I met Spider Sinclaire while he was guesting at the Sang Bleu London studio a few months ago.
What I had seen of his work before he came was a mixture of surprising but familiar references to 80s and 90s tattooing which clashed with the aesthetic of traditional tattooing which we have been used to seeing over the past few years. The owner of Two Hands Tattoo and Flash City from Auckland, New Zealand prefers fine line and spiky 90’s tribal to the bold fat outlines he was previously doing for a bit more than a decade. Curious to find out more about this interest for an era of tattooing mostly hidden away, we had a chat in between tattoos.
He should be visiting Europe again in 2015.
Interview by Antoine Laine
Could we start by talking about how you got into tattooing?
I did my first tattoo in 2001 but I didn’t actually start working in a shop until about 2003 and then I did an informal apprenticeship.
You told me you were doing more traditional work at first?
Yes, that’s all I ever really wanted to do. The main inspiration for becoming a tattooer was the book “New York City Tattoo”. A friend of mine bought me it because I was already collecting tattoos and seeing designs. From there I came across Sailor Jerry and I got photocopies of the first Sailor Jerry book. All I ever did was traditional, it was my favourite style.
Where did you get the photocopies from?
A friend who was a tattooist was working over here in London and he came back to Auckland briefly, I met up with him and told him I wanted a sailing ship tattoo. He didn’t really do that kind of stuff. He was more into tribal designs but I told him I wanted a sailing ship tattoo and he was like “ok…what about this?” and pulled out one of Sailor Jerry flash and I was like “dude, that stuff is amazing!” and he let me copy it, which was very kind of him.
How was it in New Zealand at the time for traditional American tattooing?
Nobody, at all ! Nobody was doing it, and nobody was collecting that sort of work. There were one or two tattooers around that have been tattooing since those days and so they had a small amount of flash but even they were tattooing with single needles. Most guys were doing what you’d consider to be the “biker genre” of tattooing and then there was the new school style as well. Some guys were doing this new school style, manga inspired and cartoony. In some ways, this verge on the old school style, like a loveheart with “mum” on it but it definitely was not applied in the traditional way.
As far as I knew nobody was really doing that sort of work that I wanted, I would go into a tattoo shop and say ‘I want to get a swallow and I want the lines to be bold and I want it to have heavy black shading and only two colours…” they’d laugh at me, they’d actually laugh at me. They’d think I was so weird to want to get a tattoo like that. They just thought it was really old fashioned and shit. They thought there was no artistic integrity in doing this sort of tattoo. It was a naïve style , from the past , which was definitely looked down on, tattooing had evolved so much, why would you want to do that?
So when you started to tattoo, that’s the style you went for, doing what you wanted to wear. How did people react to that?
I was tattooing friends first and kids from the punk and hardcore scene. I would do free or cheap tattoos on them. I mainly worked from Sailor Jerry’s tattoos and those were the first tattoos I was doing.
Can you remember when the change happened for you in NZ, when did you start to get customers for this style you was doing?
Quite recently actually. There were always some cool kids that wanted that kind of work but it didn’t became mainstream until recently, around the last four years maybe. There has been a significant amount of people coming into the shop for it.
A lot of the time that was me trying to talk someone into having a traditional tattoo, you know?
And now I can see that you transitioned to a different type of traditional, a fine line work.
Yeah I did. It’s hard to say exactly how that came about. I was looking for a change because that’s all I have been doing or saw for a very long time and I wasn’t as passionate about it as much as I used to be. So I started diverging from that style. I tried a few different things out that were really popular among my customers. I did some stippling stuffs, some dot work, some etching and some stuff verging on tribal but my heart wasn’t really in it. I think as my heart was originally in traditional, those styles didn’t have enough roots or tradition for me.
What kind of tribal did you explore?
The sort of tribal I was experimenting with was more like North African, Tibetan and Buddhist. My heart wasn’t t really into that, even though it was really popular. I enjoyed it for a minute but it didn’t feel right.
It was not really part of your world.
No…My mind started to wander back into more traditional designs and I’ve got really into motorcyles over the last 4-5 years and I started to collect a lot of biker magazines and they always have a tattoo section. I always used to think they were the worst tattoos I have ever seen, but I started to look at them more and they started to have more and more of a subconscious impact on the way I was designing tattoos. I was adapting these designs into a more traditional style, making a bolder line, maybe one or two colours. I started to really appreciate the idea of a fine line and purely black and grey style. For the first time in my career I really appreciated it, I’d always looked down on that kind of style. That bike era of tattooing is what most inspires me now.
I think at the moment there are fewer people doing a more bolder traditional style, maybe we can call it “vintage” tattooing?
You mean pre old school?
Yes I guess so. And there is something about your work that has a bit of this value, this vintage feel…at least to me. We associate what you are doing to an era, really 80’s.
Yeah totally. And I try to get that when I am designing, I try to get it to feel old, as if it was 80’s or even early 90’s. I am really interested in combining solid black like spiky tribal with fine line designs. It’s so hard to get anyone to get one tattooed but that’s something I do really like to draw and it’s what I’d like to see myself tattooing more in the future. I think the contrast of those two together is really awesome. It’s from this really funny era in tattooing where people who were tattooists were trying to push tribal as this is what they wanted to do, but in order to get a customer to get it they had to hide it behind a skull or something. It was a very awkward time where tattooists were merging those two opposite styles together and you see it in an old flash sheet in the biker magazines. There’s something about it that is just awesome. I really like it. It’s kind of ironic that those two things have been put together but they actually work well.
It does, but I would still find difficult to wear it I have to say.
I know, that’s what everyone says when I try to talk them into it. Someone would come in and would say “I want a skull” and I would try to hide some tribal in there. They would see the design and say “yeah that’s perfect but I don’t want that tribal in there, man.”
Nice try! Did you actually tattoo some?
I’ve done a couple. I did one on Simon Erl. He is so awesome to let me do it. I did this rad little tribal scorpion holding a fine line rose.
And you tattooed this on Simon while he was visiting NZ?
Yes that was when he was at Two Hands. We did a trade. He did a really cool bavarian on my leg and I did the tribal scorpion.
Has he been working on a regular basis in your studio?
No, that was the first time. He was there for quite some time, 3 months I think it was.
And you told me yesterday about your other shop: Flash City, and that you’ve got Bert Krak coming in?
That was cool! I opened a brand new shop last year right next door to Two Hands and the idea was that this shop was the opposite of a custom shop. All the designs are up on the wall and it’s purely flash only and there is no way to make an appointment, it’s a walk in only. Sometimes you’ll walk in and it will be really busy, sometimes you walk in and the tattooist can tattoo you straight away. The prices are up on the wall as well, they’re all labelled. There are hundreds of designs to choose from. All of them are painted by the guys at Two Hands, as well as our friends from across the world.
As you said, for the opening week Bert came out from Smith Street and he opened the shop. He tattooed for the first five days with an average of seven tattoos a day. The guy is a machine, man. He does incredible work, proper traditional flash tattoos.
Why did you decide to open a flash based shop rather than expanding the custom one?
We started to run out of room at Two Hands, it was getting cramped. I was trying to find a new space to move to but none of us really wanted to move. We had such a beautiful shop, we love it the way it is. So I started hassling the neighbour cause he had a shop right next to us and no one was really using it and I was like “dude can I have the upstairs to your shop so I can expand mine?”. He is actually a devote Muslim and for him it’s against his religion to get tattooed and stuffs and that was the reason he didn’t want to give it to me. But he came around at the end after a year of nagging and gave me the place.
I can ‘t remember why I decided to do a flash shop. I think I just wanted to make something a bit more interesting and different, rather than just a second half to Two Hands Tattoo, something totally new and to try out the idea of a flash only shop, which is something that is obviously dead this days.
25-30 years ago it was pretty common for a tattoo shop to have all their flash up on the wall and then you can actually pick off the sheet. The first time I was getting tattooed that was that actually. The shop I went to you could choose stuffs off the wall and it would cost you extra to get the tattooist to draw something up for you. I just thought it would be kind of cool to do. I thought “why not?”. I have the extra space, I’ll try to do a flash only shop.
It was scary, I wasn’t too sure how people would take to it. We were doing a flash day once a month at Two Hands and they were really popular. I would turn up to work and there would be a queue outside the door. We’ve been doing that for a long time, maybe three or four years. So we ‘ve already built up the concept of flash into our clientele base and that was becoming super popular, so that’s the real reason I did it. It was so popular, why not make it a full time? Rather than a flash day, I will have a flash shop.
Fair enough! So it’s working out great?
Yes, it’s worked out well. It’s really fun working there because you don’t have any bookings and you don’t know what is going to happen, what you’re going to be tattooing that day. That’s quite exciting! You spend the day over there and you can be really quiet or you can be slammed all day. The cool thing is, no matter what you’re going to do it’s going to be something rad, you know. It’s going to be anything up on the wall; the kind of stuff tattooists want to tattoo. It’s always going to be good.
And is it the same tattooists working in both studios, with some sort of turnover?
It depends if we have a full time artist, Steve Bolton, who’s full time at Flash City from Canada originally. And sometimes guys from Two Hands would go and do a day, sometimes guests artists would come through and will do a day there.
Talking about guest artists, do you have regular ones?
We do have a lot of regular guests. We’ve had a lot from Australia, Australia being so close to us. We have guys coming up from Melbourne regularly, one or two from Sydney. We recently started to take artists form other parts of New Zealand and that’s been really cool. We’ve got a few that come from the States and quite a few from Europe. I do a lot of guest spots at East River Tattoo so our two shops are quite close. Our guys go over to East River and their guys come over to ours. We are almost like sister shops.
Nice! So did you ever have Duke coming in?
No! Funnily enough I actually met Duke whilst he was in New Zealand. He worked at another shop but it’d be great to get Duke down some time for sure! I think he’d really enjoy it actually because he is really into sailing and I have a sailing boat at home. I think he’d have a lot if fun if he came down.
You’re into sailing then?
Yeah…I’ve sort of taken a back seat with motor biking for a while. I enjoy sailing, I’m not an amazing sailor by any means, I am a novice, but my girlfriend and I got a sailing boat a couple of years ago and we try to make the most of it during the summer months.
Auckland is the perfect city for sailing. It’s relatively cheap and we have a beautiful harbour, two actually, and dozens of islands. It’s an ideal place to have a boat.
Getting back to the fine line tattoos. You said you are getting inspiration from biker mags, but is there also some tattooists you are looking up to?
Jack Rudy obviously, hugely important. One of the cool things about fine line is that there isn’t a huge amount of people doing it and one of the bad things about fine line is the total lack of reference. It’s really, really hard to find references in comparison to pretty much any other style I can think of. It’s a little bit more challenging. There are different obstacles in traditional tattooing. There is a pretty limited amount of flashes.
Have you ever met older tattooists doing this style?
Yes, totally. In Auckland there’s a guy called Gipsy and that’s totally his era. I don’t know how old he’d be exactly but I guess he came in around the 80s-90s. He’d began to tattoo in the late 70s. I’d pop in quite a bit and he gives me tips and advice on the use of single needle which is very nice of him because he doesn’t bother using them at all. Ironically, he’s all about using a 14 round and doing bold traditional stuff because that’s what the kids want and he adapted. I think he thinks it’s weird I want to be using a single needle. He’s like “dude, you are 20 years late”.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
How much fun I am having in London, it’s such a great city and such a good shop. I love working at Sang Bleu, it’s such a great set up, a really great working environment. Both My girlfriend and I want spend time more time in London.
Well anytime you want! You are welcome, we have space!
Follow more of Spider Sinclair’s work on his instagram here