“When I was 17 I got a tattoo on my nipple, without my mom knowing, with a fake ID, as everybody does. I was fascinated by it.”
Walking in on Ben Hill as he carves the tattoo of a nurse into a patron’s arm is a cool experience. He chats with the customer about the design (the nurse, an homage to the customer’s mother) and what kind of colors he prefers to work with. There’s music on in the background, courtesy of his Spotify playlist, low lighting, save for a bright lamp aimed at the customer’s forearm, and examples of Ben’s designs act as wallpaper for a good portion of the room.
“I always thought it was something I can’t do,” he says of becoming a tattoo artist. “I grew up in Barcelona, and the level of tattooing is amazing there, and everybody paints so fucking well. I used to go to tattoo shops and see the stuff they make, and think, ‘Wow, I could never do this in my life.’ And it wasn’t until I came to Turkey that I saw it was a possibility for me to start doing something like this.”
The 31-year-old tattooist has spent the better part of the last year working on getting his passion off the ground in Barcelona, but he was more than happy to ink as many customers as possible while on a recent trip to Istanbul, where he lived for a number of years working as a teacher. But after the Turkish military’s attempted coup in July 2016, he began to reconsider what priorities he had in mind.
“The political situation in Turkey made me consider what I wanted to do with me life. I was planning on doing this anyway, but that made me think, ‘Let’s do it now. Let’s not wait.’ I saw it as a way to go. My idea was to finish my master’s degree and to create that perfect safety net, but I stopped doing everything. It’s the best choice I’ve ever made. I was watching Louis CK recently and he was saying, “I’m 40-something years old, the best years of my life are behind me.” And I thought, ‘Well, yeah, these are my best years, so I have to dedicate them fully to what I want to do.’”
Ben’s style tends to deal in clean lines and bright colors that create soft and almost regal images, almost like something you might find on the ceiling of an old church.
“I do old-school or Americana. The girls I paint are very art deco. It’s my first love. These are always the tattoos I found amazing. The first few tattoos I got were in that style.”
Though he’s just finding his feet in the tattoo world, he’s already had some interesting experiences with customers, not the least of which includes working on a woman whose husband who had some unreasonable demands.
“I once had to tattoo a butterfly onto the ass of a headscarved Iranian woman, and her husband wasn’t comfortable with the idea of me tattooing her. He didn’t want me to touch her. Then I’d talk to him and calm him down and start again, and he’d say “Don’t touch my wife!” and I was like, “How the hell do you think tattoos are done?””
Business as Unusual
Speaking with a trademark satirical bite, he talks of how the tattoo world has more depth to it than one might realize, and not always in a good way.
“There are amazing artists that do incredible stuff. Their drawing and their technique. What I would like to see change is the attitude. A lot of tattooists are not very nice. They don’t want to share creativity, they see you as an enemy. Good artists collaborate. The only way to learn is by collaborating. Unless you’re a fucking genius, there is no way to improve. The past 10 -15 years tattooing went from this underground, dirty thing to do, to this very expensive, fashionable image. Like Rihanna getting a tattoo – that was like a big change. I’m sorry, but it’s true. There are young illustrators and artists doing radical new stuff. I don’t always like it, but they do it and it’s out there and totally new.”
As an attitude, ‘the customer is always right’ isn’t something that he necessarily believes, especially in Turkey. If there isn’t a single right way to go about it, there’s definitely a wrong way in his eyes.
“Spanish customers tend to know what they want and also a bit about the tattooing language. They’re aware they need to tell you a size or a placement. Turkish customers do what I call ‘Pinterest’ tattoos. “I want that one!” And you say, “Well, why are you getting a tattoo?” And they go, “Well, I want to be unique.” And you’re like, “But this tattoo is on Pinterest. Hundreds of people have this.” The reason why I mainly tattoo other tattooists in Istanbul is because they know what they are doing. British customers are even better. They give you more freedom.”
Like any commissioned artist (though he shies away from calling himself this), the entire process and the finished product are likely to be at least somewhat influenced by the relationship with the customer. And if you’re thinking about getting inked for the first time, Ben has some advice for you.
“As a tattooist, people always worry about how much it’s gonna cost. You can arrange a price depending on what they want, but I’d recommend people to talk to the guy for a while then ask for the price later. Talk to the guy. Those extra five minutes, I might say, “You know what, I like your idea, I like the way you’re treating me, I might lower the price a bit.” Oh, and don’t get your girlfriend’s name for a tattoo.”
An Inkling of Things to Come
Ben will be headed to Majorca for the summer to “tattoo a bunch of drunk Brits on holiday.” It’s part of an admittedly less-than-glamorous effort to put in the leg work and focus on honing his technique, something he believes is necessary before he moves ahead with his plans.
“It’s an opportunity to make a shit-ton of money. People are telling me I’ll be bored and I won’t like it because it’s not very artistic. Yeah, it’s boring, it’s repetitive, but by the end, I’m gonna be so good at the technical part of it. So I see it as making the technique an art form.”
Filling in the Gaps
As of now, Ben feels he might go in any number of directions with this new career path. He’s got more than a few ideas regarding what to put his skills toward, including a brilliant idea for a phone app that he is keeping a secret for now. For the time being, however, he’s happy to put his nose to the grindstone and work his way up a decorative ladder with an unknown number of rungs.
“In a year’s time I see myself working at a tattoo shop in Barcelona. I want be a bottom feeder, in order to learn. I would really like to be there five years. In Spain tattoo shops become like sects. A group of friends or artists, and they have this vision together and they all have the same style. For example, a shop will only do black work. No colors. five guys working and they never use color. I’d like to see myself joining a team of really cool people. I don’t think I’ve got the level to do it now, but, I’d like to tour Europe, if not the world, tattooing people. Become a nomad tattooist. In ten years, I see a problem. I started tattooing too old. By the time I have a really good level, I’ll be at an age where the youngest customers no longer want to be tattooed by me. People don’t want to get tattooed by someone who looks like their dad. Then it’s no longer that rebellious for them. Experience is valued, so I think I’ll own a shop and hopefully train younger tattooists. But god knows what tattooing is gonna be in ten years’ time.”
You can check out Ben’s work on his Instagram.