Love Letters to Tattooing: Interview with Stewart Robson

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Love Letters to Tattooing: Interview with Stewart Robson

In this interview with Stewart Robson of Modern Classic Tattoo, he talks about the beauty of Ukiyo-e, and more.

A legend of the tattooing community in his own right, Stewart Robson of Modern Classic Tattoo, was kind enough to give us a moment of his time for this interview. Speaking on his humble beginnings, his film projects, and opening up his own shop with Valerie Vargas, Stewart's life is an inspiring work of pure devotion and love. 

How did you get into tattooing? Was it what you always wanted to do?

I wanted to have tattoos and do tattoos from an early age. Probably around 10 years old. I started tattooing by slowly buying tattoo equipment with my, fairly low, disposable income. When I got paid each month I bought a different piece of equipment until I had everything I needed to do a tattoo on myself. At the time I was getting my back piece from Steve Byrne when he tattooed in Leeds, UK. He was gracious enough to let me hang around before and after my sessions to watch him tattoo other clients. I did a peony on my ankle in my living room. Once friends of mine saw it, they wanted to get tattooed too. I set up the spare room in my house as a tattoo room. After a while I tattooed friends of my friends. After a couple of years of holding down a full-time job and tattooing occasionally at weekends or evenings, I was offered a place in a shop in Sheffield, UK and helped the owner open it. Less than a year later I was offered a job a Frith Street Tattoo in London.

Your work is very much supported by the foundations of Irezumi, and I hear often that this form of tattooing has many rules. Can you describe some of these rules, and why they exist? Why did you find yourself attracted to this particular aesthetic?

I think any traditional form of tattooing has many rules. It’s just that some of the people who chose to wear or apply them seem to feel the weight of those rules when they are from a ‘foreign’ culture and can’t read the language of the books they’re copying from. So it seems very esoteric to them. Having said that, Japanese style tattooing, certainly the way I approach it, is rooted in the work of the Ukiyo-e artists. Often there are subtle and overt meanings and nuances to that work based on folk tales and a cultural point of view that can often seem impenetrable to non-Japanese.

I’m drawn to that style as I consider it the original form of decorative tattooing. All other forms of decorative tattooing are derived from it in some way or another, whether the wearers and practitioners are aware of that or not. I’m also more interested in any style of tattooing that works with the shape and movement of the human body. If that style can say something about the human condition too, all the better.

Can you tell us about your film FST: On The Shoulders of Giants? What was the impetus behind the project, where did the title come from, and how did it feel to produce such an incredible piece?

Thanks for the kind words. It really was a labour of love. It started because I was always impressed by the tattooing that was happening around me in that small basement room and once smart phones could shoot half-decent video we started sharing videos of what was happening in the shop on social media. After a while I began to make simple edits to the videos and felt the potential of that and the responsibility to share what I saw as inspirational work that was happening simultaneously around me. I then understood that to convey the full feeling of the environment I would need to interview those involved.

It was a love letter to tattooing that took so long to make that it ended up being a goodbye letter to Frith Street as Valerie and I opened our own tattoo shop.

Many established tattoo artists have a very specific philosophy revolving the art form and community of tattooing. How would you describe yours?

Everything I have that I value has been made possible or came directly from tattooing. It’s my duty to respect tattooing and do tattoos that respect history, craft, art and most of all the bodies that wear it. I’m not sure about the ‘community’ of tattooing as that often seems to imply that as soon as you have or do a tattoo, you’re in a special club. That’s not the case. The community that has welcomed me, has to do with an approach to tattooing itself and a respect for it, the people that wear them and all that entails.

Why did you and Valerie decide to open your own shop? How does working with your life partner support your personal artistic practice?

We knew that eventually we wanted to start our own family. The situation Valerie and I had at Frith Street wouldn’t have allowed us to take extended time off and have a more flexible work life that parenthood can sometimes need. We gave Dante over one year notice and he visited our new shop on opening day with Jordan Teear to share his blessing. We are still close with the Frith Street crew and especially Dante.

Valerie and I are lucky enough that my artistic strengths are her weaknesses and vice versa. We have always been able to help with elements of each others work that we would not have noticed on our own.

Any plans for 2019 that you’d like to share? Travel plans, guest spots, projects you’re excited about?

Next year I’ll scale back on conventions and guest spots a little. We have a young daughter and that adds a level of difficulty to organizing trips. Keep your eyes peeled on our shop website and Instagram for announcements of a few exciting things that will happen next year!

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