After hopping over from England to Australia to start a new life with his wife ten years ago, Mark Lonsdale has worked in many notable shops in Sydney. His varied oeuvre, from mandalas to big cats in blackwork and color, lends Lonsdale to delivering clean, distinctive tattoos, without getting tied into any stylistic niche. TTTISM speaks to him about taking the leap into tattooing from a computer job, landing an apprenticeship with Kevin ‘Butch’ Johnson, and enjoying the simple life in Australia.
What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
Mark James Lonsdale, Nottingham, England. I was born on 29th December, 1978.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
I grew up in Beeston, Bramcote–a pretty average middle-class suburb of Nottingham. I started skateboarding when I around nine or ten years old and got obsessed with it pretty quickly. Most of my early teenage years were spent skating and hanging out in the city on evenings and weekends. Just being a shitty skate kid, getting up to no good.
Thankfully skateboarding always seems to go hand in hand with good music and art, so I was exposed to a lot of cool and weird stuff early on. This led me to working out that I wanted to do some sort of creative job when I was older (although I didn't know what exactly). I managed to nag my parents into letting me go to an art college when I left school at 16.
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
Right now I live and work in Sydney Australia, at Lighthouse tattoo. I moved to Sydney with my wife in 2010, and since then I’ve worked in most of the bigger and well know street shops over the years. I’ve had a few bumps in the road working in Sydney (it can be a weird/hard place to tattoo) but for the first time in a while I feel pretty happy and settled. I feel really good about tattooing these days.
How long have you been tattooing?
I’d say ‘officially’ just over 12 years now.
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and what did you initially learn how to tattoo?
When I was 22 to 23 I decided to move to Leeds, England and try to join or form a band and devote myself to making music. I knew early on I was never going to make a living from music–purely because the music I liked was too weird! I was working as a graphic designer/mac operator in the day, which I hated. I just felt like a soulless button clicker. I managed to keep it up for four to five years, but I knew one day I wanted to try and pay my rent doing something more creative that I enjoyed.
During this time I’d met my wife Beth, who was already fairly tattooed. I’d started getting a few small tattoos here and there, but she inspired me to start getting bigger tattoos. Her whole back was done early on by Steve Byrne, so I got couple of pieces from Steve myself and started researching other artists I liked. I started buying tattoo magazines and started drawing and sketching ideas myself. And then, like I did with skating as a kid, I just got totally obsessed with it. I was in–hook, line, and sinker! We went to New York for our honeymoon and got a couple of tattoos in some cool shops and I was lucky enough to get tattooed at Brooklyn Adorned by Thomas Hooper. On that trip the penny dropped for me that tattooing was the job for me.
Were you trained through a formal apprenticeship? Describe the circumstances of learning.
When we got back from NY I immediately started going round shops in Leeds showing them my sketches, and asking for advice etc. I wasn't even really asking for an apprenticeship at first. I was just asking places if they wanted anyone to come in and sweep up and clean the shop or anything, I was just looking for any way I could to hang out and be in a tattoo shop regularly. Eventually, I ended up hanging out and helping in a rough and ready street shop every weekend just off a housing estate. I just watched and did whatever they asked me to and slowly but surely, they let me start tattooing myself and a few friends there.
I was mainly being shown the ropes by a super nice guy called Chris, who at that time (due to a stroke) could only tattoo with one hand! As you could probably imagine, I wasn’t exactly making fast progress and I was making a real mess out of most my friends legs. After about a year or so hanging at that shop, I heard about an opening at Ultimate Skin, which was definitely the best street shop in Leeds at the time. I took the few shitty tattoo photos and sketches I had at the time and went and spoke to the owner Keven ‘Butch’ Johnson. For some crazy reason, he gave me a shot!
As I was sort of already tattooing (although…very badly), Butch agreed to apprentice me while I was on the job as it were. I was still scrubbing tubes and sweeping the shop etc, but doing a few walk-ins here and there and tattooing friends. He picked apart all the bad habits I had picked up and honestly just showed me what tattooing was really all about. He fully educated me on drawing, tattooing, machines, how to interact with clients–the lot. Even though I was tattooing before, that shop and working with Butch is where I became a tattooer. I’ll be forever grateful to Butch and his family for the opportunity they gave me.
Have you previously studied art in an institutional setting? If so, what level of training did you reach and in what disciplines?
After art college I ended up doing a degree in graphic design.
Did that training help as you learned the mechanics of tattooing?
I guess it must of helped at some level. I think any sort of art education is going to be beneficial in tattooing in some way. It’s better than having a law degree…put it that way ha ha! Many people in the past have told me they can pick up on a design background in my work so some of it must translated across somehow.
How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
When I started at Ultimate Skin I was mainly doing walk-in work, which at the time was mainly script, star outlines, and small tribal etc. So I don’t think I ever really started with a style and I’m still not really sure if I have one now!
I’m really lucky that I’ve always enjoyed tattooing a fairly broad range of styles and imagery. One of my favorite aspects of the job is that no two days are ever the same! I’ve always enjoyed being fairly versatile–I can usually figure out a way to make a tattoo work for me. Until I moved and started working in Sydney, I’d never seen a tattooer turn down a job before. I didn’t know you could do that!
If I can manage to do a clean solid tattoo and work a few little tricks in there that someone in the know might be able to spot, so they know that I did it, then I’m happy.
Have you had or do you have plans to take on apprentices?
I’ve never officially apprenticed anybody and I have no plans to.
I’ve helped two people get their start in tattooing, giving them advice and helping them find shops and work etc. One of them was my wife (and she’s doing great and killing it now!), and the other really didn’t work out the way I thought it would. So that was enough to put me off that idea altogether!
What do you look for in a shop?
These days…mainly no drama and minimal egos!
Do you have any hobbies outside of tattooing?
Just enjoying a nice simple life, I love hanging out with my wife and dogs. Going swimming and snorkeling as much as possible, painting when I can, the usual.
I kind of gave up on skating a year or so back. I finally gave into the fear of breaking my wrist or something and not being able to tattoo! I keep threatening to try and take up surfing at some point–I’m in a pretty good spot for it if I do want to give it a go, so we’ll see.
What inspires you generally?
It constantly changes, but right now I’m lucky enough to be working with and be friends with some really motivated people again–who are constantly working, tattooing, painting, and just pushing themselves as hard as they can. So, I’m mainly just trying to keep up with them if I can!
It’s really nice to have a partner too who just loves tattooing as much as me. So yeah, I’m really lucky. Like I mentioned before, I feel really good about tattooing these days.
Are any other forms of media, traditional or digital, important to your work?
I think as a tattooer its always important to paint, even in a world where you can now get your idea across a lot faster digitally (which I’m not knocking at all–drawing on an iPad now allows me to get nearly a normal amount of sleep every night!). There is just something about creating tattoo imagery through painting that just feels really special. I’m not the most prolific painter (and never have been) by any means, but I’ll always try and make sure I knock out a hand full of paintings or flash sheets each year.
Is traveling important to you? If so, where do you usually travel? Do you have any interesting experiences abroad that you can share?
Traveling isn’t as important for me work wise as it seems to be for a lot of tattooers. Maybe because I migrated and moved my whole life to the other side of the world ten years ago, or maybe because I have such a nice life in Sydney–I don’t like leaving it too often.
But it is definitely enjoyable when I get chance to do it, and I still try see a little more of the world each year. This year I got to have a fun trip to San Francisco and LA with my wife. I try to regularly guest at Chapel Tattoo in Melbourne, and I just got back from a really fun trip working the New Plymouth convention in New Zealand.
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
For me, to just keep pushing myself, stay motivated and to keep trying to progress my work and be good to my clients.
I’ve been around some people before that seem to reach a certain point in their careers where they seem to think they’ve done enough, and just start phoning it in and not putting the hours in or giving it their all anymore. I don’t want to fall into that trap.
I was told early on, be good to tattooing and tattooing will be good to you. So, I just want to try and keep that up and give it my all until my hands fall off!
Ideally, how would you like to see tattooing evolve? How do you think it will evolve realistically?
Hmmmm, good question. Really hard to sum up in just a single answer.
I used to worry about stuff like this a lot, years ago. But lately I find myself worrying about it less and less. Tattooing is cool and will always be cool. End of.
No matter what happens, there will be people that take advantage of tattooing and there will be people that try and look after it. I don’t think that has, or ever will change. Maybe that’s one of the many things that gives it its magic. Pick a side, haha!
I do hope that people (customers and tattooers) continue to slowly work out that popular doesn’t necessarily mean good, and stop putting such an emphasis on popularity. Popular just means popular–it’s not worth driving yourself crazy!