I came to tattooing pretty late on. None of my friends or family had tattoos and as I started to acquire my own small, mostly concealable collection, they were often met with disappointment or shock. The idea of being a tattoo artist never really crossed my mind. I took the expected path of doing a degree (English with Creative Writing) and when I graduated tried out a few things that could put my new qualification to use but nothing stuck.
Leti with her portfolio…
I have always drawn. My dad put a sketch book and pencil in my hand as soon as I could hold them. I continued to draw through school, my degree and beyond but never thought I could make a career out of something so fun. Then it dawned on me. I started to put some sketches together thinking, I like this. My CV, rather than being the usual slog of boring notes about my education was a compilation of things I had made. I got myself a nice faux leather A3 folder, did a lot of cutting and sticking and set off.
After a bit of searching I was offered a tattoo apprenticeship at a street shop in South London. It did’t last long, and I was sacked after two months. I’d done nothing wrong and the guy invented a reason to get rid of me. There are no real rights for tattoo apprentices so people can take advantage quite easily- I found that out the hard way.
I approached a few other places with more caution and after about six or so months I came across tattoo artist Rose Harley. In my interview she was very serious and professional, looking carefully through my portfolio. She told me that if I wanted to do the apprenticeship it would be hard work, like doing another degree. She offered me a three-month probation period – four days a week of cleaning, nothing to do with tattoos, for me to prove that I was serious about it, no apprenticeship guaranteed. I quit my job and found something part time, I had to work seven days a week to be able to support myself, it was going to be tough.
Leti (right) with her mentor Rose.
Two and a half months later, she accepted me as her apprentice. I was over the moon, my life was about to change completely. We had a few drinks to celebrate and she told me we would be like family – that it would be hard work but she would look out for me. And so It began. I continued with cleaning and general apprentice duties and started learning.
Rose and I would go to a local pub one night a week, a sort of evening class, with a focus on a different topic every time – machines, skin, needles, important figures in tattooing, each week building up my knowledge. Her method of teaching suited me perfectly. I would observe her tattooing, she would talk me through each process, I would frantically scribble notes trying to memorise everything she told me. She set me homework each week –drawing, finger exercises, drawing, research, more drawing.
It was a few months before I did my first tattoo. (A little cactus on Rose’s leg) It was a scary moment. When you’re sat with a buzzing machine in one hand and human paper in the other, about to permanently mark them for life, it is a trying experience. And I didn’t take it lightly. It took me a long time and I had to go over some of the lines a bit but I got there. And that was it.
The first tattoo Leti did on Rose
I continued observing, researching, drawing, cleaning, drawing, tattooing, gradually building up my skill set. I moved studios with Rose as she got a job at the beautiful Vagabond in Bethnal Green where owners Paul Hill (tattooist) and Rebecca Morris (manager and graphic designer) kindly agreed to let me join her. I’ve been lucky enough to continue my apprenticeship there since.
Vagabond sets the bar at a whole new level. Every aspect of the shop is so carefully considered. Each artist has such an extensive knowledge of tattooing and high standard of work. Every tattoo is so well thought out. They really care about tattoos and it’s so apparent in the work that each artist produces. It has proven to be a fantastic environment to be learning in and in addition to the continued support and advice from Rose, I’ve been lucky enough to have help from tattooists Paul, Harry Harvey and Andrew Hulbert. Things really couldn’t have worked out better.
It’s been a pretty mental year and I have loved every day. I am so grateful to Rose for taking me under her wing and being the best mentor. It has definitely been an education like no other. I am on my way to my dream job and I can’t wait to get started.
A recent tattoo by Leti