This month we caught up with the talented Rob Kelly of BLACKOUT TATTOO. Rob is a dedicated and skilled tattoo artist (who has even inked up a couple of our Sassy Girls!), so we asked him for his expert advice about what you need to know before getting a tattoo. We also chat to Rob about his most memorable tattoo experience, what inspires him and what his favourite spots in Hong Kong are, in one of our funniest and most interesting Man of the Month interviews yet!
How did you get started as a tattoo artist and how did you end up in Hong Kong with Blackout Tattoo?
I took a formal apprenticeship with a Tattooer from London.
Long story short, I have been drawn (10 pun points!) to tattoos since I was young and I was getting tattooed on a pretty regular basis. I thought I would be good at it, so I spent a couple of weeks drawing a bunch of designs and showed it to her during one of our sessions. I asked if she would teach me to tattoo and with a little persuasion she said yes. I worked with her and her husband for about 4 years before I chose to open my own studio. It made a lot of sense at the time. Most tattoo shops at the time were street shops, where you could walk in and choose from a bunch of flash in books, and I thought HK needed something more. That’s where BLACKOUT came in. I wanted to put HK on the tattoo map, and I am still striving to do that every day.
Do you have a daily routine? What do you do on a day-to-day basis in your job?
My day usually begins with a rude awakening from my dog Betty Spaghetti at about 8am. I struggle for about an hour to work up the energy to get out of bed and at around 9am I am rubbing soap into my eyes in the shower.
I am usually in the studio by 10am to wade through the inevitable swamp of daily emails. Once those are done I clean the studio before I start tattooing. During the day I’ll typically have a couple of consultations with clients, a couple of tattoos to make, and I always try to leave time for some drawing every day too. Gotta keep the pencils sharp and the mind sharper!
What are your top tips for budding entrepreneurs/aspiring tattoo artists?
The most important advice I could give a budding entrepreneur is to thoroughly believe in what you do. Passion for your work is a catalyst for success. When a person loves what they do it draws people to you. Be prepared to hustle your ass off at the beginning and take pride in your product.
The best advice for aspiring tattoo artists would be to make sure you draw every day… no excuses. If you can’t draw, you cant’t tattoo. I have been tattooing for nine years or so and I still make a point of practicing every day. Secondly, get an apprenticeship with an established tattooer. It really is the best way to learn. Ignore tattoo schools or people who are charging exorbitant amounts of money to teach you. If you are lucky enough to get that coveted apprenticeship then make sure you are earning your keep. If you’re asked to clean something, make it spotless. If you are asked to draw something three times, draw it five times and make it perfect. Tattooing is notoriously difficult to get into, and rightly so because it’s such a privileged position to have. You are marking people for life and you’d better make sure you’re ready for that responsibility.
What’s your ideal weekend in Hong Kong?
I tend to spend most of my weekends working, so thanks for rubbing that in!
There are so many things to do in HK it’s hard to choose something ideal. That’ll change depending on how I feel. It could be anything from hiking to a quiet beach and having a swim, to just loafing on my couch, wearing nothing but boxers and crocs with a beer and a movie.
What’s your favourite thing to do in your spare time?
I don’t have a lot of spare time. I love what I do, and I am very lucky to be as busy as I am so I can’t complain.
When I do take time off I try to travel somewhere I have never been to (usually to work, but it still counts).
What are your favourite local hangout spots (restaurants/bars)?
I’m a big fan of comfort food and David and the guys at La Cantoche just off Hollywood Road make amazing french grub. My buddy Austin of Boomshack and Roundhouse never disappoints either. For drinks I like to keep it simple and am a fan of The Blackstar down the street from my studio, and The Globe always has a good selection of beers on tap and pies on plates.
Tell us about your first crush and first kiss?
First kiss: I’m not one to kiss and tell… Just kidding. Carolyn Walker. 1985. In the bathroom of her parents house. We were about 5 years old. Mrs Walker, if by chance you are reading this, I’m not even sorry haha.
First crush: Like most boys who grew up in the 80s it was probably Carrie Fisher in the gold bikini. To this day I can’t watch a lady strangle a space-based criminal mastermind without getting a tingling feeling… uh oh, I’ve said too much.
What’s your biggest dating disaster?
I’ve been very lucky not have had a bad date. Sorry to disappoint.
What do you think makes a girl Sassy?
A Sassy girl is a girl with confidence, style and a good sense of humour. A girl who can give as good as she gets. A girl who knows who she is, what she wants, and isn’t afraid to show it.
What’s the best date you’ve ever been on?
Usually I would like to set up a date, but in this case my girlfriend took me on one of our first dates last year on my birthday. She came round to my apartment in the morning with a birthday cake in tow. Then we went indoor snowboarding, which I had never done before. She followed that up with dinner at Alchemy (see our Sassy review here), which if you don’t know is dining in the dark. If you haven’t tried that, you must. Then we met up with some friends and drank beers until the early morning. I had no idea any of this was happening until it happened.
Best birthday, best date, and the best girlfriend ever. Hands down.
Where in Hong Kong do you go for grooming?
Alan at Red Cat on Hollywood Road cuts my hair, and I trim my own beard. I also apply my own deodorant and brush my own teeth, does that count as grooming? I have no idea.
What are your favourite local boutiques and stores in Hong Kong?
Apart from my own? I dig the guys at 15 Square Street. They really care about their products (and give me beers when I go there). And The Barras Brothers at Angry Lane make amazing leather products as well as custom Motorcycles.
What’s one of the most memorable tattoos you’ve ever done and why?
It’s hard to choose a favourite. I try to make each and every tattoo as good as it can be. That being said the one that I think of the most was also one of the easier tattoos I have ever made. I was put in contact with a guy who’s father had just passed away. Him, his sister and mother all wanted to get tattoos of the father’s signature to remember him by. They all came in together and it seemed to really bind them together. Hugs were shared and tears were shed. None of the tattoos took more than 10 minutes, but it’s truly an honour knowing that I had the opportunity to give this beautiful family something they will remember forever.
How many tattoos do you have and do you have a favourite?
As a rough guess I probably have 40-50 different tattoos splashed about my body.
My favourite? I have a tattoo of a traditional girls head, with a snake and roses that wraps around my thigh made by my friend Kevin Poon of Scorpion tattoos in Texas. It might be that one.
What advice would you give to anyone before they get a tattoo?
- Find an artist who can deliver what you want. Artists styles differ greatly so look through the artists in your area and make sure they can do the work you are after. If you can’t find an artist who can do that, consider traveling.
- Scrutinise your chosen artists portfolio. Make sure that the work is of the highest standard you can find. If an artists portfolio is half good and bad, remember that these are the pieces that they consider to be their best work, and if you have a 50/50 chance of getting a crappy tattoo, I wouldn’t risk it.
- Scrutinise the studio. Is it clean? Is it comfortable?
- Make sure you speak with the tattoo artist directly, and that they are into giving you the best tattoo possible. You will potentially be spending multiple hours in the company of your artist, so if they have a salty attitude or are simply not into your idea, you might want to find someone who is.
- Be prepared to leave a deposit. Drawing a tattoo takes a lot of time and if for any reason you don’t show up for your appointment then the tattooist is wasting time that they could be working.
- Be on time, and if you need to change your appointment date, then its common that you are asked for at least 24 hours notice, so the artist can have time to book another client in your spot.
- Getting poked with a pointy stick is not the most pleasant feeling in the world, so make sure you feel 100% when getting your tattoo. Get a good night’s sleep, eat a solid meal before you arrive at the studio. Don’t come drunk, and don’t come high. Any respectable tattooist will tell you to jog on if you are either.
- Be nice! We tattooists understand that you may be in pain, and will be more than happy to help you through it in any way possible as long as you are pleasant and respectful.
- When your tattoo is finished, listen to the aftercare advice that we give you. We have (probably) made thousands of tattoos and know how our work will heal if you follow the instructions. Not every artist will give you the same advice, so if you aren’t sure, just ask.
- If you love the work that your artist has put their blood sweat and tears into making for you, a tip is always well received.
What inspires you and where do you go to fix a creative block?
I can be inspired by anything. Books, stories, people, paintings, graffiti, the list goes on. Any time I have felt burnt out, or had a creative block I try to get out and see things I have never seen before. Talk to people I haven’t talked to before, try to find a new perspective on things. And when I come back I have a freshly stoked fire under my ass to keep improving myself and my work.
What are you future plans for BLACKOUT Tattoo and where do you hope to be in 5 years time?
I’d like BLACKOUT to continue to keep making people happy. To keep pushing tattooing in Hong Kong and to keep the reputation that I tried so hard to build up.
As for myself, in 5 years I would like to be swimming in a pool full of beer and/or money. Realistically, I will hopefully be tattooing in 5 years, and 5 years after that, and 5 years after that.
You can also check out Sassy’s Guide to Tattoos and Piercings if you’re thinking about getting inked!