Recently, an organization representing local governments in the UK said "illegal" tattooists should face tougher punishments for doing permanent scribbles on children. Which, you know, fair enough. People without any real knowledge or experience of scarring humans with ink should probably stay away from kids.
These unlicensed tattooers—known as "scratchers"—often work from home "studios," or hotel rooms, or public parks, or any number of other unsanitary, unregistered—i.e. illegal—locations, and advertise their services on social media. But just because they haven't let their local government know they're inking people, does that mean their work is inherently bad?
We asked some friends to show off their "illegal" tattoos—any done by tattoo "artists" who aren't really tattoo artists—to see what all the fuss is about.
It was 2008, and I was 18. A bunch of us were at our friend Ste's house drinking Zeppelin, which is a really awful cheap cider you can only get from bargain booze. My mate Stacie had recently done a homemade tattoo using Indian ink and a sewing needle bound to the end of a pencil, and we decided we all wanted one. I ended up going last, and by this time, everyone was super drunk. I said I wanted a tooth because it was my favorite shape (plus it was a reference to my blog at the time, lol). Turns out teeth are hard to draw when you've had three liters of White Lightning, and when I saw it wasn't how I wanted it, I took the needle off Stacie and corrected her mistake, in ink. I woke up mortified at the mess on my ankle, but I've grown to love it, and it's probably one of my favorite tattoos.
Last year, while on a skate trip in Barcelona, we took refuge from the rain at my friend Pau's apartment. Pau, who is not a tattoo artist, had smoked a few piff sticks and was nicely toasted when he got his tattoo machine out and asked us what we wanted, to which I replied, "Just make something up, man." He scribbled down on a piece of paper a bong riding a scooter with the text "SK8 OR DIE" underneath. We totally lost our shit laughing, so my friend Pete and I had him tattoo us both with the same design.
ALWAYS GOING TO DIE
My friend told me he knew someone at his work who was doing tattoos for free at his house, so I went over to his place. He couldn't get the needle working, which was slightly worrying. He got out his sketch book, and I basically closed my eyes and pointed. I chose this tat: "NOPE," framed by a tombstone. I thought it was cool because it's like, "Yeah man, I'm never gonna die!" About two weeks later, the ink started to go all bumpy, and it became really itchy. That was about eight months ago. It's still really itchy, and now I'm scared I'm going to die.
When I was 17, getting a tattoo machine sounded like the greatest idea in the world to me and my friends. Not in some earnest entrepreneurial way; we literally just wanted to draw dicks and insults on one another. As the only one of my friends who already had a tattoo, I nominated myself to sit in the hot seat when the machine finally arrived at my parents' house. After grabbing the first picture we saw—an old Mr. Men book I had as a kid—we shakily drew the cover picture on my leg and got to work.
I'm not sure what made the tattoo more shaky—the fact my friend had no clue what he was doing, or the fact I was worried my parents could come in at anytime and bust this whole bootleg operation open. Long story short: My friend didn't finish the job and left me to hastily finish it by myself. Our tattoo career didn't last long, aside from writing, "You take care of the tattoo, I'll take care of the business" on our friend's ass.
Side note: The eye is half missing because I got in an argument with someone at a party while it was healing, and she legitimately kicked the eye off my Mr Bump. Heartbroken.
It was 2008. I'd been at DMZ the night before and awake for most of the last 24 hours. I got one of those 11 AM calls where someone asks you how you are, and you just reply, "Never again." I was feeling the first shakes of a seven Red Stripe comedown and needed company, so when my friend—who was a classic straight-edge kid—called me up to ask if I'd come by his place on Caledonian Road to get a "small Sailor Jerry" badge tattooed on my leg, that would match my mood and help his portfolio, it seemed like a great idea.
The outline felt weird, but I'd lost consciousness a couple of times throughout and didn't really think about it. Once he was done, I realized that the "little badge" took up most of the side of my shin. I was practically an alcoholic and realized that I was the bearer of an ironic tattoo. I looked from my bleeding shin to his look of Lucozade-fueled pride and promptly went to the bathroom to throw up. Never again.
I continued to do this on a monthly basis for the next two years.
I was in Budapest with some friends, staying at a hostel with a big beardy local guy who said he'd give us a tour of the city if we paid him in beer. When we stopped to eat something terrible, I mentioned that I wanted to get a tattoo while we were there, and our fat drunk friend said he knew the perfect guy for the job.
That afternoon, he took me to what looked like a storage lockup. When he knocked on the corrugated steel cover, a guy with a big scar on his face came out the side door and let us in. Inside, we were told the spot was where a local gang stashed cash and drugs, and that my soon-to-be tattoo artist—who was not a tattoo artist but did have all the equipment—had just been released from jail after serving time for a firearms charge. He then got a gun out to illustrate that point. It was the first time I'd seen a gun in person, and I began to sweat a lot.
Anyway, I told him I wanted a train, because my friends and I were InterRailing around Europe at the time, and he got an outline of a Monopoly train up on his computer. I said, "Yeah, like that, but can you make it more tattoo-y?" He ignored me and did exactly what he'd printed out, badly, then tried to convince my friend to get a Frankenstein's monster back piece. It was weird and scary and potentially very unhygienic, but that was nearly ten years ago, and I'm still alive now. So unless I've got a dormant blood disease slyly waiting to pounce, I guess I'm all good!
I arrived in London at the end of August, 2015, fresh-faced and naïve. Second day at the new job, I was sat opposite someone who seemed like an OK guy. We found some sort of common ground over music, and, hello, he was just getting into home job tattoos. Perfect. Discussions were had, crude drawings were pored over, and arrangements were made for the following Sunday.
What was supposed to be a civilized home job tattoo session descended into chaos as beers were drunk and numbers dialed. Mind you, I still thought it was a good idea to go ahead, and I managed to get a weird gravestone with "NOPE" written on it sometime before 1 AM. Woke up the next day with a total lack of memory and a curious feeling that something bad had happened.
Professional stuff: I saw some clingfilm somewhere—he had one of those little bottle things with the spouts that all the real tattoo guys have.
Less professional stuff: He giggled every time the needle went anywhere near skin and gave the exact same tattoo to someone else a few days later.
Can't have been all bad, though, as I went back later and got him to initial the work. Thanks, RDF.