Ella Bell has amazing taste in tattoos. Then there's her actual portfolio as a tattoo apprentice, which will leave you wondering what wonderful things we're going to see from her next.
Tattoo by Tati Compton
Honeysuckle tattoo by Maxime Buchi
Cockerel tattoo by Cal Jenx
Can you tell me a little bit about your first tattoo experience?
My first tattoo was a stick and poke that I did on my ankle when I was about 15, in my friend’s shed with a sewing needle and some Indian ink, but I don’t know if I should count that! So my first experience entering a tattoo studio was when I was 18. I was really nervous and my mum came with me. I got a little bee that I had drawn up myself. I knew I wanted a bee because to me they symbolise fertility and sweetness; they are life-giving. It was particularly poignant at that time of my life because my periods had just started again after over a year of not having one, as I had been struggling with anorexia. I was recovering and finally beginning to feel like a young woman and I needed to acknowledge this fertile, female part of me that had been lost, but had returned. It’s still one of my favourite tattoos.
When did your journey as a tattoo apprentice begin and what have some of the challenges been?
I began my apprenticeship just under two years ago. The biggest hurdle for me initially was believing in my work. After spending months on my portfolio, actually getting an apprenticeship was unbelievable, but I felt like I had to prove myself all over again. Trusting myself to be capable - not only in my drawing, but in my ability to learn as well - is an ongoing challenge. You just have to try your best. Having patience has also been a challenge. It’s a very slow learning process at times. You could be doing really well, making progress and then, for no explicable reason, one day you’ll feel like you’re right back at square one. I know everyone has good days and bad days, sometimes it flows and sometimes it doesn't. Not getting knocked back by these challenges is a challenge in itself!
Highlights from Ella's portfolio
When you were doing your first tattoos on real skin, how did that feel as a canvas?
Really odd at first. I couldn't stop panicking that it would go horribly wrong and I’d do a really bad job. I actually went straight to skin; my first ever tattoo was on my mentor’s leg, so I don’t have anything to compare it to as I’ve never tattooed anything else! It’s a beautiful canvas. It’s alive. Before I started tattooing I remember my mentor saying that skin is the best canvas in the world. I’ll always feel lucky to work with it.
What does it take to become a tattoo artist? What kind of qualities is it helpful to have?
It’s important to have empathy and love in your art and for your clients when you work with people at such an intimate level. I think you have to be very resilient and determined. Also, if you think too much about what you’re doing - drawing permanent images on a moving, flexible surface that is attached to a conscious human who will live with it for the rest of their life - it becomes almost farcically terrifying, so you have to learn to stay calm, too. I guess it’s either that or you just become really wilfully impervious to the situation, which to me is a pretty clear signifier that you shouldn't be tattooing. On a really basic level, I think it helps to be nice when you’re literally sticking needles in people. Nobody wants to be hurt by an asshole.
Is there a symbolic connection between your bird-themed tattoos? You have a cockerel, a bird's claw and a blackbird...
I haven't intentionally decided to get lots of birds and bird-themed imagery. It seems to have happened really naturally! I don't really know why, I guess I'm just really drawn to them and a lot of tattooists I wanted work from have a way of drawing birds that I really liked. I suppose the idea of feathers and flight is so other and so interesting to me, which probably has something to do with it. I love how birds sing and I think they're beautiful, they're kind of soft and sharp. This is all post-tattoo thought however, so I'm kind of creating symbolism here, whereas initially I was just drawn to them from the heart without analysing it too much. I'm really happy with how they all sit together - my little flock.
Bird’s claw tattoo by Holly Jade Ashby
Blackbird tattoo by Antoine Larrey
I think it helps to be nice when you’re literally sticking needles in people. Nobody wants to be hurt by an asshole.
What advice would you give to someone who was thinking about getting their first tattoo?
You don’t need to rush with tattoos; you’ll have them for the rest of your corporeal time on earth, so think about it as much as you need to. But also, follow your heart and don’t think about it too much.
Being tattooed can often be an emotional experience. Have people you've tattooed ever reacted in an emotional way?
Definitely. The physical and emotional space in which you get a tattoo is something I’m really aware of and I try to make sure both of these bases are given attention, and that the experience is as open and enjoyable as possible. People get tattoos for different reasons and sometimes those reasons are very personal. I’ve noticed that cover up tattoos can generate an intense emotional response; reclaiming skin can be an incredibly powerful thing to do. It’s an honour for me to be in a position where I can help someone move forward from something that no longer serves them. Matching tattoos can also be emotional for the people involved. I remember shortly after I’d first started tattooing, I tattooed two matching Norwegian moons for two of my really close friends who are also sisters. The day was just full of love. It was an honour to be involved in this moment that celebrated their sisterhood, their heritage and our friendship. It felt almost ceremonial! It was a really special day and we all got pretty emotional - in a good way. It was the first time I truly felt how amazing it is that tattoos can make days like that possible.
Lady with laurels tattoo by Fidjit
Snake and peony by Lilac Fault. Flower of life by Steven McKenzie
When you look at your tattoos how do they make you feel?
It really varies actually. I love most of my tattoos and I love them dearly. Simply put, they make me feel more like me. They make me feel strong, bold, authentic and feminine. But I have a fair few tattoos that I don’t like, mainly on my thighs, and they can make me feel self-conscious if they’re on show. I’m in the process of covering these tattoos up, which is turning into a big project, but it’s something I really want to do and I’m excited to embrace the change.
Often people will talk about tattoos being addictive. Is this something you've ever felt?
I’ve definitely felt that they’re addictive! There always seems to be a next one. On a physical level, getting tattooed will generally give you a rush of adrenaline and endorphins. A lot of people feel pretty high afterwards. Apart from the physiological aspect of tattooing that might explain why people go back for more, the psychological aspect of tattoos is important too. They offer a way of owning your skin. They live with you as a mode of personal expression that says this is who I am. Tattoos say: follow your heart. Tattoos say: I am brave. Tattoos say: these are the things that matter to me most. Tattoos say: from pain comes beauty. Tattoos confirm your self-determination. Tattoos confirm your freedom to make choices. I think all of these things explain why they might be addictive.
What are some of the most important tips you've learnt from your mentor Steven McKenzie?
In terms of attitude, he’s inspired me to always keep to my own path, to keep trying new creative things and that, through this, growth and personal fulfilment will come, even if it’s scary and challenging and doesn't work out sometimes. If you’re lucky enough to be making a living from your creative expression, don’t let that go - it’s rare.
Featured artists: Ella Bell, Maxime Buchi, Tati Compton, Cal Jenx, Holly Jade Ashby, Antoine Larrey, Fidjit, Lilac Fault, Steven McKenzie