Mimi Henry’s tattoo sketches.
It’s hard to miss a tattoo parlour in today’s London. The city has got a rich history of tattooing practices that go back to the early 19th century. Though considered to be predominantly for criminals and sailors at first, tattoos became popular during the punk scene in the ‘70s.
Camden Town, Soho, Shoreditch and many other alternative areas of London are now inseparable from the ink culture; tattoos continue to grow in popularity by the minute.
In fact, over the last decade, a forgotten technique of tattooing has returned with a bang. Hand poked tattoos, simply known as stick and poke, is the oldest tattooing method known to man. And it’s slowly yet steadily overtaking the machines.
Mimi Henry is a stick and poke tattoo artist based in London. Identifying as queer, they have given me an insightful glimpse into the underground culture of stick and poke and London’s beautiful queer scene.
“When you go and get your tattoos done and have the time to talk to the artists, maybe three out of ten artists in the studio have actually done an apprenticeship,” Henry tells me right off the bat. “The rest have just come into it from completely different routes.”
The 22-year-old tattoo artist then continues revealing the general atmosphere of tattoo parlours by saying that none of those artists get into tattooing the same way; everyone’s story is completely different.
Henry also describes the community of tattoo artists as a group of open-minded individuals. They’re usually always ready to help and train newcomers, which creates a friendly and extremely supportive work environment. “It doesn’t matter whether you own a studio or are working at home,” Henry adds. And, at that moment, I can see them smiling through the screen of my laptop.
London’s tattoo scene is one of the world’s most diverse. People come to the capital from all backgrounds and walks of life.
“I hadn’t really thought about the parallel or the combination of being queer and a tattoo artist until I moved to London and I realised there was this community that I did not know existed,” Henry says, later adding that finding your community is crucial in order to thrive professionally, especially as an up-and-coming tattoo artist.
It’s important to make connections, both with clients and your potential co-workers. “Meeting those people, swapping tattoos, it has really changed how I think about queerness and tattooing,” Henry continues. “It’s warming to know that they exist as a community; it’s necessary to exist.”
To be successful in such a diverse environment, communication and understanding are of key importance. “If you’re a people person and you can network really well, that will help you,” Henry says. According to the artist, being good at personal development and creating brand images is just as necessary.
Another major personality trait one must develop to be a professional tattoo artist is being able to adapt to the client’s needs. Unless a person is willing to pay large sums of money to remove it, the inked creation will stay on their body forever. And that’s a big responsibility to handle.
Henry describes a great tattooist as someone who is a “really good listener throughout the process of choosing, setting up and finishing the tattoo” and makes the client feel comfortable, creating a safe environment for them to express their creative ideas and needs. “I think that’s really important and it’s something that can be missed by some studios or even artists.”
Learning the craft, however, is probably the biggest challenge. It’s important to refine your technique, which can quickly become too difficult and time-consuming.
“I don’t think there’s any better way of learning than just get the kit and tattoo yourself,” Henry explains. Even if you fail, which is inevitable in the process of learning something new, you just have to keep going. Try and try again, until you reach the result you’re satisfied with. “All you can do is practice. I think that’s the reason so many people have different methods because everyone just makes it up.”
In fact, most of the tattoo artists have methods and styles completely unique to them. Just like any other person in this world, everyone has a different point of view, different concepts that they love or hate. “It’s an interesting thing to learn to do because it’s not like the things you may learn academically in the sense that there’s no wrong method,” Henry continues, revisiting the times when they were in the early stages of their tattoo career.
Speaking of methods, being a stick and poke tattoo artist creates a more intimate and personal atmosphere with the client. Conversation, personal connection, creative freedom—all of those come with the slow yet beautiful process of merging someone’s skin with ink creations. “You can improvise as you go along,” Henry says, telling me that it usually takes three times longer to tattoo someone by hand poking. “A machine would go too quickly.” Nevertheless, hand poked tattoos have more of a homemade feel, which is charming in its own right.
Trying to pursue a career in stick and poke or any other way of tattooing requires one to be not afraid of hard work and learning from the mistakes. It’s challenging yet rewarding—finding your community is everything you could possibly ask for.
It’s a job for everyone and everywhere. Add a pay on top of that and you’ll be golden. In the end, tattoos tell stories, but so does one’s journey in becoming a master of the craft.
Follow Mimi Henry’s journey via their Instagram account here.