Feature: Kinky Ink

Female proprietors are a rarity in the tattoo shop industry but owner of Kinky Ink and Tattoohotspot, Denise Farrugia, is not a woman to be discouraged by tradition. Denise opened her first studio roughly eight years ago, breaking the industry’s macho mould and has since revolutionised tattoo shop culture. We visited Denise and some of her trusty artists, who are more like family than employees at Tattoohotspot, the older shop of the two, in up-and-coming Tooting market. The friendly atmosphere of banter and high spirits seemed far from the surly veneer of so many tattoo shops in London. Ventsmag enjoyed a captivating chat with the businesswoman who is also a mother of four and Woman Support Worker, helping female street-sex workers. We learnt how this inspirational woman overcame desertion and prejudice to stray from industry norms and arrive at her success.

How did you come to own your first shop?

I met a guy who was a tattooist and we fell in love. He was working for a tight knit community. He wasn’t happy working at this studio, so when we got together, after a while I asked him if he would like for us to open our own studio and he said yes. So I got a bank loan and we opened our first studio. It was really hard as I had no experience in doing anything like that and now when I look back, he wasn’t really up for it as much as I believed and I did all the work to set everything up.

So that’s how I got all my experience of knowing how to set up the shop because of all of the paperwork and the planning applications, because you have to get special planning permission.

I knew that in this area it would really work because there wasn’t really anything nearby that could offer the quality of artistry that I knew we could deliver, and because I had lived here a long time, I knew a lot of people in the area, so I knew immediately that would bring us customers and it did. It really worked well. It was just a tiny, one man studio but it used to have a queue outside of people waiting and from there we expanded, we got a bigger studio and we had that studio for about a year. Within that time the guy that I was with left me and it was a choice of either shut down the studio and completely cut off that type of income or take the risk of going into business on my own and seeing how it goes. I wasn’t really linked into the tattoo world as such, like a lot of big people who are involved in that industry, until I met this guy I hadn’t really had any contact with the tattoo world.

Is there a tattoo industry scene in London?

Yea it’s a scene and being that I’m an owner of two studios, there are still prejudices because I’m not an artist and because I’m not a piercer and because I’m just a businesswoman, even though I can run the studio from top to bottom. The only thing I can’t do is tattoo and pierce but everything else I can do and I have a deep passion for, you still get people that will say things like ‘oh are you an artist?’ and the minute that I say no they sort of snub you. There are a lot of people in this industry who just get the studio because of the money but I’m really interested in everything my staff do. There are lots of studios that are just like sweat shops, they just get tattooists in there, especially nowadays because the popularity of tattoos has really peaked; now you can buy tattoo kits from eBay, you can turn on the television and watch Miami Ink, London Ink, so all of a sudden its become very popular and people have begun to see that you can earn money from it.

And that’s what a lot of the tattoo studios are like?

A lot nowadays because its become really popular. People aren’t as educated around tattooing. It’s an art and an industry and it’s about people that have learnt through experience of tattooing not by someone that just buys a tattoo gun from eBay and a set of inks and decides to be a tattooist because they can tattoo mum and dad on the wrist of their friends. That’s not a tattoo artist and the guys and girls I have working for me have experience of working within the industry for a long time, so they can produce good work and they can produce good art and people that know about tattoos will know what is good art and what is rubbish.

What has been the craziest tattoo request?

The craziest tattoo that I’ve seen being done in the shop was a new age traveller who was really anti-America and anti-Bush. On the back of his neck in great, big, thick, black letters he had ‘Fuck Bush’ – and that could have double meaning really.

What is your clientele like here?

Even though we have only just moved here, we have been here eight years but we have only just moved into this studio, already we are getting a different type of customer coming in; more trendy, middle class, looking to get more and more work which is really good. Customer’s who appreciate quality.

What’s your favorite/ most significant tattoo?

Here (taps thigh) because it has my name on it, my husband tattooed me. It means a lot.

Do you think Tattoos have a bad name, gang associations or arouse discrimination in this country?

Where I come from tattoos are bad. I was always brought up that women especially, they don’t have tattoos. I come from a very strict Catholic family and every time I go to my country where all my family is, in Malta, everyone knows who I am and my family’s embarrassed. I know they’re embarrassed, it’s only because of my tattoos, because in that country tattoos are perceived as not very nice, especially on women, so I cover up a lot when I go there.

It’s only in the last maybe ten years that its become popular in England for gang tattoos. I know obviously in America, Mexico, Venezuela places like that its been going for years. My husband is an ex gang member, he’s from LA, he’s Mexican, and he’s absolutely covered in tattoos. I think actually, whereas 5 years ago it was all black and grey and more gangster style stuff, now it’s moving more into new school old school which is traditional tattooing like full colour, sailor jerry and that kind of style.

Do you think the popularity of tattoos at the moment is a trend? Do you think tattooing will die?

Tattooing will never die, but the mainstream, popular fashionable tattooing of the moment will die. What is happening, what we see a lot of here, is lots of crap come in, home made tattoos, kids buy their stuff off eBay and they start tattooing each other at home. A girl came in yesterday and she had done her own arm and it was awful. It’s the accessibility of tattooing. Tattooing used to be quite underground, even the studios would never be like this. Tattoo studios would be closed, you wouldn’t be able to see in, so the intrigue was there still, it kept it underground. You wouldn’t know what was going on in the tattoo studios and it was always some big hairy biker who was tattooing and he was tattooing his mate. I like to keep the shops really open so people can see what’s going on. So it takes away the mysteriousness of it but also gives the person the opportunity to see how it’s done. To see that we’re working in a clean and sterile environment, that there are women working here now, if they want piercings they can be pierced by a woman instead of some big hairy man who wants to do a nipple piercing. Now the appropriate people want to come into a tattoo shop to get good work, to have the opportunity to see that they are going into an environment that is welcoming. I make sure that all my staff are able to talk to people properly, have conversations with them and allow people to have the opportunity to sit down and talk about what they really want because it’s really close to my heart to not just allow people to get exactly what they want when they walk into the shop on an inpulse moment. Because it might not be right for them. We give them the opportunity to think about it, talk about it, draw it for them, and make sure that they’re really happy with what they have got when they walk out the shop, because at the end of the day it’s about my reputation. I make sure that everybody that works for me gives that customer the time to really talk about and think about what they want before they get a tattoo.

What are your plans for the future?

Building up business. I want to be doing conventions by next year. I want to take my whole crew of artists and go and do conventions, which is quite a normal thing to do. The London Convention is held every year in October at Tobacco dock off the high way in East London. There’s another new convention that’s going to be run by a different variety of organisers which can make it more accessible for good studios to participate.

Words by Anya Paul

Photography by Etienne Bruce

Tattoo photo courtesy of Tattoohotspot

Kinky Ink, 93 Battersea Rise, London, SW11 1HW
Tattoohotspot, Broadway Market, Tooting High Street, London, SW17 ORJ


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