There was a time when sporting a tattoo would mark you gangster, sailor or punk. Today they’re adorned by young and old, rich and poor, straight and rebellious alike. In this series, we meet London’s finest tattoo artists to discuss the growing appeal of ink. Mowgli works from his studio Through My Third Eye where he specialises in uniquely intricate artwork. Photography by Rory James.
DISORDER: What first hooked you about tattooing?
MOWGLI: Tattooing has always been a fascination. Both the culture and permanency felt so alien, I had to delve into its world. You can use the body as a canvas to explore your artistic ideas. The position, composition, expression, ideas and soul can be read from so many angles; from other people, artistically or how it reads in different light.
Tell us about your journey from first entering a tattoo shop to becoming a tattoo artist.
I got my first tattoo at 15 (which is not the most legal thing). My fascination for the craft lead me to always either getting tattooed or being in studios. I studied for an under-graduate degree in Music Technology and a master’s degree in Music for Film and Televison, and played in bands in my early twenties. I attempted a few independent labels but the music work was very unforgiving. Then, I got tattooed again at around 23 and the studio was open to art – this was the basis for everything. [Possessing] a style and a voice in your visual aesthetic was the main focus, and the idea of making even pennies felt like I was a success. We used to share pot noodles (yes, we were very poor) but to even make one tattoo, be it script, or if we were lucky our own design, felt like we had taken over the world. We would celebrate by buying each other lunch. Tattooing is still this exciting, and to be considered an artist feels surreal. I still grin to myself.
What was your first tattoo, and how do you feel about it now?
My first tattoo was of a crow, based on the 1994 movie The Crow. It’s placed in between my shoulder blades. I see it as a memory. I would love to have a new interpretation in a more modern style, but still love it nevertheless.
Any advice for people getting their first tattoo – perhaps a style or place or motivation?
I don’t think too much advice is ever a good thing, but if I had to… I would say that you must find a style that resonates with you, and, if you can, an artist that’s into what you want. It’s your tattoo, and you have to wear it. Trust the artist and their vision. It’s their job.
How frequently do you get new ones? What’s next?
I don’t really get tattooed too often. If I do it’s usually by friends that I think are really cool people and love. My last tattoos were by Koit and Mia Leo, who’s a sweetheart.
Tell us about your personal style as an artist.
I follow the idea of how a pencil works in my head. I’m always trying to push myself into different realms, trying more realism or attempting straighter lines. I like to decipher people and represent their ideas in my own complicated way. We are all complex beings; I’m trying to fit it all into one little space.
What other artists do you admire – past and present?
Prince (he really made me believe in myself), Leonardo Da Vinci, John Mayer (his blues licks are just divine), Dave Grohl (introducing the punk ethic, and doing it all yourself) and Kurt Cobain. He was so honest that you can still hear his passion on In Utero. They all express fearlessness in their expression.
What can you tell about someone by their artwork? And what do tattoos reveal about your own stories?
You really cannot tell. People are so complex and beautiful; the reveal of a tattoo is always so different. My tattoos are really my connection with my clients. I call them my little love letters (not in a weird way). I am ever grateful that I can be a part of someone else’s life. It gives me a purpose, and I thank them all for it.
Is there such a thing as a bad tattoo – what does that look like and what do you say to someone stamped with one?
I don’t really like to think of the negatives when it comes to tattooing. It’s a beautiful art and I guess people want different things. Someone is living with something for the rest of their life. Passing judgement is a notion I’m not really into.
What style of tattoo artwork excites you today? And, what do you dislike?
I really like the surreal composition of certain artists like John Monteiro, who plays with really tight composition and fascinating application process. I’m obsessed with composition and playing with one tone – all the surreal/graphic black and grey tattoos blow my mind. But you [also] have artists like Chris Rigoni who kill it every time. I really dislike people stealing other tattoo artists’ work… Be inspired by the composition or style and incorporate things. Use the same references. But don’t just copy it [entirely]. Someone has really put the work into making it their own.
How has tattooing changed with sudden exposure on social media? Were there particular moments – a celebrity, a television show – that you remember creating a shift in the culture?
Social media is a tool that allows artists to get out there. How cool is it that an artist can find their audience without having to have an agent or follow the rules of corporate bullshit? A lot of TV shows on tattooing make fun of people’s existing tattoos and try to shock people. The compassion towards tattooing and the real collectors gets buried beneath this bullying culture. Tattooing is an art.
What defines the tattooing community? And how do you act or adapt within it?
The world of tattooing that I’m involved in is a very creative and loving one. All the artists I spend my time with are looking for an outlet of expression and have great passion to make incredible things. Understanding a serious artist’s ideas makes for a beautiful conversation, one which I have with all the guys at my studio Through My Third Eye, and at other studios such as Alter Schwas in Berlin. We support each other and encourage one another to be the best we can be. Being a tattoo artist is a really delicate process. To be creative to such a level every day comes with a family of support, creativity and love.
Are there assumptions from the “straight” world about people that have tattoos? Is there a tension?
I was brought up in a Muslim family, and the career I have chosen isn’t really the standard. But I have a progressive family that allow me to be who I am and the world I live in. I think ignorance is the only result of tension, and a conversation and understanding of others and their choices should be had.
Are there still taboos in tattooing? Do you ever tell clients to think twice?
Offensive/racist tattoos are usually a no-go. In terms of placement, that’s always up for discussion, such as face tattoos and how others could perceive them. I make sure they know about potential complications. If you’re young and looking to be a corporate person, I don’t think it’s fair for me to hinder your career prospects. I make sure I understand clients and what they do, so I can advise accordingly.
Are you more into the craft or into the art?
I’m into the art of tattooing, the composition side. What makes my brain tick is trying to create something that holds interest when viewing. It’s got to be something I think is beautiful. The craft is [also] so important. Knowing what you are doing and being able to convey that by being a competent craftsman is a must. The craft is gorgeous, and we have incredible machine builders who aid us in our vision.
What is your proudest moment?
Opening my own studio, Through My Third Eye. It’s a collection of incredible artists with an awesome attitude and passion for art, tattooing and friendship. I may have opened the door, but the combination of all the artists (residents and guests) amounts to something truly special.
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