The Godfather: Part 1 - The Family Business

Published: 22 June, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 200, June, 2011

The landscape of the modern city is one in constant flux. New developments springing up where old familiar buildings used to be, properties constantly changing hands and changing identities with surprising regularity, but still there are always landmarks which act as a point of reference. If the landscape of modern tattooing is viewed in the same way, then The Family Business is one of those familiar, reassuring landmarks.

The name itself conjures up images of tradition, tranquillity, quality and the commitment to customer service from days of old. The studio itself is located on the edge of Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell; an area that until the late 1960s was primarily known as the epicentre of the Italian-London immigrant community. The architecture and independent feel of the area reflects its history and The Family Business fits right in. The interior of the studio is mostly warm red and yellow; inviting you to explore the Roman Catholic and Day of The Dead iconography that decorates the walls of the waiting area.

Despite this homely and relaxed visage, The Family Business is firmly focussed on the business of tattooing. The studio opened in 2003 with the aim of striking the perfect balance between dedication to the serious art of tattooing and friendly banter between staff and customers to ensure a personal approach at providing clients with an enjoyable tattoo experience.
Mo Coppoletta looks and sounds every part the product of his traditional Italian upbringing. And opening The Family Business studio his way ensured these values are not diluted or lost in his daily life. Mo and I had been introduced before and the interview actually became a natural extension of previous conversations about the world of tattooing; so I started by asking him what has been his proudest moment since opening the doors in 2003.

“I think it may be the book [last year they released a photo book 'Tattooed by the Family Business' documenting many of the artists and the art produced by the studio], as a testimonial to the shop. It's all proud moments, seeing it growing bit by bit, without being hit by overnight success – this is a very proud thing for me. Things that you achieve bit by bit, piece by piece, brick by brick; they are more solid and hopefully last longer than overnight success. I never believed in that. So when I opened The Family Business, it was done slowly, there was no rush. That's probably my biggest pride, the opening and slow establishment of the shop, to reach where we are today."

Over the last eight years of business a lot has changed. Have you made any mistakes with the business that you wish you had not had to ‘learn lessons’ from?

"Sometimes the best way to learn is to bang your head against obstacles. Even if you've heard about this or that, not to do something or another, or to do it differently, you need to experience things first hand. I have made some moves that with hindsight, I maybe should have done differently, but all in all, I'd consider myself quite like lucky."

So it is safe to say you have no regrets?

"Absolutely none."

Earlier in the year you produced a canvas piece for auction by the Hare Styling project, as part of the Great Ormond Street charity project. You were the only tattooist to be involved in this, how did it come about, did you approach them?

"I heard about the art auctions through Heartbreak, who are my agents. They take care of both of us and many other artists in their group were doing it, so they asked me also. I agreed and it was a good fun thing to do."

Do you feel you want to be involved in things like that again?

"Yes, most definitely. In some ways tattooing has become the new rock and roll; more people seem to want to become a tattooist than a musician now, and this is reflected in the wider commercial exploitation of the job title. With this wider 'culture of celebrity' people look up to tattooists in the way the look up to other stars, and listen to what they have to say."

Do you think more tattooists should be getting involved in charitable projects? Do they have a responsibility to give as well as take?

"To each his own. Everybody's conscience should speak to... y'know, the individual – they can be selfish or selfless. I don't know what people should or shouldn't do. Yeah, tattooists are rock stars but only within the tattoo world, which some forget is a very small part of the world. So if you want to be, you can be a big fish in small pond. There is room for everybody. There is room for people with big heads that deserve the praise, people with big heads that don't deserve praise, people with a nice chilled out attitude. I never thought about this or that person being big-headed or not. If somebody is big headed, a bit of a tough cookie and gets the right luck, then enjoy it. The tattoo world definitely is enjoying a very long moment of success, a moment in the spotlight, and for me, I see that not everybody who deserves attention receives attention."

At this point, I tell Mo about a quote that I have been told Sailor Jerry said during the late 1970s, something about how tattooing is already saturated and cannot get any bigger or more mainstream, there is nowhere else for it to go. Suddenly Mo breaks into genuine laughter and his eyes light up, with a smile on his face he replies; 

"He was obviously wrong. So wrong. Even now there's still a lot of room, the scene is very incestuous and they don't see the full potential of where they can take tattooing. Yeah, it was big then, it is bigger now, but tattooists didn't benefit fully. Even now the scene is generally wallowing in its own success rather than taking it forward. The scene is stagnating."

Clearly this is something you care about and have thought about before. If you could control the direction of how tattooing is expanding, or have a wider influence on the future direction of tattooing as a business, what would you like to do or see change?

"Again, to each his own. I try to do it, but all I can think of is myself and the shop. The rest, those people who have a talent and don't use it, the people who don't have much talent but have the [marketing] skills to enjoy, they have to live with their decisions. There's a lot of different things out there, a lot of people putting in effort, an awful lot just are content with what they've done and happy to stay where they are. I believe this is the right moment to do things with tattooing, really push it further into so many new areas, but it's not for me to push people to do it."

Jokingly, I asked Mo if this meant we would be seeing a range of Family Business phone covers and coasters before the end of the year. His jovial response lead into a discussion about the 'business of art', compared to art for art's sake.

"Ha! I don’t know. Maybe, we could do something like that. If the offer is good – if the project is good, I will look at it. For now it will have to wait, unfortunately. This is a business, and I have to take care of the core first. Either the project is very, very cool, and so you can compromise on your fee and do something like be part of a very beautiful documentary. Or it is not so cool, but they pay a lot which allows you the freedom to do something cool later on. Everything has a price, price is not just the monetary price. It could be rewarding in many ways. If something is very cheesy but there's a good pay cheque? What the hell. Welcome, we're all here, make our lives easier."

Steve Vinall 

How long at The Family Business?

"Not that long – about four months."


"Barcodes, mainly...only kidding! It sounds arrogant to say, 'Oh people come to me for my style'. I'm lucky, I get asked to tattoo designs of girl's faces, animals, all sorts. I don't want to restrictively label the style of work I do, but 'neo-traditional' is what I guess the category most people would say my stuff might fall into."

What drew you to The Family Business?

"I had recently left a shop and I was doing a little European tour. I was working in Germany, then in a few places around England between September and Christmas. I went to London, I'd popped into the shop a few times, spoken with Mo a few times too, it turns out we had a lot of acquaintances in common. Somehow I ended up coming into the shop and the discussion turned to the fact that I wasn't working, we got talking further and I ended up getting a little time to talk with him about my tattoo work, he liked it an invited me in basically."

What's special about The Family Business?

"This shop is what every shop should be. A group of people who are all very committed to what they do. We all want the best for our customers, no expense is spared as far as time, research and drawings, the consultation, actually taking stuff away and going home and working on it. Just giving all that we can to our customers basically. Making sure that they get exactly what they want and in a way we get what we want. We have good customers who get good tattoos and we give them 100 per cent basically."


How long at The Family Business?

"Three weeks."


"I like photo-realistic, but adding some blackout lines; I'm into colours a lot too."

What drew you to The Family Business?

"Well I think it's a really good shop and I live five minutes down the road, literally. Mo asked me to come here, and I'm hardly going to turn down an invite to work in such a respected studio."

What's special about The Family Business?

"There's a lot of good stuff here, everyone really welcoming. Of course you're going to get a really good tattoo, everybody's got their own style. The shop itself is really special, warm, the decoration all the details too. As a bonus you can even have real coffee."


How long at The Family Business?

"About a year and a half."


"Whatever the customer wants, that's it. I just want to tattoo."

What drew you to The Family Business?

"Working in shitty shops before, being with people now that I enjoy being with. It has a nice atmosphere, a nice shop."

What's special about The Family Business?

"There's a bunch of people here doing the best that they can and that's it. It's the quality of the work that makes it so special."

That's not all folks! The conversation with Mo Coppoletta continues well into the next issue. Join us then for part 2.


Text & Photography: Al Overdrive