Damien J. Thorn is a resident tattoo artist at Sang Bleu London, where he participated in the establishment of the studio, being part of the team from its early times. Originally from France he talks about his journey in tattooing so far.
So to start with, why don’t you tell us how you got started in tattooing?
I started to tattoo about 7-8 years ago by buying one of those kit off the internet, practicing on friends at home. At the time I had never met any tattoo artist, I knew absolutely nothing about tattooing.
Did you have any tattoo yourself?
Nope. None . The only thing I knew was Yann Black. I just met some guy whom suggested I should start tattooing solely based on the fact I was drawing a fair bit already . And I thought it could be a good idea. I then decided to set up a private studio at home and for a year or so I tattooed friends and friends of friends. I was doing maybe one tattoo every ten days. I eventually gave up because I could not get a hand of it. To give you a rough idea I needed three sessions to finish a 10 cm lettering, and if my machine started to be slightly of noisy I thought it was about to break, which resulted in me running them super low. It has been now five years since I started my apprenticeship with Guy [Guy le Tattooer] . In the meantime I finished my studies and started my own business.
What was your business field?
We were dealing with image treatment and video editing, 3D etc. It’s what I studied for. It was awful.
I then met Guy when I got tattooed by him and we hit it off, which leaded him to offer me an apprenticeship.
What was the tattoo you got from him then?
It was a mandala on my head.
Very first tattoo?
Almost. I just had a small thing on my leg that I did myself seating on the loo.
That was a burst of the moment. It started off as a rectangle but got out of control and ended up being some random lines all over, quite a bit messy. It doesn’t look like anything really. It’s a bit shit.
Anyway! To get back to the mandala, I knew at the time that if I was going to start getting tattooed I would want to keep adding some more. I would use the following analogy : It is like a blank sheet of paper on which you draw a dot in the middle. The empty space become even more apparent. I am not saying “tattoos are a drug” at all, this is not my point. However, I had the feeling that if I was to start it I would want to fill up the empty spaces.
At the time I was not really at my best psychologically I have to say. I had this list of tattoo projects, and their meanings, etc.
For instance I suffer tinnitus and wanted to get something that would illustrate the noise I have to live with 24/7. One side sounds quite “sparkly” and the other is much more high pitch, like a bird of prey scream. We started with the idea of a star, that turned into a mandala. It was also the big thing of the moment and it suited the concept.
It was originally supposed to be placed just behind the ear, but it then went on the head and a bit on the face…obviously! When we first put the transfer on I wondered how much of it was just Guy testing me out. Can you imagine , you arrive in a tattoo studio, with a virgin skin and you think that the tattooer is just teasing you. Then Rafel [Rafel Delalande] peaked in the room and told me “you’re never going to be a banker with that one”. It the took me an hour but eventually I trusted Guy and went for it. I did not want to be a banker anyway.
After we did this tattoo I went on traveling to USA for 3 months with a friend of mine.
When I came back we tattooed a falcon on the other side to match the other noise I’m hearing. And we also did my hands, and started on other pieces.
At the time Guy moved the studio to a new place and it was the right moment to start the apprenticeship. This apprenticeship lasted 2 years in a private shop. [ La Tannerie in Toulouse, France]
Did you start tattooing right away?
Well…as I had already tattooed a bit and had some unfinished pieces I did get on with those right away. For instance there was this huge chaos cross on a friend stomach, all blackwork, a nightmare to tattoo.
But then after they saw the way I was handling it all, we took a break from it for a bit. I only started againaround four months later. It happened in a funny way. While I was painting the studio walls in my overall, covered in paint, Bastien [Bastien Jean] came to me and asked if I’d like to do a small tattoo.
So my first client was for a small kanji on the ribs. It was super stressful but the guy was great. He knew I was apprenticing and put me at ease from the start.
As it was a private shop we did not have walk ins but fortunately Toulouse is a relatively small city and eventually the growing reputation of the shop brought more traffic in, and I was doing the smaller pieces that the other guys would not take on.
And what happened once La Tannerie closed down?
Guy was traveling a lot more, Raf and Bastien as well so we decided to shut down the shop. At the time our good friend Lea Nahon who was coming down a fair bit and wondering what would happened to me offered me to come to Brussels to work at La Boucherie Moderne. And if I’d like I would have the option to stay there as resident or to be a regular guest. I went there for a week and it was absolutely brilliant.
I was just coming out of a two years apprenticeship and wanted to see different places though. So for a year or so I went touring around France, doing all the conventions and guest spots I could. I spent a fair bit of time in Montpellier with my friend Jaxa at Lowbrow studio. I also kept tattooing in Toulouse from home.
How did you then relocate to London?
It’s a bit funny because while I was apprenticing I got told to avoid social medias. I did not have any web site, no instagram, no facebook page , no tumblr, fuck all! I got told to prioritise quality over quantity when showing off my work, and to curate what to put online if I’d do it. I did not know anything or anyone. I had no idea of what was happening in the world. I only knew my friends.
I just knew that I really liked how La Tannerie had a really strong aura as shop and I was looking to find something similar somewhere else.
At the time I was talking with Raf because I wanted to get tattooed by him. I was planning on coming to London, where he had just started to work in Shangri La. He suggested to get in touch with Maxime [Maxime Buchi / MXM ]who had just opened Sang Bleu then for a guest spot. I was a bit unsure about asking as when we started to hear about Sang Bleu, it got a lot of attention straight away. I mean: Philip Yarnell as first resident, then Norm and Fuzi as guests, it was being closely watched.
Eventually I got in touch and Ant [Ant the Elder] got back to me, telling me it was all good and that I could come over. I spent a week and did two tattoos, which is not so bad for a first time guesting in London. I tattooed two hands. One fingers crossed one , and the other one probably crossing fingers also.
I enjoyed my time there a lot. I really liked the whole project and Maxime’s vision for his shop. I had a chat with him about the possibility of getting more involved and just over an hour after that it was done. I was a resident, it was announced all over social medias, all official. We were in December I think and in February I was relocating.
Another thing I would like to discuss with you, is the evolution in your tattoo style. When you started in Sang Bleu you were doing something radically different. A lot of etching, dotwork, mandalas, geometry,etc, which is quite different from the highly contrasted dark neo japanese work you are doing now. How and why this change happened?
Well to start with, we are all under the influence of someone else. And for instance Guy had a huge impact on me. Guy is someone that changed his style six times in three years. He is going to push as far as he can a specific style and then will explore something else when he is done with it. I met him when he was ending his etching period and was starting the mandala/ornamental one. He then reintroduced colours, and figures. That’s a first thing.
Anyway! For instance I have never been into Old school, even so I have a big respect for it, I do not wear any, it’s not my universe at all. I have always been into the monumental and extreme side of tattooing, when you can just not believe on how much skin has been blacked out on a big blackwork bodysuit or getting mid blown by the oversized etching piece that Maxime started to do a while ago.
Back then I was mostly doing small pieces but I have always been a big fan of the japanese style. I love the absolute side of it. The fact that it contains really strong codes which have been used for a thousand years, even if some artists tweak it a bit times to times. It can be done with colours or simply balck and grey, the themes can be both poetic or super gory, and you can have huge full body parts composition – full sleeves, back, torsos, body suits- or just small patches. I am also part of a generation that grew up under a japanese visual influence through cinema, mangas etc. It is part of my personal visual culture.
Another marking event was when we had the amazing chance to have Gotch guesting with us in Toulouse. That was the trigger for it all really. Watching him work blew my mind. His personality and attitude as well as his work were so inspiring.
After a while the work I was doing was a recurence of the popular designs of the time. Soon the mandalas will be as dated as the 90’s dolphins. I started to feel trapped. For instance for a while I was doing a lot of hands. And as good and fun as it can be, I do not want to be that guy who ,in 10 years, is going to be known for that : the hand guy. So I went back to the drawing table and started to offer something else through flash and new designs.
Do you remember which piece was the first one you did in that style?
I am not quite sure. It might have been a geisha head. But I think that peonies allowed me to slowly introduce a more oriental look in my tattooing. It was a nice transitional design.
What would be your main influences for this style then? You mentioned Gotch, but is there any other medias (cinema, music, painers etc) ?
First of all I have to mention the work of the illustrator James Jean. I am a huge fan of his work.
I do watch a lot of movies so that would be hard to narrow it down.
Music wise I tend to listen to progressive and contemplative things, mostly quiet stuffs to balance out my general hyper personality, hehe!
As for tattooists, Guy is an obvious one. I can’t escape it. I took a big hit when Alexander Grimm came out. We just saw his work coming out of nowhere and all of a sudden he was showing off 4 or 5 huge pieces, all incredible. His mix of japanese composition and occidental / black metal themes pushed me to work on my drawings! I memtioned Gotch already. Rafel Delalande for the hyper contrasted values and because he is a really good friend with the right suggestions, and always a constructive criticism. Gakkin is someone who is occidentalising his japanese work with a great success, which I feel is the opposite of what I am doing , trying to orientalised my european work. Also Gregg Letron tatoos and draw extremely well. Fabrice [Cokney] from Hand In Glove in Paris was a great meet, and really good to share ideas with. I think that if you look at my tattoos you can see all of it really. It is obvious to me. My work is a combination of all of it.
Alright. Well I think we are good. Is there anything else you would like to mention?
Thanks for the opportunity and I am looking forward to see it online .