Moscow called Alex Sorsa – he does black and grey realism too, the way he does faces and women’s eyes are amazing.

CJ: The lady that did the dainty one on my shin I mentioned earlier – the style is called ‘Ornate tattoos’. I wanted to do this style before, but I prefer black & grey realism because you have to do the work exactly like a picture/drawing – it’s more challenging. I also love Sam’s work, she knows how to adapt to all skin types, it all looks amazing.

SI: Yes, an artist called Dmitry Troshin – he inspires me and I like his style and work.

There are lots of TV shows about tattoo corrections and cover-ups now. Have you to fix anything crazy?

SB: I had to cover someone’s back because he had KATIE written in old English letters at the top of his back. When he broke up with the first Katie he tried to only date women called Katie! Then eventually came in for me to cover it up. That’s why I don’t tattoo people’s partner’s names anymore. Why would you even want to get that? It’s like ownership and proving yourself for someone when you shouldn’t have to. I know if they don’t get it done here they’ll do it somewhere else, but at least I didn’t do it!

CJ: Yes, I do a lot of cover-ups, pretty much all from home tattooists. People come in all the time like “Yeah I got a tattoo from this guy who works from his house, he has a tattoo on his forehead”. It’s so silly.

Advice for tattooists starting out?

SB: Build up your portfolio – work part-time because the apprenticeships aren’t paid – and realise you’re going to be doing the crap work – at least six months of basic things like cleaning, setting up shop, admin, learning tattoo hygiene, managing appointments etc. You just watch other tattoo artists every day and ask lots of questions. Sometimes I’d be falling asleep watching someone tattoo. People have to see that you’re dedicated like that and then they start teaching you, giving you tips. You can learn a lot from watching if you can learn like that. Like I did art in school, studying Picasso and all of that stuff, but I learnt ten times more than that being out in the real world, in my apprenticeship. I got an A* in art A-level but I still couldn’t get into art uni – they weren’t impressed. So it’s bullshit. Whereas if you go out and get a craft/skill you have something to show for yourself – then people take you seriously.

CJ: I’d say do it the right way – don’t take it into your own hands and buy a kit online, as well as the skill of tattooing you need to learn hygiene and lots of other things first, you’re messing with people’s bodies at the end of the day, they can get nasty diseases. Don’t try and do it the easy way because it’s NOT the easy way, and you won’t be able to shift the stigma, you’ll always be a home tattooist. People want to know where you did your apprenticeship just like any other job. Also, be patient! It takes a hell of a long time, and it’s unpaid, and you have to clean up a lot. Stick with it – draw every day – stay motivated.

Black tattooists specifically?

SB: It’s pretty much the same – just be aware of the fact that there’s not many of us. For me being black and a woman, there’s not much representation in the tattoo world. I used to watch LA ink allll the time on TV but I never made the connection between seeing the tattooists do it, me liking it, and thinking oh, I can do that too. I just had no idea! And all school tells you is to go to uni so I wasn’t making that connection in school either.

SI: You’re gonna get shit – people are going to think you’re shit because you’re black. The stereotype is that tattooists are white – at my first tattoo convention I was pretty much the only black person there – I was very aware of that. Even when I go into other tattoo shops, everyone assumes I’m there to get a tattoo instead of to do one.

A massive thank you to Samantha, Chanelle, Sammy Inks, Ink Lounge and Inkhouse London for welcoming us into their world and giving us such fun places to spend the afternoon getting to know them all.

And a special thanks to our multi-talented BRAP editor Fiona Giali for taking the beautiful portraits of the artists. You can find more of her pictures on Instagram @fiona_giali and @_tbj_, a photo archive where she is Head Curator.

You can find the tattooists on Instagram:

Samantha: @SambeezusTattoo

CJ: @ChanelleJasminArt

Sammy: @Sammy_Inks