We chat to North London tattooer Sambee about her journey into the tattoo world and her experiences as a woman of colour in the tattoo industry…
What inspired you to become a tattoo artist? To be honest it was never an ambition of mine, even though I had always drawn, been creative and did art at school. I also used to go home after school and watch LA Ink and NY Ink. I thought they were pretty cool shows but I never saw them as a future career.
Saying that, the idea of making things with my hands was attractive to me. It meant I would always have a way of being able to provide for myself without relying on someone to hire me.
How did you become an artist? A friend took a design of mine to a local tattooist and asked if I would go with him to get the tattoo done. Whilst I was there the tattooist talked to me about my designs, he was opening a studio soon and asked if I’d like to be the apprentice.
At the time I was looking to go to university but my parents were surprisingly supportive of me becoming a tattoo apprentice.
Can you tell us about your experiences in the tattoo industry? My apprenticeship started two months before my nineteenth birthday. I’m at the end of my twenties now, so it has been quite an education. It’s been a strange world to navigate through especially when you come into it quite young.
Tattooing is a great expressive art form and there’s always something to learn or a way to challenge yourself. The more you put in the more you’ll get out.
You meet all types of people, some sweet and some more savoury, but that’s like all industries. It’s nice to see more women and women of colour coming up in the industry.
Can you tell us more about the experiences you have had as a woman and a woman of colour in the industry? I’ve had some awkward moments. I think the frustrating thing about being a woman in a male dominated industry is that you can feel obliged to not create what’s sometimes perceived as ‘trouble’, or perhaps what used to be perceived that way.
Even now, I initially felt like I had to answer this question by downplaying or lightly glossing over experiences.
If I were to mention every little moment where race or gender felt to me like a disadvantage or something I’ve had to speak out to defend against, it would be a long list.
Toward the end of my apprenticeship, I was being tattooed by someone (who my mentor invited to the studio). I can’t remember how the subject of race was brought up, but somehow we got talking about it and mid tattoo session, with my limb in the tattooists’ hand, he says the words “ya know, I don’t actually believe in ‘mix raced’.”
My ears perked up, my heart rate rose and I had to control my facial expression. I just thought, let me make it to the end of the tattoo session and then I won’t have to listen to any more ignorance.
I’ve also heard clients say they don’t believe in racism, casually, while I’m tattooing them. I’ve also seen someone point out the window at a person in a wheelchair and say the words “look, that’s a n*gger in a wheeelchair”. I was in that room.
Are there any female artists and women of colour artists you’d like our readers to know about? Hell yeah there is! There’s lots of women that I know and follow on social media that make me proud to be in this job, at this time, because it has come such a long way since I started.
My colleagues Trang and Chanelle are so talented, focused, driven and kind hearted. I used to work with Jade and we both had the ambition to get into tattooing. She’s got a beautiful heart and does beautiful tattoos.
People should also follow:
The list goes on!
What attracted you to black and grey tattooing? I’m not sure why I was more interested in black and grey. I appreciate all styles, but when it came to doing them I found that black and grey made more sense. It feels more straightforward.
Have you always tattooed like you do now? I started out doing anything and everything and then slowly just narrowed it down to black and grey realism.
I’m sure in another 10 years my style will change, but I can’t see it changing too drastically. That’s the thing within any creative industry the only limits are what you put on yourself. It’s sometimes scary to change because it’s new to you and you obviously lack experience. Also you’re beginning the process all over again and that creates more self doubt.
Can you tell us about the process behind your tattoos? Sure! There’s not too much to it, my client would have given me images or a description through an email enquiry. With that information I search and source photos relevant to the idea and begin putting that into a composition to suit whichever area the tattoo is going. I tend to do image sourcing the night before and then put together designs in the morning showing a few options.
What inspires you? Other artists, not just artists who do black and grey. Or seeing people who have older tattoos and wondering how can I do my work to a standard that will hold and look sick as it ages.
It would be cool when my clients are in nursing homes and still feel excited about their tattoos or getting compliments.
What do you like to tattoo and what would you like to do more of? I really enjoy tattooing animals. Anything fluffy! I’d love to do more iconic portraits too. I’ve done a few civil rights projects and I loved those! Also any Marvel/DC characters would be a dream!
Are you a tattoo collector? I’ve got a few cats! I wouldnt say I’m a collector maybe just an enthusiast, I’m definitely not at that level by any means.
I’ve enjoyed getting pieces so far from my talented colleague Matt Lunn and the awesome Anrijs, Ash Higham and Edgar Ivanov.
What moment in your career are you most proud of? Working my first convention felt quite pivotal. There’s a lot of anticipation for that moment, so much preparation and it can feel like a big hurdle when you build it up in your head. But it was a lot of fun!
I’m currently at a big transitional moment in my career. I’m joining my friends in making our own artist led studio. I cannot wait for it to be finished! This will definitely be the proudest moment in my career once it’s up and running.
Make sure to follow Sambee for more amazing realism tattoos and updates on her new studio.