Under The Ink: Meet Grace Neutral and Emily Malice
Obsessed with ink or contemplating going under the needle? In this new series, we speak to London’s most talented tattoo artists to discover how they developed their unique styles, what inspires them and who to follow for innovative design ideas. In what is widely regarded as a male dominated industry, we caught up with exceptionally talented female tattoo artists Grace Neutral (@graceneutral) and Emily Malice (@emilymalice), alongside their wonderful assistant Alexandra Loves (@alexandra___loves) at their East-London studio, Femme Fatale (@femmefataletattoo).
UO: What was the first tattoo you ever did and who was it for?
EM: I did a lion on my brother’s arm with this really crappy kit I got from eBay, and it wasn’t really much of a lion actually!
GN: Mine was with an old friend in Bristol. When I was younger, I was hanging out with this guy and we decided to tattoo love hearts on each other’s fingers. So, I guess that was the first tattoo I ever did!
How would you both describe your signature styles?
EM: I love pop art and I love botany, so I’d like to think that my style is a blend of the two. Think nice, simplistic lines with different weights and volumes, combined with the elegance of flowers.
GN: I mainly do pattern work and geometry. A lot of the stuff I draw is heavily inspired by psilocybin. It all comes from there really.
Who inspires you and your work?
EM: When I first moved to London, I actually discovered the work of Duncan X (@duncanxtattoos). He’s a massive influence to me! Alongside many of the other people that I got to work with at Into You. For example, people like Alex Binnie (@abinniepaperandskin) and Tomas Tomas (@tomastomas108). You know, it was just the best introduction to tattooing because there was this beautiful, creative atmosphere. They really helped me to get to where I am today definitely! Another of my influences is definitely my boyfriend, Frank Carter (@frankcarter23). He just does something really exciting, I think. He brings a blend of simplistic watercolours into his work but contrasts it with a great deal of savagery. Also, I’m always inspired by his work for Ink & Electric (@inkandelectric), which both Grace and I design posters for. It’s a really fun project that brings artists together in an exciting way!
GN: Like Emily said, I’m influenced and inspired with the way people are in tattooing. Duncan has also been a big inspiration to me too! His work has always been just so ahead of his time. He was tattooing over twenty years ago, quietly pioneering an entire movement. Most of the people who are tattooing today, especially those artists creating really graphic, black contrast pieces with a blend of savage imagery, may not even realise it – but they have artists like Duncan to thank for that.
EM: He’s the Daddy of it!
GN: 100%! I saw some tattoos before that he’d done on a guy from Mexico. They were graphic, black skulls that he’d tattooed 15 years ago, yet they looked like they’d been done yesterday. His work and the way he works has always been so forward and progressive! I also massively respect his ethics and approach to tattooing too. When I was lucky enough to work alongside him for a bit, it was really nice to see how he worked. Also, Tomas Tomas is a massive inspiration to me and my work. The way he approaches geometry and the way he lays stencils, as well as the way he envisions the whole body as one piece. It’s really inspiring!
So cool! Can you talk us through your design process? How do you develop a concept into a design?
EM: I used to do a lot of homework but nowadays, I’d much rather meet the person and get a vibe with them before I design anything! So, we’ll sit down together, talk about what they want and then I’ll be like “ah yeah, that’s cool” or “oh no, that won’t really work”. I love to get a vibe from the person, really get their energy, then sit down and draw something with them. Then, I’ll ask “what do you think” and they’ll either be like “ah, that’s sick” or “oh no, I dunno about the flower, can we change that?”. It just makes me really happy to work like that! I’ve been there before, a lot of the time if it’s your first tattoo or you’re really nervous about getting tattooed, you don’t want to offend the artist. So, if they’ve already drawn something up before you get there, it’s a lot more difficult to have the confidence to ask for something to be changed. The way I work gives people the chance to have much more input. I don’t let them take over the design, so I’m still there to say “nah, that’s not gonna look good”, but this way, it sort of feels like we’re doing it together.
GN: For me, I basically go through phases of experiencing really intense visions of different things I want to draw. Then I’ll spend around two weeks, or however long it takes, just drawing every day and creating more and more and more. I’ll draw one pattern, then that idea might birth another idea and it might progress and evolve into something else. So, it just becomes this repetitive cycle of me drawing for however long, and then I’ll collect all my patterns into journals. I have around four or five now. So, when someone comes into the studio, I’ll have an idea in my head but I also have to meet them first to see how the design is going to fit on their body, as how someone’s body looks in a picture is often completely different to how it actually looks. So, I wait, meet them and then get an idea of what they want because they might have a completely different idea to me. Some of my designs are structured very organically, whereas others are a lot more angular, sporadic and almost aggressive looking and some are more feminine and floral, so I often have to meet the person to know what they want. Sometimes they want one or the other, sometimes they want both. So, when they get here, I’ll have an idea for the layout in my head and then we’ll work what they want into that.
Then after the design is drawn up, it’s just time to tattoo?
EM: Pretty much! I’ll draw the design out and then make sure there’s a nice atmosphere to tattoo the person in. I’ll make it feel like a safe, secure environment to get tattooed in – good music playing, good people around. Then yeah, do the tattoo! Then if anyone needs a break, which people never really do to be honest, then we’ve the environment for them to do that. Then when the tattoos done, I’ll get some cute pictures. I like to ask for a healed picture too because that’s when it matters most!
What about your own tattoos? Do you have a tattoo with any huge significance behind it?
EM: Well, Grace tattooed my gums last time we were in LA. That was pretty fun!
UO: Did that hurt?!
EM: Well, I’m pretty used to it.
GN: It didn’t take that long either!
EM: Also, we’ve all actually got a SIW tattoo. So, SIW is our little gang in London of strong, independent women. We’re all just a gang of girls that endeavour to support one another. We all do different things and if anyone’s ever got a problem, we’ve all got each other y’know!
GN: It’s probably one of the smallest ones, yet the most meaningful.
Have you ever experienced any negativity as female tattoo artists?
GN: Yeah, but not so much anymore! When I first started in the industry, just over ten years ago now, I was working with predominately men. The women that I worked with, they weren’t tattooers, they were receptionists or piercers. I was a piercer at the time, and the whole concept of the men I worked with understanding that I wanted to tattoo, it wasn’t a thing. It was almost a joke to them. I also wanted to do hand poke, so I didn’t really have anyone to teach me. I had all of the knowledge regarding cross contamination and how to be sterile from being a piercer, so I decided that I was going to take it upon myself to learn how to hand poke.
UO: How did you go about doing that?
GN: So, I just played around a bit and loved it! There was definitely a lot of people in the beginning who were standing by the sidelines, waiting with a little smirk on their face for it all to go wrong. But it didn’t, and women are thriving in the industry now. There are so many people who want to get tattooed and so many people who want to tattoo. I’m not sure how equal the tattoo industry is now, as far as how many men tattoo compared to how many women, but women are definitely acknowledged a lot more in the industry than they were before I started. Fifteen or so years ago, women were labelled. If you wanted to be a tattooer, you had to be a real hard ball.
AL: Or second generation!
GN: Yeah, if your Dad was a tattooer and you wanted to learn how to tattoo, that was considered OK. But even if you were the most amazing tattoo artist in the world, back then guys probably wouldn’t have given you the respect you deserve. Well, maybe they would, but that would only be because of who your Dad is.
AL: I feel like that’s still similar to how it is now though! Working in the industry for years, I still feel like men do not take women seriously. I mean it’s a lot better than what it was, but I feel there’s still a long way to go.
GN: But really, who cares about what other people in the industry think? What matters is the customers and if you’re busy, that’s the important thing! And we’re thriving.
AL: That’s the thing! Most of the time the women are busier than the men.
GN: It’s also because a lot of the time, women want to get tattooed by women. You know what I mean? Like when you go to get a massage, if you have the option, you’re always going to pick the woman, right? ‘Cause it’s more comfortable. You’re more comfortable. It’s almost a kind of female instinct.
EM: Although, I will say a lot of my tattoos are done by men but respectful artists like Duncan and Tomas.
GN: Oh yeah, same!
EM: Not all dudes are like that! In London, I think there’s such a good community of people, both men and women, that are entirely respectful to one another. Just artists doing their jobs and supporting other artists. But there’s definitely still some bad vibes out there.
AL: I think it’s more the older generations that sometimes won’t get down with it. But they have to realise at some point that tattooing goes round in circles and new things are always going to arise. You guys [Emily and Grace] are like the new age of tattooing. People who are still tattooing from back in the day, and in all fairness to them they have lasted it out, have to accept that things are different now.
GN: Yeah, it’s all about embracing the new! People like Duncan are so willing to learn, despite how long they’ve been doing it for. He’s been tattooing for so long, yet he totally embraces the new generation – he wants to be around them and he wants to learn. Ultimately if you’re lucky enough to work with him, you’ll know that he’s a fountain of knowledge but he wants to pass the knowledge on.
Dead or alive, who would be your ultimate person to tattoo and what would you give them?
EM: Um, I really want to tattoo Divine! And then we’d go out dancing afterwards.
GN: Mine would be kind of similar I guess! But we’d have to be naked and they’d have to paint me green or something. Something weird would have to happen, you know? We’d have to sit round for breakfast, maybe tea and toast, and they’d paint me green or something.
Are there any emerging styles or themes you’re seeing in tattooing? Do you tend to pay attention to trends, in terms of tattoos, fashion and related disciplines?
GN: You can’t help but pay attention to it because it’s all around you. You see what people are getting tattooed, and you also have people coming to you to request things that you don’t do, so you always know what’s popular. Luckily, we have our own individual styles and people generally come to us wanting what we do. But we do occasionally get people who e-mail us like “Can I have a lion’s head? I want a realistic lion’s head with waterfalls.” And it’s just like “no.” But generally people come in and get what we do!
EM: Yeah, so they’re coming to us for us and we’re busy girls! We spend a lot of time drawing and we give people good things, y’know?
Yeah, definitely! What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
EM: To have some self-worth and to know that you are good enough! That advice changed a lot for me.
GN: Yeah, definitely! And the few people who made me realise what self-love is have changed the plan of action for my journey. It’s all about self-confidence and self-love and being yourself. It’s so important to stay true to who you are and to not feel the need to conform to anything. That kind of advice is the best.
EM: I’ve also started seeing a therapist and another really good bit of advice I’ve learnt from doing so is it’s important to cut people who hurt you out of your life completely. They’re just not good for you. Even if you feel as though you’re meant to be nice to them for some reason, or whatever, you don’t have to have them around.
GN: And you don’t have to be nasty about it, you just don’t have to have them in your life!
EM: Yeah! You just stop talking to them, stop pretending or putting up with how they treat you because they don’t care for you. They wouldn’t treat you that way if they did. And then you’ve got so much more time for people who do love you and do care about you. It’s made me so much happier. I’ve made a lot of changes to my life recently and it’s really helped me!
GN: Also, I think a good piece of advice can be found in taking away the stigma from therapy. It’s really good to talk. There is absolutely no shame in feeling like you need to go and talk to someone. Asking for help is often the strongest thing you can do! It’s not a symptom of weakness at all. That’s probably my best piece of advice.
That’s the most wonderful piece of advice! So finally, what Instagram accounts should we follow for inspiration?
GN: @femmefataletattoo of course!
AL: I think we can add @frithsttattoo to the list too!
EM: But yeah, mainly Femme Fatale!