I almost got a really shitty tattoo once. I paid a guy $10 to design a barbed-wire wrap for my upper thigh, and thankfully backed out when I realized that I'd never be able to wear a swimming costume again without people relentlessly and aggressively side-eyeing me. Maybe you've found yourself in a similar situation and not backed out. Maybe you're reading this right now with a barbed-wire tattoo wrapped around your entire torso.
Whatever your circumstances, it's safe to say there are plenty of people out there with shit tattoos, because the British have spent the past 30-odd years turning terrible skin inkings into an art form. You'll have noticed the usual culprits—bulldogs, roses, soccer team logos, people who get their own names tattooed on their forearms in bad calligraphy being unveiled every time the sun comes out, but most of these are pretty dated at this point. Surely there are new contenders making themselves known, soon to be spotted on the thighs and necks of Brits in restaurants and parks up and down the country?
To find out which questionable tattoos are making the rounds at the moment, I thought I'd call the best tattoo artists from all around the UK and Ireland—Dublin, London, Manchester, Swansea, and Glasgow—and ask them what's popular in their area. (QUICK DISCLAIMER HERE: We're not saying the photos used to illustrate this article are of bad tattoos; they're good tattoos done by the talented artists we interviewed, because it's weirdly impossible to get people who do shitty tattoos to send you photos of them when you're explicitly calling them shitty.)
Ryan Sean Kelly, The Ink Factory, Dublin
VICE: Hi Ryan. Tell me about your favorite tattoo.
Ryan Sean Kelly: My favorite tattoo was a very simple one. We recently ran an autism awareness day to raise money for Irish Autism Action, a really cool charity over here. I tattooed a jigsaw piece—the autism emblem—on my sister as my little nephew, who has autism, watched on. He was super excited by the whole event, which was a real thrill for me.
What about the worst tattoo you were ever asked to do?
This guy who came in and got a collar rocker of the name Vanessa across his chest. About midway through I asked if Vanessa was his girlfriend or his mum, to which he replied it was his ex's name and he was getting it inked in an effort to woo her back. If I had known I wouldn't have started, and, suffice to say, when I saw the guy about six months later he was still depressingly single.
What are you getting a lot of requests for at the moment?
People seem to have developed a bit of an obsession with arrows over here at the minute; I'm seeing plenty of them around, and a massive amount of people are asking for them on a weekly basis.
Yeah, obviously working in Dublin means we're inundated with requests for shamrocks. I've probably drawn about a million by now. But the people who want them are usually foreign tourists and are always up for a bit of a laugh.
Tota Volpe-Landi, Happy Sailor Tattoo, London
What's the coolest thing you've done lately?
Tota Volpe-Landi: This cover-up for a friend of mine. It was dot-work, with masonry and Illuminati symbols and a huge moth in the middle. It was on the top of the arm in black and gray and I'm really into sacred geometry and alchemy, so I loved doing it. It took about seven hours, so a couple of sessions.
And the worst?
A woman who wanted a tiny angel with pink wings on the inside of her wrist. So tacky.
What are the big tattoo trends in London at the moment?
Infinity symbols! Infinity symbols are the new stars. Also, the little arrows, usually on girls, and usually on their ribs. Lots of girls are coming in with a picture of the little arrow they want—always from the same website. I normally get someone else to do those. I don't mind, but really, if you've got one tattoo that tells the world who you are, do you want an infinity symbol? Most scientists can't grasp the infinite, and the girls who come in to get these tattoos definitely can't. Wait—you don't happen to have an infinity tattoo, do you?
I don't. What sort of girls are getting the infinity tattoos?
They come in big groups, all wanting the same thing. I say to them, "Why don't you get something different?" But they usually just look at me like I'm trying to sell them drugs or something.
What about the boys?
A big thing is the pocket watch with two roses on either side. A couple of years ago, everyone wanted owls.
Why does everyone want the same stuff?
It's celebrity culture. Everyone wanted an anchor like Kate Moss for a while. Or the time that Rihanna had the rosary beads with the cross on her foot—generally, someone famous gets it, and then it goes viral.
Craig Hicks, 72 Tattoo, Manchester
Tell me about your most meaningful piece of work.
Craig Hicks: I did a piece on a woman who had lost a baby. We didn't really talk about it that much; sometimes you don't need to know the details. But the tattoo was on her stomach, covering up scars, and was very much an important family piece for her. It was also extremely challenging tattooing soft, black-and-gray work on that area.
What about the most stupid thing you were ever asked to do?
One chap came in asking us to tattoo "666" on the back of his head for his first-ever tattoo. We refused, and then he asked for "some of those 'rosemary' beads instead." We weren't sure whether he wanted a religious tattoo or one of a herb. It shows the mentality of a lot of people who just want to get tattooed with something they don't really understand, for show.
Any other random requests?
We had someone come in with £20 [$30] asking what tattoo he could get for that amount. As a joke we were like, "You can't get a tattoo for that, but we can pierce your ears with a studex gun four times." He took us up on it. That £20 must really have been burning a hole in his pocket.
Anything that makes you really uncomfortable?
Yeah, definitely. We often get girlfriends and boyfriends pressuring their other halves to get their names tattooed on them. You hear lines such as, "Why don't you want to get my name on you? Don't you love me?" It's awful and really embarrassing for everyone involved.
What's big in Manchester at the moment?
Clocks. Clocks, pocket watches, and more clocks. Mostly on guys in their mid 20s. There must be hundreds, at the very least, being done in the UK every week. Lots of tattooists have stopped putting them in their portfolios because they're so fed up with them. They're often really intricate and can take up to seven hours to complete, so if you do three clocks in one week—well, that can really send you under.
It sounds like you're a bit fed up with clocks.
Honestly, I am so fed up with them. Clocks in eyes, clocks in roses, clocks in bigger clocks. It's become insane.
Cian Thomas Feasey, Barber Ink, Swansea
Any tattoos have a special significance for you?
Cian Thomas Feasey: A group of lads came into the studio and wanted a Superman [logo] tattooed onto their left ass cheeks. It turned out that their best mate had passed away in a car crash, and they'd had to identify the body from his Superman tattoo on his left ass cheek. So I tattooed eight of his mates with matching Superman tattoos that day. It was a lot of bums.
What stuff do you enjoy the most?
I like doing the technically challenging stuff. Like this guy who's had a load of Marvel superheroes tattooed on him—I'm quite nerdy about superheroes myself, so I enjoy getting all the detail right, and the shine on Captain America perfect and stuff.
What about the shitty requests?
Loads of people with the camel on the toe, the moustaches on the fingers, the anchor with the W above it. Yeah. It's hard to be inventive with that stuff [laughs].
What do you keep getting asked to do?
Pocket watches. Lots of people put their child's date of birth inside it, which is a nice idea, but it's just become so common now.
Any really offensive requests?
Yeah, there's one lad who keeps nagging me to do a portrait of Hitler. He's not racist; he's actually a really nice guy. He just likes the shock factor. I'm not doing it, though.
Gary Bunton, Eclectic Ink, Glasgow
Tell me about your favorite request.
Gary Bunton: Probably an anatomical heart that I did recently—it was a challenge; lots of fine lines. I really enjoyed that.
What are the worst requests you get?
Being from Glasgow, you've got the whole Rangers/Celtic rivalry. Anything sectarian we tend to steer well clear of. Mostly it's the swastika people you want to be wary of.
Tell me about the swastika people.
Typically lads, a group of skinhead guys. They'll come in and ask, and then keep coming in every couple of months, thinking we've changed our minds and we'll do it for them.
What sort of stuff do you keep getting asked to do?
Loads of people are coming in asking for the mandala designs. Also, those watercolor tattoos are really popular at the moment.
Why do people keep getting the same tattoos?
It's literally Instagram and Pinterest. Everyone's getting Instagram tattoos. You go on Pinterest and everyone has the same tattoo; infinity symbols and those bloody semi-colons. It's almost like a joke now in the trade.