During the time we spent with supported artist Dave Valentine at The Great British Tattoo Show last year we had a good chat and asked the man about his tattooing. From learning to tattoo at the age of 16 and to where he is now tattooing at The Alexandra Palace in London, Dave has certainly got a story to tell. There’s plenty to read about Dave and his story but he also raises points about what it’s like to be a tattoo artist in today’s day and age with the power of social media and online resources.
When did you start tattooing?
I finished my apprenticeship around 7 years ago so that’s where I consider the start of my career from, although I first tried tattooing at around 16. Obviously, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing so I waited until I could learn properly, but it shows how early I was set on taking that path.
What was the routine of your apprenticeship? Did you begin tattooing only on fake skin or starting only on client’s legs?
To be fair, I didn’t tattoo anything for a long time and instead was the owners skivvy, which consisted of washing his dishes, cleaning the bathrooms repeatedly and making the tea. Something I know a lot of people would understand.
When I did finally start tattooing it was with pig skin briefly, followed by working with the same 2 clients repeatedly. A male and female, both with separate interests which gave me the opportunity to practice different styles and mediums before starting with the public.
And is that how your black work style started to take shape?
I’ve far from crafted my style and like everyone I’m learning more every day, but I’m happier now with how I’m progressing than I ever have been. I learnt in an old school seaside studio, situated and remembered mainly for traditional and standard flash, so that’s what I learnt first.
I’ve always had an interest in the darker areas of art, as well as a love for black work and neotraditional, and sooner or later they all just ended up coming together, and now you can see elements of each style in my own work.
Well whether it’s neotraditional, portraits or animal pieces, your black work seems to be very consistent. Would you put that down to the consistency of the inks you use?
I primarily use the Classic Black and Empire Grey Shading inks, and the Empire White. Empire inks are without a doubt the most solid and true black that I’ve used in over 7 years of tattooing, and it heals that way too.
To have the ink heal so dark I would have expected it to be fairly thick and difficult to apply, but it is just as easy to use as any of its competitors, with far better results than a lot of them. From the moment you apply the grey shades you can see that they are darker than most, and if you’re not confident in your application I would advise starting your first test with lighter tones first!
The white being the thickest of the set still applies extremely easily, without going dry quickly in the cartridge, and holds as strong as the dark tones, making this a must buy with the rest of the inks. For the style I do, or any black and grey artist that’s looking for a striking, lasting depth to their tattoos for that matter, I would recommend Empire to anyone.
And do you usually keep to the same machine and cartridge set up too?
Well I currently have a black and a limited-edition gold Reaper, which I was honoured to help with the artwork for. After the release of the Red Spectre it was quick to become my primary machine, but after the release of the Reaper I haven’t looked back since. The machine runs quietly and smoothly and unlike many other pen machines can push liners with ease.
Although I mainly work black and grey, using this machine accompanied by Ghost Cartridges causes no problem working with different mediums. I’d recommend this to anyone that likes pens or wants to achieve a smoother application, and at the low price it is, it’s hardly a gamble.
Same goes for Ghost Cartridges. The tattoo industry gets more expensive every day and if we could save a little money without any difference made to our work, then why wouldn’t we? I started using Ghost Cartridges when they first launched and was originally drawn to them by the artwork in their promotion… and the crazy low price!
From the moment I used them I wondered why they were so much cheaper than their competitors, when their use was just as good than all of them, and even better than some. Other than helping with my general application and confidence, I have never had a fault with them, and have converted numerous people from other leading brands to these and continue to do so daily.
So, it seems like you’ve got your setup and style going in the direction you want. What would your advice be for someone looking to get into tattooing?
To anyone really looking to become a tattoo artist I would say firstly, be willing to travel.
I wasted a lot of time looking for an apprenticeship by expecting one to come up in my hometown, which one never did. If you can’t find one where you are you need to be willing to travel somewhere else. That will show the want and intent to learn.
Also having a portfolio of artwork will help you stand out above the rest. There are many people looking out there, going door to door with nothing to show. If this sounds like you then you need to rethink your approach. You may be a lovely person and a delight to be around but that doesn’t mean you have what it takes or make the artist you’ve approached psychic to your ability.
Go in there and show them what you can do. It may still be a no but at least you can say you’ve done everything you needed to and tick that studio off the list.
It sounds like you learnt a lot during your apprenticeship! Who did you have as your tutor when you were an apprentice?
The studio I worked in, although situated for 25 years, wasn’t the best studio by a long shot, but I was very lucky to be there for the same duration that there was a Polish portrait artist working there too. Due to the owner already having an apprentice I was passed to this artist and worked and learned from him for 2 years.
Working with him was basically where my interest in tattooing women’s faces came from, as well as portrait and realism in general. It was the owner that kept my interest in traditional and black work alive, and the two people together hugely influenced what styles I include in my work today.
Going forward, do you have any goals or milestones you’d like to achieve, or maybe even different styles you’d like to move into or be introduced to?
I have many goals I’d like to achieve in my career. I’d like to have my work and application recognisable to other artists around the world. To meet my influencers, collaborate with amazing people, and watch the people around me progress as I am, such as my hard-working partner and apprentice. One day I’d love to have people looking towards me to be influenced the same way that I am by others every day.
One way you can meet influencers is through conventions and touring around which you certainly do! Do you have any favourite conventions in particular?
My favourite shows in our experiences so far would be the Great British tattoo show and Cornwall tattoo con. Great British because the venue is beautiful, the people that work there are lovely and the organisers want everyone to have a good time. The venue itself really stands out to me, the reason being that I can’t imagine a venue like Alexandra Palace to allow a tattoo convention to take place. I always feel incredibly blessed to stand beneath the stain glass windows and meet the artists that have travelled all around the world to be there.
Cornwall because of the friends, organisers and how close to home it feels. We’ve been there since the first show and it’s humbling to see what they have achieved in such a short time.
Do you find it difficult to adapt to new trends within tattooing such as new additions to supplies, a prime example being the sudden increase in available CBD products?
Well I tend to stick to brands I know and trust but I’m willing to try new additions to their ranges. I used the new Butterluxe CBD balm at The Great British Tattoo Show this year (2019). Before using the CBD balm, I wasn’t expecting too much of a difference from the normal balms, but I stand corrected.
During use, it broke down easily on skin, helped glide without making the area too greasy, helped prevent inflammation throughout and I can only assume overall helped ease the process for the client also. My client used the balm throughout the healing process and gave it positive reviews throughout. I have and will use the product again and would strongly recommend it to anyone that hasn’t tried it yet. It might just be the thing you’re missing from your daily set up.
Social media has also become a big trend within the tattoo community. Are you using the likes of Instagram for promoting work and staying in touch with clients?
I use it for all of the above really. I think it’s crazy that today we can have a portfolio that can be viewed all around the world, and we’re using it for free. You can admire artists when you first started tattooing and never expect to one day be in a position to meet them, but then in today’s times to be able to communicate with them on a daily basis using Instagram is just insane!
What else do you use online other than Instagram?
I’d say realistically I mainly just use Instagram. I used to use Facebook as well, but in my own experiences I’ve noticed that most of the negativity is shared among Facebook and all the positive seems to be on Instagram. I still admire Facebook for what it is but personally I do all my communication and promotion through Instagram.
How many clients do you think you pick up through Instagram then?
Lots! Honestly lots! We’ve been invited to Amsterdam, Portugal even Canada to go and work with one of the artists I’ve admired for years. I’d have never had that opportunity without using Instagram. In some cases, I’ve seen people paying to use apps that only do half of what Instagram and other social networking sites can do and it’s just insane. If you wanted to be a tattoo artist, honestly, now’s the time for sure.
The virality of tattooing and other creative artforms and how easily they can be seen by thousands of people is incredible isn’t it?
I think it’s amazing to see that someone that is completely unknown to the public as doing good work every day can struggle to break through in gratification on a large scale, and then one day do one specific tattoo that will put them out in the industry eye line.
I’ve followed artists with only a couple thousand followers that then suddenly, a couple weeks later is in the 50/60 thousands. It’s also great to see that if you receive negativity on any of your photos it’s generally constructive and makes you strive to do better the next time, and people still show appreciation for your efforts, even if you didn’t quite achieve what you were trying too. Always our biggest critics are ourselves.
There’s plenty of spaces to get inspiration through other artists and studios but is there anyone who stands out for you the most for inspiration?
As you say I have numerous influences that stand out to me, and I’m thankful for anyone I’ve had the opportunity to work with in the past, as they all helped me in my journey so far. But more relevant to me at the moment would be ‘613tattoo’ for black work and portrait, Luke Beddows for traditional, the people/friends we get to work alongside at conventions, and my partner for the effort and time she puts into her apprenticeship on a daily basis, and also the artists that I am lucky to work with at NR inspire me to do better every day too.
A friend of mine passed away last year early into his career following an RTA, and now more than ever he drives me to learn more every day and tattoo as if it was your last, knowing that one day you might not be here, and that tattoo will be the last thing you leave here on earth. We all miss you dearly Jordan.
Being an established artist and a fan of body art, you’ve got experience on both sides of the needle. What do you feel is the best way for yourself or a client to sit through being tattooed?
For me when I’m getting tattooed, I prefer to watch it. Watching a film, talking to someone or listening to music is always a huge help, but I think being able to see the tattoo being done is a huge help. There’s less unknown as to where that artists needle is going, or what they are doing, and I think that makes a big difference. I think we can all agree that tattooing gets worse the older you get, so get your sensitive areas done early if you can, because by that logic I’m buggered.
You’ve given us a lot of insight into your tattooing career. But, plain and simple, why are you a tattoo artist?
I have always loved and appreciated art. My biggest influence has always been and always will be my mum. From young I knew I wanted to be an artist with freedom to experiment in style, but I didn’t know what. But putting tattoos on people and seeing them years later, still happy with the tattoo, is an incredible feeling.
There are few industries that are like ours, and I don’t know many others where their clients would travel a vast distance to have the work done by that specific artist. I got bad grades in school, but I knew I wanted to do something with art anyway, so I didn’t really go away from the idea and tattooing was always there for me.
Even after going through an awful addiction where I made a lot of mistakes including nearly losing my life and delayed my learning dramatically, tattooing (obviously among other things) was there to put me back on track and get me to where I am today, and I’d never look back.
If there’s something you’d like to say to the whole tattooing community what would it be?
We’ll be learning and bettering our styles until the day that we retire, so just focus on you and where you are in the industry. We’ve all taken help and handouts to help us in our progression, so don’t be any different.
I was helped throughout my career by my mum, stepdad and my partner, and I wouldn’t be anywhere without the help of them, my sponsors or anyone else I have worked with or been alongside in the past.
There will always be people to talk negatively, look down on you or make you feel like you’re not doing as well as you think you are, but all that matters are that you’re doing your best. The only time you should have any doubt in yourself is if you’re not.