No Regrets Tattoo Studio

Published: 05 January, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 207, January, 2012

If you were hanging out at Bristol University around 2006, you might have crossed paths with two likely lads, Alex Brown and Ben Lakin. At the time, Alex and Ben were studying economics and marketing, but a mutual interest in tattooing was to push them onto another life path altogether…

Jump forward five years and the duo have two of the most respected tattoo studios in the UK – No Regrets Cheltenham and No Regrets Gloucester – as well as a supply company that is making a mark on the tattoo world.

So how did this pairing come to create a mini-empire in the tattoo world? Well, for once, it seems like it started out with a plan rather than haphazardly stumbling into a world of machines, skin art and ink.

“Before we started the studio, we were pretty unsure what we wanted to do. We’d both had jobs we hated in the past and we wanted to do something we’d be passionate about getting up in the morning for. Something we didn’t dread every day. Our interest in tattooing led us down this road and we started to plan. Plus obviously we started at 10am and we’d be lying if we said that wasn’t an attractive prospect!

“We were both quite intelligent kids, but we couldn’t sit still or behave a lot of the time. An office job was never going to inspire us, being self-employed and doing our own thing was pretty inevitable. Both of us had set up little side line businesses while we were still at school, earning a few quid here and there. We’ve both always had that entrepreneurial spirit; it’s probably why we became friends in the first place. When you get down to the bare bones, a tattoo studio is a business, albeit a different type to your average corporate. It’s a strange concept for a businessman to not focus solely on profit; to understand that this type of business was about more than the money was essential. It needs to be nurtured in order to be successful, and success isn’t measured by figures in this industry.

“The studio was in planning for around a year, lots of late nights dreaming up the ethos and set up and the possibilities of how we could achieve them. We had a few friends in the industry and our first artist, Nik, worked at a studio Ben was regularly tattooed at. He was leaving and wanted something new. Ben would grill him on the ins and outs of how a studio worked and after realising the potential, asked him if he would like to work for us.

“Apart from us wanting quality tattooing leaving the studio, one of our main aims was to provide a decent working environment for our artists. Not just in terms of their surroundings but their working life in general. We felt that this would allow them to concentrate on what they do best – tattooing. Meanwhile we took care of the business side of things, from promotion and conventions to admin. The balance seemed to work well. We made the decision from day one to stock the shop with supplies ourselves, not only is it one less thing for our artists to worry about, but it also ensured no corners need ever be cut. After a lot of thought, planning and expense, No Regrets Cheltenham opened its doors in 2008.

“Looking back, maybe we jumped in feet first. We were fairly uneducated to start with - we had all the enthusiasm, just no real knowledge, even though we thought we did. It’s been a constant learning curve and we had to make it our business to learn fast. We’d spend our evenings trawling through magazines and websites familiarising ourselves with artists and the industry in general. We’d be calling each other up at 3am saying, ‘have you seen this guy’s artwork’. To be fair we still do. It keeps us in touch with what other guys are doing, and in a lot of cases, it inspires us and gives new expectations and goals. From the start we understood quality of work was paramount. We’d spend nights awake wondering how to improve – we’re both quite competitive characters anyway. We tend to thrive under pressure and we’re at our best when we feel we’ve got ground to make up. It doesn’t sit well with us being left behind and the only way to make sure that never happens is to keep moving and progressing.”

With a bold idea in place, plenty of business credentials behind them, and a drive that equalled the first Americans moving out west, now all they had to do was get tattoo artists interested in their venture.

“We pumped the idea to the artists by basically being totally honest really. We couldn’t add value artistically, but we knew we could in other areas. I guess they were encouraged by our enthusiasm and the concept of only having to worry about their artwork. As most will agree, a busy tattooist works ridiculous hours; drawing, tattooing, researching. In reality it leaves little time for the extra bits. That is where we saw our role. In terms of making the best of every working day, it’s a full-time job in itself, especially in the early stages. I mean word of mouth is a powerful marketing vehicle and we’re aware an artist’s work speaks for itself, but a bit of extra promotion and focus on the brand can only be beneficial to the studio, right?

“Throughout this learning curve we’ve made mistakes, but that’s how we’ve grown. We’ve still got a shit-load to learn, so keep an eye out for plenty more mistakes! We’ve had artists come and go and it’s because of that we’ve learned exactly the type of person we want to work with. We’ve had the egos and the rock ‘n’ roll thing, and it didn’t sit well for us. Saying that, we’ve learned something from every person we’ve worked with, good or bad. We like to keep our heads down and keep it humble.

“We were always set on being a custom studio, producing one-off artwork. It’s proved a difficult concept for some to grasp, still wanting to point at the wall and get a piece of flash. I mean, we have nothing against doing it, we still do from time to time, we all just prefer working the way we do… drawing by appointment. It’s nice for the client to get something unique and work with the artist to achieve the desired result. It’s not just the art, it’s the whole experience. The client becomes a part of the design process, a part of producing their own tattoo. I think that’s nice for both parties, I know that’s how I like to get tattooed. I think the coverage the industry’s received in recent years has made people (some!) realise if you shop around, you can find something really special. We never intended to be stereotypical, in fact we consciously moved away from it. I guess we felt studios of old could be quite an intimidating place, especially for the younger ‘new-starters’. We wanted to create an environment where an 18-year-old wanting their first tattoo would feel as comfortable as your hardcore collector. We’re a fairly young team; you’re ancient by 30 at No Regrets! It’s worked well for us though, everyone’s as fresh faced and hungry to further themselves as the next.”

A simple plan of attack from the boys and it wasn’t long before they were headhunting the best artists they could lay their hands on – still with the ethos of a quality tattoo studio keeping them focused.

“You can make a business pumping out shit and running a tattoo production line, but you can’t ever be proud of that stuff… well we couldn’t anyway. The real value of the business was always going to be in the artists and the service we could provide them. So the first step was finding artists of a decent calibre to come and work at such a new venture. In fairness the guys could have found a place at a much more established studio; it’s always been reliant on the artists trusting us and sharing the vision. I guess we believed that if you applied yourself to something that you love and have an interest in, you not only enjoy work but you will be able to get passionate about it on a daily basis.

“We made good progress in that first year and in 2009 we started attending conventions. It was cool to see other studios really pushing and producing nice work. It definitely made everyone hungry to progress. During this time Meehow joined us. When we saw his work, he blew us away with the quality of his black and grey, especially the depth of his portraiture.

“Things start to grow naturally, each artist has their own clientele and it builds from there. In a lot of cases people get pretty loyal to their artist, they build a certain relationship and understanding. The client comes to trust them and in many cases wouldn’t have anyone else tattoo them.

“As the work naturally grew, in late 2009 we expanded to No Regrets Gloucester, where we took on Sass Obuhov and Phatt German in the 12 months that followed.

“It’s nice for the likes of Meehow, Phatt and Sass to have so much coverage of their work recently. Considering they haven’t been ‘out there’ too long, the reception has been pretty awesome. All of the guys are heavily critical of their own work which we think is a definite plus. We were chatting with Phatt about the subject a few weeks back and his opinion is, ‘if you think your work is amazing and can see no areas to work on or improve, it’s time to hang up your machines, your progress is over’.

“The styles of work in the shops vary massively, but the atmosphere is the same – open, with everybody sharing their ideas and working together. It’s a nice environment for the younger artists to be in and they definitely take advantage of it.”

After a lot of thought, Ben and Alex decided to open up No Regrets Supplies, a bold move and one that was born out of necessity and one simple idea – keep it in-house and things run smoother.

“We started the supply business out of frustration! As a studio, we supply our artists with everything from needles and ink, to all the hygiene products needed to run a studio. As any good studio owner and artist will know, this is not cheap, especially when you are always trying to find the best quality. We found ourselves buying needles from Germany, inks from the US, as well as other products from all over the globe. We started to buy in bulk and it developed from there really.

“The supplies are run from the Cheltenham shop. We’ve got a little office out the back; it just made sense to keep everything nice and close. We’ve also got some warehouse space so that the orders are just sent over and dispatched. At the moment we’re planning a full refit of both the shops, with the key focus being hygiene. It’s finding that balance between being functional and aesthetically pleasing, but function has to come first.”

So with the studios busy, the artists working hard to establish themselves and their reputation growing, what is it that Ben and Alex do?

“The workload of two studios did become pretty daunting, but we struggled through. Without a doubt the hardest part to nail was achieving the right balance of artists with the right attitudes. Thankfully we’ve landed on our feet. The guys have been great, all of them are focused on what they’re doing and their careers. I mean we’re going to slow down on the convention circuit this year, we want to concentrate on the clients we already have. We’ll still be around at some of our favourites, just not as much as previous years.

“We’ve definitely come up against a fair amount of criticism about the whole ‘non-artist’ owner argument and we get it, we just don’t agree. We are proving to some extent that a balance can be struck. In our opinion, it’s about understanding the value of your team and their strengths. From there it’s about adding your bit, adding your value. If someone doesn’t bring something to the table, adding value during the working week, what’s the point in them being there?
“As time has gone on, our [Ben & Alex] roles have become less and less, and we’ve passed the baton to the other lads. No more mopping floors! We’re still around the studio a lot and we pick up any slack, but the majority of our time is spent on the supply side of things. Although we do still make decisions on stuff like promotions and budgets and still get involved with the little tweaks, the day-to-day stuff is pretty nailed down by the artists.

“The future for us is to keep moving forward I guess; concentrate on what we have, always aim to be better than yesterday. Everybody here are passionate about what they do and the real praise has to go to them, they’ve produced the work and put the hours in tattooing. Without them there would be no studios. With the second generation coming through, James Cass and Jen, our junior artists, and Poppy Powell and Bertie Bassett, our apprentices, we are confident and excited about what’s to come. Once you’ve got the right team together, pushing towards the same goal, we feel you are halfway there.

Alec (Phatt) - Cheltenham

I started tattooing in Sweden five years ago. I began in the industry in an apprenticeship where nothing was made easy for me. Two years ago, shortly after my son was born, I decided to make a new start in the UK. I have been working for No Regrets for around a year now. My preferred styles are Japanese and realism. I also have a passion for skulls and all things dead! I spent the first four years using coil machines and was recently introduced to the ‘Swashdrive G7’ and ‘Whip’ and I love them. They have changed the way I work and I think it is for the best. At the moment, I am really enjoying my Japanese work. The imagery fascinates me and I enjoy the challenge of composing a piece to get that very important flair. I enjoy most styles and I would say I am a bit of an all-rounder.  My main influences are Aaron Della Vedova, Jeff Gogue and Carlos Torres to name but a few - plus my colleagues of course. I am humbled by the reception I received in the UK and the attention my work has received. I have got a Tattoo Master tutorial out man, who would have thought it?

Poppy Powell - Gloucester

I started working as an apprentice for No Regrets a year ago, just after finishing my A-levels. I’ve come far in the past year, though I’d be delusional to believe I knew even 1% of what there is to know. Luckily I have a strong thirst for knowledge and a huge drive. The team I work with are dedicated and are more than happy to share ideas and techniques. I have James Cass to thank for staying behind every evening, more than often until early hours of the morning, keeping a close eye. It is hard work and extremely long hours but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I work in a fantastic shop with fantastic people; the atmosphere is always upbeat and friendly. I’m constantly learning and improving and that’s something I hope will never change. I’m so lucky to have been offered this opportunity at such a young age and have a lot to be grateful for. It’s very early days and already people have shown interest in my work and it is the most incredible feeling. I aim to constantly improve my quality of work, for them, and to do my studio proud!

James Cass - Gloucester

I started an apprenticeship in the shop two years ago; I was at college but left when I was offered the position. I began tattooing full time in February 2011. It wasn’t as traditional as I would have liked, due to such high artist changes but I think we’ve finally got a great team. I love tattooing and the way I learn something new every day. It’s an honour to be asked to tattoo someone and I feel very humble about the whole thing. Although I’m never happy with anything I do, I try to learn from each piece and I hope that my entire career feels like that - I don’t want to ever stop learning. I try to learn from everything I do and see – I took up oil and watercolour painting and I watch realism artists at work in the hope of learning more about colour theories and techniques. By doing this, I hope to convert them into something that will eventually be my style of working. I take most of my influence from photos and really traditional flash.

Jen Sterry - Cheltenham

The tattoo industry has always appealed to me because every day is different to the one before, it is creative and I love the idea that there is always room for you to improve. Plus the standard of work nowadays is incredible and I can‘t help but be inspired.

I started my apprenticeship with No Regrets in July 2009, immediately after finishing my degree studying Fine Art Painting at Bath Spa University. My knowledge at the beginning was fairly limited but I loved the work of people like Nick Baxter, Jeff Gogue and Buena Vista. Then being in the studio, I soon learnt about more obscure and amazing artists which only pushes me to want to learn more.

I’ve been working professionally since January 2011 and it has its trials but I love it. Most of the work I’ve focused on so far has been colour work and after painting for so long, the process just seems more natural to me. Saying that, I still have no idea what style I want to really focus on, so I’m still experimenting.

Loz Phillips - Gloucester

I’ve been with the No Regrets posse for about five minutes now and I feel like I’m stealing the other guys’ magazine space here, so sorry! I began tattooing about seven years ago. I did an old school apprenticeship where I got taught properly and practically. I wish I had a list of all the things I learned so I can refer to it still but the thing I mostly remember is, ‘If you can’t tell what a tattoo is of, from the other side of the street, then it’s not a good tattoo’. I still have a lot to learn, I wouldn’t say I’m up to a standard that I’m happy with yet. But then again, I wouldn’t want to be, I’m always absorbing information from others and biting their ideas, in a good way.

The past six months have been a real learning curve for me and I’ve progressed a lot meeting awesome people. I love tattooing, there’s nothing more satisfying than the actual process of putting a tattoo on someone - nothing else matters really.

My favourite tattoos to ink feature bold lines and black shading on cheerful people. I like to paint too and my plan is to paint what I want to tattoo, then eventually I can predominantly tattoo what I’d otherwise paint... cunning!

I know No Regrets has a great future ahead and will easily become a big thing. As for me...well this industry has gone tits bonkers over the past few years and I’m just gonna try and stay on the roller coaster as long as I can.

Marcus Hill - Chletenham

I started at No Regrets early in 2009 and have watched it grow from a small local tattoo shop, to a nationally recognised, award winning studio. Apart from the two owners, Ben and Alex, I am currently the longest serving member of the team and sometimes I find it hard to believe how far this place has come in such a short period of time.

My background is rooted in animation and cartoons and I was also very interested in surrealist painting and graffiti art at school. I think that all these things come through in my designs in one way or another. Although I try to get a lot of my design inspiration from outside of tattooing, there are still countless tattooists around today that I find immensely inspiring. As a result, who I consider my favourite artist changes about as often as my underwear - maybe three favourite artists a month is a bit excessive but still...

My main ambition is to improve on what I did yesterday and when that stop, then maybe it’s time to give up…but until then…

Meehow Kotarski - Cheltenham

I have been tattooing for over ten years now, two of them with No Regrets. From the start I enjoyed working with black and grey and more recently with realism. I like the challenge of working to such strict parameters - if it’s out it’s out! Saying that I do enjoy working with colour and developing other areas of my tattooing, it’s one of the reasons I love the UK so much. Coming from Poland, where the industry is still very much frowned upon and it was damn hard to find studio work, this has been a bonus for me. Unfortunately, I did not have the privilege of learning in a professional environment – it is definitely a disadvantage having to learn from every mistake, with little to no guidance. The UK is a dream with its more open attitude and the diverse client base. It has really allowed me to spread my wings artistically and develop other areas of my work. I am going to be working on some colour realism stuff in the near future as it seems like a natural shift to make. I am crazy about the details and little touches realistic work demands, they can really make a piece and bring it alive.

Mark Basset - Cheltenham (Apprentice)

At thirty-years-old, I sometimes ask myself why I didn’t think of becoming a tattooist earlier. I suppose it’s mainly because I grew up in a small town of uninspiring artists, putting out work that looked like a plate of melted Smarties.

After drawing a design for a friend at the end of ‘09 and being excited about him getting it inked, I subsequently looked into tattooing and was blown away by the artists I found. Artists like Bez, Portugal, Gogue and Vargas. I put together a portfolio full of twists on traditional tattoo subjects and nine months later I was exceptionally fortunate to land an apprenticeship at No Regrets.

My apprenticeship has been both informative and fun and I’ve put a lot of work in to prove my dedication but the journey so far has been as rough as a brick having a spin in a tumble dryer.

I’ve just started torturing grapefruits with small designs and am constantly drawing to improve my composition and line-work and to cultivate a style. I’m currently drawn to creating darker leftfield designs, be they old or new school.

No Regrets Cheltenham

58 High Street
Cheltenham
GL50 1EE
01242 578892

 

No Regrets Gloucester

37 Westgate Street
Gloucester
GL1 2NW
01452 524900
noregretstattoo@live.co.uk
facebook.com/noregretstattoocheltenham
facebook.com/noregretsglos

Credits

Text: Trent Aitken-Smith; Photography: No Regrets

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