At Manchester Tattoo Tea Party in March, tattooed people are walking around the convention checking out the latest work from their favourite artists. Some are wearing all black, some are dolled up and some – quite a few, actually – are wearing T-shirts which say FUCK TATTOO FIXERS in bold caps. In three words, this is essentially the response from some parts of the industry to the E4 show, now in its second season.
Here's the way every Tattoo Fixers episode plays out. A person walks into a makeshift tattoo studio. They have a crap tattoo. It's probably a cock on a leg, or a stick-and-poke outline of Jim Carrey's face. The sort of ink you get in a backstreet parlour in Magaluf or on a DIY punk mate's sofa. The one saving grace is that they're usually small. They can usually can be covered up with a shirt or socks. However, this person wants it hidden permanently. They want a free cover-up.
Enter the Tattoo Fixers. Sketch, Jay and Alice stroll in with their pads and pens and hear the regrettable story of how needle perforated skin. The recipient then gets the artists to each sketch out options for the cover-up. This is when viewers begin to get the buzz. You know what's coming – it always comes, even though, you think, surely not again, not this time. Three huge designs. A whopping great profile of a stag that'd stretch across a chest to cover a little bit of script. A zombie face ripping through flesh to cover a lightly sketched stick figure. The person waits. They choose one of the designs. The artist responsible for the chosen design has won. The artist and the recipient go to the back of the shop to start work on the cover-up.
If you haven't watched Tattoo Fixers before, you're missing out. It's a show that reaches the dizzying highs and delightfully predictable lows of Don't Tell the Bride or Come Dine with Me. It's one of the best shows on British TV.
But for anyone who knows about tattooing, it's something more. In the last few weeks, numerous members of the British tattoo industry have become pissed off with the show for various reasons, and now this feud has arrived at a full-on stand-off.
"There's always a strong response from the tattooing industry to tattoo shows," explains Paul Taylor, the tattoo artist behind the "Fuck Tattoo Fixers" T-shirts. "But this has been different because it's a direct attack on us as a British industry. That's how it's come across. I made the T-shirts as a joke, and before I knew it, people wanted them. We sold over 100 immediately and now we've inspired a few tribute acts. I've seen all different kinds of T-shirts on everyone."
On Instagram the #fucktattoofixers hashtag is well and truly popping off.
Paul is angry for the same reasons that other artists are. For starters, the tattoos are "unnecessarily fucking huge", according to Hannah Calavera, an artist who wrote a blog about the show – which was taken down after she was threatened with legal action by Studio Lambert, the production company behind the programme. "They're just making the same tattooing mistakes again, except worse, because the things they do over the top are so fucking dark and needlessly massive," she says. "Especially when the original tattoo is really tiny or faded."
Hannah explains that there are certain basic codes of conduct that aren't being adhered to. "The checklist I go by before doing a cover-up is: Will I be able to improve the original tattoo? Will it look like an original tattoo when it's finished, or a cover-up? If I think it's a cover-up then I won't do it. Will they be happy with it long-term? Because who's to say that after a few weeks they won't go, 'Actually, I've had this huge tattoo in place that I probably would never have got tattooed if I'd had a choice,' and then regret it as much as the original?"
This, she feels, is not being asked on the show. Instead of getting a large cover-up, laser removal should be an option. Due to the nature of the show's format, this doesn't happen. "I think it's a responsibility on our part to make sure we're not just doing something for the sake of it, because then you have added to the number of people who are unhappy with their tattoos," she explains.
A Tattoo Fixers representative responded to these concerns by saying, "Cover-ups are often a third bigger. Regardless of whether big or not, the contributor gets sign-off on the design."
Another issue cropping up online is the suggestion that Sketch has been copying other artists' work (when asked for comment on this allegation, there was no response from either the producers or Sketch). Sneaky Mitch and Emily Rose Murray are two names that appear often, while Antony Flemming says Sketch has lifted tattoo designs from him. He says he found out about it after people online kept linking him to a rose neck design on his Instagram very similar one of Sketch's. "It's an extra big kick in the teeth when Sketch is so big and has been on TV."
As Paul Taylor puts it, this is one of the only times the tattoo community in the UK has really rallied together as an industry. "Even if it's not a friend, you see someone's work being copied and it's like it's happened to you. You think, 'Should I put my stuff online in case it gets ripped off?'" he says. "I've been tattooing 15 years and it feels like an affront to anyone who's ever tried in this world."
And, of course, then there's the person who paid a lot of money for a custom tattoo getting mugged off.
This beef has escalated beyond the industry. Now, people who have had cover-ups done on the show are coming forward with serious complaints about the work. On Monday, The Mirror reported that someone tattooed in the first season by Sketch has been left "devastated" and with bad scarring. The show's makers responded that duty of care to participants was "paramount" and that consultations with a dermatologist had been arranged.
In a Facebook post, another person, Daniel Head, accused the show of various ills, such as tattooing him when he was very sick and encouraging him to sit through long periods of tattooing. E4 responded that he had been enthusiastic about filming at the time and that the show followed "stringent safety regulations".
There are even people who have been on the programme coming forward with tattoos showing through the cover-up. "There are rules in tattooing dictated to us by the skin," explains Paul. "We've got mates with numerous emails in their inboxes about writing showing through wings, and stuff like that."
Hannah says that since her blog went viral, she's had people volunteering photos of healed cover-ups that were done on the programme. "You can see the old tattoo in every single one," she says. "They never show healed photos on the programme. How are the people on there and the TV viewers supposed to see this in context?"
There has, however, come a resolution of sorts. Ben Doran, a tattoo artist in Bath, posted a status on his Facebook saying he'd sort out anyone's tattoo from the show who wasn't happy with what they ended up with. He says he's had 10 to 12 people contact him wanting their botch job fixed. "I didn't think there'd be an explosion with my post, but it got thousands of likes and hundreds of shares, just overnight. If anyone wants their tattoo covered or repaired, we'll do it for free. Some of the people who've got in touch, you can see the original tattoo underneath. For others, they're just absolutely heartbroken," says Ben.
"If you can see a tattoo underneath a cover-up, it's not a cover-up. I had a girl with a peacock feather on her bum message me for help. The tattoo isn't horrendous, but it looks really aged and you can see the whole tattoo coming through underneath. There was the girl that had the gypsy head to cover up the clown. I've had a guy who's had an octopus on his hand to cover a dick on the side of his finger. There's the guy who had two wolves on his arm to cover the football fan pissing on a shirt. All these people got in contact with me."
Now, a laser tattoo removal guy has teamed up with Ben. Anyone who Ben cannot immediately cover is able to get free laser removal until the area is more ready to be covered up by Ben. "There's no dislike or disdain from me towards Sketch or the producers of the show or the show itself. It's TV at the end of the day. But it's putting us back as an industry."
Not everyone who's been involved with the show hates their new tattoo, of course. Natalie, who was on Monday night's episode, told us she loved her experience so much she wants another one. "I had a great experience – I don't know what anyone's going on about, to be honest," she said. "I had a wolf on my forearm by Jay and it covered up a crap tattoo of a cat I had. I've applied for next season. I'll probably not get on next time, but I've got a tattoo on my shoulder I want to get covered and I want Sketch to do it."
We reached out to E4 and Tattoo Fixers and a rep said, "Over a million people regularly enjoy the show. Far from portraying the tattoo industry negatively, we are very proud of the team, their artistry, professionalism and the quality of their work. Naturally people will have opinions on different designs; however, we get a huge amount of positive feedback from viewers and, of course, the contributors themselves."
On Monday, Sketch addressed the scandal for the first time. After making his social media accounts private and then public again, Sketch shared a supportive post on Instagram from another tattoo artist. The tattooist, Leigh Coombs, called on people to stop weighing in on the drama and stop slating Sketch online – while adding that the work wasn't up to a decent standard. "Yes I can admit that a fair amount of the work on there is below par and the conditions in the studio change with different camera angles, but the way that Sketch is being treated is disturbing to say the least," Leigh posted.
Is this Sketch repenting for his sins, or accidentally admitting that some of the work is "sub par"? Where will it go from here? Will this saga end in him leaving the show? Will the show have to make adjustments? Will there be an on-air apology? When will the bad tattoos end?
The main problem in all of this, according to members of the industry, is the way Tattoo Fixers is making them look, as individuals, as British artists, as a community. "The average person watching this on British TV doesn't know the standards at which tattooing can be," said Antony. "Being given the intro to the show, which says these are the best artists in the country, they'll believe that these are as good as tattoos can be. They're not even average tattoos, they're bad tattoos – especially Sketch's. We don't want UK tattooists made to look like fucking idiots."
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