The French Connection - Needles Side Tattoo: Part 1

Published: 07 December, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 219, December, 2012

It’s funny stuff, cider… capable of reducing grown men to wreckage, turning ordinary evenings into murky, dimly-recalled nights of excess, and – if it’s the good stuff – doing it while still tasting perfectly innocuous.

It’s even capable of taking one frazzled apprentice from a slightly down-at-heel shop and, a pint or two later, having him awake to find he’s working in France with one of the most enigmatic, iconoclastic tattoo artists currently wielding a needle, and heading up what could well turn out to be the beginnings of a whole new tattoo movement.

Hardly surprising, then, that when we sit down with Kev James, new recruit to the Needles Side studio and protégé of the inimitable Xoil, he still has the air of a man who’s not quite sure what just happened. Of course, that could also be because it’s early in the morning on the Sunday of Tattoo Jam, a time when things are traditionally a little fuzzy, but as he recounts the tale of the last 18 months, it becomes clear that a little life-whiplash is probably to be expected.

It starts in a fairly conventional way. An art school graduate with a passion for tattoos, Kev had been trying to get an apprenticeship but was shown the door by a lot of studios until he managed to get a foot in there “about 18 months ago, in a really old school tattoo place”.

It was, by all accounts, a baptism of fire: he was thrust onto the shop floor with little ceremony and told to start tattooing. “I had no experience, I was nervous, I didn't know any techniques," he recalls. "And the guy teaching me wasn't very good at tattooing.”

It was hardly an auspicious start, but he got his head down and got on with the flash work. “I had to do all the off-the-wall stuff, mum & dad tattoos, traditional hearts,” he says. “But I’d get some friends into the studio after hours and put my illustrations on them, just to get the ball rolling, getting my stamp on my friends’ bodies.”

The difference was that his ‘stamp’ was a combination of tattoo art and the illustrative techniques he’d developed through art school. It was a world away from the pieces he created during the day, but for him it felt like a logical progression. “I’ve always been an artist. I was drawing before I could write. I
left school and did a graphic design diploma then went to art school; it just seemed natural to fuse the illustrations I make and tattoos together.” Gradually a style evolved, “organically” as he puts it, but he lacked the technical knowledge to really drive his art forwards.

But that all changed at the Brighton Tattoo convention, an event he’d gone to purely in the hope of seeing French artist, Loic (aka Xoil), at work. “I went to the convention just to see his work and see if anyone was doing something similar. I was massively disappointed… everyone was doing the usual traditional, realism, and Japanese stuff with nothing in between.”

Xoil’s work, however, didn’t disappoint, but that doesn’t quite explain how he went from admirer to musketeer in a few short weeks. Here’s where the cider comes in. “The first time I went to his stall I just said ‘I’m an apprentice, I love your work, here’s a CD…’ and he gets that all the time,” says Kev. “So I went to the bar and necked a pint of cider, got another pint and necked half of that and said ‘right, I’m going to show him my work!’”

Suitably fortified he returned to Xoil’s stand, catching him between appointments, and showed him the only example of his work that he had on him: a single photo on his camera. “He offered me a job on the spot,” he says, still sounding faintly surprised. It’s a pretty unusual story, we suggest. “I know, these things never normally happen to me!”

As far as his new mentor is concerned, though, one picture is all he needed to see. “Big Kev was different,” he Xoil later tells us. “He came to me at the convention asking for advice, and I saw his artistry was already [makes ‘woah’ face], he just needed some needle tricks and a proper apprenticeship. So I said ‘come to the shop and it will be good for everyone’. It’s always refreshing to have someone coming in with new ideas or a different point of view.”

True to his word, Xoil invited Kev to his studio for a few days, which became a few months, and then extended into permanent residency. “You have to think about the future and about developing people. Sometimes people are very talented but they just don’t have the luck or the opportunities, so it’s good for everyone to help out,” says Xoil.

Caution: contains graphic images

It’s this philosophy as much as anything to do with the artwork created there that sums up the Needles Side approach, and with it, the style that Xoil refers to as the ‘graphic movement’ [it’s previously been called ‘photoshop’, ‘modernist’, ‘avant garde’ and lots more – not all of it kind]. The astonishing art itself is hard to describe – just look at it – but what’s easier to pin down is what Xoil and his team are trying to  do with it.

“It is kind of like the classical idea of developing a ‘school’ of painting,” says Xoil. “People are definitely becoming more receptive to it; we’re creating a new movement now for sure. In ten years it’ll be as established as realism or old school, and that’s why I want to be a part of it now, to be at the starting point of something new.”

The curious crowds that gather around their stand throughout the weekend of Tattoo Jam are testament to the fact that this distinctive style is getting people’s attention. Just as artists working within realism or Japanese styles have carved their own niche in the past, Xoil is hoping Kev and fellow artist, Toko Loren [more on him in the next issue], will blaze their own trails on the convention scene, acting as missionaries for the graphic movement and coming back to France with new converts, and appointments.

“Conventions are great for this; meeting people, making friends and contacts and talking about art,” he says. “It’s pretty cool to have my guys together. They’re not really known yet and I want to make them known, the goal is to make the shop a great place where people will come with new styles, good ideas and strategies. We’ll bring people in like Kev, we’ll all share what we’ve learned from going out and doing shows; it’s like the water is always moving, never stagnant.”

As for ‘Big Kev’ himself, Tattoo Jam is his first convention as an artist, and while it’s been “nerve-wracking”, it’s also been an enjoyable experience. “It’s been great talking to other artists and people who appreciate my work.”

Eyes Wide Open

Whether tattooing or working in other mediums, Kev works as part of the Expanded Eye art collective to create some of the installations and illustrations you can see on these pages… and that phrase – art collective – is one he also applies to the Needles Side team. So what does it mean?

“It means a group of creatives working together under one umbrella, pushing the boundaries of what tattoo art could be,” he says. “I feel that art and tattoo art are so separate at the moment, but they should be fused together, we should be seeing original pieces of art.”

The thirst for original art is one of the things that keeps driving him to perfect his own style. “Realism, Japanese traditional… it’s been done so well by the best in the world, how could I possibly compete with that? I’d just blend in and never be distinctive. I use my own style.”

With that in mind, his time under the tutelage of Xoil has been well spent and has improved his work behind the needle. “Previously my drawing abilities could only be pushed as far as my tattooing abilities would allow, so I couldn’t do anything radical, only as far as my technical ability would go. I kept the designs quite tight and simple. But I have learned a lot of tricks in the last few months and therefore my art’s evolved because my tattooing technique has evolved.”

How would he define his art at the moment? “A lady said to me yesterday, ‘you must take a lot of acid, judging by your work’. I said I don’t take acid while I work! I don’t know, I love space, I love the cosmos, I try to put elements of that in my work and just… do my thing! I don’t look to other tattoos for inspiration, ever. I look to contemporary illustrations, and that’s the key to standing out.”

Below the surface

Perhaps one of the things that makes Kev’s work stand out is its beguiling simplicity, which actually disguises carefully constructed layers of meaning and symbolism. “I want to illustrate stories, parts of people’s lives. That’s why I call myself a tattoo illustrator, not artist. A tattoo doesn’t have to have meaning, but I prefer for it to have as much meaning as possible.

So, in his hands, a memorial piece for a friend’s grandfather incorporates key elements of their relationship, from an old English sixpence that was the last gift from grandfather to grandson rendered as a monocle, to a dark bird representing death (“because I refuse to do skulls, I think they’re in really bad taste!”). There’s a lot going on. “It’s all subtle elements that will only mean something to the wearer and the artist,” he says. “They’re the only ones who will know the true meaning. I like to think laterally, rather than literally, so if you want a tattoo about a loved one, I want to know their favourite colour, the year they were born, their star sign, to see if I can bring in some elements to make it interesting. People are really surprised that every piece has a unique meaning for each client. They just think I do these cool drawings, but there’s so much significance to each one!”

The process of creating a tattoo usually begins with an exchange of ideas via email, with lots of questions and information needed so that the design can evolve organically. A typical design takes two days to create, one to rough out concepts and the next to refine them, before it gets anywhere near the client. “I have to be 100 percent sure it’s the best tattoo I can do; it would break my heart to tattoo something on someone that I wasn’t totally happy with,” says Kev. “So two days minimum. They look simple, but they have to evolve, you can’t force it.”

All for one…

So, his art has developed, his technical skills have been enhanced, and he’s out on the road proclaiming the cause. Small wonder that even if he finds his own story difficult to believe, he’s enjoying the ride. “It’s such a cool trade to have because all your tools will just fit into one box and you can trot off around the globe,” he enthuses.

There’s just the small matter left of discussing the Needles Side look. Not heavily tattooed himself (“I’m a bit of a pussy when it comes to pain! I’ve got lots of empty space on my body!”), he’s nonetheless wholeheartedly embraced the hirsute aesthetic favoured by his graphic movement counterparts. “When I moved to France, Xoil was like ‘you’ll have to grow a beard to work in this shop’,” he laughs. “Now, I’m not that young, but I can’t grow a beard! So they said I had to grow a moustache. I did, and now people seem to love it! I just give it a twist every now and then.”

Got the skills, got the look… now there’s just the language. “My French isn’t good and the only words I learn are bad words that the guys teach me. But they tell me they’re polite words so I end up getting into trouble! I love the new experiences though and we’re in a cool town near lake Geneva. Living away from London where there’s no CCTV and everyone’s happy is a good contrast; it means I can concentrate on my art. And it’s all thanks to some cider, a bit of art, and a bit of courage!”

Like we said: it’s funny stuff, cider…

Behind the ink

Here’s a peek behind the curtain of one of Kev’s designs… “The tattoo illustrations I create are my interpretation of concepts given by the client, which often hold significant personal meaning. You tell me what you what your tattoo to represent and I transform your ideas into contemporary pieces of art, which is then transferred from paper to skin.

“The tattoo below depicts a cycle breaking – the client wanted a souvenir to remind her of the 12 years spent in London before departing for her native Mexico. The clock face is taken from Big Ben, pointing to the number 12 to represent her years spent there as well as the subtle inclusion of the Underground symbol and London Eye. The abstract water represents the river Thames with a boat sailing homeward.”

“The story of the piece above is that of a grandparent memorial tattoo. With this kind of request I require as much information as possible from the client in order to make something unique and completely personal. Without being obvious, the tattoo encompasses many parts of their lives and attributes of their personality – from their favourite colours and pets to the decade they were born, clubs to which they belonged, to details taken from their coat of arms.”

Needles Side TaTtOo

13, Av. des Allobroges,

+33 4 50 71 68 50


Text: Russ Thorne; Photography: Kev