When the silver screen meets skin with tattoo artist Becky Barker
This week, we have something a little different. I had the opportunity to speak to the brilliant artist, Becky Barker, about tattoos in movies, the type of film art people put on their bodies and as it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the wonderful work she is doing for women recovering from breast cancer.
So, let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell us a little bit about your career so far as a tattooist?
Hi there! So I’ve always been heavily into music, and the female musicians I looked up to had tattoos and I always thought they looked amazing. So when I turned 18 I got a small tattoo and then quickly booked in for a half sleeve. It wasn’t a thing for women to be heavily tattooed then, so my dad was not happy! I spent five years doodling and managed to get an apprenticeship in Micky Sharpz’s old studio in Birmingham.
My apprenticeship was very traditional and I learnt how to make needles and ink as well as to tattoo most styles. I moved to Swansea and tattooed there for a couple of years, then moved back to the midlands and settled in Malvern where I have my own studio, Number Nine. I’ve met so many amazing artists over the years, and have just continued learning throughout my 10 year career. I love my job. It is super challenging and constantly keeps me on my toes!
Have you done many film tattoos?
Films are a constant source of inspiration for clients, and I have been really lucky to do all sorts. Ranging from Marvel/DC characters, to the Addams family. People can relate to characters in films, and often getting a tattoo reminds them of a place and time where the film in question was relevant in their lives. For instance, my husband has a High Fidelity tattoo. We watched that film together 13 years ago, years before we got together, but it reminds us both of the early days of our friendship and will always be our go to film on date night.
If someone came into your studio and said, I’ll have a film tattoo of your choice – what would you do?
Ooo that’s a tough one! I have to say I really love Tim Burton. His use of colour and his design of characters is really unusual and interesting from an art prospective. So, Corpse Bride is my favourite visually. The normal world is very drab and grey, and the underworld is really bright and vibrant. Mister Bonejangles would make an awesome tattoo!
There’s a great YouTube video where tattoo artists watch a compilation of tattoos that appear in films and they judge them – what do you think to the representation of tattoos in films?
Tattoos in films are still very much for the badass of the plot as far as I’m aware. In a film, if someone has a tattoo, they are generally a bit edgy and I love that!
The only problem I can see from a tattooist point of view, is sometimes the tattoos seen in films would probably not be able to be executed as a tattoo as they're usually some kind of body paint or transfer. It can give people an unrealistic expectation of a tattoo but this has improved majorly in recent years. I get the impression film producers actually collaborate with tattoo artists now which is amazing. I’d love that job!
Do you find that there are tattoo trends that follow films? For instance, do lots more people get Star Wars tattoos after new releases or perhaps after seeing a character with a specific tattoo?
People like to take inspiration from tattoos seen in films. When I was apprenticing From Dusk Til Dawn had just come out, and we did many a George Clooney style tribal sleeve and I’m guessing that with Jason Momoa and Dwayne Johnson having Samoan and Polynesian tattoos, this has boosted that style too. Star Wars is a constant tattoo inspiration, and always has been. I have done many a rebel tattoo :)
You also do medical tattooing, especially on women who have had to have reconstructive surgery after breast cancer. Can you tell us a little more about this?
Tattooing is a very healing process for most people anyway. It helps put a full stop on periods of our lives that we have moved through. Being able to create a realistic nipple and areola for someone that has had a breast reconstruction is really important. Tattooing is a fantastic permanent solution for covering or reducing scars, and having a natural looking nipple that doesn’t fade. As experienced tattooists, we understand scar tissue and different types of skin, and how to create a tattoo on these areas without adding further damage.
Plus we draw for a living, and use colour theory on a daily basis. This enables us to really achieve realism with these procedures. We can match skin tone to implant into scars and stretch marks to reduce the appearance and flatten them.
What are some of the misconceptions about people seeing a tattooist for medical tattoos rather than going through the NHS?
I work with The Nipple Innovation Project which are a UK based charity promoting restorative tattooing, and its funding helps ease the financial burden on the client. We are really struggling to be taken seriously at the moment. We approach numerous charities to ask for support and to be able to create awareness that this service exists as people that aren’t necessarily into tattoos would just be offered a semi-permanent version by the NHS performed by a nurse.
There are various misconceptions regarding tattooing vs cosmetic tattooing. The main one is that it is assumed that tattoo artists tattoo much deeper than cosmetic/medical professionals. This is very much not the case! We literally tattoo at a depth of 1.5mm in the dermis. This enabled the colour (pigment) to sit permanently in the skin without causing damage to fragile tissue. Cosmetic tattooers tattoo using the same depth, same equipment, but different inks.
Some people think tattoo inks are not used on the NHS because they cause cancer, which is not true at all. The NHS and cosmetic tattooers use a cosmetic pigment. It is made exactly the same as tattoo ink, even in the same factory. The only difference is that the molecule of colour is smaller in cosmetic pigment. This enables the body to absorb the colour and creates a fade. This is great for eyebrows, not so great for nipples!
The problem with using semi-permanent pigment for areola/ nipple tattoos is that the skin being tattooed is not healthy tissue. Having to have a yearly top up on faded nipples/areola is not practical and can cause extra scar tissue. Emotionally, I feel it is actually a little cruel to give someone a fading nipple without even letting them know they can have it tattooed permanently by an certified artist and it is as safe as what the NHS offer.
People assume that a tattoo of a nipple will not look natural, and they feel that the version that fades will look more natural. I don’t think there is anything natural about a pink smudge, and we are very experienced in being able to create a natural effect using specially made tattoo inks.
If people need a consultation about medical tattoos, can they get in touch with you?
You can follow Becky on Twitter: @number9tattoo
The Ark Cancer Centre Charity is the charity partner for Exit 6. Check out their important work and see how you can support them at their website.