Painted ladies talk about the bond they share with their tattoo artists.

Words and photos Lydia Bigley

Dee O’ Brien & Tori

Lesbian tattoo artist Dee O’Brien met Tori at a ‘mobile tattoo party’ organised by a mutual friend five years ago. ‘Dee has done all my tattoos. She is such an amazing artist and never makes mistakes. I wouldn’t go anywhere else to get tattooed,’ gushes Tori, a hairdresser from Horsham, West Sussex.

Although Tori’s tattoos don’t have any particular significance, they are all original pieces. ‘I come up with a concept and Dee turns it into a tattoo. I just love getting tattooed and I really enjoy collaborating with her on the designs. Dee is also a good friend. She makes me feel really comfortable. I sat for five hours one day and I fell asleep!’ says Tori. All of her tattoos have been done over the last four years and the piece on her back took around six hours to complete. For her next, she is thinking about getting a chain of daisies around her thigh. ‘I like to get my tattoos in places that can be kept covered.’

Dee, from Billingshurst, West Sussex, started out doing henna tattoos before switching to the permanent variety. She worked in a tattoo studio in Dorking for four years before opening True Will in February this year with her business partner, Sophie. She specialises in animal portraits, as well Polynesian & Maori tattoos, and is happy to do any size of tattoo from small ones right up to full sleeves and backs.

‘The best type of client to work with is someone who already has a good idea of what they want and strong ideas to work with. I always do consultations with my clients beforehand,’ Dee explains.She counsels people thinking of getting a tattoo to do their research carefully. ‘Look on the internet, go away and have a think about it and make sure it’s definitely what you want. A tattoo is forever so it’s got to be something you can live with. Getting a smaller tattoo isn’t always easier or less painful.’ Dee also advises to ‘make sure the artist is someone you can relate to.’

Mo Coppoletta & Ester T.

‘I love Mo’s style of tattooing, the detail and the colours,’ says Ester. ‘He can always talk me around and improves my concept, which is quite unusual because I usually come in with a very definite idea of what I want, but Mo is always right. I love the atmosphere of the studio, there is always a good vibe with all the tattoo artists, its chilled and friendly. It feels like family. Mo can always pick up when there is more pain during a session and can talk you through it, he’s cool.’

Ester was introduced to Mo by an ex-girlfriend whom he had previously worked on. Ester, who works in the music industry and lives in Brixton, already had a few small tattoos, having got her first at 17, and decided to save up for some ‘proper ones.’ Mo has created almost a full sleeve on her right arm, the biggest of which is a striking peacock. All the work has been done over a period of three years, with the peacock alone taking ten hours. For Ester, the colourful bird represents ‘the Dandy’ part of herself – ‘Showing off and dressing up. I’ve nicknamed him Oscar Wilde!’

Ester is planning to get more ink from Mo. ‘I want some more done on my left arm; it’s a work in progress and I’m still thinking about what to get.’

Mo, originally from Verona, Italy, and living in London for the last 11 years, specialises in Oriental and Japanese designs as well as religious iconography and has seen his style grow and develop over the years. ‘As time goes on, you get more confidence, people don’t question your ideas as much. They look at your style and know your work.’

The impressive online archive of Mo’s designs shows the extent of the artist’s specific style, and images of the shop itself aim to put potential customers at their ease. Such is the demand for Mo’s tattoos that he will now only work on bigger pieces and has a waiting list of over a year, although he says that he is always happy to do consultations.

Ely & Joan

Joan and Ely met through a tattooed friend around eight years ago. ‘We discovered we were both born in the same hospital in Hong Kong,’ says Joan, a social care trainer and consultant who came to Britain when she was eight. ‘I think that with our similar background, and the fact that we are both lesbians, it was inevitable that we’d end up being friends.’

Joan already had a few tattoos before she met Ely, including a dragon on her left shoulder, which she has incorporated into a larger back piece. ‘It’s better having work done by someone you feel comfortable with, and I like working with Ely because she is so fucking fussy! She tells me, “No you can’t get that, it will look stupid.” The studio is very friendly, they have Christmas parties for their customers,’ says Joan.

Ely chips in: ‘We have a laugh and take smoke breaks together. Joan buys me pizza, but sometimes she moans about the pain when I’m tattooing and I have to hold her down!’

The centrepiece of Joan’s large tattoo is a Chinese phoenix. ‘The phoenix represents “rebirth,” moving on in life, and I got it after coming through a period of my life when I was feeling very down,’ she explains. She looked for the right type of phoenix for more than a year and finally found one she liked on a trip to China in 2004. ‘It was very significant for me to have the phoenix bigger than the dragon I already had, because in Chinese mythology the dragon, which symbolizes masculinity, is always bigger than the feminine phoenix.’ So far, the piece has taken around nine months of work.

Ely, who has been tattooing for ten years and worked in Australia and Gran Canaria, doesn’t have a favourite style and enjoys working with clients on different designs. ‘Getting on well with the client is the most important thing, I like to get a lot of input from them.’

Published in Diva magazine, July 2008, issue 146


Lydia Bigley © 2018