Bromsgrove-based ‘graphic tattooist’ Paul Talbot is known for, not just his striking artwork, but the thoughtful approach he takes to it. It’s an understatement to say that he views tattooing in a different way to everyone else.
In this in-depth interview, I get to know the man behind these beautiful collages, and hear about his experiences to date that have influenced his now original art perspective.
You have a background in the digital design world, is that right? Has this influenced your work and artistic process today?
I actually became a graphic designer through an unusual set of meetings and happy accidents.
When I was 17, I decided that art college wasn’t for me. I’d always loved punk-rock fanzines and poster art, and the album covers of my favourite bands, but once at art college, I realised that this wasn’t considered ‘proper’ art and they had no place for someone who wanted to make ‘art’ with a photocopier, rub-down letters and a bottle of correction fluid!
I’d also recently joined a band, almost by accident (I was actually their sound engineer). When after a particularly disastrous gig the singer (Kerry) decided that the band needed another guitarist, I was the obvious choice. He gave me a tape of the set-list and three days to learn the songs before performing with the band for the first time.
The band was from Stourbridge and we toured quite a lot with other bands from that local scene. At the time a few of the bands from the area had got record deals and (in the same way that Seattle became the home of grunge a few years later) Stourbridge was – for a very short time – the home of the ‘grebo’ scene in the UK.
Pop Will Eat Itself was part of that scene and I became friends with them whilst touring. I was blown away when I saw the artwork for the This is This album and loved the ‘fake corporate’ style of it – the deliberate over-use of labelling, copyright notices and seemingly unnecessary technical information included as part of the artwork. I presumed that the credit in the artwork was yet another part of the design but when I found out that it was for something called a ‘graphic designer’, and that he was the guy that I had just been talking to, I was speechless!
Weirdly, many of the things that have happened in my life since then hinge on that very short exchange.
Firstly, I realised that art and design were two entirely different things and that the reason I’d struggled so badly at art college was because I was a graphic designer. I just didn’t know it!
Fortunately being in a band involves a lot of downtime. As Charlie Watts famously said, being in The Stones was “5 years of working and 20 years of hanging about.” So I spent my all my ‘hanging about’ time learning as much about design as I could.
Secondly, I eventually landed a job at one of the countries top indie publishers at a time when they were expanding. It was a pretty low down position but it meant that I worked my way through the company learning every aspect of publishing both on paper and digitally. Everything from a pizza shop advert to a complete re-design of the company’s flagship publications.
I left the company after about ten years, after having won international design awards and being promoted beyond the position of Head of Graphic Design – to a department called ‘Paul’ with the job description of ‘the Paul stuff’. Just like playing in the band, it was a fantastic and exciting time right up until the end. Then it was utter shit.
Over the years, working as designer, I’d fallen in love with digital collage, grunge typography and the post-modern art movement in general, but I had absolutely no outlet for it. The problem with most companies (big and small) is that (for the most part) their design is very ‘dry’ and safe.
Sadly, very few companies have the vision or the balls to really go beyond this, even though the proof of the benefit of great design is everywhere in the world – representing the biggest, best and most loved brands out there.
I decided to set up my own company and try to focus on doing designs that looked more like the things I’d always loved, combined with all the new stuff I’d been looking at and learning about over the last ten(ish) years.
This was a great plan, but a disaster and I – very quickly – found myself back doing dry corporate materials for clients who – largely – didn’t give a shit about the design.
But, it was very well paid and offered me lots of downtime during which I could pursue my other passions. It was during this brief ‘life of leisure’ that I hooked up with an old friend for a beer and it’s that chance meeting that would – eventually – lead to my becoming the ‘graphic tattooist’ I am now, in very much the same way I became a graphic designer.
I regularly speak to traditional tattoo artists who might not ‘agree’ with experimental and forward-thinking styles of tattoo art. What do you think of those forms of tattoo art that still stick to a set of rules?
I think what is considered traditional is really just a matter of longevity. It’s human nature that some artists will always look to history for inspiration and some will look to the future to see what is possible. I think it’s two different mindsets.
The disadvantage of only looking backwards is that the art-form never progresses beyond the point it was deemed traditional, and its styles, tools and techniques are locked in time forever. The advantage is that (done well, of course) it’s consistently great and proven.
Clients can be confident of it ‘just working’ which is why first-timers quite often go with the classics, but as we move further and further forward, its iconography has less and less resonance in the modern day.
It’s also ironic that the artists responsible for creating and defining the styles that we would now consider to be traditional tattoos weren’t traditionalist at all but far from it! They were mavericks and pioneers. If a technique didn’t exist, they created it, If the tools weren’t good enough, they improved them using the latest technologies. If the supplies didn’t cut it, they made their own.
They are responsible for almost everything we take for granted in modern tattooing: mag needles, brightly-coloured ink in more than five colours, the coil tattoo machine, wearing gloves, Sumi or grey-wash techniques, the marriage of American and Japanese motifs, black and grey tattooing… the list goes on and on.
I think that I have a lot in common with those early-days pioneers. I think my mind-set is probably quite close to theirs. If a tool or technique I need doesn’t exist, I’ll do my best to either make it or find something and repurpose it to do the job I need it to do.
Only time will tell if I’ll have anything like the impact they did but I’ve vastly improved a couple of things in tattooing already…
I own Evolution Cords a clipboard company and the first one to offer a guarantee. I’m the guy responsible for the creation of Black Powder and Brother entering the tattoo market with a thermal printer, because they saw me using one of their fax-printers to make stencils – something they didn’t even know it could do!
My design background also gives me a unique approach when it comes to working out how to actually tattoo my work and how to make it last over the years. You have to learn the rules first so that you can decide which ones are worth breaking.
Design is process-based and largely about problem-solving so I learnt every style of tattooing, the techniques involved and accepted wisdoms. Once I felt I had a good handle on it, I worked out the best ways to develop my style by using and, in some cases, inventing, techniques.
I have always done this with a foundation based on the knowledge passed on by the artists who came before me. Because of the ‘rooted’ nature of my knowledge I can confidently move the art forward without worrying if it will last. I’ve looked at all the limitations and taken them into consideration.
What does a ‘rule-breaking’ tattoo give the wearer that a more traditional tattoo does not?
Probably the biggest advantage for the wearer is that the work is always fresh, unique and constantly evolving, just like the people who wear it!
When consulting with clients you work with themes rather than objects, and think about tattoos in a much more abstract sense. Can you explain this approach?
This is one of the negatives that tattoo TV has given us. Way back when (about 2002) a TV producer was looking to fill ten to fifteen minutes of airtime with something other than an inaudible artist talking over an incredibly loud tattoo machine, yet another shot of the back of an artist’s head or a pointless slow-mo of ink in rinse cup. He came up with the ‘brilliant’ idea of interviewing the client about what they were getting and why.
Fast-forward 15 years and now everyone thinks that all tattoos must have to have a deep-rooted meaning that is personal only to them. They have been sold a TV lie and have fallen for it. The truth is that all tattoos were deeply personal before any of this re-programming happened.
It just wasn’t about having a story you tell beforehand. It didn’t matter if you’d seen the face of Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich – the tattoo and the time spent in the chair was the story, the reason you decided to get a tattoo was just the catalyst for that shared moment.
So, as you can imagine, a lot of clients these days confuse ‘the why’ with ‘the what’ and end up asking for very literal, well-worn, clichéd ideas. It’s not surprising when you realise that creative lateral thing is something that has to be trained and developed just like any skill.
So, in order to avoid just doing the same old images in the same old ways, I prefer my clients to just point me in a direction and let me connect the dots in a different way for them. This gives them a proper amount of input into the theme whilst allowing me enough freedom to create something special and unique. I make most of my artwork during the session when the client is around so it’s pretty relaxed and direct.
It’s one of the many benefits of coming from a 2 deadlines a day, 7 days a week, background – I can make artwork very quickly once I have the initial idea, so each client can watch their piece come together. It’s quite exciting actually!
Because I place the actual process so high on the agenda, from having the client in the room while I’m designing, to making sure that the time spent in the studio is entirely positive, I inevitably end up very invested in each and every piece I make. So is each client and that’s how it should be.
Of course, my clients – very often – love every piece I make but, they all want my ‘best’ one to be theirs. So, that’s what we try for. Every piece becomes a true one-off, I never repeat them, ever. Mostly because I think every story should be told in a unique way. Otherwise you’re just making memes or stickers.
It’s a very fulfilling process for both me and my client. Proven quite often when two or three of my clients will come to a convention to say “hi” and then stand around all day discussing their different times at the studio. It’s a great little unofficial club that I’m very proud of.
Do your other creative interests like writing influence your attitude towards tattooing?
The viewpoint that I get from ‘The Naughty Step’ (my column in Total Tattoo and my weekly vlog) allows me to – at least occasionally – view tattooing ‘zoomed out’, as it were.
I get to step out of my life as a part of the tattoo community and attempt see the big picture. Where is tattooing (as a scene) going and what (if any) are the dangers of where we are or where we’re going? What could we do to safeguard tattooing for future generations of artists?
Because of this shifting focus I get think I enjoy a unique perspective as both commentator and artist. I think this stops me from getting caught up in (and overly focused on) things like the numbers game that is social media, the insanely competitive convention scene or the myriad of snake oil salesmen trying to get me to endorse the next big thing (in return for my soul, of course)! This helps me stay humble about what I do, grounded enough to know that I will never be the most famous artist on earth and driven enough to make sure that I’m the best Paul Talbot.
So yeah, changing from creative outlet to another is a huge part of what keeps me from just circling the plughole artistically.
I love your vlogs – you’re a natural in front of the camera! Did you create them with an intention to educate the public about certain tattoo topics?
Thank you! The tattoo industry was, and still is, a little naive (in my opinion) about its relationship with the mass media that is TV. I think we sold-out way too cheap.
We allowed programmers, producers and screenwriters to decide what tattooing was, is and will be. We allowed them to put their the words into our mouths. We sold our clients a lie created as a vehicle to sell advertising by TV execs and it’s been, for the last ten years, these scripted, prime-time friendly monologues that have educated our current clients.
Tattooing was presented in the reality TV format because it’s the most popular type of show with audiences, not because it was best for it, but because it was best for advertisers. But that ‘reality’ is now what our clients expect to walk into.
A huge amount of the problems that the tattoo world has right now are born out of that initial short-sighted decision and it’s our job as the real professionals to re-educate our audience that reality TV is entertainment and not actual reality.
Fortunately the internet still offers us an opportunity to level the playing field a little. Especially as more and more people start to stray away from traditional media toward new media outlets like YouTube.
The more artists that start to create content and show people our amazing scene as it actually is, the more ridiculously made-up the TV shows look. I’ve already inspired a few artists to try vlogging and making content and I hope to inspire more.
Don’t get me wrong I don’t actually mind some tattoo TV I just think it needs to be clear to the audience that it is scripted and edited for the purpose of entertainment – very different from the actual reality of tattooing in 2017.
One of the statements from your vlogs that really stuck with me was your being open to other people’s comments on the videos. You make it clear that your opinion isn’t necessarily the right one – this is truly refreshing to hear!
Yes but we have to be careful not to allow the scene to be diluted by being overly tolerant. I think we would have a much more open-minded community if every artist started from a mindset that goes: “I’m new here and the scene existed before me, so I’ll present and do my work however I want but – at the same time – respecting the fact that there is a history and tradition to tattooing that I cannot expect to change around me just because I have a different approach.”
What I do has, and in some cases still is, viewed with a little suspicion by ‘the old guard’. I accept this, just like every artist with a new idea that came before me. I don’t expect any special treatment from tattooing. I’ll just keep doing my thing and wait for them to catch up, eventually.
I have to prove (rather than just demand) that my artwork is valid, that my unique viewpoint has some truth in it, that I have a great deal of respect for the artists that have laid the groundwork. That means I’m not surprised or annoyed when someone just doesn’t get it. I just know they will at some point.
So – what’s next for Mr Talbot?
I tend to just let my passions take me where they take me.
I’d love to get my artwork into galleries so I’m currently seeking an art agent to possibly do that.
I also have plans to turn the vlog into a monthly 30 minute ‘show’. The longer format will allow me to document the conventions properly along with added content from friends. I’m pretty excited about it as it’s been the goal all along – I just had to learn how to film and edit well enough to be able to cope with it!
Other than that, creating the music for the vlog has led me to start really main music again and that project will have an outlet via the new vlog format and – hopefully – as a stand alone thing later on.
One final and simple question – why do you love tattooing?
Tattooing allows me to combine all the things I love into a job that doesn’t feel like working at all, ever.