All creatures great and small. Yayo talks to the fantastic Samantha Barker.
by Matthew Haddon-Reichardt on Sep 04, 2020
Its fascinating how many people still think being a tattooist is a rock and roll kind of thing. Those in the industry know its all about hard work, professionalism and a love for all things body art. Samantha Barker is a talented tattooist who has her feet on the ground and a work ethic that can't be beat. Yayo sent out regular blog writer Matt Haddon-Reichardt to get the low down on how Samantha survived the lockdown and why she loves all creatures, great and small.
Why did you become a tattooist and how did you start in the industry?
"By total accident; I left home really young, and worked a string of jobs whatever I could get to pay the bills. I was renting on my own at 16. Essentially a run of soul destroying, dead end jobs, but they paid the bills. Eventually, after I had my kids, it was time to go back to work, but I was adamant that I wasn't going to go back to a dead end, soul sucking industry that is selling mobile phones. We were skint, we lived week to week, but being in poverty was still better than that. The stars aligned and an advert popped up for a tattoo apprentice on my Facebook feed. Frankly, I didn't think I'd get it for a minute, but thought it'd be a good chance to get back on the "get interviewed" pony, so I went for it. I have never looked back!”
Where do you work and what is it like working there?
“I own a little family run studio in York opposite the Uni called Chirality Ink. We really focus on being friendly, warm, welcoming and trying to steer well clear of the uppity, aloof, "elite" feel so many studios seem to have harboured the last few years. So many of our customers come and have had bad experiences elsewhere, feeling like they "weren't good enough" or were talked down to by rock-star tattoo artists. Some have even experienced artists laughing in their faces over their designs. To us, that’s not cool; not one bit.”
“Everyone is welcome and we like it that way. Most of us have experienced that cool, stand offish vibe in a studio at one point or another, and our aim is to get as far away from that as possible; even in the studio decor. It’s super important to me that all my clients feel safe, secure and respected. Even if their design isn't something we're feeling, that we will be friendly and kind to them. After all we're all people, and even rock-stars fall eventually.”
“I love anything dainty and delicate, but nothing beats a realism black and grey piece either."
Describe your style and how it developed.
“I don’t have one; I'm a jack of all trades. As a small studio, we don’t have time to cater to just one style. I do anything and everything, bar the obvious ones that are just a no go. Personally I tend to specialise in "damaged" skin; reworks, cover ups, scars, de-pigmented skin, the works.”
“I love anything dainty and delicate, but nothing beats a realism black and grey piece either. For me, so long as each day is different, I'm happy. I'd be bored out of my mind repeating the same style day in day out; my brain is too on the go for it.”
What do you love most about tattooing?
“This is a tough one. As the years have gone by that’s changed, warped, come back on itself. The freedom of being my own boss is great, I think I'm pretty much unemployable to anyone other than the tattoo world now, but being the boss also obviously comes with its own negatives too. Doing art every day, that has to be up there. The people; I love my clients, their stories and their journeys. It’s amazing being part of that, though sometimes it can be really heavy. I'm sure so many artists associate with this in that some of the stuff we get told can really weigh on a person’s mind; it’s just part of the job. When you spend 6 hours tattooing someone a memorial piece, working up close and personal, they're vulnerable. They talk. They tell their tales. Sometimes they're funny, sometimes they're heart warming. Sometimes, they break your heart. I don’t think I have a "love the most", I have a list of many.”
“I have to say I'm super disappointed with various sectors through the industry, and the country as a whole, not helping places out."
Is it great to get back working and how did you survive lock-down?
“It’s nice to be back for sure; it's been a little rough as I have a few health conditions myself, namely arthritis, so I've had to work back steadily to build up again. For the most part, clients have really understood. As I have a backlog of months we've had the odd few who haven't understood that. As artists working with our hands, some skills need refining again essentially. Speed, for example. I can do the same quality tattoo, but I'm slower. That’s rebuilding, but it will take time. “I love anything dainty and delicate, but nothing beats a realism black and grey piece either.
“Lockdown was tough, I'm lucky in that I'm a control freak, and always have some money put aside for a rainy day. Without it, my shop would have gone under. I mean, I now have very little savings, but it is what it is. I'm just glad to be open again.”
“I have to say I'm super disappointed with various sectors through the industry, and the country as a whole, not helping places out. My waste collection people actually paused my account and that was great, it helped. I'm just sad that so many others chose to go on charging people who are already struggling.”
“I think for most of us it was the unknown that was the worry. The "when will we open?" "how?" "WILL we reopen?" It was a bit concerning, and I feel for those who have lost their businesses because of it.”
“Frankly I am not worried about a 2nd wave. I doubt the government could shut everything down again, there just aren’t the resources financially, and people have had enough. The country struggled through the first lot, I don’t believe people will accept it a second time, especially the outrage i.e. when a pub can open, but clean tattoo studios couldn't. I just don’t see it. 2nd wave, maybe, 2nd lock-down? I doubt it.”
Can you run me through your own personal tattoo collection?
“I've got a bunch. My first started with a good old memorial, a big angel on my back for my Granddad; bless his soul. I've been building up others ever since. I'm nowhere near finished though. My overall concept is an earth, air, fire, water theme. One element on each limb , combining into some sort of cosmic bang on what’s left on my back. I've not got round to the planning of that yet.”
“Why did I get them done? I don’t really have a why. I love art, I like tattoos, without going too heavy, I have (haven't we all) been through a really tough time throughout my life. I’ve had therapy galore and a mix of mental and physical health issues and a lot of my work helps to symbolise that; who I am and how I feel. It’s hard to put into words, but I know for a fact anyone out there whose gone through anything, will know exactly what I'm talking about far better than my poor attempt to explain it will do.”
“Work, work, work, work. I've got to try to recover some of this year’s losses and rebuild."
If you weren't a tattooist what job would you do?
“Probably something to do with plants or animals; I inherently don’t really like a whole lot of people. My clients are "my" kind of people and if I had to work away from them, it'd have to be away from the general public. I've done my share of that over the years working in pubs, restaurants, shops and gas stations. Never again!
“We are animal crazy in my house, and I keep a large garden and allotment which I really find soothing, though hard work, to the spirit; so I'd probably do something to do with that, making jam or something daft. Unless there’s a job somewhere with the title of "gets shit done". I'm pretty good at solving problems in businesses and well, getting stuff sorted that no one else can. I'm the one people bring their "this company is ripping me off and I can’t seem to fix it" problems to too sort out. However it's pretty stressful so I think I'd probably have a heart attack before I was 40. So yeah, gardening or animals.
What are your plans for next year?
“Work, work, work, work. I've got to try to recover some of this year’s losses and rebuild. I have no plans or grand designs or rock-star aspirations in this industry, I just enjoy doing my work in our little corner of York and getting on. I'd love to meet more like-minded artists this year, there are some amazing online communities, which are great for us as the community here it’s not strong. So it would be awesome to meet some other artists who feel the same."
"As an older artist with a business, a mortgage and kids I don’t have the time or energy, to go out partying and living the lifestyle so many people think tattoo artists live. I'd rather curl up with a book and my dogs. So this year, I'd like to get to know more artists who are the same. Old fogeys essentially; whilst the younger ones go have all the fun. I'm really glad to be back, working with my team, my clients and my sponsors and just being back at it. We were pretty lucky in that I just finished renovating my studio this time last year, so there’s nothing major we need to do. We just keep pottering along making some cool art and meeting some cool folks. The plan is to keep on swimming. And bees, I'm getting bees. It’s not tattoo related in the slightest, but I think they're cool.”
A final thought from the author: "Bit of a personal one this week. We had a death in the family today and its really got me thinking about memorial tattoos. Samantha is right; tattooists hear some really personal stories and shoulder some deep, intense emotions from their customers. I've never really thought about getting a memorial tattoo before, I'll be honest I always thought they were a little lame. On reflection that's me being a narrow minded prick. I just want to thank Samantha for a fantastic interview and thank Kirk and the rest of the Yayo team for letting me write this blog. Despite the financial pressures of lockdown Yayo have kept me on. I love you guys and girls in the Yayo family. Lets look out for each other and support when and where we can."
Yayo, be part of the family!
Words by Matt Haddon-ReichardtImages by S. Barker, Yayo and NHS England