Oliver Bach was encouraged by his mum from a young age to be a tattooer, and over the last six years has worked hard to fulfil that vision. An artist drawn primarily to flash for its spontaneity and immediate gratification, Bach’s traditional style stems from years spent observing and then tattooing old guys at Duke St. Tattoo. He continues to be driven by those who work around him and the desire to retain the core values of tattooing, both individually and within the community as a whole.
What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
Oliver Bach, I’m from Colchester Essex and I was born in 1987.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
I grew up in very small town by the sea in Essex. It’s the type of place where everyone knows everyone. A skatepark was built when I was about ten years old and my brother Alex and I skated there almost every day until I was into my 20’s. Pretty much all I knew was skateboarding, all my friends were skateboarders, and I even met my wife at the skatepark. I’m grateful to have grown up there.
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
I’m currently mostly tattooing in Chelmsford, Essex at Duke St Tattoo (where I learnt to tattoo) and doing monthly visits to Hastings at Two Snakes Tattoo.
How long have you been tattooing?
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and what did you initially learn how to tattoo?
I feel like it’s always been what I was going to do. My mum always told me and my brother that we should be tattooers from a young age. I decided to make it happen when I was working in a junk yard and it made me completely miserable. So, I quit and stayed in my room for a few years learning to paint flash. When I started tattooing I already had quite a lot of customers that wanted my flash but obviously I wasn’t ready or capable to tattoo it, so it was a learning curve working out what to take on and what not to. The first few years I was tattooing a lot of general walk-in stuff and showing them my flash in hopes they would let me do that too. I tattooed a lot of old men and I had a good bunch of regulars who were always a pleasure to tattoo because they would always encourage me to try bigger tattoos and more difficult placements. I’m so grateful for that.
Were you trained through a formal apprenticeship? Describe the circumstances of learning. After about four to five years of painting flash almost every day I was lucky to be taken in by Shen at Duke St. I had been getting tattooed by him for a few years and loved what he was doing so it was my dream situation. It was a traditional apprenticeship. I spent the first six months just cleaning, making tea, arranging appointments, and basically just learning how a shop works. Then I eventually started tattooing. Once I started making tattoos it was like being thrown in the deep end and honestly and it took a long time before I really knew what I was doing.
At what point did you come to feel you knew what you were doing?
Tattooing is incredibly hard, and that’s down to a lot of different factors that I didn’t even know existed. As good as painting all the time is in preparing you for starting to tattoo, it’s also nothing like it at all. I think after the first year you get a better understanding of how to make a good tattoo but the learning process never stops. For me, I always feel like I have a lot left to learn and I’m striving to progress my skills with every tattoo.
Have you previously studied art in an institutional setting? If so, what level of training did you reach and in what disciplines?
I studied Art at college but it’s not relevant in any way to tattooing for me. I think it’s more important to draw or paint out of free will, outside of education.
How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
I feel that my “style” is constantly changing and evolving, I’m sure I’ll never figure it out. I think that I have always been drawn to classic tattoos, probably from seeing old guys’ tattoos and thinking I want to be tattooed. So, having that set-in mind, it’s no surprise that what I would want to tattoo would hopefully be the same.
I feel like I’m just lucky to have seen enough great tattooers work at the right time. The only place I knew where to see photos of people’s work (that was different from the type of work I was seeing in the magazines) was on Flickr about ten years ago. I could only see about four or five different people’s work and they would upload one photo maybe each month. Mainly I remember those people being Pedro Soos, Mark Cross, and Nico Acosta; the work they were making was so inspiring and I thought that’s the direction I would love to go in. I think it’s different now it’s all on Instagram, so it’s easy to find 10000 amazing tattooers doing the exact style you like. You can become a little overwhelmed and start to not appreciate the content as much. Back when I saw maybe five to ten tattoos a month I would look at each tattoo or painting for hours. Now we just look for two seconds, double tap, and scroll.
Can you see how your style has evolved from when you were first drawing in your bedroom? What were your early flash works like compared to now?
I think I still have the same goal for the overall look and feel of my work. Over the years I think things have just got a bit tighter and more thought goes into to the overall aging of the tattoo. I have always tried to stick to using three to four colours in a design – these days I pretty much have a set formula I tend to stick to.
You seem more drawn to flash than doing custom tattoos, why is this?
I just love the simplicity of having designs on the wall ready to go, and you pick one you like and get it. It’s spontaneous and exciting. I think sometimes overthinking what you should get tattooed and why takes away some of the magic of that experience.
I remember the first flash sheet I saw; it was a Grimshaw sheet of snakes and at first glance I simply thought they were badly drawn snakes. Then it got stuck in my mind and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. From there I just got wrapped up in it and fell in love. For me it’s all you need. So that’s why I focus on making flash for people to pick from. That’s not to say I do not like custom tattoos, I love when people come to me with their ideas and want me to make something more personal for them too.
Do you have any hobbies outside of tattooing?
Skateboarding, traveling with my wife (we have been to 48 countries together), running, painting, drinking wine, and watching music videos on YouTube.
What inspires you generally?
The people I have the pleasure to work alongside in both Duke St and Two Snakes Tattoo constantly inspire me. When I see them killing it, it makes me want to keep up with them. Outside of tattooing, just being around nature as much as possible.
Is traveling important to you? If so, where do you usually travel? Do you have any interesting experiences abroad that you can share?
Absolutely – I love to travel and it’s a huge part of my life. Our trips are often travel trips rather than guesting, but I’ve also been super lucky to be able to guest at some incredible shops around the world. Travel was one of the driving forces for me to want to become a tattooer because you can earn money whilst you’re on the road.
When I tattooed in Sri Lanka and India it was always a strange and exciting experience. Before you know it almost everyone in the town knows you’re a tattooer and they all ask to be tattooed, so you end up with a huge line of people begging to get something. Normally it was things like a Bob Marley portrait or a tribal seahorse. Sri Lanka was fun and I spent time in a beach side town called Bentota. I had spent hours tattooing a bunch of guys we were staying with. I was starting to get sun stroke from being out too long, we had about 15 power cuts, I was getting eaten by mosquitoes, and it was getting dark. So, I told all the other guys waiting that I was out of needles and instantly they were taking the dirty needles out of my bin and they wanted to clean them in the kettle and reuse them. It was always a good experience and they were always so happy to have a new tattoo. I tattooed a restaurant owner in India whilst he was at work and the restaurant was open – we were set up right next to the kitchen. He hooked us up with free tuk tuk journeys.
"I have faith that no matter how big and whatever direction it goes there will always be a core that shares the same values, that have been there from the beginning, that will always survive."
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
I think learning to use social media to our advantage and not be dictated by it. It’s an amazing tool and it’s helped me so much but now I think we are reliant on it. Also, I think having a value system based on likes and follows just isn’t a good thing.
Ideally, how would you like to see tattooing evolve? How do you think it will evolve realistically?
Ideally, I would like to see it continue to grow and for all types of people to carry on getting tattooed. I hope for the public to have a better understanding of how to get a good tattoo, so they don’t just go for the cheapest rate, easiest option, and learn to pick the right tattooer for their specifics. Realistically I see more and more people wanting to become tattooers because it seems like an ideal job. But it’s already highly oversaturated and shows no signs of slowing down, making it hard for people who truly love it to make a living from solely tattooing. I have faith that no matter how big and whatever direction it goes there will always be a core that shares the same values, that have been there from the beginning, that will always survive.